‘Objects in History: AIDS as Cultural Singularity’, by Benjamin Riley


Scanning electromicrograph of an HIV-infected T-cell by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

When I tried to think about my earliest memory of HIV or AIDS, I couldn’t seem to go back further than the first time I had sex.

I was staying in a cheap hostel in Amsterdam a few months before my 19th birthday, and one night ended up at a really cruisy gay bar. It was packed, dimly lit. There I was, a tall, lanky 18-year-old boy from country Victoria, standing in the corner with no idea what I was doing. A few beers turned my furtive glances into awkward stares, and after about an hour a cute Israeli guy probably twice my age stuck up a conversation.

I clearly remember many times forming the thought: if I am HIV-positive I will kill myself.

I had no experience at flirting but must have muddled through. He took me back to the apartment where he was staying and we had very confusing sex. Nothing penetrative, not even oral, but I felt anxious and detached throughout the whole debacle. I suppose it was pleasurable enough for me to come, but if I hadn’t been so nervous I would have laughed when the guy said something like, “Yeah, that was good sex” in a husky porn-voice approximation.

As far as I could tell, it was not.

The fear started even as we put our clothes back on. When I asked if he was ‘safe’—not really even knowing what I meant by that—something changed in his face, as though he only just realised how young I was. I guess I was asking him if he was HIV-negative, although at the moment of the question its precipitating fear had been much more diffuse.

I remember he was kind about it. He did everything he could to reassure me, and I left to walk back to my hostel in the rain. I spent the next day in a fog, somehow convinced I had contracted HIV. It was almost 10 years ago, but I clearly remember many times forming the thought: if I am HIV-positive I will kill myself.

I’m 28 now. When I was born in April of 1986, HIV wasn’t even called that. It didn’t get the name until May of that year, to resolve confusion between scientists in France and the United States, who each separately identified the virus and gave it a different name.

I started thinking about whether I had any early memories of HIV and AIDS after watching Angels in America, the HBO miniseries adapted from US writer Tony Kushner’s play of the same name. The play follows the intersecting lives of a number of characters living in New York City in 1985, at the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community. Alongside the hole in the ozone layer and the conservative social politics and neoliberal economic reforms of the Reagan administration, Kushner depicts the impact of AIDS on gay men as a portent of the apocalypse, its physical and symbolic potency resonating at shattering frequency with the story’s characters.

It seems impossible not to be struck by the horrific symbolism of the epidemic for the gay community. While homophobia was still rampant in countries like the US and Australia in the early eighties (as it is to a lesser degree today), gay men were just beginning to find some small amount of social acceptance when AIDS hit. A group of people who had spent their lives being punished by society for the way they had sex were now being punished for it seemingly by their own bodies. It is an association that goes back much further than AIDS, but the epidemic conflated sex and death for an entire population in ways that were foundational.

It seems impossible not to be struck by the horrific symbolism of the AIDS epidemic for the gay community.

Perhaps arrogantly, I often imagine that kind of symbolism as only being apparent in hindsight, as though a degree of critical distance is needed to see it. While the miniseries was produced in 2003, I was shocked to find out the first part of Kushner’s original two-part play premiered in San Francisco in 1991 at the height of the epidemic. As someone who has only come to learn about HIV to any serious degree in the past few years, Kushner’s ability to position AIDS so incisively in the cultural history of homosexuality—while it was taking place—seems almost clairvoyant.

Thinking about the play’s genesis, I wondered whether this said something specific about the AIDS epidemic: if it was a kind of singularity, sending ripples out in time from a central point. I can’t help but feel I am living somehow ’after’; that as a gay man, my time, the moment I am helping to create, is just the echo of something bigger.

Given the ubiquity of AIDS in the media throughout most of my early childhood, it seems unlikely I wasn’t aware of it. Most of my gay male friends were also born during the early days of the epidemic, and I wanted to know if they could recall anything further back than my Amsterdam memory.

