Mixing archival video with present day recollections, Plague tells the story of the AIDS advocacy group ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and their decade long struggle to force the federal government to find an affordable and effective treatment for HIV/AIDS. Comprised mostly of gay men and their lesbian allies, ACTUP fought for survival in an age in which many of their compatriots believed they deserved death.
Many also wished they would disappear. Nearly 20,000 U.S.-Americans died of AIDS before President Reagan publicly mentioned its existence, nearly seven years after its virulent emergence.
In the nineteen eighties, many of the United States’ AIDS dead were gay men. Evicted from families and forced to flee hometowns, they sought refuge in the anonymity of big cities. Their arrival constituted a type of re-birth; there, they re-incorporated themselves into families and friend groups. Some lived lives of open flamboyance, valiantly defying mainstream desire that they blend in invisibly. Others remained in the closet until disease or indignity pushed them out. Their deaths were a whisper.
The dead bodies of AIDS victims were treated much like the living bodies of gay people: perpetually contaminating and hideously grotesque, they should be neither seen nor touched. If possible, they should be erased altogether.
To this end, the bodies of AIDS victims who died in hospitals were put in black trash bags. Many funeral homes refused to take the bodies of AIDS victims even though the virus died off a mere two hours after its host did. Some encouraged kin to have their loved one’s ravaged body cremated and turned into ashes. Others accepted bodies killed by AIDS but insisted on placing them only in closed caskets.
Gay victims of AIDS were denied wholeness in a further way. So as not to offend the sensibilities of scandalized blood relatives, many gay men who died from AIDS received two funerals, one for their gay friends and allies, and one for their family. Or sometimes the funeral parlor would hold one family but place each group in separate rooms.
Homophobia compels gay men and lesbians to split themselves in two, to sublimate or submerge their bodies’ desire for thoroughly embodied encounter with other bodies, to banish sexual touch, to walk through life ghost-like. The dual funeral epitomizes this. Even in death, gay people were forced to bear a fragmented self.
To protest the erasure of their bodies, many ACT-UP activists who died of AIDS held “political funerals.” Though superficially secular, these funerals were often undeniably Eucharistic. As gay activist and AIDS victim David Wojnarowicz explained, these political funerals aimed at “turning our private grief for the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public…one of the first steps in making the private grief public is the ritual of memorials. I have loved the way memorials take the absence of a human being and make them somehow physical with the use of sound…I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS.”
Wojnarowicz recognizes the power of bodies that come together. He posits the incorporation of social bodies as the only fitting response to the unmaking of individual bodies by AIDS. Outlining the political power of the body made public, he wonders “what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend, or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington D.C. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”
As Mark Lowe Fisher expressed before his death, “I suspect—I know—my funeral will shock people when it happens. We Americans are terrified of death. Death takes place behind closed doors and is removed from reality, from the living. I want to show the reality of my death, to display my body in public; I want the public to bear witness. We are not just spiraling statistics; we are people who have lives, who have purpose, who have lovers, friends, and families.”
Many men dying from AIDS wanted their dead bodies paraded through the streets in this way. One man wanted his corpse thrown over the fence of the White House. Another man, Jon Greenberg, proclaimed, “I don’t want an angry political funeral. I just want you to burn me in the street and eat my flesh.”
On the day of the unveiling of the national AIDS quilt in Washington, D.C. a group of people mourning the loss of loved ones staged another type of political funeral. Carrying in their hands boxes and urns filled with their beloved dead’s ashes, they walked slowly towards the fence that marked the edge of the front lawn of the White House. Young men in their late twenties, a conservatively dressed mother in her early sixties, they strode together in silence. “There’s nothing beautiful about it,” one participant explained in anguish, “this is what I have left—a box full of ashes and bone chips…We are bringing them,” he continued, “to the person responsible for their death.”
“This is what our loved ones have been reduced to,” another man added.
When they reached the fence, they opened the boxes and urns they still cradled, and began throwing their beloved’s ashes through the fence and onto the White House lawn. Once in the air, the ashes scattered and mixed with the ashes of all the others. Those who no longer held them wept. A man was crying, “I love you, Mike. I love you, Mike.”
