Why We Fight (1988)
by Vito Russo
friend of mine in New York City has a half-fare transit card, which
means that you get on buses and subways for half price. And the other
day, when he showed his card to the token attendant, the attendant
asked what his disability was and he said, I have AIDS. And the
attendant said, no you don't, if you had AIDS, you'd be home dying.
And so, I wanted to speak out today as a person with AIDS who is not
know, for the last three years, since I was diagnosed, my family
thinks two things about my situation. One, they think I'm going to
die, and two, they think that my government is doing absolutely
everything in their power to stop that. And they're wrong, on both
if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from homophobia. If I'm dying
from anything, I'm dying from racism. If I'm dying from anything,
it's from indifference and red tape, because these are the things
that are preventing an end to this crisis. If I'm dying from
anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms. If I'm dying from anything, I'm
dying from the President of the United States. And, especially, if
I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the sensationalism of
newspapers and magazines and television shows, which are interested
in me, as a human interest story—only as long as I'm willing to
be a helpless victim, but not if I'm fighting for my life.
I'm dying from anything—I'm dying from the fact that not enough
rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a
sh-t. You know, living with AIDS in this country is like living in
the twilight zone. Living with AIDS is like living through a war
which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the
trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you
discover that you've lost more of your friends, but nobody else
notices. It isn't happening to them. They're walking the streets as
though we weren't living through some sort of nightmare. And only you
can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for
help. No one else seems to be noticing.
it's worse than a war, because during a war people are united in a
shared experience. This war has not united us, it's divided us. It's
separated those of us with AIDS and those of us who fight for people
with AIDS from the rest of the population.
and a half years ago, I picked up Life magazine, and I read an
editorial which said, "it's time to pay attention, because this
disease is now beginning to strike the rest of us." It was as if
I wasn't the one holding the magazine in my hand. And since then,
nothing has changed to alter the perception that AIDS is not
happening to the real people in this country.
not happening to us in the United States, it's happening to them—to
the disposable populations of fags and junkies who deserve what they
get. The media tells them that they don't have to care, because the
people who really matter are not in danger. Twice, three times, four
times—The New York Times has published editorials
saying, don't panic yet, over AIDS—it still hasn't entered the
general population, and until it does, we don't have to give a sh-t.
the days, and the months, and the years pass by, and they don't spend
those days and nights and months and years trying to figure out how
to get hold of the latest experimental drug, and which dose to take
it at, and in what combination with other drugs, and from what
source? And, how are you going to pay for it? And where are you going
to get it? Because it isn't happening to them, so they don't give a
they don't sit in television studios, surrounded by technicians who
are wearing rubber gloves, who won't put a microphone on you, because
it isn't happening to them, so they don't give a sh-t. And they don't
have their houses burned down by bigots and morons. They watch it on
the news and they have dinner and they go to bed, because it isn't
happening to them, and they don't give a sh-t.
they don't spend their waking hours going from hospital room to
hospital room, and watching the people that they love die slowly—of
neglect and bigotry, because it isn't happening to them and they
don't have to give a sh-t. They haven't been to two funerals a week
for the last three or four or five years—so they don't give a
sh-t, because it's not happening to them.
we read on the front page of The New York Times last Saturday
that Anthony Fauci now says that all sorts of promising drugs for
treatment haven't even been tested in the last two years because he
can't afford to hire the people to test them. We're supposed to be
grateful that this story has appeared in the newspaper after two
years. Nobody wonders why some reporter didn't dig up that story and
print it 18 months ago, before Fauci got dragged before a
many people are dead in the last two years, who might be alive today,
if those drugs had been tested more quickly? Reporters all over the
country are busy printing government press releases. They don't give
a sh-t, it isn't happening to them—meaning that it isn't
happening to people like them—the real people, the world-famous
general public we all keep hearing about.
Disease was happening to them because it hit people who looked like
them, who sounded like them, who were the same color as them. And
that f-cking story about a couple of dozen people hit the front page
of every newspaper and magazine in this country, and it stayed there
until that mystery got solved.
I read in the newspapers tells me that the mainstream, white
heterosexual population is not at risk for this disease. All the
newspapers I read tell me that IV [intravenous] drug users and
homosexuals still account for the overwhelming majority of cases, and
a majority of those people at risk.
can somebody please tell me why every single penny allocated for
education and prevention gets spent on ad campaigns that are directed
almost exclusively to white, heterosexual teenagers—who they
keep telling us are not at risk!
somebody tell me why the only television movie ever produced by a
major network in this country, about the impact of this disease, is
not about the impact of this disease on the man who has AIDS, but of
the impact of AIDS on his white, straight, nuclear family? Why, for
eight years, every newspaper and magazine in this country has done
cover stories on AIDS only when the threat of heterosexual
transmission is raised?
for eight years, every single educational film designed for use in
high schools has eliminated any gay-positive material, before being
approved by the Board of Education? Why, for eight years, every
single public information pamphlet and videotape distributed by
establishment sources has ignored specific homosexual content?
is every bus and subway ad I read and every advertisement and every
billboard I see in this country specifically not directed at gay men?
Don't believe the lie that the gay community has done its job and
done it well and educated its people. The gay community and IV drug
users are not all politicized people living in New York and San
Francisco. Members of minority populations, including so-called
sophisticated gay men are abysmally ignorant about AIDS.
it is true that gay men and IV drug users are the populations at risk
for this disease, then we have a right to demand that education and
prevention be targeted specifically to these people. And it is not
happening. We are being allowed to die, while low-risk populations
are being panicked—not educated, panicked— into believing
that we deserve to die.
are we here together today? We're here because it is happening to us,
and we do give a sh-t. And if there were more of us, AIDS wouldn't be
what it is at this moment in history. It's mote than just a disease,
which ignorant people have turned into an excuse to exercise the
bigotry they have always felt.
is more than a horror story, exploited by the tabloids. AIDS is
really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we
did in this crisis, we're going to have to tell them that we were out
here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of
people who will come after us.
the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day
comes—when that day has come and gone, there'll be people alive
on this earth— gay people and straight people, men and women,
black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a
terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a
brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave
their lives, so that other people might live and be free.
I'm proud to be with my friends today and the people I love, because
I think you're all heroes, and I'm glad to be part of this fight.
But, to borrow a phrase from Michael Callen's song ["Love Don't
Need a Reason"]: all we have is love right now, what we don't
have is time.
a lot of ways, AIDS activists are like those doctors out
there—they're so busy putting out fires and taking care of
people on respirators, that they don't have the time to take care of
all the sick people. We're so busy putting out fixes right now, that
we don't have the time to talk to each other and strategize and plan
for the next wave, and the next day, and next month and the next week
and the next year.
we're going to have to find the time to do that in the next few
months. And, we have to commit ourselves to doing that. And then,
after we kick the sh-t out of this disease, we're all going to be
alive to kick the sh-t out of this system, so that this never happens
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