They said if you mixed the spit of seven people it would make AIDS, and the seventh person would catch it.

My friend James told me kids at his primary school wouldn’t share food because they said if you mixed the spit of seven people it would make AIDS, and the seventh person would catch it.

James thinks it was the early nineties. He would have been around seven years old. The kids didn’t really know what the word meant, but it was clearly some nebulous kind of pathogen, the equivalent of “boy germs” or “girl germs”.

“It was a way to tease people, by saying they had AIDS,” James told me.

Another friend, Michael,1 had memories from primary school of teachers telling their students to watch out for needle-stick injuries. He said he became a hypochondriac for months afterwards, terrified of any contact with needles.

Dan told me about a conversation with his mum from some time in his teenage years, although he couldn’t pinpoint when. The two of them were talking about Dan’s dad—his parents had separated when he was quite young.

“My dad, who’s a virologist, had once said to her that he couldn’t respect a group of people that had brought such a disease or illness irresponsibly into the world,” Dan recalled.

“It totally framed my fear of coming out to my dad, because in his mind I would be in that category of ‘the irresponsible people’.”

After hearing my friends recount their own memories of HIV—or more specifically, of AIDS—I remembered reading the Morris Gleitzman novel Two Weeks with the Queen in either late-primary or early-secondary school. In the book a major character dies of an AIDS-related cancer. While it would have been around the time I started becoming aware of my gay identity, I can’t recall connecting the novel to my own experience in any way.

In each case AIDS is already present when the memory begins.

It’s worth noting that none of these are ‘origin stories’ per se. In each case AIDS is already present when the memory begins. I get the sense that for a lot of gay men my age, answering a question like that is like trying to remember the first time you heard a fairytale.

More than twenty years after Kushner wrote Angels in America, my attempts to characterise the present moment in gay history, how it might be remembered in fifty years’ time, immediately conjure up marriage. It has become the defining issue of the past ten years.

“This is a borrowed phrase … but I guess the last five or ten years I think have seen the galvanising of a shift in gay politics from respect to respectability,” James argued.

“In the eighties it was, ‘Fuck you, we’re here, bad luck’. Now it’s, ‘Please will you let us be like you’.”

He pointed to an example: the famous 2011 TV ad ‘It’s Time’ from Australian activist organisation GetUp!. Shot from a first-person camera perspective, the ad showed the progression of a romantic relationship between a man and his unseen partner, culminating in a marriage proposal and a reveal that his fiancé was another man. The ad was seen by millions around the world, flooding social media with near-universal praise from gay communities and supporters of the issue.

“There is nothing visibly gay about it. The ad is completely devoid of a reference to gay culture,” James said.

“It is selling homosexuality as heterosexuality, to heterosexuals. Not only was it accepted as OK, it was seen as the purest expression of pro-gay ideology that Australia has ever seen.”

The issue’s enormous cultural power means it seems inevitable that people will look back on this moment in gay culture as one defined by marriage equality.

My own feelings about the issue have shifted gradually from mixed to negative over years of reporting on it as a journalist for the queer press. While my personal view tends to reflect common criticisms of the institution—its patriarchal history, its religious connotations—in the past I’ve taken a ‘live and let live’ position: I may not want to get married, but I reject the institutional discrimination of a ban on gay marriage.

I’ve come to see the marriage equality movement in Australia as representing one side of a cultural war.

Recently I’ve adopted a more cynical perspective. I’ve come to see the marriage equality movement in Australia as representing one side of a cultural war: a gay culture steeped in transgression, resistance and sex under attack from wealthy gay men and lesbians seeking conformity and cultural erasure. Gains in symbolic gay rights feel inevitably concurrent with a loss of specific cultural identity.

That’s not to say I no longer support legislative change on the issue. I do. But to borrow a phrase from gay Australian activist and academic Dennis Altman, a gay discourse dominated by marriage risks a failure to get beyond “the idea that everything will be solved the day two women in matching white tuxedos can walk down the aisle together and get married”.

