Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle debuted an ambitious special report following the stories of eight San Francisco men who've been living with HIV and AIDS for decades longer than they, or anyone else, expected. The report's subjects include former Now, Voyager owner and Castro fixture Peter Greene, who passed away last month.
The project, which includes a feature by Chron reporter Erin Allday and photos and videos by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin, has also given rise to a feature-length documentary, which will screen at the Castro Theatre on April 8th.
We spoke with Allday to learn the story behind the story, and what to expect from the upcoming film.
How did this project come about?
I'm a health writer at the Chronicle, and I've covered HIV and AIDS for six or seven years. In the course of covering that, now and then people would talk about aging with HIV. What I think really brought it to my attention was hearing about the suicide of Jonathan Klein, Peter Greene's business partner.
I knew a lot of people that were obviously sad about that, but there was something about this long-term survivor committing suicide that just seemed especially awful and so sad—after everything he'd been through, his life would end in suicide. It made me think about the other survivors out there. Even though Jonathan's suicide wasn't really AIDS-related, there were a lot of guys who were really struggling with suicide and suicidal thoughts, because of what they'd been through.
So that was kind of the first thing that really made me think about it. Then I found that in the course of regular HIV and AIDS reporting, if I had conversations with clinicians and public health people and people with AIDS themselves, it just kept coming up more and more. And so finally, I just said, 'We should really do something about this.' That was two or three years ago, but we wanted to wait for the right time, when we had the staff and the resources to do it right.
The project includes your feature story, a multimedia aspect, and also a feature-length documentary. How did you guys decide to make it such a big project?
It was definitely made clear that this was going to be a big project, and that they were going to devote whatever resources were deemed necessary to make it stand out. At first it was just me alone doing reporting, but they brought in Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin as photographers. Both of them have a very strong video background and interest in documentaries, and so very quickly, they made the call that this was going to be very multimedia-focused.
Erin and Tim really got absorbed in this project right away. They figured out pretty early on that they wanted to do a full documentary on this, and I think the paper got behind that right from the get-go.
What can people who have already read your special report expect from the screening?
The documentary is a really amazing companion piece to the story that I did. I'm able to dive deep and tell in a lot of detail what these guys are dealing with, what they've been through, what needs to be done. Erin and Tim really capture the emotion and intimacy of these stories in a way that's limited in print.
For me, whenever I see the documentary, it's hearing these guys speak in their own voices and tell their own stories and watching them move about their daily lives. Seeing Peter Greene sing ... you can't replicate that in a story. It's really profound. The documentary is a really great balance with the news story, and it's been wonderful to have that component of the story come alive.
You'd gotten to know Peter Greene and his story over the course of your reporting. What was it like to find out about his death as you were in the middle of telling this larger story?
It was really hard. We were basically done with the reporting, and in fact, I had seen Peter when he was in town a week before he died. He'd taken me and a friend out to dinner and we had a really wonderful dinner—there was a lot of laughing. And then he went back to Palm Springs and on Monday morning, when he went into the hospital, he was texting me from the hospital. As the day wore on, it was clear that he was very afraid and very upset to be there, and to not have his friends and the people he knew from San Francisco there with him.
We had made plans for me to call him the next day to touch base with him, and I couldn't get through to him. So finally on Wednesday, I called the hospital and that's when I found out that he had died, that morning. So that was pretty awful.
From a health standpoint, is there any explanation for why some of these guys are still alive, when many of their partners and friends didn't make it?
With everything we now know about HIV and AIDS, it's not really surprising that there would be survivors. HIV infection can take anywhere from a year to 20+ years to kill, so there are plenty of people who can live with it relatively healthily for years. They're probably going to have some sort of inflammation impact or early aging, but they're not going to develop AIDS over that time, necessarily.
During the peak years of the epidemic, you had people who'd probably been infected since the mid-'70s who reached the 10-year point in '85—and 10 years is what would kill a lot of people. So you had all these people dying left and right, because they were the tip of the iceberg. There was no knowledge then that, in fact, you could live a very long time with HIV. So for someone who got infected in, say, '84, it wouldn't be that remarkable for them to live to the 2000s without developing AIDS.
So, it's remarkable luck, in the sense that they were all guys that were in that category of people who lived with HIV for longer, and the main thing is that they were able to hang on long enough for the [drug] cocktails to come along. It's probably a matter of the particular strain of the virus they got, or genetics and how their body responds to HIV infection. Some people get sick and die within two years, and some people live for 20 years.
How have the men you profiled reacted to the story?
It's been really wonderful. It's been such a collaboration with the guys, in a way which is not necessarily typical for working with sources. I don't think any of them were surprised at what they read, but that being said, it's definitely been really overwhelming and really intense for a lot of these guys to see their stories out there in public.
I think some of them are probably still adjusting to that, and haven't taken it all in. But from what I've gathered from them, they're really proud of their involvement and to see the reaction that it's getting. They're happy to be a part of that and hoping that some change comes out of this—some attention, and maybe some policy, to help them and others like them.
Catch Last Men Standing at its Castro Theatre premiere on April 8th, and see Allday's feature story here.