Over the last several months, I have been asked on several occasions by a variety of different reporters, from both the popular and academic press, “What was your goal in writing this book?”
The book to whom these reporters have been referring is my upcoming volume The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. And for me, asking about my purpose in writing this book always seems like an odd question, given its title. Isn't it clear what I was trying to accomplish? But, over time, I have come to realize that while this book has existed in some shape or form in my own mind for nearly a decade (and in my heart for some 30 years), this was clearly not the case for the reporters, who, after all, were simply doing their jobs.
When the Human Rights Campaign asked me to write this post, I grappled with what I would share — an excerpt from the book, some of the main ideas that I explore, a portion of one of the interviews of the 15 men whose words are the soul of the book, or perhaps the take-away message of the book? As I was preparing to write this blog, I also was reading with tear-filled eyes the beautiful words of David Levithan, in his new book Two Boys Kissing.
Like Levithan, who shares the story of a new generation of gay men coming of age 30 years after the first signs of AIDS in the United States, and who relies on the voices of men of my generation, The AIDS Generation acts as a chorus in the storytelling. I, too, sought to tap into the voice of my peers — those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. It is our stories that I share.
For us, at that time when we were emerging into young men, the future was bright. The promise of the Stonewall Rebellion, which set the gay rights movement on its course, was great, and slowly our love was being recognized. We began to be noticed, and the hope of loving openly and freely was all but assured. It is against this backdrop that we, the men of the AIDS generation, came of age. The future held great potential, when suddenly, unexpectedly, and ferociously a viral pathogen, which we would come eventually to know as HIV, derailed our lives physically, emotionally, and socially. All was hopeful and promising, until it was not. I know this because I am one of these men.
While there have been numerous accounts of our pain, our loss, our suffering over the last 30 years, many gay men of my generation have survived and continue to thrive. For some, including many behavioral researchers, it is all too easy to document our deficits. After years of being prodded and poked by doctors and nurses, after myriad studies describing our risk behaviors, it was time for someone to give voice to my generation in ways that reflected our power, our strength, our beauty, and our resilience.
This, then, is the underlying premise of my work — not only to demonstrate the incredible life stories of 15 diverse, complex, amazing men but also to glean from these stories the strategies for survival that these men — my peers, my brothers — enacted at a time of little hope, when it would have been all too easy to just stop trying to live.
I felt an obligation and urgency to write this book to help direct or redirect our conversation about a generation of gay men aging with HIV. And who better to do this than one of us? I have little patience for those who seek to describe the “problems” of my generation. To them I say, walk in my shoes first.
The word “resilience” also holds enormous power and meaning for me. Like the men of the AIDS generation, it is layered and complicated and not easily deciphered. As I try to demonstrate in this book, this phenomenon is not simply about continuing to live, although some recent research has used this superficial understanding, which is anathema to me and other psychologists. Rather, it is the deep-rooted intrapsychic underpinning born with us, developed through our environments, and enacted by the men of the AIDS Generation as we navigated the treacherous waters of the AIDS epidemic.
For many of us, it was a trait strengthened as we grappled with our sexual orientation decades ago — a grappling that still occurs in young gay men, despite some recent advances in policies and protections (like the overturning of DOMA, which I believe will improve the health of LGBT folks on every level).
Embedded in the ideas I have shared in this post are the reasons I have written my book, which I also describe in its preface:
The approach I have taken to writing this book is directed by two goals: (1) to add to the current academic knowledge and (2) to appeal to a larger audience that resides beyond the walls of academia. Furthermore, I sought to demonstrate the strength, courage, and resilience of my generation of gay men and to document our ability to survive a plague. It is my hope that this work will enhance the discourse about HIV and our efforts to defeat this epidemic. However, this book will have even greater impact if it empowers gay men, especially a new generation of gay men, both locally and globally, to be activists for their rights and their health. Finally, I also wrote this book lest the world forget the pain and suffering through which my generation of gay men lived.
Perry N. Halkitis is Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Health (Steinhardt School) and Population Health (Langone School of Medicine), Director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies, and Associate Dean (Global Institute of Public Health) at New York University. Dr. Halkitis’s research examines the intersection between the HIV epidemic, drug abuse, and mental health burden in LGBT populations, and he is one of the nation’s leading experts on substance use and HIV behavioral research.