21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

A Story That's Different from Dallas Buyers Club

What the movie misses.

I moved to San Francisco for the first time in 1987. I had no idea when I left Minnesota that I would be planting myself into a unique and tragic piece of history. I landed in San Francisco in the middle of the AIDS epidemic.

Watching Dallas Buyers Club was like an unpleasant flashback for me. I saw people I cared for get sick. I experienced a taste of American paranoia at it’s worst. It was not quite the way the movie portrayed it, though. The homophobia expressed in the movie was not at all a part of what I viewed in the Bay Area at the time. 

We were all paranoid. I recall conversations with colleagues that went like this:

“How do you get HIV?”

A senior counselor in a group home I worked in answered with authority, “If you have a cut in your arm and someone spits in it, you can get it that way.”

“Really?” I considered every last wound I had ever had. Had someone ever sprayed while talking with me?

“And you can maybe get it from toilet seats, so be sure to use covers.”

I was terrified. I had no idea what my risk was. None of us did.

As much as Dallas Buyers Club recounts a piece of history in a certain part of the South, in San Francisco, we were much less likely to pass judgment about sexuality. It was a terrifying time and we were all very naive. But we all seemed to be scared together.

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And when it was the case that we understood that sexual activity was one of the risk factors leading to the potential to contract HIV, we educated each other about the importance of using condoms. Gay or straight, or whatever, it seemed as if we were in this together.

What happened?

The fight about AIDS and HIV seems to have been relegated to countries in which the epidemic is worse. Though this is a noble cause, we seem to forget the fight we continue to wage at home.

We dismiss that anyone can have bad luck in contracting one of many sexually transmitted diseases, which can transform lives.

The incredible actors that make up Dallas Buyers are only a start in making the issue of AIDS and HIV something that all of us care about again. 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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