The Advocate & the Academy

On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, longtime AIDS Clinical Trials Group Network Advocate Bill Bahlman faced a daunting decision – attend a dinner for his ACTG site’s New York University’s Community Advisory Board or a party celebrating that just that day How to Survive a Plague received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Bahlman is one of several AIDS activists whose stories are woven together in the film by first time director David France. How To Survive A Plague shows to the world how a group of activists banded together to form ACT UP and demand the U.S. government give them a seat at the table to advocate for research and treatments, from AZT monotherapy to protease cocktails, to stop the thousands of citizens dying from HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.  

As to the choice of the NYU dinner or the cast and crew party, “I ended up attending the ACTG NYU CAB gathering that night and everyone was surprised by my choice," Bahlman says with a laugh over the phone from his West Village apartment in New York City. “Two years ago, my CAB presented me with the Quarter Century Award since I helped form the CAB back in 1985. It was also important to be with my fellow CAB members and staff because we were saluting the outgoing Chair Don MacIver. He is the glue that kept the CAB together for many years.”

A humble statement from a native New Yorker who since the age of 19 has himself been the glue that has held many movements together. He began what was to be one year of community service by joining the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) in the 1971. He immediately not only planned demonstrations and spoke at colleges and high schools, but also became an ambassador for GAA as Chair of National Gay Movement Committee.

In 1974, as GAA began to dissolve, Bahlman took a break from the movement to work as a prominent New Wave DJ in the New York club scene. In 1985 he returned to movement work with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and The Coalition For Lesbian & Gay Rights. When HIV/AIDS began disproportionately taking the lives of his friends in the mid-1980's, Bahlman founded the first treatment activist group The Lavender Hill Mob. The "Mob" met in his West Village apartment. 

The core of the Lavender Hill Mob was Marty Robinson, Henry Yeager and Bahlman. He credits Robinson with realizing that "it didn't matter whether you were homeless on the streets or Rock Hudson, if we didn't have effective treatments, we all were going to die.” After a year of intensive activism by the Mob, the time was right for greater numbers to become involved and ACT UP was born. 

How To Survive A Plague features interviews with Bahlman and archival video he shot at many ACT UP demonstrations as well as his brand of "on the scene reporting" for the first ever weekly comprehensive LGBT television news show appropriately named "Out in the 80's."

“Plague Director David France and the editors did such an amazing job pulling the ACT UP story together for the big screen,” Bahlman says. “It’s brilliant what he choreographed. Adding to the team's professionalism, the sound editing was done at George Lucas' Skywalker Studios, which was donated for free. The musical score was pulled together by people who were behind the 'Red Hot & Blue' series of CD fundraisers."

The movie has been sweeping the independent and mainstream awards circuit throughout the United States and Europe. How to Survive a Plague has gone from being among the more than 130 Oscar qualifying documentaries in December to a short list of 15 possible contenders to now being one of the five films receiving the official Oscar nomination nod on Jan. 10. The Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, Feb. 24, and Bahlman will be watching.

“I think it has a very good chance of winning,” Bahlman says. “One San Francisco newspaper ranked the top 50 best reviewed films of 2012 and listed How to Survive a Plague as the second best. In comparison, Lincoln ranked 14th and Argo ranked fourth among the list of best reviewed movies by film critics of 2012.”

Bahlman was a natural leader for both the LGBT movement in the early 1970's and then again in the 1980's as the HIV/AIDS movements developed and unfolded.

“I remember in 1972 leading a group of 10 members of the GAA into a conference of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) at the New York Hilton hotel where they were discussing homosexuality as the disorder they called it,” Bahlman says. “We stood up and declared, ‘how dare you call us disordered and sick.’ They seemed surprised that anyone would be proud to be gay!"

“Within a year, the APA changed its ruling and no longer called homosexuality a disorder. When you confront people in a peaceful, yet meaningful way, they have to justify their bigotry to your face. In this case, the APA did listen to what we had to say,” Bahlman continues.

In the mid-1980's Bahlman returned to direct action with GLAAD.  

“I look at GLAAD like that parent who doesn’t want to give you permission to try something too extreme,” Bahlman says.

He remembers organizing actions after the 1986 Supreme Court decision (Bowers v. Hardwick), which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy.

“We needed civil disobedience and an opportunity for our people to express their rage,” Bahlman recalls. “We led thousands into the street at Sheridan Square at Christopher Street. We shut down both 7th and 6th Avenues for a few hours and the mayor’s office ordered the NYPD not to arrest us because Mayor Edward Koch recognized and accepted our outrage. This was the first massive LGBT act of civil disobedience in more than a decade.”

The Lavender Hill Mob was born out of frustration with more mainstream LGBT and AIDS organizations that seemed afraid to empower the communities they represented to perform much needed civil disobedience. A year of highly visible actions by the Lavender Hill Mob followed. A sit-in at a U.S. Senator's office led to "The Mob" realizing that actions alone were not enough when demanding research to find a cure. 

“As GAA veterans were the founding members of the Lavender Hill Mob and then ACT UP, ACT UP in a way became a reincarnation of GAA," Bahlman says. "This type of confrontation politics also has its roots in the American Civil Rights and Women's Movements.”

Bahlman and his friends became the earliest lobbyists to dissect the drug approval process and to "follow the money" as to where the research dollars were going. He said they read everything they could get their hands on relating to HIV from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute's of Health (NIH).

"I remember an early meeting with Tony Fauci (MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases or NIAID) and told him the ACTG semi-annual meetings needed to be open to allow people with AIDS and their advocates to attend,” Bahlman says. “Tony at first hesitated fearing that thousands of people would show up, that he and the other researchers would be overwhelmed, but we made it an ultimatum. Within 24 hours, Tony agreed to formalize our attendance and welcomed us publicly at the opening plenary of the ACTG meeting days later.”

Twenty-eight years later, Bahlman continues his work with the ACTG and recently completed a term on the Scientific Agenda Steering Committee (SASC) and Executive Committee. He is in the TV studio each week as Associate Producer of Gay USA and awaits the verdict on Feb. 24 for How to Survive a Plague’s Oscar fate.

“To me the message of the film to today’s audience is that small groups that band together and who believe in what they are doing, can change the world”, Bahlman says. "One must fight injustice, to create a more humane society. The LGBT and people living with HIV/AIDS movements have succeeded from hard work, smart tactics and that we had mercy on our sides.”