Canonizing AIDS History: What Will We Learn?

As we now begin to canonize AIDS history, do we as gay men, HIV-positive and HIV-negative survivors and our younger brothers, have the fortitude to look back and understand that no single aspect of a group of people — like defining liberation in only sexual terms — can pass for its whole? 

BY Frank Pizzoli

March 31 2014 6:26 PM ET

A scene from the film Sex Positive

History should always trump nostalgia because “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Whoever first said these words — baseball icon Yogi Berra, French actress Simone Signoret, or New Yorker magazine writer Peter De Vries — they apply to the history of AIDS activism.

That said, I think each of us should be nostalgic for our own past because it’s our past, not because it’s more illuminating than the experiences of another era. Our past includes AIDS. When reflecting on AIDS history, we have an obligation to be honest about our conclusions without regard for political correctness.

Some shorthand is helpful when looking into our past.

First let’s acknowledge that the “told” history of AIDS in the U.S. is, so far, largely the history of gay, urban, white, middle-class men. It’s a statement of who had the resources during those horrible times to organize and apply pressure. Of course others were involved — women, minority activists — however, not many in leadership roles under the spotlight. There is an entire history yet to be told about the courageous roles played by men of color and the women of ACT UP.

A steady release of films has presented a partial, evolving perspective on AIDS history.

Gay Sex in the ’70s by Joe Lovett is about the obvious. How to Survive a Plague by David France is about white men taking up the mantle, for which we are all grateful. But it is not a complete history. Sex Positive, a film by Daryl Wein, about Richard Berkowitz, is a lucid delineation of New York City’s sexual revolution, mimicked in all major U.S. cities but, again, only about men. Sex in an Epidemic by Jean Carlomusto more fully covers various constituencies involved in ACT UP, for example, the courageous women, but we must tell more of their stories. Positively Naked, in which I participated, commemorates the 10th anniversary of Poz magazine and is a stunning visual portrayal by Spencer Tunick embracing most demographics affected by the virus. I have yet to screen United in Anger by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman.

Each of these fine films covers only a portion of what is still a foggy history that is slowly being pieced together by survivors. To say so does not diminish their importance. They are not a complete AIDS history, and acknowledging that isn’t politically incorrect. It’s the truth.

Next, let’s admit that in the telling of any story gay men love to parse more than they love to shop. AIDS history is no exception. We’re the captains of “yes, but what about” knee-jerk reactions.

Finally, good men do the best they can when tested by events while others are immobilized. It’s part of the human condition. That’s why I do not have an AIDS ennoblement theory. All we know for sure is that untreated HIV makes you sick, then you die. HIV doesn’t make you a hero. If you were a reasonably well-adjusted individual before infection, you are likely a reasonably well-adjusted person after infection. If you were a big a-hole SOB before infection, you are likely a big a-hole SOB after infection. Sure, some people have an “AIDS epiphany,” i.e., stop abusing drugs, stop selling their bodies for sex, stop beating their girlfriends or boyfriends, start being faithful to mental health counseling, get honest about their sexual habits and why. Some do not have that epiphany. Whether or not a person has an “AIDS epiphany” has to do with what the individual brings to and/or learns from the experience. It has nothing to do with the virus. The virus doesn’t care about its host.

When people say, “My life is better with AIDS,” what I think they mean is that their diagnosis brought them face-to-face with some ugly, negative realities of their life .In that case, getting into housing, removing themselves from all sorts of risk — violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse — was an improvement in their life. Their life is better. Not because they got infected, but because infection forced them into a corner in which they face reality and acted accordingly.

Me, well, I was 18 in 1969 (Stonewall) and moving forward didn’t miss a thing. Hit New York City as often as possible, had lots of freelance sex, failed miserably at relationships because I didn’t have a clue about what a relationship between two men was all about or could be like. We had no role models. Each of us does the best we can with what life hands us, and with what we hand ourselves by our decisions, whether informed, uninformed, stoic or silly. In the end, we are all worthy human beings who deserve respect.

At left: How to Survive a Plague

Still others use tragedies like AIDS to gain power through evil deeds, like Jerry Falwell, the religious right, then and now home to more closeted, self-hating gay homophobes than there are stars in their heaven. They are also part of the human condition. When I was a young man, a mentor told me the biggest homophobe is a gay homophobe. I didn’t understand then, but do now. Homophobia had a great deal to do with the spread of AIDS in the epidemic’s early years. Until recent years, and certainly before and immediately after Stonewall, the heterosexual dictatorship was in full control of the culture. Up against this oppression, gay men went underground and created an elaborate and efficient system of creating community, mostly a sexual community.

Post-Stonewall, we moved the underground labyrinth above ground and defiantly defined our liberation as sexual liberation. Since nothing happens in isolation, these twin forces — the sexual dictatorship and our response to it — created the perfect mechanisms for a public health storm. We did in closed and open spaces what our oppressors defined as a criminal act, a mental illness, or a sin. We fucked with pride.

For many, participation in the gay sexual revolution was the first time they felt connected and loved. For many, when AIDS first hit and activist groups formed all across the nation, many of those same gay men said the same thing — they finally felt connected to a community.

Tags: Stigma