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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.2 (2006) 281-301

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Remembering Aids

A Reconsideration of the Film Longtime Companion

Remember that someday the AIDS crisis will be over. And when that day has come and gone there will be people alive who will hear that once there was a terrible disease, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and in some cases died so others might live and be free.
—Vito Russo, "Why We Fight"

Vito Russo's extraordinary 1988 speech, "Why We Fight," was delivered at two key AIDS activist demonstrations: first, on May 9 in Albany, New York, as part of the nationally coordinated Nine Days of Protest, the first event of the recently established national coalition of AIDS activist organizations, many of them ACT UP chapters, self-named as ACT NOW (AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize, and Win); and second, five months later, on October 10 in Washington, DC, on the eve of the Seize Control of the FDA protest,1 an event described by Douglas Crimp as "unquestionably the most significant demonstration of the AIDS activist movement's first two years."2 Russo's speech, which at around eighteen hundred words ran just over ten minutes, addresses a number of major activist concerns of the day including the failure of the U.S. government and media to respond to AIDS effectively. But it is equally concerned with motivating and mobilizing people into AIDS activism. Throughout the speech, Russo interjects his own experience as a person with AIDS, as well as his involvement with AIDS activism, to bring his audience up to date on the politics of AIDS in America. In this sense, Russo's [End Page 281] piece is determined to place the specific challenges facing people in 1988 in a historical context so that AIDS activists can move forward in their efforts, and so that others might feel the urgency in joining the AIDS activist movement.

In listening to his speech, beautifully preserved by DIVA TV and available for viewing at ACT UP/New York's Web site, I am struck by Russo's call to memory. His ability to place his own memories within a collective experience is affirmed by his audience; it is a sign both of his rhetorical skills and of his fellow activists' esteemed regard for him. The speech's key moment, however, is in the moving tribute to these activists that serves as my essay's epigraph. Russo's imperative that we "remember that someday the AIDS crisis will be over" claims a certainty that belies the lived reality of the times. Despite the efforts involved in making the moment when the "AIDS crisis is over" possible, the grave situation in 1988 suggests that the time "when that day has come and gone" is not immediately foreseeable. As such, it remains a futuristic fantasy for a time when people "might live and be free," a utopian longing for a time not yet here. This enormously powerful sentiment is based on the imperative to remember, even though the moment we are asked to imagine has yet to arrive.

So what exactly are we asked to remember if the sentence's logic is implausible? Russo asks his audience to remember essentially a belief that has no basis in historical fact but is determined by what can only be understood as the political will of the people whom he addresses. He hopes people will align around this shared feeling, which will motivate and inspire cultural change. We are asked to imagine a future made possible by recovering a belief that such a future—the "someday" when "the AIDS crisis will be over"—is not merely possible but is actually already a historical memory for those living after the fact. Russo's forecasting of this time when people will hear that "once there was a terrible disease" also imagines that AIDS will be remembered. It runs on the presumption that the historical archives of AIDS and its...


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