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AIDS and HIV

‘Philadelphia,’ AIDS and LGBT ally Tom Hanks

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To many in the LGBT community who survived the ravaging years of the AIDS crisis, the death of former President George HW Bush on the eve of World AIDS Day was a profound PTSD trigger. Like a quick nod of a genie’s head, the agony of the government’s neglect during the Reagan/Bush years in the 1980s came rushing back. And while Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Ryan White Care Act, thousands had died, there was no cure and no end in sight for more carnage, brought on by stigma as much as the disease.

What’s sometimes overlooked in the overwhelming grief as we remember our lost loved ones are the friends and allies who showed up to help, to care, to just stand with us in love and defiance. One such ally was actor Tom Hanks, best known in the early 1990s for his comedic performances in “Splash,” “Big,” and “Turner & Hooch.” Taking on the role of a gay man dying of AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film “Philadelphia” was a risk to his popularity and career.

Dec. 14 marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles premier of “Philadelphia,” which went on to win Hanks his first Academy Award, as well as an Oscar for Bruce Springsteen’s haunting song “Streets of Philadelphia.” Some criticized the film for being too milquetoast mainstream—but that was the point. Who would pay $7 to see an AIDS movie unless it was a good, relatable story with Hollywood stars? Through Hanks, straight people got to “know” a gay person and through Denzel Washington, they took the journey from homophobic ambulance-chaser to compassionate attorney for gay/PWA civil rights.

The LA premier was a benefit for AIDS Project Los Angeles, which netted $250,000 APLA Chair Steve Tisch told the LA Times. But it did more than that. About two years after actor Brad Davis died of AIDS and left a scathing letter about Hollywood homophobia tied to insurance issues over hiring HIV-positive actors, Demme hired more than 50 HIV-positive actors, including the late Ron Vawter who played one of the partners in the law firm that fires Hanks’ character.

“Philadelphia” also brought attention to the real 1987 lawsuit upon which it was partly based and Hanks’ remarkable Oscar acceptance speech— in which he noted “that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels”—unintentionally outed his gay drama teacher and spawned the 1997 movie “In & Out,” in which straight actors Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck share an onscreen kiss.

“Philadelphia” director Jonathan Demme with actors Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I covered the LA premier of “Philadelphia” and had my own heart-warming moment. I was one of AIDS activist Michael Callen’s care providers and Michael and The Flirtations made a cameo appearance singing “Mr. Sandman” in the film. He was too sick to attend the APLA event but asked me to convey his thanks to Tom Hanks. He was sorry to hear that Michael had taken a turn for the worse but told me to tell him thanks back. Hanks said he listened to Michael’s “Purple Heart” album in his trailer while getting into character. Michael was overjoyed to hear that. Michael died 13 days after the APLA benefit premier of “Philadelphia.”

During the APLA event, gay actor David Drake came up to us while I was interviewing Hanks. Drake, who was also in the movie, was well-known for his powerful AIDS play “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.” We were joking around and I asked them to play out that scenario, which they did to everyone’s amusement.

“I knew from the get-go being cast in “Philadelphia” was a very special kind of honor, more so than any other big-budget Hollywood film at the time,” David told me via email. Jonathan Demme “was committed to turning his formidable creativity and star power to telling the story of an gay man with AIDS in his quest to save his life was groundbreaking for mainstream culture.

“And to enlist Tom Hanks to star was major,” David continues. “I was on and off filming for over 3 months, which was shot in Philadelphia, and stepping on set that first day with Tom was daunting. But he immediately made me feel right at home when we met in the makeup trailer, saying, ‘So you’re the guy kissing Larry Kramer! I’ve been reading a lot about you, so happy we’re working together on this.’

Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” (photo via IMB)

“I was dazzled by his humility and impressed at his genuine interest in what was going on in the AIDS activist community,” David says. “Plus, he was just so easy-going and available to engaging in conversation with. No diva fits, no tension, and Tom’s commitment—losing 30-some pounds for the role—was astonishing. As was his performance in take after take.”

