Connecting to Our Stories
With “Last Men Standing,” Journalist Erin Allday Honored Long-Term Survivors & Shared Their Wisdom
by Hank Trout
Three years ago, in March 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle published a special twenty-page, advertising-free supplement to its Sunday edition containing a 12,000-word ground-breaking, heartbreaking story about eight men living with HIV in the Bay Area. These “Last Men Standing” are all long-term survivors of the worst years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the tagline to the article stated, “They had the remarkable luck to survive AIDS, and the brutal misfortune to live on.” These eight men eloquently shared with Chronicle reporter Erin Allday their stories of pain and loss, of surviving and thriving.
Ms. Allday, one of San Francisco’s most respected journalists, graduated with a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. She worked on the UCB newspaper, The Daily Californian, all four years. Since then she has written for various Bay Area newspapers and won a prestigious Polk Award for regional reporting. She joined the Chronicle in 2006. For “Last Men Standing,” she received two awards from the Association of LGBTQ Journalists and an honorable mention from the California News Publishers Association.
Her reporting for “Last Men Standing” formed the basis for a documentary of the same name that premiered at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre in April 2016 [A&U, May 2016]. As a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor myself and a writer, I was interested in what prompted Ms. Allday to write the article and how she went about it.
Hank Trout: What was the original impetus for “Last Men Standing”?
Erin Allday: The first time the topic came to my attention was during a 2013 interview with doctors who had treated people during the height of the epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s, who said that their patients had suffered from symptoms of PTSD; they’d also seen similar symptoms in their surviving patients. A few months later I heard about and attended a meeting of long-term survivors held in the Castro sponsored by Tez Anderson’s new Let’s Kick ASS (AIDS Survivor Syndrome).
What finally pushed me to pitch a story to my editors was the suicide of Jonathan Klein, a long-term survivor with deep roots in the Castro. At the time, a lot of the public messaging around long-term survivors was that they felt lucky to be alive and to have a second chance. So it struck me as profoundly upsetting that someone who had survived the worst of the epidemic would be moved to suicide. Clearly there was more to the story than was being told. I pitched the story to my editors in early 2014.
How did you contact survivors to interview? How many interviews did you conduct to find the eight men you wrote about? What selection criteria did you use?
The first step was contacting activists in the HIV/AIDS community, including Vince Crisostomo (the San Francisco AIDS Foundation) [A&U, September 2016], Gregg Cassin (the Shanti Project) [A&U, April 2016], Tez Anderson and others. I explained the proposed story to them and asked if they would reach out to long-term survivors on my behalf. Almost immediately I began hearing from survivors across the country who wanted to talk. I interviewed more than fifty survivors—men and women, gay and straight, from across the country. I quickly decided to focus on gay men who had become infected in the 1980s and lived in the Bay Area.
Choosing the eight men was difficult. I wanted a diversity of experiences, men who were representative of the trends I’d identified among the survivors I’d interviewed, men who had suffered great loss, who were dealing with isolation and loneliness, who had ongoing health issues due to HIV/AIDS, who had symptoms of PTSD, or who were facing financial and housing hardships. The men we worked with needed to be willing to use their full names and be comfortable with having their photos published and working with our video team for the documentary.
Did you encounter any resistance? Was there any topic that these men said was off-limits, anything they refused to discuss with you?
I encountered no resistance at The Chronicle. My editors, from editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper to the editors working day to day with me, were all extremely supportive of the project and willing to grant me the time and resources I needed to report it.
Among the men we featured almost nothing was off-limits. A few men had specific requests for things they told me on background and did not want published, but none of those things was directly related to their stories. I was surprised, and impressed, by the lack of resistance from the men we profiled. They understood the importance of sharing their full stories, even parts that were incredibly private and painful.
I know how difficult it is, emotionally, to write about such content. Did you encounter any emotional difficulties stemming from the subject matter?
There were times when I was deeply affected by the stories, especially when the people I was interviewing cried or struggled to talk. On two or three occasions I was worried about people’s physical or mental health and felt compelled to reach out to them in a way I ordinarily wouldn’t as a journalist. But for the most part it wasn’t as emotionally trying as one might assume. I felt so incredibly honored to be a vessel for these important stories. Even when the stories were sad and painful, I understood that these men were grateful to have an audience, and I recognized the responsibility I had to share their stories.