Despite my position, people in fifty years’ time would, in many ways, be right to say it defines the current moment. Even advocacy around other issues facing gay men is often framed in terms of opposition to the marriage equality movement. Michael argued the real shame would be if anyone looking back at the importance of the issue did so uncritically, perhaps by holding it up as some shining victory for civil rights.

“There are many other issues in the gay community,” he said.

“Racism, rejection of trans and gender fluidity, the idea of non-binaries just generally—gender binaries, sexuality binaries. We have a lot of issues regarding our acceptance of bi people in the community. We also have a lot of issues with the acceptance of poly relationships in the community.

“If these people are to feel accepted by anyone it should be us, even if we do not necessarily want those things for ourselves.”

That sense of living after, of the AIDS crisis as cultural singularity, makes it tempting to view the present moment entirely through the lens of nostalgia for another time. Seeing old photos of public demonstrations and community organising in the 1970s and ‘80s, I imagine a kind of antidote to my disillusionment with contemporary gay politics. I am increasingly sentimental for a time I have not directly experienced, which in turn feeds my frustration with the present. While I try to be critical of how that sentimentality colours my view, even most gay men who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic will acknowledge the role it played in uniting the community. The threat they faced was existential.

Gay Australian cultural scholar Dion Kagan identifies this nostalgia for a gay community united by AIDS and activism as part of a fundamental divide in contemporary gay culture. While the dominant ideology may be one that holds marriage and its promises as both a pinnacle of gay rights and an ending, there is a smaller group on the other side of that, looking to and perhaps reifying a very different moment in gay cultural history.

Some of my friends also compared a cynical now to a mythical then, imagining a time when, in the face of adversity, the struggle had more meaning. Perhaps because that divide between a past defined by AIDS and a present defined by marriage seems so stark, it can feel as though my relationship to that earlier time is purely abstract.

Some of my friends also compared a cynical now to a mythical then, imagining a time when, in the face of adversity, the struggle had more meaning.

And yet that horrible, paralysing terror I felt in Amsterdam the morning after was common to most of my sexual experiences throughout my early and mid 20s. The absolute certainty I had caught the virus followed almost every sexual encounter. I would delay my regular sexual health tests for months, avoiding what I thought to be my inevitable diagnosis. Until I began working as a journalist for a gay community newspaper a few years ago and started writing regularly about sexual health, I would only ever really think about HIV or AIDS in a sexual context.

“Any time sex is involved, HIV will come up,” Dan told me.

“Whether or not there’s a risk of contracting something, when the last time I was tested was, just those sorts of questions all run in my mind. But in general I don’t think about HIV very much at all.

“I don’t have very many friends at all who are HIV-positive, so I don’t really engage very much in that, and I’ve never really been confronted by it, or had to be engaged in that side of the gay community.”

I asked Dan if it was contradictory to say he rarely thought about HIV, even though he thought about it every time he had sex. He said he made some distinction between a sexual context and thinking about people living with HIV, but acknowledged the profound difference that straight men didn’t go into every sexual encounter thinking about it.

“They haven’t been trained with a fear of contracting something that will kill them,” he argued.

“It’s something I’ve always known. I can’t say when I first heard about it, but I have always known about the risks and dangers of HIV.”

Even taking medication every day has become normalised to the point where he no longer associates this behaviour with HIV.

Michael, who’s been living with HIV for a couple of years now, said sex was still one of the main situations in which he actively thought about the virus. Even taking medication every day has become normalised to the point where he no longer associates this behaviour with HIV.

