Lesbian heroines of the AIDS epidemic

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday August 22, 2018
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During this decade there has been a resurgence of documentaries on the AIDS epidemic. Enough time has passed to look back artistically, somewhat objectively, on the devastation, prejudice, and death during those Holocaust-like years when the disease was the #1 killer of people ages 35-45 (from 1985-96). Yet rarely have films dealt with the perspective of doctors or caregivers. So it is a gift to announce another outstanding entry in Logo-TV's final presentation in its three-documentary summer series. "Quiet Heroes," which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, will be shown on August 23, continuing through the rest of the month, streamable on August 24. Screened at Frameline this year to much acclaim, the film shines a light on the compassion, bravery, and resourcefulness of those who treated PWAs when AIDS was a virtual death sentence.

It was auspicious that on the same day, June 5, 1981, that the CDC reported the first cases of Pneumocystis Pneumonia among gay men, Dr. Kristen Ries, who had an interest in infectious diseases - having done previous work on STDs - arrived in Salt Lake City. Upon seeing her first AIDS case, she immediately contacted the Utah Department of Health, who told her they weren't going to do anything about the disease. Fear and stigma immediately surrounded AIDS. Fortunately, Dr. Ries got admitting privileges at Holy Cross Hospital, run by a Catholic order of nuns, the Sisters of Holy Cross, who were used to caring for poor and stigmatized people, and felt it would be irresponsible not to care for PWAs. Ries, on her part, had been raised to dislike Catholics by her parents, but working with the nuns quickly changed her opinion. Ries created an AIDS ward at Holy Cross called Med III. For the first several years she was the only doctor in Utah willing to treat PWAs. But as her practice grew (humorously called AIDS and Aged, as she treated mostly gay men and the elderly), she needed help. The hospital funded a young nurse, Maggie Snyder, to go back to school to train as a physician assistant who could assist her. Eventually the two would become life partners as well as professional ones.

The Mormon Church's hostility toward LGBTQ people is the undercurrent of this story, with parents forced to choose between family and faith, often counseled by local religious leaders to disown their gay sons. A state Senator unsuccessfully lobbied to turn Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake into a leper colony for PWAs. Marriage was often presented as a cure for being gay, with the result that gay husbands would have surreptitious sex with other men and sometimes pass the AIDS virus to their wives. This chain of events happened to Kim Smith, who despite being infected by her Air Force pilot husband Steve, remained married to him and eventually nursed him until his death. As the film notes, the Holy Cross team became family for patients ostracized by their families. Especially in the early years when there was no treatment for AIDS or its opportunistic infections, Dr. Ries felt the best medicine was listening to her patients, providing care and comfort, helping them to die. At the end of every visit, each patient received a hearty hug from her.

Dr. Ries and her team often doubled as social workers, calling parents to tell them it was their last chance to see their son before he died. Ries and Snyder made a commitment that if they met patients on the street they wouldn't acknowledge them unless they were acknowledged first, for fear of inadvertently outing them. Some patients entered the clinic only through the back door. Throughout the documentary we also hear the valiant stories of Ballet West dancer and later Director of Education Peter Christie, a long-term AIDS survivor, and Beverly Stoddard, a lesbian whose mother Cindy campaigned to overturn a law preventing PWAs from marrying.

Holy Cross Hospital, having been made poor by the epidemic, had to close. Ries and Snyder finished their AIDS work at the University of Utah until their retirement. While counseling patients that they had done nothing to deserve their diagnosis, Ries was forced to confront her own internalized homophobia, thinking she was bad for being a lesbian. Eventually she could say she was saved by AIDS, inspired by witnessing so many gay men express pride for who they were, as well as valiantly accepting their grim prognosis. Ries and Snyder both felt they weren't doing anything extraordinary, just what their jobs called them to do, even revealing that they illegally redistributed unused expensive HIV drugs collected from deceased patients, risking prison. On March 29, 2016, in a poignant ceremony, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski proclaimed Dr. Kirsten Ries and Maggie Snyder Day to a packed crowd. This heartfelt documentary is a testament to their life-changing work with the LGBTQ community, who owe a profound debt to Dr. Ries and Maggie Snyder.