[dropcap]M[/dropcap]eet Harry Breaux as he dons fishnet stockings and a corset, preparing to march in the 2015 San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first trek down Market Street. Listen to Kevin Vandenbergh and Ganymede contemplating how they will survive in San Francisco once their private disability insurance runs out on their sixty-fifth birthdays. Walk along the dunes at Ocean Beach with singer-songwriter-artist Jesus Guillen as he fights ever-present neuropathy; applaud Mick Robinson as he discusses overcoming years of substance abuse; celebrate the wedding between David Spiher and Ralph Thurlow, whose HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder is slowly taking him away from David.
Finally, wave farewell to travel business owner Peter Greene as he packs up his truck to move to Palm Springs from his beloved San Francisco, evicted from his home of thirty years. It will be his last move.
These are the courageous, eloquent long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS profiled in Last Men Standing, the powerful new sixty-six-minute documentary by filmmakers Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin at the San Francisco Chronicle. The film premiered on Friday, April 8, 2016, to a sold-out crowd at the legendary Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
Last Men Standing chronicles the everyday difficulties faced by these survivors; as the Chronicle put it, “Surrounded by the ghosts of a generation lost to the AIDS epidemic, eight gay men search for meaning in a life they never expected to have.” All eight of these men were diagnosed in the pre-cocktail days when a positive HIV test was thought to be a death sentence—period. No one ever imagined the difficulties and issues of aging with HIV, because no one imagined “aging with HIV.” Constant neurological pain, substance abuse, economic hardship, housing instability, costly bogus medical treatments, stigma, toxic side effects of medicines, and the never-ending grief and PTSD over the loss of friends and lovers during the height of the epidemic have all taken their toll. You can read that toll in every line of their beautiful faces.
Chronicle reporter Erin Allday, who wrote the article, interviewed more than fifty men who have lived with HIV/AIDS for half of their lives, as well as doctors, activists, San Francisco city officials, and LGBTQ allies. Even after she narrowed her focus to just eight men, the story grew into a twenty-page supplement to the Sunday, March 26, 2016 edition of the paper.
Filmmaker Erin Brethauer told me that when work on LMS began, the plan was to film two to three-minute vignettes with each of the men in the film for use on the Chronicle’s website as an adjunct to Ms. Allday’s article. But as filming intensified over four or five months, Brethauer and Hussin realized they had ample material for a full-fledged documentary. “We whittled it down to just sixty-six minutes, which wasn’t easy,” Ms. Brethauer told me.
Near the beginning of the film, we hear Kevin Vandenbergh say, “Someone said to me when I started taking the meds, ‘Now you’ve got your life back.’ But I’m not sure I want it back.” Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987, aged twenty-seven, and with full-blown AIDS in 1994, Kevin has since avoided the most common opportunistic diseases associated with HIV but has battled long-term depression and self-imposed isolation.
That image of Kevin—lonely, depressed, painfully shy—is difficult to reconcile with the animated, smiling, outgoing man sitting with me at lunch as we talk about his role in Last Men Standing. He first heard about the LMS project through Vince Crisostomo, the program director at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s support group, the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. Vince convinced Kevin to testify before the San Francisco Long Term Care Coordinating Council about his primary concern now as a long-term survivor—surviving in San Francisco once his private long-term disability insurance runs out when he becomes sixty-five. Kevin met Ms. Allday at that hearing and agreed to talk with her for the article.
He also agreed to go with Erin to see the documentary Desert Migration [A&U, September 2015], about long-term survivors who have fled San Francisco for Palm Springs, on the Thursday night before the Pride Parade in June 2015. Kevin discovered that he knew one of the men profiled in that documentary. That night, Erin also convinced Kevin to go to a free dance party celebrating long-term survivors, called REVIVAL, sponsored by the group Honoring Our Experience [A&U, April 2016], where Kevin indulged the lifelong passion that not even the virus can take away from him—dancing!
That was the beginning of Kevin’s re-entry into his community. At the urging of friends at the dance, Kevin agreed to march in the Pride Parade with the Shanti Organization. With just a tad more urging, Kevin proudly marched down Market Street holding Shanti’s large LOVE HEALS banner aloft.
Harry Breaux marched at the front of that contingent in the Pride Parade. Decked out in fishnet stockings, rainbow leggings, well-worn combat boots, red-sequined opera gloves, a black leather corset, and a long curly black wig, Harry strutted down Market Street with a power that belied his seventy years, sashaying from side to side of the street, working an adoring crowd. This wasn’t Harry’s first Parade with Shanti; he had worn the same Dr. Frank N. Furter costume (saved from a Tulane University production of Rocky Horror Show in the 1980s) when he led them in the 1990 Parade.