The documentary confesses the interruptive power of bodily presence. All throughout the film, “people with AIDS [are] putting their bodies on the line”—getting arrested, staging protests, and storming buildings. On one occasion, they enter the headquarters of a major pharmaceutical company involved in AIDS R&D. Blockading its front office with their bodies, they refused to leave until their demands were heard. A middle-aged employee, balding and befit with a pocket square, is sent to deal with them. HIV positive activist Bob Rafsky, who is sitting on the floor in front of him, shouts, “See this dark mark on my forehead? That’s Kaposi’s sarcoma. It’s gonna spread, it’s gonna kill me. You coming to my funeral? Because you’re the man fucking responsible; you are my murderer, in your shirt and tie!” Rather than annoyed or angry, the man is transformed. Confronted by the immediacy of their suffering bodies, he begins to cry.
For Christians who belong to the body of Christ by baptism and who take Christ’s body into their own ones every time they ingest the Eucharist, How To Survive a Plague’s meditation on the power of bodily presence carries ecclesiological import. It forces us to more fearlessly interrogate what it means to be embodied members of the body of Christ.
As our treatment of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, especially those who are gay and/or poor, shows, we still have a hard time taking seriously the embodied character of Christ’s presence in human bodies. Even though Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the deprived bodies of the suffering poor, we find it especially difficult to accept the reality of Christ’s presence there.
This confusion about bodies seems to have bothered the church for a very long time. In the late fourth century, St. John Chrysostom preached:
“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where is he cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: ‘You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me.’ (Mat 25:34).”
Later in this homily he asks,
“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?”
“No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”
An unfortunate thirteenth century inversion would further impede our ability to take Christ’s presence in human bodies seriously. Prior to this era, the ecclesial body was understood to comprise the real body of Christ and the Eucharist its mystical incarnation. Only after this shift could the ecclesial body be thought of independently from the Eucharist.
Unsurprisingly, we remain more comfortable with Christ’s embodied presence in an inanimate host than with His presence in the living bodies of human beings.
I identify ACTUP’s most controversial action, its 1989 demonstration within the walls of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, as a modern day performance of Chrysostom’s fourth century homily. Protesting magisterial prohibitions against condoms and homosexuality, a few dozen activists entered the congregation mid-mass one Sunday morning and staged a die-in in the aisles. Falling to the ground as though struck by death, they shouted, “Why are you murdering us?” “Prayers won’t save the 1.5 million people infected with AIDS” others shouted. Many were arrested, their bodies removed from the aisles on stretchers as though they were corpses.
Like Chrysostom, these demonstrators attempted to interrupt the assembly’s liturgical complacence. Why do you care more for the body of Christ lying on the altar when you neglect Christ’s AIDS-infected body, they asked. While Chrysostom excoriated with his words, the ACTUP activists disturbed with their bodies. By dying in the cathedral’s aisles, they forced the congregation to look at, hear, and maybe even touch bodies they preferred not to know about or come into contact with. Chrysostom asked about the naked bodies of the hungry shivering just outside the church’s doors, the ACTUP activists brought these bodies inside.
Although a statue of Chrysostom sits inside of this beautifully adorned cathedral, it was the diseased, disturbing, and sexually grotesque bodies of protestors who made Christ’s body most real that day.
In front of this same cathedral in the year 2013, a Cardinal’s representative treats gay and lesbian Catholics with dirty hands like trespassers and orders their arrest. Symbolizing their gayness, the Cardinal sees their dirty hands as a desacralizing stain that makes their bodies unfit to come inside of the cathedral. One cannot touch the Eucharist with dirty, that is, gay hands. Only clean bodies, that is, straight or sexually inactive bodies, are capable of taking Christ’s body into their own bodies.
But Jesus was not so fussy about his own body. He let himself be touched by a bleeding woman. He cavorted with women who had sex for a living. Jesus’ body touched the bodies of the sexually unclean and the socially unwanted. If Jesus did not keep his body from contact with the sinful and the unclean, why should we?