When I tested positive for HIV in the fall of 1988, it was hardly surprising. Many sex buddies had died by then. A mysterious bout of flu during the summer of ’81 or ‘82 I now realize must have been the “conversion illness.” Around the time of that blood test, my brother Howard, who would have been 63 on his birthday October 19, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It is understandable, I think, that I decided not to inform my parents or my other brother of my sero-status until it was absolutely required. That day came when they met Mason, my partner, whose body by that time was marked by KS lesions. The 25th anniversary of his death was October 7. The 14th anniversary of the death of Joe, the partner I lived with for 10 years after Mason’s death, was on October 20.
I would have been thinking of these men who died young anyway, but I spent two recent Friday nights seeing Parts 1 and 2 of “The Inheritance,” a play that tells the story of one generation’s trauma, which is linked to the losses of a previous generation. It is epic in ambition, mounted with skill and theatricality. It uses its considerable resources to lunge energetically toward catharsis. I wonder why catharsis seems to be called for now, particularly by young gay men who can enjoy a freedom and visibility unimaginable to previous generations of gay people.
HIV/AIDS is and was different from many other health crises. It was different because at the apex of the destructive history it killed so many so fast. It was and is a different kind of disease because it brings so emphatically to our attention homophobia and racism. It is and was special because the basic science learned in the concerted effort to research and intervene in the syndrome has brought great benefits to many more people than those affected directly by HIV/AIDS. That I am alive at 64 is due to the radical change that the protease inhibitors brought about with their introduction in 1995. All this is special indeed.
But the play makes a decisive decision in aiming toward moving it audience so insistently. It lets us off the hook. It allows us not to have to think. A crucial moment of the play is a sort of communion with those lost to AIDS. They are depicted as uniformly young, attractive, gentle, well dressed young men. None appear to be anything but sweet and docile. No one is angry. There are no women. There are no children. It is as pretty a theatrical picture as one could wish for. And it is powerfully moving. The aim of nudging the audience to catharsis is successful. If this was one way to follow Forster’s direction, from the novel that provided part of the inspiration for the play, to “only connect,” it is achieved.
Judith Butler, particularly in her 1995 essay “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification” (1995) noted our culture’s resistance to mourn collectively for those lost to AIDS. It took work to commemorate the deaths of people who so easily could be erased: gay people, black people, drug addicts. These were deaths that didn’t matter. They could be ignored, or, at strategic moments, gestured toward in a way that flattered those who made the gestures rather than actually remembering the lost. It took the work of organizing, building connections among communities that before that time had not found a reason to be connected, to bring about some kind of social legibility to the terrible losses. This kind of organizing work rarely produces media stars or heroes or brands. It builds communities. And for a moment it built a formidable one.
It is the loss of that kind of community that deserves to be mourned. It is that kind of community that deserves to be created again.
Seeking to connect with the dead is not the best strategy to rouse us now. The living are the group with whom to strive to connect.
A lasting contribution the crisis offered to us all was to be found in the example of community organizing set first by GMHC, which began to coalesce in the late summer of 1981, and later by ACT UP. There is complicated history there. The world was made better by these responses. This history ought to be known. That anyone might feel that this history seems lost or unavailable is disturbing.
Throughout the play there are moments when it is claimed that the young gay men on the stage lack elders to guide them because they are all dead. While this is surely an emotional incitement, it is also inaccurate. Those of us who have survived this long with HIV are here, among the living. We are a resource. There are fewer of us than there might have been if AIDS had not happened, but we are here. Of particular importance to the young men of the play, many of those who are here are those very activists who did, in fact, become heroes through the organizing, civil disobedience, and indefatigable pressure they kept applying in response to something we all were utterly unable, individually, to confront. This took place before there was an Internet. Before smartphones. Before apps. This took place because people connected in ways they may never have been required to do before. Some of these men and women are still alive, still contributing. Men like Larry Kramer, one of the founders of GMHC and then ACT UP; Peter Staley, who started TAG, and is still fighting for wider access to prophylactic drugs to end the spread of the virus; Eric Sawyer, a co-founder of ACT UP and Housing Works, and Health Gap, which delivered HIV medications to underserved populations in poor countries; Cliff Morrison, a nurse who formed the first dedicated AIDS ward at San Francisco General. They continue to raise their voices in alarm and act to make things better. I am confident that they would be willing to tell you about what it was like, but even more important, what to do now. If you want to know, you have only to ask.
But you needn’t have to wait to find someone to tell you about that history. There is a substantial literature about what was risked and what was accomplished. It is there to read.
The generation of gay men we meet in the play faces terrible things even as they can build lives as gay men openly and with their civil rights protected. This was unimaginable to those of us who lived through the apogee of HIV/AIDS. The terrible problems they face merit a significant response.
Drug use and the spike in rates of STI’s are dreadful and avoidable. Why, one may well ask, do such prominent problems persist? I believe that the use of drugs while having sex points to underlying shame about oneself, that is, to homophobia. Now that we all know that we are supposed to be “out and proud,” is it possible, is it safe, to admit to the underlying contempt for being gay that would make it seem like a necessary and good idea to disinhibit oneself with drugs in order to have sex?
Acknowledging these awful feelings has nothing to do with whether people have one sex partner or many. It has to do with noticing that how a person organizes their sexual life, as well as all other aspects of their lives, means something. Is it a way of collecting scalps or building a network of erotic connections? Does it aim toward attachment, or toward alienation? Does it point toward life, or toward death?
The pressing question seems to me to be whether a younger generation of gay men can contact their elders to be models in order to confront their own generation’s challenges, and whether we elders can be good enough models. As one of those elders, I must understand that each new generation must discover everything for themselves for the first time, and that it is the job of older generations to love the younger for their inability to learn from our experiences, because they can learn only from their own discoveries. But I and my fellow elders are available. We are here. Just ask.