The history of HIV/AIDS is marked by large-scale tragedy and numerous false hopes of cures, alongside the mass development of systems of community care and social resistance. In recent years, however, perceptions of this history have shifted. Alongside the development of effective treatment mechanisms for those with access to affordable health care, there has seen a generational shift in the developed world, from those who were surrounded by the deaths of lovers, friends and comrades, to younger generations living with the virus long-term. This process is, of course, geographically and socially uneven, with the effects of the epidemic reflecting the unfair economic and social realities of the world.
We have also seen in recent years a wave of cultural representations of the history of HIV/AIDS in that have been praised by some, and criticised by others as nostalgic or misrepresentative. On this World AIDS Day, HWO asked some leading scholars working on the history, politics and cultural representation of HIV and AIDS, what happened to the history of HIV?
For writer, historian and activist Sarah Schulman, the story is one that is stubbornly unshifting. Schulman, reflecting on her work with the ACT-UP Oral History Project and her recent memoir The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012), paints a picture of her home city of New York, which has witnessed the death of over 100,000 of its residents alongside the mass transformation of the city to reflect the gentrified mentalities of its new residents. For Schulman, the history of AIDS cannot be separated from a history of gentrification on one hand, but also a history of political will on the other. What’s needed now, as throughout the last three decades of the crisis, is what she calls the willingness to ‘be uncomfortable, change our self-concepts and negotiate.’
In the second half of our feature, film scholar Dion Kagan and gay liberation icon and international AIDS activist Dennis Altman sat down for a chat about how HIV is represented now and the processes by which different generations reflect on the history of the epidemic. Kagan and Altman share some of Schulman’s critiques of the way in which these histories are presented, while deviating in places. Kagan is concerned with the way these stories are ‘sanitised’ or get woven into a particular historical trajectory that ignores liberatory elements of the past and takes us straight from HIV to an inevitable political focus on same-sex marriage. Altman is critical of the ways in which these stories of HIV/AIDS become parochial in their obsessions with the local, telling yet again the story of the wealthy, white world at the expense of where the crisis is now.
Together, these two contributions remind us that the history of HIV and AIDS is contentious, as has been the trajectory of the epidemic. To understand what is happening to the history of HIV now, we need to continue to think about the politics of our contemporary world, who gets to produce representations of the past and whose stories enter our public consciousness.
In the first of our two conversations, HWO co-editor Mark Pendleton spoke with scholar, activist and writer Sarah Schulman about her work with the ACT-UP Oral History Project and her involvement in New York’s radical queer scene over the last several decades.
MP: Thanks for agreeing to be part of our AIDS histories feature on History Workshop Online. The motivation for this feature is simple – we wonder what happens to historical projects when their reason for existence becomes diluted, or disappears. In the case of AIDS, we have been thinking particularly about the disruption that has taken place between the foundational connection of HIV and AIDS as a result of medical/pharmaceutical advances. What are your thoughts about the historical implication of this separation of HIV from AIDS, at least in the wealthy world?
SS: Actually, only one third of HIV positive Americans are undetectable. That means that only one third is receiving the standard of care. So, in a way your question is its own answer: HIV and AIDS are not separate in reality, only in public perception. Globally, of course the odds are much worse. Jim Hubbard and I were recently in Russia where they still have pediatric AIDS because the government doesn’t purchase the drugs that keep children of positive mothers from sero-converting.
Of course, if every positive person in the world received the standard of care, they would all be undetectable and therefore would only experience symptoms of the medication. They would not be infectious. And therefore the transmission of HIV would be rare, and PREP and PEP would not be necessary. This would be an enormous financial loss for global pharma. But it would keep negative people from having to take medicine every day of their lives.
MP: Your memoir, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, was published right as the recent surge in popular representations of the history of HIV/AIDS took off.
SS: Actually, Jim Hubbard and I kickstarted that “surge.” When we began the ACT UP Oral History Project in 2001, ACT UP had basically been forgotten. The number one historical source on the subject was the (gasp) New York Times. I schlepped the Oral History Project tapes-in-progress around the country for ten years: showing students, grad students, and professors how to use it. The first book to cite it was Deborah Gould’s and from then on it became used internationally in classrooms and in dissertations, articles and books. We developed a lot of traffic on our website – over 100,000 people have downloaded the hard copy of the transcripts of our interviews with surviving members of ACT UP NY. Many more have watched video excerpts.
