AIDS playwright explains “Fallen Guardian Angels”

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March 27, 2014

By Sean Patrick, West Hollywood, California

Author Edward D. Padilla’s play, “Fallen Guardian Angels” was selected in 2010 by the World Health Organization to be the official script of World AIDS Day (every December 1st).  It was inducted into the International AIDS Archives July 2012. Mr. Padilla is a tireless activist for AIDS eradication.  He travels the globe raising funds for everything from research to hometown care services.

Written in 1985, the play follows six individuals at the beginning of the AIDS Pandemic.  It gives insight into both straight and gay lives affected, and gives us perspective on the start of the disease.  In 2012, globally in schools and community theaters, over 7000 productions of FGA raised $127,000,000 collectively.  All money from ticket sales by contract must be donated to AIDS charities.

I was able to interview him by email over the course of a few weeks.

Author Edward D. Padilla’s play, “Fallen Guardian Angels” was selected in 2010 by the World Health Organization to be the official script of World AIDS Day (every December 1st).

Author Edward D. Padilla’s play, “Fallen Guardian Angels” was selected in 2010 by the World Health Organization to be the official script of World AIDS Day (every December 1st).

SP:  Mr. Padilla, you’ve been in the forefront of education and activism since AIDS was named, and are a very sought-after speaker and fundraiser.  I know your time is valuable, so thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Re: the script, I wonder if any of the characters are based on your friends or people you knew? I hope that’s not too personal. At what time did you hear the calling, as it were, to write the play?

EP:  The play:

Aaron is a compilation of several fathers I knew – What I did was put them all together – in the end, he didn’t have anything that related to AIDS (Remember, at the time, there was no HIV, it was ARC or AIDS) – So, I talked to my brother in law – and we were talking about his last son born (my last nephew from him) – and I said what would you do if he was born with AIDS? – He got mad, and that’s where Aaron’s outcry starts – “Leave the children alone, they didn’t do anything.”

Helen – Just a mom I created – I fashioned her after a couple of Carol Burnett characters – A little ditzy but all heart – and then I added on friend of mine, Lu Lantz, who was the ‘crazy mom’ willing to pierce nipples and try poppers – That rounded her out to the “better than Donna Reed” mom -

fallenguardianangelsRobert – Robert’s monologue started it all – I wrote Fallen Guardian Angels for a friend of mine who was dying from AIDS (1985, no one was “living” with it) – He asked me to write his eulogy – I was so angry with him – Him wanting me to write his eulogy meant he was giving up – But I went home – and the next morning I had his eulogy – After he read it, he turned to me and said, “You need to expand on this.” – I finished the play within 72 hours – We planned to stage it for his triumphant return home, but he died a week before it opened. Our very first performance of the play was a benefit for his funeral…

Marion – The Lesbian in denial – She is based on so many real life lesbians I knew at the time – All of them were angry, and none of them believed women would contract AIDS – When they heard about a lesbian with AIDS, they immediately knew she was a drug addict. But AIDS was all because of men – Some of the lines from Marion are actual quotes “Men are rats, and rats have always been trouble” – Her resolution came from me – I had to believe that the lesbians of the time would come to a deeper understanding of the disease.

Robin – Well, Robin is my Catholic upbringing but it is also my belief in a loving God – I could not understand why all these people were saying God was punishing us with a disease. It went against everything I was taught – A loving God does not punish, he LOVES – I had a priest who I respected so much – Father Gallee – I talked to him – He told me about his past – how it wasn’t so “clean” and how he came to the priesthood – I didn’t like Robin being a priest, and decided a woman would work best – so I made Robin a woman with a questionable past – and based her on Father Gallee and a Stripper, Miss Dee, who had a brother with AIDS – I put the two together and – wham – home run -

Jared was the most difficult character to write – I sat down and thought about how I would react if I had just found out I had AIDS. I was pretty much in the closet at the time, but had a lover that had died (not suicide, but I was driving the car when we were in the car accident that took him – the line “Maybe I’m to blame, maybe I’m not. I haven’t figured that out yet.” was my “confession” line – so I knew to keep the character focused on how I would react. I thought about the loneliness – how society made anyone with AIDS pariah – How we were told we couldn’t touch them – but it was too – boring – to just be ‘me. me. me.’ – There had to be a way Jared caught the disease – so I created the cheating boyfriend – through that, Jared becomes a victim – not a ‘criminal’ – his disease came from his love, not from his ‘shame’ – He was still me – but he was now me, if I allowed myself to love too much and not be safe – I think that’s why he is the crown of the play – he relates to everyone – When he finally confesses his disease, it is still (after 30 years) the most heart wrenching moment for me in the play – I cannot watch it without a tear –

I became and AIDS activist in1985 – and – honestly – it has been my entire life’s purpose – The calling was when my friend passed away – I made a promise – “I will kill the disease that killed you.” – and I am doing all I can to keep that promise – I may not win, but I will educate as many people as I can so AIDS does not get any more.

