AIDS at the Oscars: Dallas Buyers Club Winners Make a Few Mistakes

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
March 3 2014 1:48 PM

Dallas Buyers Club Oscar Winners: It’s “People With AIDS,” Not “Victims”

Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews’ utterances from the Oscar podium Sunday night were among the most spontaneous of the entire ceremony. Actors and directors have agents, business managers, and countless retainers to help them polish their acceptance speeches to a high-buff finish. They’re public figures used to speaking to journalists and investors, while nominees in the makeup and hairstyling category—in which Lee and Mathews triumphed for their work on Dallas Buyers Club—are not.

So, when a very excited Mathews casually used a term that was once considered verboten, it didn’t seem disrespectful. Instead, it was a sign of how much we’ve forgotten about the early days of the AIDS crisis.

After a cascade of thank yous, Mathews concluded with a dedication:

And finally, for all the victims of AIDS. We are so lucky and blessed to be able to bring your story to the forefront of the younger generation today that doesn’t understand AIDS [in] ’85.
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Mathews conveyed empathy, awareness that making art can be a powerful form of activism, and an understanding of how important movies can be in communicating the historical record (even when the film in question is a blur of fact and fiction). The problem was the V word.

In 1983, 11 gay men with AIDS who were in Denver for the fifth Annual Gay and Lesbian Health Conference, gathered in a hotel room and composed a manifesto. The document, which became known as the Denver Principles, began:

We condemn attempts to label us as "victims," a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally "patients," a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are "People With AIDS."

Policing vocabulary is a tricky business—raising a stink about offensive nouns and incorrect pronouns can make outsiders feel defensive and annoyed—but there are times when it’s absolutely essential, and this was one. A 328-word statement penned by a tiny group of guys on the fringes of a second-tier medical conference saved millions of lives around the globe, even though very few people have ever heard of it. That revolution began when the people at the center of the crisis declared that they were not victims.

As Sean Strub writes in his recent book Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival:

The concepts expressed in the Denver Principles manifesto weren’t new—to a large extent, they were an embodiment of feminist health principles—but it was radical for a group of people who shared a disease to organize politically to assert their right to a voice in the public-policy decision-making that would so profoundly affect their lives. Never in the history of humanity had this occurred; for people with AIDS, the Denver Principles document is the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta all rolled into one.

When PWAs rejected the labels victim and patient, they became empowered to fight the disease and the medical and political establishment that was failing them. They were people who made demands, not people who accepted the status quo. Like the characters at the center of Dallas Buyers Club—and the real people who founded buyers clubs around the United States—they took their health and their survival into their own hands.

Of course, there’s another reason I can’t be mad at Lee and Mathews: Unlike Matthew McConaughey, they at least acknowledged the existence of People With AIDS and the disease Ron Woodroof died fighting when they accepted their award.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.