MP: Jim Hubbard’s film United in Anger, which you were Associate Producer on, attempts to tell a quite complex narrative about ACT-Up’s politics in a changing New York City. However, this film got much less traction than others, whether documentaries like How to Survive a Plague…
SS: Or “The Five White People Who Saved The World”
MP: Well, yes, or feature films like Dallas Buyers Club….
SS: Yet another in the series of “Straight People Are the Heroes of AIDS” films and plays.
MP: Do you think there is an audience for complex historical narratives told through film?
SS: Of course. The problem is the gatekeepers who kowtow to the executives in the industry. But when you show work on a grassroots level, there is broad interest and appreciation. We have shown United in Anger in Palestine, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, Brazil, India, Russia and we are about to show it in Japan. Everywhere we go audiences are moved and inspired.
Corporate culture is literally invested in maintaining supremacy myths.
MP: One of the key problems in these films is the erasure of the diversity of AIDS activists, with the story instead becoming about another set of rich, white men.
SS: Years ago, in the 90’s Larry Kramer and I had a “public conversation” at OUTWRITE, the gay writers conference that was then held every year in Boston. In front of our audience, I said to Larry “ACT UP leadership is diverse but when the white male media covers us, they only focus on people who look like them. What if, the next time that the media calls you, you send them to a woman or person of color in ACT UP?” and he answered “But Sarah, shouldn’t we use our best people?” So, this mis-representation has been epidemic. The male hero is one of the most toxic myths in our lives, and the white hero is a stiff competitor. As we showed in United in Anger, like all successful social movements, AIDS activism is multi-dimensional.
We show the Women with Aids empowerment movement, leaders like Phyllis Sharpe who was a homeless black drug user who was a plaintiff in the case to expand the Centers for Disease Control definition of AIDS, and Iris de la Cruz, a former sex worker and member of Prostitutes Of New York (PONY), who wrote the column Iris With The Virus for the PWA (People with AIDS) newsletter. Our Oral History Project documents events as diverse as the founding of ACT-UP Puerto Rico, the PWA housing movement, needle exchange etc. The dominant culture loves work that aggrandizes the white individual and ignores depictions of multidimensionality.
MP: When we think about the history of HIV/AIDS there seems to be at least one generational divide, between those who lived through the height of the crisis and lost so many lovers and friends – the story you weave so powerfully in your memoir – and those who grew up after the introduction of ARVs. This generational divide also suggests a different relationship to the history of HIV/AIDS. Is your book an attempt to speak across that divide? Why is it important to construct intergenerational dialogue in queer/LGBT communities?
SS: I know that is the operative cliche, but I don’t see it. To me, the divide is between people who know and understand HIV and those who don’t. I connect very well with people of all generations who are HIV positive and we have a productive relationship.
MP: I also wonder then about the appeal of AIDS, as captured in the story you tell in your introduction of the young urban middle-class student who just wants to write about an AIDS artist (although it doesn’t seem to matter which one). What do you think is the appeal of that period for HIV-positive people, LGBT/queer people or radicals who didn’t have to live through the horror of AIDS? Is there anything potentially productive about this appeal, or is it necessarily ahistorical and apolitical?
SS: If it recognizes and reflects contemporary global HIV and AIDS issues as well as local issues like HIV Criminalization, Stigma and so in then it is productive.
MP: In your book, you plot a parallel process of AIDS and gentrification, describing new NYC tenants who ‘pretend away’ their role in the gentrification of the city – what you describe as ‘a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves.’ You also suggest that this is evident in the diminished vision of a gay politics of marriage and respectability that you connect to a process of American decline, the ‘unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity.’ This reminded me of Christina Hanhardt’s recent historical treatment of the concept of ‘safe spaces’ in gay/lesbian America. Have you any thoughts about the relationship between what you describe in your book and Hanhardt’s work on ‘safety’ in gentrifying gay/lesbian urban communities?