“I know the only thing people are going to remember about me are those damn fishnets!” Harry laughed as we got to talking. I assured him he needn’t worry about that.
Diagnosed in 1980, Harry is one of our longest-surviving warriors. In 1996 he spent three weeks in hospital in Santa Clara, California, expecting to die of AIDS, rallying every time he and the doctors thought he was gone. “As far as I’m concerned,” he told me, “I died in 1996. Everything since then has been lagniappe.”
Harry has spent much of his life, he told me, working against the grain—specifically, against the heteronormative, capitalistic majority. After attending military academy in Tennessee, and eschewing the engineering career his family thought him destined for, he turned to theater. He was among those gay “settlers” in San Francisco who broke off from the sixties and seventies hippies and claimed the Castro District as their own, lithe, long-haired men who tore down the paper covering the street-front windows at Toad Hall, proclaiming “This neighborhood is OURS! We’re here to stay!” He is no stranger to the fights our tribe has waged.
I asked both men what motivated them to participate in the Last Men Standing project. For Harry, it was a chance to show the world that despite the physical problems and the financial worries faced by long-term survivors, “We are not just surviving but thriving, still doing everything we can to live full lives of generosity to others.” When I asked him if he had any hesitation about being followed around by a camera crew filming some rather intimate moments, a bright “are-you-kidding-me?” smile spread over his still-youthful face—“Just put the camera on me!”
It was slightly different for Kevin. “I wasn’t sure I even belonged in this film,” he said. “When I listened to friends talking about all the diseases and infections they’ve gone through—and I’ve been lucky, I haven’t gone through any of that—I just wasn’t sure why I was even in the film. I haven’t suffered enough.” The filmmakers convinced him—quite rightly—that his is perhaps the most relatable, the most universal of the stories told in the film.
Opening night jitters before the premiere? Nope! I asked both, “What were you thinking about as you got ready for the premiere.” Kevin: “What am I going to wear? How do I look?” Harry: “To Frank N. Furter or not to Frank N. Furter!” Both have experienced overwhelming love and support from people, both friends and strangers, who have read the article or seen the film. During the Q&A after the premiere, Kevin spoke about a twenty-two-year-old man who read the article, found Kevin online, and wrote him asking, “What can I do to help change the world.”
Harry teared up once when we talked: I asked him what it felt like the night of the premiere to watch the film with hundreds of other San Franciscans.
“I was so humbled to be on the same stage with those other men and Tom Ammiano [an icon in SF gay politics second only to Harvey Milk]. I remembered all the beautiful men whom I’ve sat with in the Castro Theatre. It hurt that they’re not still here to see this and I am.
“I hope,” Harry went on, “that the film will open a path to an entirely new paradigm of societal support for each other, playing and loving together. I hope it shows that people can be cared for without being a burden.”
“I want to go to the Oscars when it’s nominated!” Kevin said.
“We want the film to be experienced all over the country,” Erin Brethauer told me. To that end, the film is being shopped to film festivals worldwide. It has already been slated for Frameline 40, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival (www.frameline.org); the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival (www.queerdocfest.org/); and Inside Out Toronto (www.insideout.ca/). There are also plans, post-festival season, for online streaming and DVD distribution. “We hope this film can reach especially those survivors living in isolation who don’t yet know about this loving community. We want them to know that they are not alone. We hope it sparks a conversation and brings some measure of healing to the community.”
And so, they soldier on, these incredibly brave wounded warriors profiled in Last Men Standing.
All but one, that is. Peter Greene, who owned Now, Voyager, the first gay travel agency in the country, did not live long enough to attend the film’s premiere. At the Q&A after the premiere, the empty chair placed alongside the other men sitting on the stage of the Castro Theatre spoke eloquently for Peter and the 21,000-plus San Franciscans who didn’t live to see Last Men Standing.
A trailer for the documentary, as well as photos and the entire text of the Chronicle article, “Last Men Standing: The Forgotten Survivors of AIDS,” can be found online at: http://projects.sfchronicle.com/2016/living-with-aids/documentary/ .
Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. His published writing has ranged from gay “smut” (his term!) to literary criticism of William Blake. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. He read two of his pieces at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco in June of last year.