Let's Kick Ass: Long Term AIDS Survivors Tell HIV Virus to Shove It!
Tez Anderson, founder of Let's Kick ASS
ASS: AIDS Survivor Syndrome.
According to the mission statement posted on it's website, Let's Kick Ass is a grassroots movement of long term survivors, positive and negative, honoring the unique and profound experience of living through the AIDS epidemic.
"We're dedicated to reclaiming our lives, ending isolation, and envisioning a future we never dreamed of," the statement reads in part.
On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, members of Let's Kick ASS attended a screening of We Were Here at the Castro Theater. The film is David Weissman's riveting documentary about the worst years of the AIDS crisis. A packed house sat in stunned silence as the film recalled the staggering volume of death that decimated the 1980s gay community. Survivors interviewed for the film tearfully recall losing virtually everyone they knew.
"It's a completely different experience to see the film in this theater," Weissman told SF Weekly after the screening. "Both the theater and the neighborhood are characters in the film. The whole sense of history that's swirling around the room is palpable."
"It's really amazing to see our community in context," said Jason Galisatus, 21, who attended the screening. "It's really alarming to me because my age group of young gay men has the highest rate of new HIV infections. I hope that people my age can see this film and realize that we are not immune."
For those who survived the plague, the struggle goes on, though it's not as horrific as it once was. Thanks to the drug cocktails that are now available, people with HIV can lead reasonably healthy lives, though the drugs do come with side effects.
The formation of Let's Kick ASS was inspired, in part, by the death of Spencer Cox, a well known member of ACT UP New York and Treatment Action Group. Michael Siever, a member of the Let's Kick ASS steering committee, told SF Weekly that Cox had done more than any other activist to push for the approval of protease inhibitors, the drugs which have kept so many alive.
"Several weeks after Cox's death became known, Tez Anderson, Matt Sharp and myself, all three long time AIDS activists who are now members of the Steering Committee, met for dinner in the Castro not only to discuss Spencer's death, but also other suicides, and the general state of things for the many of us who've been living with HIV for decades," Siever said. "Depression and anxiety were common. Unresolved grief from the losses of friends and lovers over the past three decades, plus survivor's guilt, withdrawal, social isolation, and loneliness seemed rampant. We discussed the prevalence of what we are calling AIDS Survivor Syndrome (ASS), a phrase that Tez had coined.
"We were also concerned that it seemed more and more like the new approaches to HIV in the professional world of Health Departments and AIDS organizations almost overlooks those of us who have been living with HIV/AIDS all these years. The number of long term survivors on the boards and in the leadership of most AIDS organizations is shockingly low."
Let's Kick ASS now holds monthly Town Hall meetings where issues pertaining to long term HIV survival are discussed. Meetings have taken place at the LGBT Center on Market Street, Metropolitan Community Church, and elsewhere. The organization's website contains updated information on where each month's meeting is held.
"We have now held three Town Halls, each attended by 80-120 people," Siever said. "We also co-sponsored the 35th Anniversary Memorial Candlelight Vigil and March for Harvey Milk and George Moscone, whose theme was 'Eviction=Death', an all too frequent issue for long term survivors. So many long term survivors are living on small disability checks and live in fear of being evicted in the current housing market."
The group also offers social get togethers. "We hold Saturday Morning Caffeine, Chat and Connection for Long Term Survivors at Cafe Flore every Saturday," Siever said. "Planning is also underway for We're Still Here, Survivors Celebrate our Resilience on Solstice, a Solstice party at the LGBT Center on December 21. Future Town Hall meetings and other activities are planned for January and beyond."
Let's Kick ASS looks to the future, with their eyes on the prize. "We want to focus on the positive, on our strength and resilience," Siever said. "And to focus on the ways we have learned to cope with and move beyond AIDS Survivor Syndrome."
Members of Let's Kick Ass send a clear message at the 2013 Harvey Milk/George Moscone Candlelight Vigil