SS: Well, my book came out first even though she worked longer on hers and I knew nothing about this work until it was published. But I have learned from it and I like her book a lot. This queer rush to identify with the state and call the police instead of interactively resolving conflicts is a regressive impulse. We see, for example in HIV criminalization in Canada, which is addressed in my next book, the reliance on the state to punish rather than for people to help each other acknowledge anxieties. These are tendencies that only benefit the already powerful. We can see this in Canada, where half of the people incarcerated for HIV criminalization are Black, in a country with only a 2.5 percent Black population.
MP: You lament that there have been no equivalents to the Nuremburg trials, Maya Lin memorials or inter-generational PTSD diagnoses in the history of HIV/AIDS. What’s your suggestion for memorialising the AIDS dead?
SS: I suggest a white marble fountain with blood red water, and slabs of white marble with the names of the 500,000 Americans who have died of AIDS, and blank tablets with names added as they pass on.
MP: Despite your clearly felt anger, there is a real sense of hope in your book, particularly in your conclusion where you somehow, after everything, are able to say, ‘I’m excited to see what happens next’. How do you remain optimistic over a lifetime of radical activism and so much loss?
SS: Jim Hubbard was talking to someone about me and he said “I have been Sarah’s collaborator for almost 30 years and I have hardly ever seen her angry. She gets frustrated. But rarely angry.” I can imagine solutions and how they can be carried out and I have participated in movements that have succeeded in creating dramatic paradigm shifts. So I know from lived experience and from my own internal reality that people can face and resolve conflicts.
MP: So finally, what do you think is the future trajectory of the historiography of AIDS? Is it possible to reverse, or perhaps transcend, the gentrification of the mind endemic to our contemporary situation? How does the story of HIV/AIDS feature in that process?
SS: Hey it’s all about political will. We could end homelessness in NY City by building 500,000 new housing units. If we stop murdering Muslims around the world, we could use that money to build that housing. And then the city could become affordable. If we stop military aid to Israel, we can end the Occupation. If we give everyone the health care that they deserve, there will be no more HIV infections.
There are concrete solutions available to many unnecessary conflicts if we are willing to be uncomfortable, change our self-concepts and negotiate.
Sarah Schulman is a writer, historian and academic. She is Distinguished Professor the Humanities at College of State Island and a Fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities. With Jim Hubbard, she co-founded MIX, New York’s experimental LGBT film festival and co-directs the ACT-UP Oral History Project. She has published ten novels, numerous plays and several non-fictions works covering issues of sexuality, gender and politics.
Dion Kagan talks with Dennis Altman
DK: So I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’ve seen The Normal Heart yet?
DA: I’ve seen some of it.
DK: Did you see enough to form an opinion?
DA: I know the play.
DK: The HBO adaptation is a pretty straight re-working of the play, written by Larry Kramer. It was nominated for a slew of Emmy awards and it’s really been celebrated as this wonderful narrative history of the development of a movement, but if there is an example of an AIDS crisis history film that is sanitized, for me that one really takes the cake.
DA: But why ‘sanitized’?
DK: Because in my head this history that I didn’t live through but which I’ve read so much about is a really messy, turbulent, traumatic, complicated set of stories. Sanitized is possibly the wrong word – maybe I mean reigned in and over-simplified rather than sanitized.
DA: I would say that it’s Larry’s Kramer’s particular view of his experience of the epidemic. And it’s a piece of polemic. I’m amazed that anyone thought it worth filming because I don’t think it’s a very interesting play. It was a very interesting piece of polemic in the mid ‘80s. But I don’t think it sanitizes at all because the anger that Larry Kramer has – had, still has, will presumably have even when dead – runs through it. And that was why I reacted [to it]. I had to stop watching it because I found it quite emotionally draining. I think it simplifies because it wants goodies and baddies and of course – and this is partly why I think its reappearance is a bit discomfiting – there is a sort of puritanical anti-sex message that Larry Kramer started with in Faggots, before HIV, and then very conveniently he could take it into [the] HIV [era] and you can trace that particular message right through to some of the current debates in the US about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylactic). I wonder if that isn’t part of the reason that people at some level think it’s so wonderful.
