Essay | Lest We Forget: AIDS and Cultural Memory

Originally published in NoHeterOx, a radical queer zine published at the University of Oxford.

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© The Keith Haring Foundation

The first: fifty-five, hair-thinning, paunch-growing and skin slightly loose, no longer hugging bone or flesh but sagging under its weight. The second: nineteen, Jager-fuelled, vest snug against a body still tight, preparing himself to lose his shit when Drunk in Love comes on. The second can’t imagine himself the first, won’t imagine himself the first, and sure as fuck won’t approach the first. The first might approach the second, but his intentions will always and only ever be read as a come-on and often-though-not-always rebuffed. “Twinkhunter…” the second thinks, eye-rolls, downs the rest of his drink and glides off, leaving his future at the bar.

There’s nothing quite like the fear of a gay man confronted with age. In an increasingly aestheticized cisgay community, age is a horror and the aged are abject. When self-esteem, sexual capital and rigid ideas of the desirable body are inseparable, the loss of youth is the loss of power and the loss of self. If what you are is that twink, and what you define yourself against is that daddy, age presents a threat better ignored. We dismiss ageing queers, yet the histories they could offer us could open new possibilities for the queer present.

The fear of age isn’t harmful purely because of the anxieties and psychic pressures that it engenders – significant, widespread, and increasing as they are. Beyond dysmorphia, eating disorders, anxieties and self-loathing, the fear of age denies constructions of a queer past through the transmission of oral narratives, anecdotes and experiences. Fear of age and the exclusion of those older constitute a generational break that denies the reconstruction of queer histories by silencing the first-hand experiences that could facilitate broader cultural remembrance.

In response, three stages of action; reconnection with older queers through the creation and preservation of queer spaces; then, intergenerational interaction that does not shy away from even the darkest periods of our shared queer past and breaks the silence of HIV-AIDS in particular; finally, the creation and interrogation of queer cultural memory that will provide new possibilities both for our queer identities and our political action in the present.

© ACT UP Archives. A grove of the dead, killed by the early HIV medication AZT.
© ACT UP Archives. A grove of the dead, killed by the early HIV medication AZT.

Queerness is a curious state. It is one of the few ‘identities’ in which you are not born into your milieu, or variations thereof. As reproductive justice, adoption rights, and access to medically assisted pregnancy flounders across Europe, queer children (or children who will be queer) are rarely born into or brought up by queer families. The family, maybe the most crucial site of identity construction in nuclear Western systems, will almost always fail you as a queer person. Where you aren’t rejected, there will be gaps that Mother and Father won’t be able to fill as they might for an understanding of your class, your racial identity or your cisgender. If family gives you context – a history – then queerness removes it.

When the family doesn’t provide – can’t provide – queers turn to the media. Questions of representation (though often painted by conservative cishet communities as a narcissistic demand for reflection of the self) become crucial, maybe the unique ways of understanding your queerness. To the extent that identity formation is a conscious process, mass-market representations are no longer sources from which to draw elements of ones identity that come second to familial models, but become the primary – if not the only – sources from which identity forms.

When all the media offers is cis-gay white men picket-fenced and happily partnered, and when the media is the primary force for the construction of one’s queer identity, swathes of queers are unrepresented, and those who are find themselves routinely offered limited models which necessarily determine and limit their understanding of what their queerness might mean. When all we are shown is an unrepresentative present or idealised pasts, what it means to be queer is obfuscated.

Projects to reform the media and macro-cultural representations of queers are necessary, but our representation will always and necessarily be determined by how palatable they are to majority cishet audiences. We can wait for GLAAD, Stonewall and the HRC to act for us – an ‘us’ that is, in fact, less representative and comprehensive by the day – or we can act. Queers on the ground can act to create and preserve spaces – bars, reading groups, tea dances, anything – that invite the identities that mass media won’t provide us with, can show us the histories that nobody wants to hear.

© Leonard Fink.
© Leonard Fink.

Older gays have things to teach us, stories from Stonewall, the sexual liberation of the sixties and seventies, clandestine bars and severe state repression. But they also have much to teach us about something even more fundamental: survival.

The AIDS epidemic radically refigured queer identity, and our present cannot be fully understood without it. Its unique horrors provide unique lessons, and to lose the existential battle fought by older queers is to lose more than we can afford. We’re still getting infected, we’re still dying, and we’re still being pedalled drugs that can only be bought by the richest persons and nations.

To create a present with radical possibilities for self-understanding and liberation, from the disease and from oppression, a turn to the past is necessary.

© ACT UP
© ACT UP

The creation of intergenerational communities that might help us recover this past is thwarted not only by queer fears of ageing and the cult of youth, powerful though each factor is. Recovering histories and queer pasts from living storytellers is difficult, because thousands of our storytellers are absent.

Not absent like not in Plush; not absent like not in Oxford; absent like dead. Absent like ashes blowing somewhere remote when ‘contaminated’ queer bodies were refused burial; absent like sitting in urns as constant reminders of what the combination of disease and institutional prejudice can do; absent like forgotten, commemorated nowhere by families that rejected their queer offspring.

AIDS almost destroyed queer life at the first time that the possibility of significant, open, and enduring communities were forming. AIDS almost destroyed our possibility of a queer past.

