“QUIET HEROES”— Heroes of the Early HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Utah

“Quiet Heroes”

 Heroes of the Early HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Utah

Amos Lassen

In Salt Lake City, Utah, the singular religious culture severely complicated the AIDS crisis. Patients received no support from or exiled. Mormon culture encouraged gay men to marry women and have a family to cure themselves of their “affliction,” and this ultimately to secret affairs and accidental marital transmissions of HIV. In the region there was only one doctor to serve all HIV/AIDS patients. This is the story of her fight to save the lives of a population everyone else seemed willing to let die.

There have been many documentaries about the AIDS crisis and many more stories that are both personal and universal. Yet we have not seen anything like this beautiful and inspirational look at Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder, her Physician’s Assistant, who ran the only practice to care for HIV/AIDS patients in Utah.

The film was directed and produced  by Jenny Mackenzie,  Jared Ruga and Amanda Stoddard, and is conventionally made, with talking head interviews, photographs, news reports, and home movie footage. The film also traverses familiar territory when it discusses the shame and stigma HIV/AIDS patients face (especially during the early years of the epidemic), and how life expectancies for patients changed as AZT and cocktails were able to treat the disease.

What makes this so different from other AIDS films are the personal stories that put a face on both the doctors and their patients. Dr. Ries explains why and how she became interested in infectious diseases and was willing to take on HIV/AIDS patients, especially when the Utah Department of Health refused to treat the many people who were suffering.

We also see how Maggie Snyder provided support for both Dr. Ries and patients, giving them the respect they deserved. Ries speaks of losing many patients who felt uncomfortable being treated by the “AIDS doctor.” She jokes that her practice consisted of “gays and grays” because her patients either had HIV or were elderly. The two women eventually became a couple themselves, lending additional support visibility to LGBT causes.

It is powerful to see how Ries and Snyder—again the only medical team treating HIV/AIDS cases—would not acknowledge patients in public unless cued, so as not to reveal their medical status. They had a back door to their office for patients to use to avoid being identified. These points show just how great the fear and disdain were for HIV/AIDS patients in particular and the LGBT community at large in Salt Lake City, a region not generally associated with the AIDS crisis.

“Quiet Heroes” looks at the Mormons’ attitudes toward homosexuality. The Church of Latter Day Saints believes that couples married on Earth are also connected in the hereafter. As such, homosexuality is not tolerated because of how the Mormons consider the family in the afterlife. One of those interviewed here describes how mothers often abandoned their LGBT kids because of Mormon teachings about homosexuality being a sin thus forcing these mothers to choose between God and family.

We meet a Mormon couple, Kim and Steve Smith, who get married and have two children. The couple faces a crisis when Steve acts on his same-sex desires and eventually infects Kim. How she handles this situation (with Dr. Ries and Maggie Snyder’s help) is moving.

Although Cindy she lost her battle with HIV/AIDS, before she died, Cindy fought to change laws that prevented people with HIV/AIDS from getting married. Cindy sued to wed her husband, showing just how the epidemic made accidental activists out of ordinary citizens. Cindy’s openly gay daughter recounts her mother’s achievements in the film and she is evidence of how her mother’s activism was passed along.

“Quiet Heroes” shows how HIV/AIDS patients think about themselves in negative ways. It is powerful to hear Dr. Reis and Maggie Snyder talk about the many gay men who felt they “deserved” the disease.

The film also includes some upbeat stories. Peter Christie, a Director of Education at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, is a patient of Dr. Ries’ who was on the brink of death with 60 T-cells before cocktails helped to prolong his life. Dr. Ries and Maggie often redistributed HIV/AIDS drugs collected from deceased patients. This practice was illegal, but they insisted they felt the good it would do (assisting folks who had financial hardships when it came to health care) was worth the risk of prison and/or losing their medical licenses.

The film only briefly mentions the expenses HIV/AIDS patients incur and how great a financial hardship it can be for folks too sick to work and without medical care. It is important to be aware of these individuals and the situations they faced. The people we meet are truly real and quiet heroes.