Today is World AIDS Day, the annual commemoration of the global fact of AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes it. But aside from a series of interviews on NPR, the day has passed relatively unnoticed. The Cold City U. LGBT student organization decided against doing anything for it this year, Prestigious Lil’ College is out for the winter break, and right now the bars and clubs of Cold City are filling up with men and women either blithely unaware of the day or unconcerned. After all, as my friend La Connaire put it over the summer in a kind of throw away comment, AIDS is no longer a gay disease, but an African one. Let the music play again.
When I was in college, of course, it was the nadir of the crisis, or as Andrew Holleran once described it, The Fear. Gay men were seemingly dropping like flies: suddenly, viciously, and brutally, drowning in protozoa or suffering from strange zoological bacterial infections. The pallor that had settled on gay life left little room for doubt that AIDS was, in some crucial way, a gay disease, or at the very least a focus of gay concern and action. This was certainly the reaction of heterosexual society in the 1980s, which used AIDS to conveniently reinforce its pathological ideas about gay sexuality, in particular anal sex.
But those dark times were also a period of hope, of optimism, offering a renaissance of LGBT activism around the HIV crisis that oddly both reaffirmed the importance of an LGBT communal identity as well as ameliorated heterosexual America’s homophobia, or to paraphrase Andrew Sullivan, AIDS demonstrated to straight America the fact of LGBT humanity. When straight America decided gay lives were expendable, lesbians and gay men and trans folks organized to serve and care for our own, from safe sex information (indeed, the very creation of the idea of safer sex is thanks to gay men) to social services for people with AIDS. But these were also the times when one still saw, on Greenwich Avenue in New York City and Castro Street in San Francisco, gay men with AIDS: slim, pallid, sickly. The tactile example of the epidemic was obvious to any gay man and lesbian. It was not aesthetic, it was not pretty, this was real, and it could happen to you.
We don’t really see that anymore, of course. Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapies (HAART), otherwise known as the AIDS cocktail, have changed the equation of HIV infection. Now we think of HIV positive people as relatively normal, albeit with a chronic, serious, but manageable condition. We think of them as climbing mountains, kayaking in wild rivers, going to brunch, at least if we take our messages from some of the controversial advertisements for anti-retroviral drugs in LGBT publications. AIDS is now a problem, for LGBT people, of the other, the dusky unwashed masses in hot places. Or as Love Buckets put it tonight, AIDS no longer seems like a problem for gay men.
Yet, I would argue that HIV continues to be central to our conscious and unconscious notions of gay identity, for better or worse. The global gay community is now arguably a natural reservoir for the virus, gay men still seroconvert (become HIV positive) everyday, and the difference between HIV statuses for many gay men still remains one single test. These are scientific and public health notions, but more largely, culturally, the narrative of AIDS in the developed world is also largely a gay one. Some of the most beautiful and eloquent stories of AIDS, and its human dimensions, were written by gay men facing the crisis head on: Paul Monette, Joseph Beam, Mark Doty, Richard Rodriguez, Gil Cuadros, Marlon Riggs, Randy Shilts, David B. Feinberg, Larry Kramer, Essex Hemphill, Andrew Holleran, David Wojnarowicz, and John Weir, to name but a few. These cultural producers captured the crisis in all its dimensions, adding flesh to the accumulating statistical bodies of gay men in the 1980s and 1990s, documenting the crisis and bearing powerful witness to the lives of the gay men silenced within its precincts.
Today, it is politically incorrect to describe AIDS as a gay disease, and of course in the most literal sense, it is an absurdity to conceive of it as such, for HIV, like other viruses and bacteria, doesn’t discriminate based on human social and cultural identities. But disease as a metaphor for the human condition is a crucial aspect to how we come to see the world, as Sontag has noted, and I would argue that HIV is a gay disease, not only for its emergence and continual presence within the literal gay body in the developed world, but also for the figurative dimensions of its descriptive and cultural history.
This is the perspective I attempt to communicate when I teach courses in LGBT Studies. For me, HIV is so central to the LGBT experience that it deserves its own special topical section on the syllabus. But trying to communicate the importance of this moment, this extended meditation on morality and culture that HIV represents for LGBT people, is difficult in many respects. Primarily, I increasingly find that teaching this material is emotionally exhausting, in the reading and re-reading and explication of searing narratives of loss. I am from the generation of gay men that followed in the wake of the initial crisis, but was deeply imbued by its messages. HIV is not an abstraction for men of my generation, but rather a tiresome acquaintance one cannot shake for life or money. I have known HIV positive men, I have dated HIV positive men, and yes, I have had sex with HIV positive men. And I myself have faced The Fear directly, in sterile doctor’s offices, every time one must confirm or deny their current HIV status.
But my students do not share this perspective. They, like the contemporary LGBT community largely, deal with AIDS as an affliction of the other, of the past, and in that maneuver ironically recreate the conditions for moral judgment that made HIV a crisis in the first place: dirty gay men and dirty gay sex. Since HIV becomes a public health crisis through the sexual ecology of gay sexual hedonism of the 1970s and the difficulty of heterosexual society to talk openly about gayness, battling presentism is hard. In fact, intellectually, it is an impossible task. But as I ask students to consider not HIV, but the lack of it, in the progression of sexual adventurism among gay men of the seventies, I also ask them to step outside of themselves and their moral judgment, to see the world from a different perspective. They resist, they stall, they shuffle, and yet, I push them. And this work is agonizing and grueling in its own respect. Humanizing AIDS for my students feels like reinventing the wheel, proving again the basic humanity of gay men, and more largely all LGBT people, to those who doubt it (dirty gay men, dirty gay sex). Yet, what choice do we have but to engage in this work?
San Francisco as a city has a spooky element in general, with its fogs and gusts and gothic architectural notes, but when I lived there, for many years in the 1990s, I always felt I was surrounded by the ghosts of the thousands of gay men gone away, and I could see, intellectually and emotionally, their world overlapped onto mine, my face where theirs had been. Such visions are not healthy, but are increasingly necessary, for resisting the abstraction that AIDS has become for many people, including many gay men. Honouring World AIDS Day means not only wearing a red ribbon, if people even still do that, but also remembering the thousands of gay men lost, and the thousands still living with HIV, not as the other but as ourselves, in other rooms and other voices.