DK: Well that is the element of it that troubles me and it seems as if Kramer’s acknowledging this because one of the very early scenes in The Normal Heart has Ned Weeks aka Larry Kramer arriving at Fire Island and being yelled at and insulted and rejected by the community because he’s already written Faggots so he’s already a controversial figure with a message around Liberation that has an [anti-promiscuity] agenda. The troubling thing is that this film has now come out in the same context in which he is calling people who use PrEP ‘cowards’.
DA: Yes, I would agree… To me what’s troubling is partly that. It’s also because it’s Larry Kramer’s account and it’s becoming the received account. It denies the other people [were involved] – the other parts of the early AIDS movement. But that of course is going to be a problem with any film. I suppose it’s actually better than Philadelphia in that respect, in which there is no AIDS movement, and better than Dallas Buyer’s Club in which gay men are pretty peripheral, even though they’re the great majority of the people with HIV.
DK: Well I agree, again [in Dallas] queer people are not presented as a movement, they’re not presented as having agency – they’re presented as being rescued by a kind of vigilante hero.
DA: Yes, and Larry Kramer is himself a vigilante hero so there’s a parallel.
As you know… I think the great AIDS artwork is [Tony Kushner’s play and later miniseries] Angels in America. But you could also level a criticism of Angels that, here is this guy Prior [Walter] in New York with no support, and yet Tony Kushner must have know about GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis], he must have know about the buddy programs that provided home care. The character of Prior wouldn’t be as much without support, he wouldn’t have been as lost and without support as Angels makes him. So there’s an interesting way in which all of these artworks, all of these fictional depictions of the epidemic, have wiped out the community mobilisation because they have to tell stories of individual heroes – or in the case of Angels I guess he’s both an individual hero and an individual victim.
DK: Angels is a much smarter piece of art because it knows about the impossibility of fiction to depict the AIDS Crisis. It wears the impossibility of narrativising the response to HIV on its sleeve. And this is why I like the documentaries more in some ways as historical texts. For one, in contrast to The Normal Heart for example, they all acknowledge the presence and the potency of a sex positive movement; and they all acknowledge the importance of desire and sexuality to the establishment of a response [to HIV].
DA: Which of course Angels does as well.
DK: Does it?
DA: Oh yes, because of the whole thing of Louis [Ironson] going off with Joe [Pitt] and his struggles with his desire… Angels is not polemical in the way that Normal Heart is. And, as I said, to me it’s a bit of a mystery that Normal Heart was re-staged a couple of years ago and then filmed, because it is so specific about a particular moment and a particular political agenda around a mayor [Ed Koch] who younger people have no particular reason to know or to care about.
DK: Yeah, well I think that what resonates about it is that it’s so unapologetically bourgeois-aspiring. It ends in a deathbed marriage. Its politics are so plainly about a trajectory from AIDS to gay marriage. I mean, it’s unequivocally the example I think of a rendering of history that writes the AIDS past and writes the gay past as a history that is leading towards what we in Australia call ‘equal love’. That’s what I suppose I mean by it being ‘sanitized’.
DA: Well I think you’re right, the director, Ryan Murphy, has bought into that as the aim of the movie. His series Glee ends up with a whole marriage scenario too. But I’m still not sure if that’s ‘sanitizing’ it. And I’m not sure how important any of this is, except that what’s happening clearly is that we’ve reached a point where the early stages of the AIDS epidemic in the rich world now feels like history rather than like lived reality and so your generation and people younger than you see it as history that you want to learn, and my generation see it as nostalgia they don’t want to let go of. And inevitably there’s going to be a lot of ways in which people are going to react to this.
DK: Is there an ‘AIDS history war’ going on? I think calling it that might be to truss it up a little bit too much. Nonetheless, I think the disappointment for me is that films like The Normal Heart are just bolstering a contemporary status-quo gay politics that are disappointingly co-opted by mainstream institutions. I think if there’s a nostalgia it’s amongst critics of these texts like me who are hankering for a more radical past.
DA: I just want to say something about the conference which happened here. At this year’s 20th International AIDS Conference, which was held here in Melbourne, what was striking was the determination of the Australian AIDS veterans to glorify their history. And they didn’t give a fuck about what’s happening today, they didn’t give a fuck about the fact that 90 percent of the epidemic is happening in poor countries. What they wanted to talk about was how wonderful we were 30 years ago, and to tell the rest of the world who basically didn’t care how wonderful we were 30 years ago. And I think it led to some not really particularly smart programming where people were determined to re-live the Australian epidemic in the middle of an international conference dealing with an epidemic that’s very different. And I see that as linked to the flood of documentaries we’ve seen in recent years. Well, is it even a flood?