“A once-in-a-lifetime encounter: I also remember having a lovely conversation in the hospital waiting room (on set) about the secret restaurants of San Francisco with Joanne Woodward  (who was knitting) and Karen Finley (who was dressed in doctor whites),” David says.

“When the movie wrapped that spring of 1993,” David remembers, “Tom sent everyone in the cast and company wristwatches with the “Philadelphia” logo under the glass of the clock—and with a personally signed note of thanks. The ‘nicest guy in Hollywood?’ You betcha.”

So when injustice seems to pour down like torrents from hell, remember there are some angel-allies who still walk the streets of Los Angeles.

 

 

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AIDS and HIV

Federal blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

The study is aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood

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FDA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland (Photo Credit: FDA/GSA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – Washington D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within ,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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AIDS and HIV

Peacock will premiere HIV documentary on World AIDS Day

Drew, who was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980’s when he was only 23 years old, was not paid for his participation in the trial

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Right to Try (2021) Peacock/NBCUniversal Television and Streaming

NEW YORK — NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock will premiere the documentary short “Right to Try,” which explores one man’s search to cure his HIV, Wednesday on World AIDS Day. 

The film, produced by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer and directed by “The Late Late Show With James Corden” producer Zeberiah Newman, follows HIV survivor and activist Jeffrey Drew’s participation in an experimental vaccine trial. 

“We are thrilled our film ‘Right to Try’ will be seen on Peacock. Though Jeffrey Drew’s heroic journey is singular, his story is universal,” Spencer said in a statement, according to Variety. “This is an important film and with Peacock we have a wonderful partner to bring it to our audience.”

Val Boreland, EVP of content acquisitions at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, added: “It is an honor to share Drew’s story with Peacock users and raise awareness around the important issue of HIV research. We know the impact of this documentary will be far-reaching.”

The documentary shows the side effects that Drew experienced during the early days of the trial. The coronavirus pandemic interrupted the study, as the doctor spearheading the experimental vaccine started working on the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Drew, who was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980’s when he was only 23 years old, was not paid for his participation in the trial that a major pharmaceutical company did not fund. 

“There are people who are still getting infected and sick and dying,” he told Variety in a June interview. “I would love to see a generation that doesn’t have to think or worry about this anymore.”
“Right to Try” won the Audience Award for Documentary Short last summer at Outfest, an LGBTQ+ film festival in Los Angeles.

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AIDS and HIV

Los Angeles observes World AIDS Day with star-studded concert

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Juan Pablo di Pace will also be performing at the ceremony

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LOS ANGELES — As World AIDS Day is recognized around the globe, Los Angeles will mark the day with a free concert with a star-studded line-up at The Forum hosted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AFA) and a ceremony at The Wall Las Memorias (TWLA) AIDS Monument in Lincoln Park Wednesday.

In a press release, the AFA said Grammy award winners Jennifer Hudson and Christina Aguilera are set to perform in front of a sold-out crowd. Emmy-nominated comedian Randy Rainbow will host the event, which will take place from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

In addition to the entertainment, the AFA will honor Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders with a Lifetime Achievement Award and a special video presentation. The award will be accepted by his wife Jane Sanders.

“This year marks two significant milestones in the decades-long fight against HIV and AIDS: first, for the first recognition by the CDC of the virus that led to what is now known as AIDS (40 years ago, in June 1981), and second, the launch of AHF (35 years ago),” the release reads. 

TWLA’s ceremony will reveal an expanded footprint of the surrounding landscape of the country’s only publicly funded AIDS monument. The monument, created in 2004, will also add over 1,000 names of loved ones lost to AIDS to the 360-plus names already etched into it and unveil new artwork. 

TWLM Founder Richard Zaldivar, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo and County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis are all expected to attend the event, which will start at 6:15 p.m. at 3600 N. Mission Road. According to NBC 4 Los Angeles, organizers also hope Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will be in attendance. 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Juan Pablo di Pace will also be performing at the ceremony. 

World AIDS Day is observed every December 1 to raise awareness about AIDS and honor the people who have died of the disease. This year’s theme is “End inequities. End AIDS and End Pandemics.”

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