By Greg Hernandez
As he sat in his seat inside the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre watching the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, Michael Arrigo kept flashing back to his life as a man living with HIV in the 1980s.
“I was sure I was going to be a panel on a quilt or just another statistic by now,” the 64-year-old said after the movie which tells the story of the AIDS activist movement from the perspectives of the people who were in the trenches fighting the epidemic.
“It brought back a lot of familiar, old emotions,” Arrigo added. “I have a lot of friends who died.”
The Center’s Senior Services department showed the film as part of National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day on September 18. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) used civil disobedience and other tactics to successfully fast-track experimental drug research and testing.
The screening was followed by a conversation with the Center’s Sexual Health and Education Team about sex positivity, HIV, and tips for enjoying sex after 60.
Audience member Richard Orell, 71, was invited onstage to join the panel discussion because he had helped found the Los Angeles chapter of ACT UP.
“I’m HIV-negative, I don’t know how,” he said. “Most of the people who are in my age group and in my circle of friends are dead. My generation was the hardest hit with AIDS because it was the beginning.”
Orell worked as a bartender during the worst years of the epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s and said it seemed like, each day, someone died.
“Without exaggeration, I must have buried 1,000 people,” he said. “Thinking about all of the people whom I have lost, it is really depressing—it really is. I haven’t had sex in probably 10 years, and it’s mainly because I’m afraid of AIDS.”
Chris Clarkin, a Health Services program coordinator, moderated the post-movie discussion and admitted to the audience that, as a young gay man, he never thought he would make it to middle age.
“I didn’t plan for retirement, I never thought I would get married, I honestly never thought I would make it beyond 45 years old,” he said.
Breakthrough drugs in the mid-‘90s began to dramatically lower death rates. In more recent years, pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) has become available and is highly effective for preventing HIV when taken daily. PrEP has been proven to be 99 percent effective at preventing HIV. However, it offers no protection from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Condoms remain the best protection from most STIs.
Paul Chavez, community engagement manager for Health Services, lamented that, of the estimated 70,000 people in Los Angeles who are ideal candidates for taking PrEP, less than 5,000 of them are actually on it.
“In the days of ACT UP, our community fought so hard for any research or treatment for HIV,” he said. “Fast forward to now and we have a pill that will prevent HIV. Yet, we have a hard time getting the people who would most benefit from the pill to access it.”
Chavez points out this is largely because the history of the AIDS epidemic is being lost on newer generations.
“Our history is not taught in schools so it becomes up to us to educate our younger generation,” he said. “I think it’s very important to have that historical context of where we were when AIDS hit, how hard our community fought back, and how it brought us together. If there was a medication that prevented HIV in 1982, people would be beating down the doors and doing whatever they had to do to get the medication.”
PrEP is covered by most insurance plans and, for those who are uninsured, the Center can help make it affordable through patient assistance programs. To renew a three-month prescription for PrEP, clients need to return to their Center or their health care provider for continual HIV and STI screenings.