My Ignorance of AIDS and LGBTQ History: A Review of Dallas Buyers Club

On September 5, 1991, I was a college senior at Marymount University in Arlingtong, Virginia. I had no idea that a few miles down Glebe Road, a giant condom action was launched at the home of Senator Jesse Helms – an action centered around HIV/AIDS treatment. Mind you, I read the Washington Post each day. I was a political science major. I was actually interning on Capitol Hill in the offices of then-Congressman Rick Santorum that very semester. My best friend was gay. I was liberal leaning. But …

No idea. I didn’t learn about it until I 2012 when I saw the movie “How to Survive a Plague” and I was stunned. Not by the action itself (which was awesome) but at my own ignorance  – 21 years of ignorance.

So when I watched the “Dallas Buyers Club” this weekend, I was prepared to be further stunned. And I was. Once I recovered from the shock of Matthew McConaughey’s physical transformation, I lost sight of him and became immersed in the world of Ron Woodroff, a man with 30 days to live who fights back against systems that are willing to just let him die.

The storyline of identifying and securing alternative treatments for HIV and AIDS was dizzying and I can’t begin to explain the intricacies of the laws or the medications, but I was impressed with how much information was flowing around the world among those living with HIV. I was impressed how Ron used his experiences obtaining recreational drugs and operating on a sort of working class/blue collar/just getting by level to leverage medication that he believed saved people’s lives.

The character of Ron was a character study and I think it worked. I think it was a compelling story, especially his relationships. His compassion to his friend’s father even after his friend abandoned him was touching, but subtle. His relationship with Rayon was harsh, but felt genuine. It was disconcerting for me that Ron refused to address Rayon as a woman when he clearly cared about her as a person, but this was a story about Ron’s survival – not his transformation into a better man. It was about his survival as Ron. Describing his as flawed or redeemed misses the point – he was fighting to survive. Hell, he was getting people to eat better and stop using recreational drugs – yet even today how many LGBTQ leaders do you know who smoke and draw people into smoking venues for entertainment purposes? That’s certainly a dance with a devil of an industry that kills our brothers and sisters.

The only real artificial note was his “unlikely friendship” with Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) – it felt too formulaic and forced. It was much more realistic when Ron had sex with a heterosexual woman with AIDS who came into the clinic – leading the viewers to believe he wouldn’t engage in perceived risky behavior or perhaps aware that she was less likely to reject him? I’m not applauding that development, simply pointing out that it made more sense for the character to want that connection. The friendship with the noble doctor almost seem contrived to reinforce that he was heterosexual and that there were good doctors in the system who tacitly approved of the buyers clubs.

The exception to me was a scene where she took off her face mask and embraced Rayon, allowed Rayon to touch her hair – their intimacy felt very natural if perhaps a bit odd for a doctor/patient relationship. I think Eve was intended to remind us that some in the establishment did care and were willing to put their careers – and their lives – on the line to take care of their patients. That worked better in her scenes with Rayon than Ron.

Some have complained that the movie is not historically accurate or ignores the real founders of buyers clubs. I clearly had the impression that Ron read about those other clubs and launched his own after a conversation with Rayon. It was clear that he was reading up furiously on everything to do with AIDS. It was the story of how one man launched and kept one club going with the support of many, many queer people. It was a story that was playing out around the nation as people banded together and then splintered apart in the face of the United States Government’s willingness to abandon them to die. The movie’s website has a few video clips about similar clubs.

My sense is that the buyers clubs gave people hope, a channel for the energy and their ire.

Ron was give 30 days to live. He died 7 years later on September 12, 1992.

I was struck by the parallel date to the Helmes action by TAG I mentioned earlier. I was living in Baton Rouge, LA in September 1992 and traveling to Texas often. I have the physical sensation, however, that I was living in an alternate universe – one I did not understand existed. I didn’t personally know anyone with HIV (that I know of) and it wasn’t a topic of much discussion among the academic intelligentsia in Louisiana. I can’t remember a single conversation about HIV, AIDS, or any issue either in college or graduate school.

I feel very ignorant. So I’m reading a book now. That’s my takeaway – I need to better understand history. Ill be reviewing the book, too.

Jared Leto as Rayon was mesmerizing and well-played. Yes, it certainly is tragic that even in movies topically about homophobia and transphobia, that LGBTQ actors are not cast – but Leto’s performance is very good. His comments at the various awards ceremonies – well, let’s just say GLAAD seems to have its hands full.

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McConaughey disappeared into the character. After my initial “wow, he looks different” – I forgot all about the actor, even during the contrived friendship scenes. This was a stellar performance and an important story to tell.

Did Hollywood “straightwash” AIDS history? Yes, of course. Am I surprised? No. But I also didn’t expect to get a better understanding of medical history – I expected to be inspired to educate myself. And to see these conversations breaking out – conversations we haven’t had in decades, right?

I’m glad we watched this on DVD because I needed to stop the movie at a certain point and just breathe.  The Blu-ray™ Combo Pack including Blu-ray™, DVD, & DIGITAL HD with UltraViolet™ and On Demand arrives on February 4, 2014, from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. I suggest you take advantage of the opportunity to educate yourself – and don’t stop.

 

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