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AIDS was not always AIDS; in the hospitals of New York as AIDS-related deaths began appearing in 1981 the as yet unnamed syndrome was informally known as WOGS: Wrath of God Syndrome. When, in that same year, medical conference sought an official name, the first decided upon was GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

If the first signals the institutional prejudice not simply in conservative communities and Reagan’s government but medical discourse at large, the latter symbolises that aetiology was rooted in identity, that is, that the cause of HIV-AIDS was who you are, not what you do. The gay body was rapidly conflated with the diseased body, and while GRID was renamed AIDS but months after, institutional prejudice founded on a moralising, homophobic obsession with aetiology set in motion the cultural forces that facilitated the deaths of over 300,000 people in the USA, and millions worldwide.

For four years, Reagan made no mention of AIDS. If ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) were proving that ‘Silence = Death’, American and European state apparatuses had blood on their hands unlikely ever to be washed off. Significant moves to raise awareness of AIDS only came in the US in 1985 with the AIDS-related death of Rock Hudson. Why? Because his supposed heterosexuality taught the population that they too, as law-abiding god-fearing heteros, might be infected. It takes a straight death to value a queer body.

Rock Hudson, the first test case of AIDS in the "straight" community, whose death functioned as a turning point in public awareness.
Rock Hudson, the first test case of AIDS in the “straight” community, whose death functioned as a turning point in public awareness.

Effective antiretroviral treatment wasn’t developed until 1997 with the combination therapy known as HAART (High Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy). In the intervening years, millions died globally, and queer communities were erased throughout the world at precisely the point when in certain nations they were coming into being. The Stonewall riots of 1969, while not necessarily the birth of queer activists as many historians would have it, did nevertheless represent a turning point, and the beginning of an age of community and sexual liberation amongst queers that had never previously existed. Queer communities were destroyed, and commemorative efforts from the AIDS Quilt to the archiving of ACT UP materials tried to commemorate queer loss on an unprecedented scale.

But with commemoration comes historicisation, and the AIDS crisis is little discussed, commercially unappealing, a vaguely remembered problem of the past whose relevance to contemporary queer life is seen as minimal. Yet AIDS necessitated enormous cultural and political resistance – and in many respects gave birth to Queer theory in the academy and beyond – whose lessons, whose histories and whose on-going threats pose existential threats to queer identity and queer people worldwide.

And yet all that remains, it appears, is silence.

© WIkimedia Commons vis The Atlantic. Weighing over 53 tons, cvering 1.3 million square feet and with over 50,000 panels, the AIDS quilt is a composite artefact of mass loss, stitching panels commemorating AIDS victims into a communal mourning project.
© WIkimedia Commons vis The Atlantic. Weighing over 53 tons, cvering 1.3 million square feet and with over 50,000 panels, the AIDS quilt is a composite artefact of mass loss, stitching panels commemorating AIDS victims into a communal mourning project.

Giving even the above potted history of the crisis is staggeringly incomplete, geographically, demographically, and theoretically, yet its purpose is to highlight but one of the crucial stories slipping from our grasp. Culture and even queer culture is forgetting, often deliberately, its past. One of the most serious cultural traumas of the late twentieth century is eerily ignored.

So, while neoconservative gay agendas have taken up marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as their raison d’etre, they have comprehensively ignored AIDS in the 21st Century, both the crisis as it now manifests itself, and the remembrance of the deadly era before HAART. Straight society wants to forget its crimes against us, and queers want to forget a traumatic past. But trauma is never forgotten, never resolved by ignoring, and our present will never be intelligible without a past, no matter how dark. This is a call to remember, and a mission statement for the radical power of memory.

In If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past, Christopher Reed and Christopher Castiglia take up precisely this call-to-arms in an incisive study of the crisis and cultural memory of it. Memory, they argue, is created and “produced from need.” That is, “singly or collectively, we remember what we need to know” and thus forget what we do not or do not wish to.

Memory being determined by the present has left us incomplete histories; our reconstruction of the past is tainted and blurred by a desire to turn away from the trauma of AIDS, and as such, we are losing a history that is crucial for the present. We are reaching a stage in which “The sexual past [has been] relentlessly reconfigured as a site of infectious irresponsibility rather than valued for generating and maintaining systems of cultural communication and care that provided the best – often the only – response to disease, backlash and death.” Queer worlds pre-AIDS are reported only as promiscuous hedonism; queer lives during AIDS are rarely reported at all.

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Queer history, paradoxical, afamilial, and almost impossible as it might be, can offer new possibilities for the queer present. Memory, the past, or our version of it, must begin to inform queer subjectivity and queer political practice: as Reed and Castiglia have it, “Unlike utopias, which cast their visions into a perpetually receding future, prone to dismissal on the grounds of implausibility, memories insist that what once was might be again.” Memory might allow us access to the radical worlds being built before the AIDS crisis struck, worlds that fought for liberation more comprehensive than we do today.

So let’s remember. Let’s remember the sexual liberation of the pre-AIDS world and understand how safe sex practices might facilitate its (refigured) revival. Let’s remember how the communities formed post-Stonewall supported each other, provided shelter for each other, and fought for each other as we no longer do. Let’s remember how AIDS provoked one of the most spectacular, comprehensive and intelligent resistance movements that modern history has seen, blending theory and practice, philosophy and praxis, as never before.

Let’s fight against the closure of organisations like Queers 4 Economic Justice who hark back to a more radical and liberationist aim. Let’s fight against the closure of important queer spaces like the Joiner’s Arms. Let’s fight against out fear of age and our blissful ignorance of our past, and let’s reconnect with those who might make remembrance possible.

Only then will we rediscover our histories, understand and refigure our identities and construct a meaningful political philosophy for the present and future. Maybe then, once more, we’ll act the fuck up.

Via Rolling Stone.
Via Rolling Stone.
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