DK: There’s been at least half a dozen documentaries, though most were small budget, independent productions. There’s always been HIV/AIDS cultural production, even in the more quiet period since the introduction of anti-retrovirals. But something happened around 2012 on a larger scale, in terms of an interest in bringing these stories to the screen and to a broader audience. There was We Were Here, there was How to Survive a Plague, and Vito, which screened at international film festivals and which have had some further international broadcasting, distribution and awards attention. And United in Anger, produced by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, which drew on oral histories from ACT UP members. It’s not like it’s a huge pop cultural zeitgeist, but it was a moment, and I wonder if that moment might in fact be over now as well.
DA: Well there’s a limit to how many times you can tell the same story though I have to say that in Australia there appear to me no limits at all because people are determined to tell this story over and over again. There are people who are still trying to write PhDs on the early history of the epidemic in Australia about which there could be nothing left to say that is of any interest whatsoever.
DK: Do you really think so?
DA: Yes, I think there’s a point where you say ‘This isn’t that big a deal. We know the story. It’s been written up. How much more do we need to go back?’ And I know there are projects where people are going back. You know you can always go back, you can keep going back forever but I’m not sure what the point it.
DK: Well I think probably a lot of historians would beg to differ!
DA: Well, we are talking about this for History Workshop Online, right, and I would say that there are many untold stories. The response to HIV in the rich, English-speaking world is not an untold story.
DK: But you’re suggesting it might be a slightly exhausted story?
DA: I would say it’s a very exhausted story.
What is interesting about this phenomenon of storytelling is if you think about it in terms of generation. What happens somewhere between 30 or 40 years after something happens is it either gets forgotten or it gets reimagined because the people who are involved are reaching a point – a point where our memories become your histories. So people like you come and interview people like me, and you need a certain time period for younger people to find it interesting as history and for older people to still be around and want to talk about it. It’s a bit like that huge vogue there was in the States for books about the 60s. And so I see this as part of a larger cultural phenomenon that’s to do with a certain time period.
DK: And a sharing of stories?
DA: A sharing of stories, but also this desire by both the young and the old who are interested in it to mythologise it. So, all this AIDS stuff reminds me of this constant thing I hear from young gay activists (who are admittedly a very small number of people) who say they wish they’d been around back then because it was all so exciting. Ignoring the fact that back then there were only a couple of hundred people who were excited.
DK: Well, that taps into a different type of nostalgia, which is nostalgia for a moment that you weren’t involved in. Personally that strikes a chord. I do have a personal mythology. I’ve mythologised that time as being more radical and more urgent, as having more utopian possibilities, as being more coalitional, more diverse then the queer movement that I see today. Of course, HIV/AIDS isn’t just about queers. But in the context of revisiting this history it feels like what is being generated for me by that nostalgia is a way to keep connecting with ideas and possibilities that are much more radical than the ones I see in the contemporary movement.
DA: I think my response to that would be that in fact both the radical moment and the current nostalgia is remarkably parochial. What’s really interesting is what’s going on outside the rich world. And that’s why I think that yet another study of the AIDS epidemic in Australia or another study of ACT UP in New York seems to me to be taking academic wankery to a new level, because what’s really happening in the world is this huge, increasing culture war around sexuality which opens up much bigger questions.
DK: So, in some ways what you’re suggesting it that this story – this mythology – that we’re telling ourselves – not only in Australia but in the US and the UK (and most of these AIDS ‘retrovisions’ are very US centric) is of no utility really, is of no use, is of no real interest to the contemporary context of HIV/AIDS?
DA: No, I think that obviously people need to know the history. So I wouldn’t say its of no relevance. [But] I would say we now have enough. What I often feel is that people need to take a break and read and look at what is already there rather than rush off and say I’m going to write another book about AIDS in Australia. Now, it seems to me if you want to document something your first obligation is to find what already exists. But I suppose I’d also say that having a historical perspective is enormously important, but that’s different to nostalgia, and good historians are not necessarily nostalgic.
