World AIDS Day: December 1st
In 1989, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and before the advent of HAART, playwright Billy Aronson and composer Jonathan Larson began working on what would become one of the most critically acclaimed musicals ever produced: Rent. Set in the New York punk-art scene of the late 1980′s, Rent told the story of the struggling artist: plagued by debt, plagued by failure, and plagued by the explosion of HIV/AIDS. Rent was–and still is–praised not only for its musical and theatrical elements, but also for bringing some humanity to the otherwise grim world of AIDS.
Much of that humanity, though, was inspired from real stories from HIV-positive individuals with whom Larson had met. Playbill recounts a startling moment for Larson at a Friends In Deed meeting–a support group formed to help deal with AIDS-related death and grieving:
Larson had been absorbing stories at Friends In Deed. “One night when Jonathan was [at Friends In Deed]…a man raised his hand — a young man who I never saw before—and he said, ‘I don’t really have a problem about dying, but will I lose my dignity?‘”
That question struck a chord with Larson, and eventually developed into the song linked above, “Will I?” Arguably one of the most moving moments in both the musical and the film, the question posed by the man aches with the pangs of the reality at the time. For LGBT individuals who were already kicked out of their homes, whose friends were dying all around them by the dozens, who were ostracized by both the public and the healthcare communities: who would be left to take care of them? In their final days, would they be wasting away to nothing? Would they expire on the streets? Would they die alone?
For many, that was an intolerable possibility. So HIV-positive individuals took it upon themselves to become champions for one another, providing food, medical attention, and most importantly support in an era when no one else would offer those basic needs. This song is one of mourning, but in a way it is also a battle cry rally solidarity amongst the HIV-positive and, more largely, the LGBT community. To stand together and say no, this is not right, this has to change.