The one time I did become very upset was when I learned that Peter Greene, one of the eight men, had died. He was such a warm, funny, insightful man. I’d recently spent a great deal of time with him and come to know him very well.
Once you had finished the interviews, how long did it take to write the article?
I finished the bulk of the interviews toward the end of July 2015, and then spent a couple weeks organizing my notes and developing an outline. Then I went on a three-week backpacking trip—I totally checked out of the story and cleared my head. When I got back, feeling refreshed, I started writing. In two or three weeks I came up with a draft that was twice as long as the published story. That’s when the most challenging work started—editing and revising. We edited from October through February. It was grueling work.
The only negative comment I have ever heard about the article was, “Where are the women?” Why are there only men in this story?
I’ve heard that complaint—it’s totally valid. But I think we made the right decision to include only gay men. Early in my reporting it became clear that the gay men I spoke with had a similar story about how AIDS had impacted their shared community. The women I interviewed had stories that were equally compelling, but very different from the gay men’s stories. There just wasn’t a good way to weave the narratives together. Another factor is that, in San Francisco, the story of HIV/AIDS is primarily a story of gay men, who made up more than ninety percent of the victims of the epidemic.
What kind of response has the article generated?
The response was incredible. I had hundreds of emails and more hits on social media than I could keep track of. The story was among the most-read of the year at The Chronicle, and even now, three years later, I still hear from people who are reading it for the first time. Both the story and documentary were written up in a couple different national journalism publications as examples of exciting work happening at newspapers.
Considering the passion you poured into the story, I can’t help wondering if you might have been inspired, in part, by a personal experience of AIDS.
I was born in the 1970s so I grew up with AIDS. It shaped my views on sex and relationships and even LGBT culture.
In 1988, my grandfather, Grandpa Fred Allday, my dad’s dad, died of AIDS[-related causes]. He lived in Sacramento for most of my life, while my family lived in Southern California. I didn’t know him well but he came to visit the family once a year. He was tall and independent and laughed and smiled all the time with me and my sister. Around 1985 or 1986 he had triple bypass heart surgery. I remember visiting him in the hospital not long after the surgery, and he already seemed so strong again. During that surgery he received a blood transfusion with [blood containing HIV].>p?
He was soon diagnosed with AIDS. His symptoms came quickly. Within a year or two he moved to Southern California to live with my uncle. We saw him more frequently then, but those visits were fraught. I was old enough to understand that you couldn’t [acquire HIV] from sharing a bathroom or drinking from the same cup or hugging or holding hands, but also old enough to understand that my mother was worried about me and my little sister. Watching him die in such a brutal way—it was scary. I was thirteen when he died.
At the time, I was fully aware of the AIDS epidemic both as a massive national issue and a very personal one, but I didn’t connect the two. I felt sad about losing my grandfather, but it didn’t feel like my family’s grief was part of any larger grief.
Nearly thirty years later, if one of the men asked me if I had any personal connection to AIDS, I told them about my grandfather. But I didn’t volunteer this information—as a journalist, I know not to make a story about myself. Also, my loss felt like it had very little to do with the men I was interviewing—like it wasn’t the same disease at all, somehow.
On World AIDS Day in 2015, George Kelly organized his first Project Inscribe, commemorating the day with children from the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy writing the names of people who had died on Castro Street sidewalks [A&U, November 2016]. I went to the Castro that day because some of the men I’d interviewed would be there. I thought it might yield some insight into their stories.
I was chatting with one of those men when a little girl walked up and asked me if I had a name she could write. Without thinking, I said “Yes.” She led me to an empty panel on the sidewalk and asked me his name and his favorite color. I told her, Fred, and blue. She wrote his name in bright blue chalk, the letters tall and thin, filling up the space, which made me smile because my grandfather had been so tall and thin. I just stood there for a long time staring at his panel, and suddenly I was crying. There was my grandfather’s name among all those other names. It was the first time I ever felt his loss as one among many, and it was so comforting. That moment still comforts me three years later.
Read Ms. Allday’s important article at https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2016/living-with-aids/documentary/. At the same link, you can view the documentary “Last Men Standing” by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin for free. To host a community screening or share the film in a public or educational setting, please contact [email protected].
Hank Trout writes the For the Long Run column for A&U.