Preserving the untold history of the French LGBT community

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Thirty years later, Hoàng sits in the cluttered living room of a small apartment in the twentieth arrondissement of the French capital. His hair is now mostly grey, and his skin lined with wrinkles, but his eyes light up with a boyish twinkle when he speaks about his past. Around him, two younger men, Thomas Leduc and Yves Grenu, are opening and unpacking boxes, punctuating their efforts with exclamations of delight when they uncover objects that resurrect memories.

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In 2017, the release of 120 Battements par MinuteBPM (Beats Per Minute) in English — felt like a slap in the face of French authorities and the LGBT community. The movie, produced by director and ex-Act Up member Robin Campillo, retraced the early years of Act Up in the fight against the HIV-Aids crisis as it hit Paris in full force in the 1990s.

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At 62 years old, Hoàng has been through countless rounds of negotiations with the municipality, each one leaving him more discouraged about finding a permanent home to store his archives. He was one of the first to realize the urgency of preserving traces of LGBT life, at a moment when, paradoxically, these lives were more fragile than ever.

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Less than a decade after witnessing the end of the life he had known in Vietnam, Hoàng had to watch as his adoptive country descended into the grip of another hecatomb.

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As the sun slowly sets on the Parisian apartment filled with boxes, forcing its occupants to turn on the lights in order to continue their sorting mission, Hoàng nostalgically stares at the old photo of himself he just retrieved from a brown envelope, showing his youthful self, with a full head of pitch-black hair, chanting in the front line of a protest.

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On October 26, 1994, in the 20th district of Paris, the howling of tens of fog horns disturbed the silence of the morning. Over 500 people were gathered at the Père Lachaise cemetery, carrying a coffin through the streets all the way to the crematorium. In it lay Cleews Vellay, the iconic president of Act Up. Friends, family and activists were giving him the “political funeral” he had wanted ever since he had discovered his HIV status. A few weeks later, some of his ashes would be spread by activists over an assembly of insurance providers and a meeting of the French Medical Drugs Agency, accused of discriminating against HIV-positive people and of restricting access to antiretroviral medication.