If you haven’t seen the 2012 documentary about the AIDS crisis, aptly named How to Survive a Plague (dir. David French) you should do so right away.

Your boss won’t mind. Just say it’s, like, research or something.

The documentary follows ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and later on TAG (Treatment Action Group), and their struggle to find effective treatment for millions of patients who were living — or, more accurately: dying — with AIDS related complications. At best the US government (Reagan – Bush admin.) was completely apathetic, as was the medical establishment. This meant that PWAs (People with AIDS) had to become their own doctors, lawyers and healthcare advocates… Seriously, you should watch this film.

Seriously, it’s on Netflix.

You probably won’t be familiar with many of the documentary’s subjects; which is a real travesty, considering how many lives they have saved. It’s primary subjects are Bob Rafsky, Mark Harrington, David Barr, Larry Kramer and Mark Harrington. And like every good documentary it made me want to know more. While I appreciate the contribution gay men made, I really wanted to know more about the women. We hear Dr. Barbara Starrett talk about treating HIV patients, we see Garance Franke-Ruta the “teenager” who spends her after-school days ACTing UP, and then we see Dr. Iris Long talking to ACT UP members during a meeting. Long is a retired pharmaceutical chemist who saw what was happening and began to educate the activists. More recently, CBS gave her a brief spotlight, I found out which you can find on YouTube.

Spoiler alert! her contributions saved 8 million people.

I find it frustrating that such a remarkable person doesn’t have more information published about her! Maybe she enjoys her privacy. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. I don’t know. I really want to, though. For now I’m just going to have to rely on critical imagination. Afrofeminist scholar Jacqueline Royster writes that critical imagination is a method or tool we can use to inquire about women’s lives.

When we study women of the past, especially those whose voices have rarely been heard or studied by rhetoricians, how do we render their work and lives meaningfully? How do we honor their traditions? How do we transport ourselves back to the time and context in which they lived, knowing full well that is not possible to see things from their vantage point? How did they frame (rather than we frame) the questions by which they navigated their own lives? What more lingers in what we know about them that would suggest that we need to think again, to think more deeply, to think more broadly? How do we make what was going on in their context relevant or illuminating for the contemporary context? (20)

The documentary gives me some great context to jump off from (though I need to be cautious). Her contemporaries in the film describe her as a heterosexual female who has retired from pharmaceutical chemistry. If you met her, you might not expect her to be a part of ACT UP because she’s so disconnected from queer folks/ PWAs. I’m curious to know how she made her way to ACT UP — it never tells us how she did. We just know that she did. If I use some of the rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQIA+ folks and AIDS pandemic that was in public circulation at the time, it doesn’t exactly paint a positive picture. Take for instance this excerpt of Mark Doty’s poem Tiara. Doty wrote this heartbreakingly beautiful poem after attending his friend Peter’s wake, which sums up the attitude of PWA’s during the 80s and 90s:

“…At the wake, the tension broke
when someone guessed

the casket closed because
he was in there in a big wig
and heels, and someone said,

You know he’s always late,
he probably isn’t here yet—
he’s still fixing his makeup.

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it…”

This rhetoric is echoed by former senator Jesse Helms and former President George Bush (the first one): if you don’t want HIV/AIDS, then you shouldn’t have gay sex. In other words, if you have AIDS, then you asked for it. I’m assuming that before Long stepped into ACT UP’s scene, she was — at the very least — familiar with this rhetoric. Which makes me appreciate her contribution even more. It sparks my curiosity even more deeply: how did she find out about ACT UP? Did she have a family member who was friends with a friend who knew about the organization? Perhaps she saw a flyer while she was walking? And even after that, did she know the extent of the pandemic at that time? I don’t know. (BUT I WANT TO KNOW!)

And then, after she began working with ACT UP, what made her stay? How would she describe her sense of self-efficacy when so many young people were dying around her?

I imagine that’s hard for anyone to deal with. If I was tasked with solely educating PWA’s with their body chemistry I would be incredibly intimidated. Furthermore, how would she feel about her contributions? I don’t know.

All I can really do at this point is thank her and appreciate her contribution. And I can say, regardless of her personal attitudes — and I want to be cautious, because maybe she was totally woke

Iris Long: Woke as fuck.

—  before she began working with ACT UP, it took a momentous amount of empathy to look past the shady rhetoric surrounding AIDS and PWAs. Without her, 8 million people’s lives would have been much shorter.

Thank you Iris Long. I hope to someday know more about you.

If anyone knows something, let me know in the comments!


France, David, T W. Richman, Derek Wiesehahn, Tyler H. Walk, Howard Gertler, Stuart Bogie, Luke O’Malley, Peter Staley, and Larry Kramer. How to Survive a Plague. New York, NY: Sundance Selects, 2013.

Jacqueline Royster and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2012. Print.

Gif images were found on giphy.


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