The following article was written by Connie Kuhns as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 3-5, 2017. Film subject Jesus Guillen will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast.
Filmmaker interview: participant and film representative Jesus Guillen - Last Men Standing By Connie Kuhns
It came on the heels of liberation. For gay men, particularly in the creative and political centers of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, such radical freedom was hard fought and transforming. It was joyous and sexually charged. Thousands came out from behind closed doors and literary danced in the streets.
At first, there was just a cluster of cases. In 1981, a rare lung infection was found in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. At the same time, an unusually aggressive cancer was reported in a group of men in New York and elsewhere in California. They called it the GRID syndrome (Gay-related immune deficiency) or gay cancer. It was renamed AIDS the following year when similar cases were found in intravenous drug users, people with hemophilia, and curiously, in Haiti.
Like the disease, word spread fast, followed by disbelief and panic, then paralyzing fear. Rumours, misinformation and conspiracy theories flourished. But there was one truth: no one survived.
The documentary film Last Men Standing profiles eight gay men in San Francisco who through the luck of the draw outlived the epidemic. They were infected over 30 years ago, and while awaiting their own deaths, watched their friends and lovers go before them, and their communities gutted. Since the beginning, over 20,000 citizens of San Francisco, mostly gay men, have died. Now, those remaining are aging and invisible.
Jesus Guillen, one of the survivors featured in Last Men Standing, will be attending the 2017 Salt Spring Film Festival. He recently represented the film at the 21st International AIDS Conference in South Africa and at the 2016 United States Conference on AIDS. In addition to speaking on behalf of the film, he spends several hours a day communicating with “my family” in the Facebook group he founded, HIV Long Term Survivors, whose membership has grown since the film’s release. He stressed, in our email conversations, that this group is inclusive. “And that means women, straight and transgender people, too”.
“I see a lot of suffering”, Jesus says. “It is the isolation and loneliness. But together with this issue are our mental problems. Most of us live with PTSD, anxiety, survivor’s guilt and more. The problem is, we’re the new kids at the aging table. There is not even training for therapists and psychologists. Also HIV agencies are not intertwined with the aging organizations. This is especially difficult for the LGBT community, but in general for the HIV community. There are real fears to being at senior centers, hospices and senior complexes, fears of being bullied and discriminated against, to be put aside, to have people be afraid to simply be close to us”.
Financial survival is also an immediate concern. For the men in the film, death was expected to come within a few years or even months. There was no need to finish that psychology degree, further a career, or continue running a successful business. There was no need to maintain a savings account or even to pay off credit cards. Money had no meaning. Many cashed out as death was imminent. Now, they are on long-term disability, which for those approaching 65, will expire or be seriously reduced as they weren’t supposed to live this long. They are losing their homes to exorbitant rents, as only the lucky few own a house or apartment in San Francisco. “We never expected to grow older so we were never prepared”, Jesus says.
During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, San Francisco was a world leader in providing support from local government and public health, backed by an activist grassroots movement. With the continuing development of new drugs, the focus changed. “For a long, long time, we were forgotten, invisible in many ways, because of the concentration on youth and prevention, especially after PrEP came out”, Jesus says. (Pre-exposure prophylaxis is a daily pill which reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by 90%. The drug blocks the virus from entering the blood stream. It is not a vaccine). “For many years, there was nothing about AIDS in the media, and we’re just beginning to work on that”.
Jesus and others have met with an advisory group to Ed Lee, the Mayor of San Francisco, and with a city supervisor, also a long-term survivor, who has made the urgent needs of this group his main platform. “It hasn’t been easy”, Jesus says. “We have a list of requirements for our community, and we’re in constant meetings with other groups and coalitions. We’re also part of a group called The Dignity Fund, trying to find that interconnection between the HIV and Aging agencies. But again, it has been a very slow process, and we cannot wait too long. We’re aging. Now.”
Last Men Standing is the first documentary produced by the San Francisco Chronicle. Directed by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin, it is an extension of a major print feature written by the Chronicle’s health reporter Erin Allday. Allday had been writing about the progress being made against the disease when she started meeting surviving members of a generation of lost men. “Thanks to (the article and the film), our community is having more attention from media, government and society,” Jesus says, “But at the same time, this is just a small step, even if it sounds big, just a small step in what we need to do”. He says he is encouraged by the response of younger people, “especially the young creative community” who have seen the film at other festivals. “They were so amazing, curious, and interested and that touched my heart”.
Since the beginning, over 78 million people have become infected, and at least 35 million have died. This includes approximately 25,000 Canadians, a portion of who died as result of obscene and deliberate government malfeasance when they were given contaminated blood products over a ten year period. Today, the rate of infection world-wide has not significantly declined, with Sub-Saharan Africa the hardest hit. In the US, the disease is currently a threat to African-American and Latino communities. In Canada, it is estimated that there over 72,000 people living with HIV-AIDS. However the number of deaths have fallen (enough so, that in some cities, including Vancouver, the AIDS units have closed). If not for the long-term survivors who hold the collective memory of that early battle, it could all be ancient history. As one man remarks in the film “One day it started happening and thousands of people were gone. Slowly they dwindle away and dry up and disappear from the street”.
“We cannot think about the future and prevention, or solution or end for this epidemic without thinking about the past and all the stories, and all the ones who died,” Jesus says. “We have to remember that the new generations of HIV-positive people have it easier thanks to the ones who did all the old medicines that were so toxic. Many died not of AIDS, but from the medicines they took”.
Jesus and the other long-term survivors featured in Last Men Standing share a common timeline between coming out and testing positive. In the words of the filmmakers, a feature could have been made about any one of them. Instead the film reveals what is personal about each man, fitting their stories together like a puzzle, or a quilt.
There is a scene in the film where a group of survivors are meeting to plan a social event. Although they are enthusiastic, it’s very clear they are tired. As the men make lists and discuss logistics, one member says with humour, “It would have been so much easier to die”. But they didn’t. So, for one brief evening, these long-term survivors eat snacks, listen to disco music on the patio, and then follow the DJ inside. They remember the time before and they dance. Jesus, who suffers from very painful chronic neuropathy, doesn’t make it to the end, but manages to dance a good long time.