DK: Well I would argue that there is no history without nostalgia, and that there is always going to be some element of nostalgia, but I do take your point that there is some bad history going on.
DA: But what about history that is in a sense anti-nostalgic? Like, for example, the huge amount of historical work on the holocaust is at some level driven by a desire to understand [the Holocaust] so it can’t happen. It’s about ‘never again’. So surely it’s very different?
DK: I suppose that depends on understanding ‘nostalgia’ as a desire to return, a desire for some re-experiencing or revisitation. Whereas I wonder if in some instances with traumatic moments of history we can imagine a sort of nostalgia that is less about wanting to re-experience and more about a fascination and a type of fetishisation of the meanings that come out of that moment. And of course with AIDS crisis, for example, and for the gay community, there is both a nostalgia for before AIDS and for elements of the response to AIDS.
DA: You were being very nostalgic [earlier] in the sense that you were saying that you had this feeling that back then there was a more radical movement that you would have felt more comfortable and at home with. And, as someone who was there, I would say well actually, I don’t think that’s true.
An example is James’ Welsby’s HEX which is such a lovely example of someone deliberately creating an artwork that is a piece of nostalgia for a moment he didn’t experience but at some level really wants to have experienced. I thought the interesting thing about HEX was exactly that point about history and nostalgia: the fact that you can be nostalgic for something you didn’t experience. So it’s very different to what I see coming from the first generation, the people who were AIDS activists in the ‘80s, where it’s this huge nostalgia for when they were important.
DK: Well, there’s certainly a sense of that in the AIDS crisis documentaries, and part of the problem is that there is a heroic figure of AIDS activism that is being re-produced in those narratives.
DA: As there was with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. But isn’t that the normal script of a film in which someone is going to die?
DK: I suppose the difference between the Philadelphia moment and these recent documentaries is that you have survivors telling stories of anger, resistance, mobilisation and ultimately survival. Whereas in Philadelphia you have this sacrificial AIDS victim whose death is tragic but is how the film’s narrative resolves itself.
DA: Well, that’s not entirely true because in Vito the whole documentary leads to him dying, and even in the triumphal ‘ACTUP-changed-everything’ ones, a lot people died.
DK: That’s true. Lee Edelman (1994) wrote that the AIDS history narrative starts with sex and it ends either with death, activism or marriage. Which is how all of these recent films end.
DA: Well, one could say that about Shakespeare and about most great novels. [But] I think you’re actually right to link it with the push for marriage. I don’t think there’s any question that part of the push for marriage within the gay community did come out of [HIV/AIDS]… It’s as if somebody turned a tap at some point and suddenly the movement went from radicalism to incorporation.
DK: What I do like about the documentaries is that they remind us that the response to AIDS initially in its gay male epicentres was one that happened in a moment where people were more committed to maintaining sexual freedoms.
DA: I don’t know that that’s true. I think you’re mythologizing. I think that in terms of what the response was there were two dominant things. One was fear: gay men were terrified. And the other was altruism. The really interesting thing that came out of it, I think – much more interesting than ACTUP, which now has become mythologised as the movement, and that’s one of my criticisms of all these films – was that the first response was literally thousands of gay men and other people, across the western world, got organised to look after people, and they set up the buddy system and they set up homecare, and they set up peer educations systems. And, in most western countries you got big community organisations that involved lots of people who had never been involved in gay politics and I don’t know if they were radical or not. But there were people who were giving hours and hours a day just looking after sick people and taking them to hospitals and organising funerals and looking after their pets. Somehow that gets pushed out of the way. It isn’t being told because people want to tell [this story] as this grand political narrative of brave people struggling, and in fact I think there’s been a terrible erasure of the first 5 years. It’s interesting that Larry Kramer of course was involved in setting up the GMHC in NY. [In Australia] we had Bobby Goldsmith, the AIDS councils, in Britain they had Terrence Higgins. There were all these organisations that grew up and brought gay men into being involved that never had been involved before. At the same time there were questions about sex, I agree, but I don’t think that was the central driver.
DK: It’s interesting that I keep wanting to believe [in a history of sex radicalism] because in some ways that proves your argument that a certain mythology is being projected onto the AIDS narrative.
