Dallas Buyers Club, HIV/AIDS, and Harm Reduction

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. imdb.com. 2013.

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. imdb.com. 2013.

I had initially posted this next entry as a longer than expected comment on facebook. As it turns out, a few friends and friends-of-friends ended up sharing it, which is more than I expected to happen with an early morning rambling. Because it seems to have gotten a bit of interest, and because it was informed by my research, I decided to put it up here as well (with a few minor changes).

I watched Dallas Buyers Club last night (a bit late to the game, I know). It got me to thinking about a three-hour interview I did for my dissertation. It was with a gay activist who has been involved in gay activism since the early 1970s. Even though he’s lived through a lot of stuff, he stayed pretty positive throughout our entire discussion. The one time when he got visibly upset was when we talked about AIDS. I knew that a lot of people had died, but I didn’t really get a sense of the pain and anger that some of the people who lived through went through. An eye-opening moment was when he told that in one year, 1987, he went to 26 funerals of friends that had died as a result of AIDS. That’s one funeral every two weeks. I don’t think any of us can relate to what losing 26 friends in the space of one year can do to us.

It also reminded me of another interview I did with an AIDS activist. I asked her if she remembered people losing their jobs as a result of being diagnosed as HIV positive. She answered by saying that “when I started doing AIDS work, people who were in hospitals were not even being fed.” Some doctors and nurses refused to be in the same room as people with AIDS, for fear that they would get sick themselves. So when friends and activists would visit the hospital, they would have to do everything for their friends: feed them, fix their sheets, clean them, and even change diapers that had been soiled for hours because nurses and doctors refused to help. “So, yeah” she said, “Lose your job? How about you’d almost die in the hospital from lack of care.”

I knew that it was bad. People got sick. People died. A lot of people got sick and died. However, before speaking to people that survived a plague (to borrow a phrase by AIDS activists), I had no idea exactly what it was like. How could I? When I was a kid, HIV and AIDS were just things that made you wear a condom. HIV and AIDS were what made me ask my mom what a condom was and why you had to wear one (which is the question that led to “The Talk”). It was something that people I didn’t know died from. It was an abstract. Meeting people who lived through it and watched as dozens of their friends died while governments either ignored them or messed around with potentially life-saving drugs because, who cares if a bunch of fags and junkies die, right?

I was also reminded of the kind of discourse that is used today against harm reduction initiatives, such as safe injection sites, as well as needle and crack pipe distribution services. Studies conducted on the impacts of these types of services have proven, time and time again, that they save lives. Despite these results, people and government still oppose them because the people they serve are drug addicts. Like the communities afflicted by HIV/AIDS, they’re often deemed to be less than worthy of support and help that has already saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives by preventing overdoses and transmission of infections. Yes, drug users deserve access to safe, free, and adequate detox programs, but anybody who knows anything (and I don’t, but I’m going on what people who do have already said), people can’t really be forced to kick their addictions, and that it doesn’t always hold, that can people slip and go back a few times. In the meantime, and when they do slip, harm reduction services are there to make sure they don’t overdose or get infected by sharing needles or pipes. When people say they oppose harm reduction services, this is what they’re opposing. Don’t give them potentially life-saving goods and services because, who cares if a junkie gets sick and dies, right? They brought it on themselves. Opponents of harm reduction services rarely stop to consider that, as the California punk band Fifteen in their song My Congressman, “there’s needle users sleeping with your children, with your daughters, with your sons and with your husbands.” Drug users are members of our communities, whether some people like it or not, and if we want to keep our communities safe and healthy, then we need to provide services and resources to make sure that these members of our communities are can stay free from infection and protected from overdoses until they are able to enter rehabilitation programs to help them to kick their addiction.

When people in the 1980s went around the law to make sure that people who were dying could have access to life-saving medication, the government went after them. Today, as people are working to provide drug users with access to life-saving and harm-reducing services and resources, the government is still going after them. Luckily, this time the Supreme Court of Canada had enough sense to listen to the numbers and saw that these services save lives, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, people are denied access to life-saving drugs and services. Then that happens, those who deny them that access become responsible for the deaths of those whose lives were lost as a result of their refusal to provide life-saving services and medication.