SP: In the early years, the fight was simply to acknowledge the disease and not blame the victims. It’s completely ironic that right at the height of the ‘sexual revolution’, the walls we had just climbed over seemed to tumble down on us. Later there was a lot of infighting from inside the activism camps. Did you end up choosing sides, as it were?

Sean Patrick is a musician   covering the scene for WeHo News.

Sean Patrick is a musician covering the scene for WeHo News.

EP:  I’ve always fought for the ‘victims’ – I’ve always believed, since the very beginning, that our biggest weapon in our fight against AIDS has been and will always be: education – Condoms, safe sex – And, with the new “bareback” craze that’s going on, we have to really focus on education. Poz men who have HIV or AIDS do NOT have the same strain as everyone else, and this dangerous belief that “POZ is okay with POZ” is making a new strain – the problem is, if these men are on ARVs (Anitretrovirals), they are mixing their HIV with a person who may have a strain that is resistant to their ARV – the two strains meld, and then they lose any ground they had in combating the disease – We are looking at a restart of the pandemic as this ‘uneducated’ phase is helping create a super-strain, which will be resistant to all ARVs – So, educate – We need to remember safe-sex – even if both men are POZ – use a condom – mutual masturbation – ways that accentuate non-transmission.

As far as picking a ‘side’ – I’ve never been on one team or another. I joined ACT UP when it first started. I did not like the “Science=Death” mentality. I always felt that science would help find the cure – What I did was learn everything I could about the disease. How it transmitted. How it mutated, and the differences in cultural demographics. In the beginning, it was just a ‘gay disease’ – I had known about Sickle-cell, and how it affected only Black people, could there be a way AIDS was only for gays? If it was only affecting gay men, then society was deeming us our own ‘race’ – scientifically, they were proving that homosexuality was not abnormal – When the CDC declared GRIDS or GIDS (Gay Related or Gay Immune Deficiency Syndrome) to be non-discriminatory, it was almost a step-down for me – I was hoping we were on the verge of declaring homosexuality “normal”.

Again, I did not pick sides, but I helped raise money whenever I could. I also joined groups that helped people transition (die). These were people no one wanted to touch, be near, hug…They were dying a lonely death, and I was not going to allow that. I went to classes and learned how to softly talk to people as they passed away. I held the hands and looked into the frightened eyes of so many people, watching their blank stare until I heard the monitors slowly beep down to a steady stream.

aidsdayworldThere were so many. Too many. I helped well over 100 people transition. I still do it today. I will still hold the hand of someone in hospice as they leave us. I will still tell them it’s okay to let go and to go on to their next adventure. I will still love each and every one of them. And, each time I hear that steady hum of a lifeline, each time I know AIDS has taken another one of my brothers or sisters: I vow to try even harder to kill that disease.

I do not have HIV. I do not have AIDS. I do not have any excuses for not fighting. Anyone who feels that it is too time-consuming, in my opinion, is looking for a way out, or, worse, has accepted defeat; they believe “AIDS will always be with us.” – I refuse to believe that. AIDS will be gone, and I hope and pray it is during my lifetime. If not, I have assured a way to educate and raise money in my absence. Even after I die, I promise – I will continue to fight.

SP:  Personally, I think it’s so important to remind people what is going on in the rest of the world. Part of the complacency in the US, it seems, is due to the belief that HIV is now ‘manageable’. That is only true if you know your status, and you have access to medical care and medications. You are so right about the different strains.

You travel the world raising funds for HIV (in addition to donating every cent earned from FGA). You just returned from Kuala Lumpur. What perspective can you give us concerning the pandemic outside the US?

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EP:  Again: Education is the biggest key – with education, the biggest and best news is that Cambodia reversed its rate of HIV infection.

In all honesty, I did not want to go to any of the “scientific” lectures – My main focus was increased funding worldwide through fundraising efforts and new initiatives. The only “required” plenary was the one about Cambodia. (A plenary is a session where everyone in attendance is required to attend) – The first plenary session of the conference proved to be an eye opener – Mean Chhi Vun, Director of the Cambodia National Center for HIV, Dermatology and STIs, and advisor to the Ministry of Health, presented the Cambodia 3.0 initiative. Cambodia 3.0 is being implemented to achieve the 3 ambitious goals of having zero new HIV infections, zero deaths and zero HIV stigma in the country by 2020 – That’s slightly over seven years from now.

Amazingly, the estimated number of annual new HIV infections in Cambodia decreased from 20,000 in the early 1990s to around 1,300 in 2012 – “Cambodia 3.0” builds on the progress to date, achieved in large part through Cambodia’s partnership with the Clinton Foundation and, of course, educating people about the disease.