DA: Yes, and I’ve had similar conversations with other young gay men… Look I think that’s OK. At least it shows an awareness of a history, which my generation didn’t have. I mean it took us ages to discover there had been a gay movement, we all thought we’d invented it.
DK: At least we don’t think we’ve invented it. Except we think that it was better somehow in the past.
DA: I think that part of the problem is that as movements get bigger they are likely to become less radical. The marriage equality movement brings into the political arena all sorts of people who are very conservative. If they weren’t very conservative it wouldn’t be a big issue for them.
DA: We should talk about Pride. Pride is a film where a small London group of lesbians and gays get involved with striking miners during the Thatcher years in a Welsh village. It’s fabulous. It’s based on true events. There was a connection made between the striking miners and their union and the gay movement in the ‘80s during an anti-Thatcher moment. There’s this one great moment where a small groups of gay activists are trying to collect money for the miners and they’re on the street, and a guy walks by and says ‘We’re dying, you should be raising money for us’. He is quite emotional about why they’re not looking after their own people. I think that’s quite a really interesting moment, and I think Pride is in a way much more interesting because its not an AIDS film. And its going to be seen by lots and lots of people who wouldn’t go to an AIDS film, but it’s set at the very moment when AIDS is becoming real.
It’s interesting how it brings the bigger politics of the 80s into this, and I think part of the problem with all the nostalgia stuff is that, unlike Angels where Kushner tries to put AIDS in the context of a whole lot of other political forces, all of the others are stories where nothing else really matters. And yet we know that the response in the States that so upset Larry Kramer is a product of much bigger forces that led to Reagan being president.
DK: Well that’s why I also really like The Line of Beauty, which is about AIDS, but is also about Thatcherism, Toryism, about shifts in the economy and culture of Britain in the 1980s. Even though it’s focused on a very rarefied, privileged echelon of society, it does have inter-class relationships and a range of lifeworlds that gesture to a much bigger world. I think Hollinghurst was very interested in the way in which Thatcherism responded to AIDS or AIDS responded to Thatcherism. So, yeah, I agree with you that there is a kind of minoritarian worldview in a lot of these documentaries. They’re presenting a snapshot of something that is a very complex political, historical and socially diverse set of events.
DA: That’s what any political art will do. I think for me the central thing is the nostalgia. And you did allude to this before. There is a way in which when you live through a great crisis, even though its horrible and people die, there’s a sense in which everything is more dramatic in your life and you form very deep relationships. You see this in the memoirs of returned veterans – it’s a very important, formative part of their lives and they’re nostalgic for it but they don’t want anybody else to go through it.
DK: And that’s why I wonder whether traumatic events become kind of like origin stories for social groups in ways which are very painful but also formative, so that even the people who weren’t there – even the next generation who weren’t there but nonetheless identify with the group – we feel a sense of that being our history and it feels formative in a kind of vicarious way or a belated way. It becomes a kind of origins myth.
DA: I think that’s true. I also think there’s a missing generation in the [HIV/AIDS] story which is the people who were growing up and came out in the 1980s. Those people came out a time where there was this constant linking in the media between being homosexual and dying of AIDS. They started having sex when people knew the risks and they were probably aware of the risks because there were, at least in western counties, quite good campaigns around that. They’re neither the old warriors, who’d already come out, nor people like you who were children when the Grim Reaper appeared. I’m talking about people who were first going to gay bars in the year of the Grim Reaper. So I think there are at least three generations that have a very different experience.
DK: Your point about a forgotten generation is interesting because maybe there’s a bit of a silence among that middle generation? So there are two sets of people having the conversation about AIDS nostalgia now: one are the survivors, the activists and the lovers of people who died; the other is this ‘post-AIDS’ generation who have an imagined and much more mediated relationship with those events.
DA: It suddenly strikes me that the new lot of positive guys who are – quite rightly – taking over the positive moment, are the ones who are looking back to a history which is not their history. Whereas people in their 40s and 50s – for them it is their history but not in the triumphant way. They weren’t mopping the brows and marching, they were too young. But they were deeply affected by it, and that is hardly ever articulated. I can’t think of any film or novel that captures that generation.
DK: Yeah, and it really is two different moments because the culture and the mood shifted so dramatically in that small number of years.
