“The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”
It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.
The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.
You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.
As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.
This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.
Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.
There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:
There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.
But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.
The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.
You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.
There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.
So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.
That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.
Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).
The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism. It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.