A few friends told me oddly similar stories, half-remembered from childhood, of family social gatherings attended by sick strangers in wheelchairs. These men, perhaps friends of the family, only became recognisable as visible evidence of the epidemic with the knowledge of adulthood. My early HIV education has seemingly come from a process of osmosis entirely hidden from me, and these fragments of connection to actual lived experience are more than I have. Remembering Two Weeks with the Queen is merely to connect with a vague memory of a cultural representation of AIDS, not the reality many were living.

While HIV still has an enormous impact on the gay community in Australia (new infection rates have been gradually increasing over the past 15 years), 1996 is usually marked as the end of the worst period of the AIDS epidemic in wealthy countries. It’s the year effective anti-retroviral therapy became widely available, dramatically reducing the numbers of people facing hospitalisation and death from AIDS-related illnesses.

For gay men who became sexually active after that time, I wonder if the personal impact of the epidemic is harder to pin down. Discussions about HIV in the gay community now often lead to lines being drawn in the sand, separating those who did see their friends die all around them in the '80s and '90s from those who didn’t. The usual accusation is that those who didn’t live through that are complacent about sex, that we are contracting HIV because we aren’t scared enough to protect ourselves.

I asked Michael what he thought the psychological impact of the AIDS epidemic has been for gay men our age.

“Deep anxieties about sex,” he replied. “I feel like most guys, at least in our age range … unless we have actively worked on those anxieties, we’ve still retained them to some extent, in some form, and in some contexts.”

He and I had previously talked about a myth of complacency around HIV and sex, and Michael argued it was important to understand that what might look like complacency can actually be an understandable response to deep-seated fear. Perhaps we are too scared to protect ourselves, responding instead with a kind of cavalier denial, or we just give up, exhausted by the prospect of eternal vigilance. We hoped things might be changing, for gay men becoming sexually active now, in a time when the community is beginning to engage in widespread public health campaigns to combat HIV stigma.

Perhaps we are too scared to protect ourselves, responding instead with a kind of cavalier denial.

But for me, and for many of the gay men I know, we remain somewhere in between: too old to have grown up in a world where treatment has made living with the virus manageable and HIV stigma is taken seriously, but too young to have been able to confront the direct, widespread impact of AIDS.

“I think gay men our age are basically defined by an inability to confront the thing that scares us the most,” said James. “We have this thing that is incredibly formative, it structures us, but we are unable to face it.”

Sifting the ether for an appropriate metaphor, James settled on Frankenstein’s monster, left alone in physical and psychological agony after the death of the man who created him – an Oedipus denied the chance to kill his father.

When I put the Frankenstein image to Michael, he scoffed at my melodrama. Trying to defend myself, I argued that while it might be a little over the top, to me this idea went to the core of who I am. It felt existential.

“It doesn’t for me,” he replied bluntly.

“Maybe because I’m living with HIV.”

While I was swept up in my grand narrative, Michael cautioned me about the implications of those images, framing the generation who came before me as completely wiped out. Of course, many of those men are alive, and might not appreciate my line in the sand. The reality is, as always, more complex.

In avoiding HIV we construct a gay identity around avoiding the dangers of our own desire.

As a child of the eighties I was alive during most of it, and though I didn’t see my friends die during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, that history took root within me in ways I will never fully understand. James argued we as gay men understand HIV as the worst thing that can happen to us, but in avoiding HIV we construct a gay identity around avoiding the dangers of our own desire. To fear yourself, something very close to a fundamental self, has to eat away at the soul.

At the end of my conversation with Dan, sitting in the pub, he told me he thinks sometimes about what would happen if scientists developed a cure for HIV.

“How would I approach sex? Would I still have this fear of something that doesn’t exist any more, or would I get to experience some liberation?” he wondered.

“There’s part of me that’s afraid of the uncertainty that would come with a cure for HIV, because it would remove something that defines me. Even though it’s a horrible thing to define yourself by, it’s a part of me.”

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue. Get your copy now.

Benjamin Riley writes about queer stuff and works in gay men’s health.

1. Given the sensitivity of our conversations, I’ve used a pseudonym here.