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+TALK: PETER STALEY, PT. 2

The following is a transcript of the conversation between Karl Schmid and activist, Peter Staley.

PETER

We just turned our back on AIDS within a year.

KARL

You ended up leaving ACT UP, and obviously you were also founding director of the Treatment Action Group, but what was the point for you, I guess? what was it like that moment? And you do talk about this in the book when you realized that the sense of community that the LGBTQ community had built and this fighting seemed to start to sort of dissipate, seemed to start to fade away because the antiretrovirals had come out and people sort of just moved on from it. What was that moment like for you? And again, you talk about in the book about sort of where life took you after that.

PETER

All right. Well, I mean, you’ve described two moments. There is the splintering of ACT UP, which happened at the beginning of 1992. It actually, I mean, the splintering happened in ’91 with an ACT UP and then there was the huge breakthrough three years after that with protease inhibitors, and we finally got the drugs into body we had been fighting for 10 years, that could turn the illness from a death sentence into hopefully a manageable disease. That latter part, you think that would feel like this victorious period, but it was, you know, it was at the end of so much misery and pain that the community had a very strange response where it kind of flipped the page immediately. It had been so mentally traumatic that as soon as we had the opportunity to focus on something else, we leaped to that. I wish it had been kind of a partial leap, I was all for looking at other things and we just turned our back on AIDS within a year. And for those of us who had been dedicating our lives to that fight, it was a hard transition. It felt like we were being forgotten, and the history that we had just created and just led to this extraordinary medical breakthrough, there were no victory parades, there were no memorials, there were no documentaries, there were no books. It was painful in a sense, and at the same time, we were all trying to figure out how to return to the real world, cause we had been living the surreal existence of not having futures, those of us who were positive, to all of a sudden like, “Oh my God, I might live to be an old person.”

KARL

You might like to 60 Peter.

PETER

Exactly.

Here I am.

KARL

But so how do you process that? I mean, you talk about drug addiction in the book, which I, you know, I feel like I know you, I mean, I know you in a social that was shocking to me, but then at the same time, I too have experienced the same, you know I think a lot of young gay men who are HIV positive even now, still reach for those

PETER

Escapes.

KARL

Escapes. That’s the great way to put it.

PETER

Yeah. I’ve always had this huge faith in our community, the gay community, the queer community. We had this great ability to look our problems pretty squarely in the eye and be out about them, to not, I’ve always been against the, you know, the finger wagging queers who are like, don’t put our excesses in the gay pride parade. Don’t put the drag queens up front, don’t put the go-go boys on the floats. It’s also embarrassing, the straight world will recoil. F that sh!t.

You know, I love the fact that we say that and we look we are out. And we, and along with our issues, we are out and we take, we confront them full on. I focus my addiction chapter far less on my personal gory story. Like all of our gory stories of addiction on the highs and lows of what I went through and more on how the community came together to start looking at this and seeing how it could tackle it.

KARL

Tackle it you did. I don’t know where we are at with this COVID 19 pandemic, you know, a year ago we were, the vaccines were out and there was all this hope, and I think most of us in America thought by this time now we’d be seeing the back of it, but you know, we’ve got a whole population of stupid people. When you talk to young activists and in your own activism, especially around COVID, how are you, how do you take on this, what seems to me, stupidity of people going, I’m not going to get vaccinated, I’m not going to wear a mask, yet they’ve been vaccinated against measles and rubella and everything else, and my child is not going to get this. What’s your advice? I mean, how do you talk to people like that? Because, you know, I’m just done, I’ve shut up about it, and I, you know, that I think is the wrong approach.

PETER

Yeah, these are different times. All activism has gotten much, much harder because of the breakdown of the anti factual reality that we’re living in now where upwards of 30%, sometimes higher people in the US and many people around the world now live a cultish existence of conspiracy theories and anti-factual lives that didn’t exist when ACT UP did it work. Or the beginnings of it were brewing, but it wasn’t full fledged like it is now, and we’re seeing it affect all issues. Obviously, the first was in the ’90s, with the rise of global warming conspiracies, which has prevented the US and other countries from taking actions for the first crucial years and decades now. We are in the fight of our lives, both in this country and for the planet to see how to reverse that. Personally, I think there’s a narrow window of trying to maintain political control from a strategic standpoint. That means we all have to get our hands quite dirty and be quite strategic on winning elections. you know, that’s not an idealistic form of activism, That’s certainly not a feel-good form of activism, but that is the job in front of us, and until, until we win elections and maintain our democracies and start racking up a few years of showing the world that government works, because we’ve been in an antigovernment environment since Reagan, then you might begin to slowly turn the tide against this epistemology breakdown that we’ve had. It’s very depressing.

KARL

The Biden/Harris administration, you know, marked World AIDS day by, and like everyone does renewing their commitments to end HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030. we all, you know, renew our commitment, but how realistic do you think it is by 2030 for us to have knocked this thing finally, once and for all on the head.

PETER

It’s not impossible, therefore we should be setting those goals. Actually on the research front, we’re beginning to see some exciting things on both cure, and we’ve had some major disappointments once again, on the vaccine front on stage three trials, but stuff entering the pipeline on the vaccine effort especially like MRNA for HIV are reasons for optimism. I’m still pretty convinced by 2030 that we might have decent vaccines and at least a, what we call a functional cure where the same vaccine might help a person with HIV, self control the HIV that remains in their body without the need for ongoing therapy. I’ve been saying 2030 for many years now, actually for since 2010, I think, and I haven’t been knocked off. There’s nothing, in fact, in the most recent last two years, I’m becoming more convinced that 2030 is possible, that I will live to see these breakthroughs.

KARL

I am, so last question, Peter, cause I’ve taken enough of your time. What do you hope people take away from reading your memoir and this fantastic book? What do you hope and think?

PETER

I just hope they see some of themselves in this and get inspired by it. I, you know, I was, when I found out, got handed this death sentence at the age of 24 out of the blue, I really wasn’t expecting, I didn’t really didn’t think I was at risk for HIV, which was totally stupid, it just showed how naive I was. I was this closeted bond trader on wall street. Within a year and a half, this movement got born, and I got wrapped up into it, and it was gorgeous and beautiful, and I swept up in it and it changed me totally. It forged me and none of us could have done anything alone. It was really about people power, It was really about community powers. People coming together, doing extraordinary activism together, if going from zero to 100 in two years under fire like that is possible, I hope people see their own start, you know, they might think I’m at zero, but then they might say, but I wanna get further along and they can see how that’s possible.

KARL

Peter Stanley thank you so much.

PETER

Thank you, Karl.

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