I also discussed how our new Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will affect ADAPs (AIDS Drug Assistance Programs) – By speaking with representatives from Canada and Australia I discovered our ADAP programs will not become defunct, but will rely more on private donors and corporate involvement – The USA Government has fully funded the ACA through the next three years – and certain parts (including ADAPs) will be funded through 2020 – It is interesting to acknowledge that so many people are against the ACA, but more people will have access to life sustaining medications.

The conference happened before the Russian National Hate Initiative – but Russian representatives at the conference were certain that education would help decrease new infections. Russia, however, is one of the few countries that admits to having any problems with HIV or AIDS – Their government is in a deep sense of denial.

aidsdaySP:  It’s been said that there is too much money in managing diseases like Cancer and HIV infection for pharmaceutical companies to work on a cure. Were there representatives of the big drug companies at the conference (what was the exact title of the conference?) in KL? If so what did they have to say?

EP:  There were no pharmaceutical representatives at KL – Although I have several connections in a few of the companies – Our problem in the USA is that, unlike other countries, our government refuses to put a ‘cap’ on medication prices – so companies can charge as much as they want – With the rollout of the ACA, it is hopeful that we will mimic Canada and Australia, where payment is up to what is allowable.

It also has to be noted that, after touring and talking with pharmaceutical reps, we have to understand that these medications did NOT come cheap – Money is needed for research – Now, despite what people may think, there are more than 1,000,000 people working on a cure – They need labs, research equipment, chemicals, test animals (Don’t get me started on that – I’d rather kill a rat than let AIDS kill another person), Animal trials, human trials, test groups – and that’s only if it works – if any step along the research path messes up, it’s back to square one. That money has to come from somewhere, but it’s my opinion that it should not come from the individual needing the medication -

The average medication is $4 per dose – The average ARV is $67 per dose – Big difference – As a friend in Australia pointed out, “the USA still stigmatizes HIV and AIDS as gay diseases, and being homosexual in the USA is a terrible thing. They say God is punishing them for being gay, but, in reality, the USA is doing the punishing.”

The exact title of the Conference was just: The 13th Annual International AIDS Society Conference -

SP:  FGA was chosen in 2010 as the Official Script of World AIDS Day. I’m curious as to how the play evolved to be chosen. How was it submitted? What other works were considered?

EP:  In 2010, at the beginning of the year, my friend, Steve Summers, and I were emailing different high schools – He said we needed a little “something” to get the play in the door – He looked up the World Health Organization – and they truly had nothing special for World AIDS Day – but – they had received numerous recommendations for events – He decided it was worth a shot. Without my knowledge, he purchased a copy of the script and sent it in. Six months later, it was ‘branded’ official.

The reasoning behind it was in a letter I searched for today.

Quote: “Fallen Guardian Angels” is a script with heart, but it is also a script that embodies the epidemic because it does not center on the gay community. “Fallen Guardian Angels” transcends the sexual barrier to bring a deeper understanding to the disease. Using words of hate to bring compassion is an art within itself, but to have compassion for every member of society, and push the limits for a better understanding shows the playwright’s true intentions of love and hope.

It is an honor to list “Fallen Guardian Angels” as the Official Script of World AIDS Day. May it bring understanding, compassion, hope and love to many people worldwide. “

I know that “The Normal Heart” and “As Is” were both submitted to the organization before “Fallen Guardian Angels” – I’ve read and seen both plays – as well as others, while some (“Angels in America”) have huge casts and require huge budgets and scenery and special effects – Almost all center around a gay character whining because he has AIDS – In “Fallen Guardian Angels”, our gay character sees AIDS as an obstacle of love.

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“Fallen Guardian Angels” does not stop at a gay character, though. There is a child, a baby, who the heterosexual father, must come to an understanding of the disease. A straight man with the disease, who’s sister is upset because she was loosey-goosey while her brother was pure and wholesome. “Why do people insist on saying that AIDS is a punishment from God?” Robin asks. “Famed preachers of the word, national TV evangelists are sleeping around. Where’s the justification of that?”

“Fallen Guardian Angels” has the mother of a son NOT living with AIDS, but she worries – There’s a lesbian who is denial that her female partner has AIDS -

In one hour and forty-five minutes, AIDS is shown how it affects all members of society, and that is why, to my understanding, why “Fallen Guardian Angels” was chosen as the official script.

SP: Congratulations on the success of FGA. You’ve raised and continue to raise hundreds of millions of dollars globally. So many other ‘charities’ spend the bulk of proceeds on overhead, so I’d just like to thank you personally for donating 100% of all proceeds from the play to fight AIDS and HIV locally around the world. Thanks for your time!

EP:  Thank you!

Sean Patrick is a writer, musician and vocalist.  Check his latest at www.SeanPatrick.us