Stay Angry and Make Trouble
We can’t afford to wait around for a cure—demand it!
by Hank Trout
Since the end of the AIDS2020: Virtual conference of the International AIDS Society in July, I’ve had time to reflect on many things. And the more I’ve reflected, the hotter my anger has blazed.
That anger stems from a simple question that no one has been able to answer adequately for me—
Why, after so many years and so many hundreds of millions of dollars spent, WHY do we still not have an effective vaccine for HIV or a cure for AIDS?
As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve thought more than once about polio and about Dr. Jonas Salk.
In the first half of the last century, polio was the most feared disease on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of young kids suffered unbearable pain and crippling disfigurement that left most of them unable to walk—unable to move at all, really. And hundreds of thousands of children died worldwide.
Because of a virus!
In 1947, Dr. Jonas Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh and began work on a vaccine for polio. On April 12, 1955, that vaccine was made available. Dr. Salk didn’t sell the patent for the vaccine, he gave it away to the U.S. government and to leading pharmaceutical companies to start manufacturing immediately. As a result, polio has been virtually eliminated from the planet. In 2018, there were only 103 cases worldwide, compared with hundreds of thousands before the vaccine.
From 1947 to 1955. That is only eight years to find a vaccine for a virus.
Doctors and researchers have had THIRTY-eight years to concoct a vaccine for HIV or, dare we hope, a cure for AIDS.
What the hell is taking so long?!
Spare me the excuses about HIV being a “different kind of virus,” “a sneaky virus that mutates and hides.” With only a tiny staff, pittances for funding, and the technology of the nineteen-forties (ferchrissakes!), Dr. Salk produced a poliovirus vaccine in under eight years. Now, hundreds if not thousands of HIV/AIDS researchers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research over thirty-eight years—and still NO vaccine, NO cure.
I hope I am wrong, but I can’t help suspecting that there is one very simple insidious reason for this difference. Polio afflicted young, “innocent” children and thus was seen as an urgent humanitarian crisis. But in its early days, AIDS attacked only the most marginalized—and most despised—segments of American society: gay men, transgender women, African-Americans, IV drug users. In other words—as we heard so many times from so many bigots—“at least AIDS is killing all the right people.” How much of that prejudice might still be alive?
The only way we will ever get a vaccine and/or a functioning cure is if you and I—all of us—return to our ACT UP roots. The only reason we got any of the early medications at all is ACT UP. We are blessed to have had in our midst, fighting for us, individuals like Larry Kramer (to me, Saint Larry Kramer), the indefatigable Peter Staley and Avram Finkelstein and all the other luminaries who organized ACT UP, educated themselves about the virus, and stormed the doors of the American medical establishment and DEMANDED action on the drugs and access to them.
I know that without ACT UP, all of my dearest friends and I would be dead.
So I am putting out this call to action, to all of my fellow long-term survivors and all of the newly diagnosed—it’s time to get off our haunches and make some noise! It’s time for some disruptive civil disobedience. We long-term survivors especially should show the government and the pharmaceutical companies that we are tired of being ignored. In 1996, when the cocktails were introduced, the medical establishment turned its back on us survivors—“Hey! We saved your life, what more do you want? Now go sit in the corner and take your cocktail like a good little guinea pig.”
Forty years into this pandemic, and we still do not have a vaccine, we still do not have a cure, and we still do not have a government that gives a shit.
Well, I refuse to sit and behave any longer—and neither should you.
It’s time for a little storming of the gates! I am encouraged to see ACT UP fully revitalized in New York, in London, Dublin, and Paris. But where is ACT UP San Francisco? Chicago? Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles? Have we really been beaten down into silent complacency? It’s time to “Stay Angry and Make Trouble!”
Look, if I can climb out of my wheelchair and raise hell, you can raise hell too!
Let’s get crackin’. Our lives depend upon it.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.