DA: And the problem with all of that is that nothing shifts totally. Things move around and people are exposed to different elements. And that goes back to the nostalgia stuff – there is this nostalgia that I hear from people about the wonderful days of orgies and lots of sex, and my sense is that there is just as much now if not more because there are lots more possibilities of organising it in the modern world than there were. But it [mythology] has lived on and part of it has lived on through the literature – the opposite literature to Larry Kramer, the Edmund White sort of literature that glorifies the pre-AIDS past.
DK: Well there’s two versions of it. One is of a sexual Eden that we can never go back to it. The other is of an orgy that was waiting to combust, which is the Larry Kramer version.
The Larry Kramer version reminds of what’s going on in Liberia at the moment, which is that homosexuals are being blamed for Ebola and being persecuted for it. I think the Larry Kramer line is extremely dangerous, but we’d agree on that.
DA: There is this constant question of coupling and de-coupling AIDS and homosexuality. We have no film that I am aware of – we have no major representation anywhere – of needle-transmitted HIV, even though in many parts of the US that’s the major route of transmission and in many countries that’s the major route of transmission. But I can’t think of anything.
DK: And we’ve got no popular or even semi-popular depictions of HIV/AIDS outside of a western context that are circulating in the west.
DA: There’s a lot more than we know. If we actually had access to the tele-novellas and to the soaps in Brazil and Mexico, and to the soaps in South Africa which have had AIDS as a running theme. It’s classic case of our obsession with the Atlantic world. I think there is actually a lot more in popular culture than we know of and I actually think that the films are probably far less important than the television.
DK: I wonder if the reason why people are pursuing and archiving these histories here in Australia is the sense in which we are bombarded by an American version of this history and we’re not really sure about our history. So the cultural program at AIDS2014 was an opportunity for some local storytelling, and we had The Death of Kings, and so on. I think with people who are compelled to write stories – and maybe historians are part of that group and also novelists and filmmakers – there’s a sense that there hasn’t been a definitive Australian version of the AIDS narrative. Maybe there’s no iconic Australian text.
DA: As far as Australia goes, there are two things. One is Australia dealt with it well, so it’s a success story and we like having success stories particularly at a historical moment in which we don’t seem to have many, or those of us on the left don’t feel we have many. And the other thing I’d say that will make me deeply deeply unpopular is that it’s actually pretty trivial. In the grand scheme of what happened in Australia in the last 40 years, where would you put AIDS? For us it’s terribly important because it affected us directly, but if you were looking at the grand narrative of how Australia has changed, you’d give it a paragraph. And that’s a terribly upsetting thing to say especially to people who are very invested in it. But I’m not sure what other stories [about HIV/AIDS] could be told in Australia. We don’t have an Australian Angels in America. We have no Angels in Australia.
Dennis Altman is the son of Jewish refugees, and a writer and academic who first came to attention with the publication of his book Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation in 1972. Since then he has written eleven books, exploring sexuality, politics and their inter-relationship in Australia, the United States and now globally. His latest book, The End of the Homosexual? was published by UQP in 2013. Altman is a Professorial Fellow in the Institute for Human Security at LaTrobe University in Melbourne. He was President of the AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific (2001-5), and has been a member of the Governing Council of the International AIDS Society and a Board member of Oxfam Australia. In 2006, he was listed by The Bulletin as one of the 100 most influential Australians ever, and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia June 2008. In 2013 he was awarded the Simon and Gagnon Award for career contributions to the field of sociology of sexualities by the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sexualities.
Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender and cultural studies at The University of Melbourne. His book, Positive Images, on HIV/AIDS in popular culture is forthcoming in 2015 from I. B. Tauris. Dion has written reviews and commentary for Australian literary journals and magazines including ABR, The Big Issue, Metro, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings and is a regular voice on fortnightly culture podcast The Rereaders.
This article was posted on 1 December with two errors of fact or emphasis. The first stated that the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ won a ‘slew of Emmy awards’. It didn’t. It was nominated for 16 and won 2, including for Outstanding TV Movie. The second error implied that many of the wave of HIV/AIDS documentaries released around 2012 were produced on a large scale or by major production companies. This is not entirely accurate. The relevant sections have been corrected and HWO apologises for the errors.