The Responsibility of Memorialising Sex, the Dying and the Dead in HIV/AIDS Drama: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffman’s As Is

Chisomo Kalinga, King’s College London

Douglas Crimp argues that in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic there were essentially two standard mechanisms for artistic responses to the epidemic: raising money or producing creative work that ‘expresses the human suffering and loss’.1 The latter artistic response is a shift that David Roman identifies as ‘a strategic intervention in the battles surrounding the representations of gay male identity and AIDS’.2 The narratives of gay male authors in New York City depicted an era of open sexuality, starting from the period immediately after the 1969 Stonewall riots, where the doors for inclusion into American society opened to them for the first time. But that invitation appeared to be very short-lived with the inception of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The argument is presented in this article that the authors were divided on how to responsibly project the memory of promiscuous sex within gay relationships in an era of AIDS. The texts revealed a strong disconnect amongst writers in the New York community; there were those who believed that sexual representation of the gay community was essential in the wake of the epidemic, whilst others felt that continued support of this form of representation was promoting the death of the gay community. With the introduction of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, promiscuity, and depictions of libertine sexual activity, took centre stage in the debate about gay identity and representation. Whilst one camp of writers lamented the celebration of promiscuity in the wake of AIDS, others staunchly defended it, arguing that it was the foundation of gay identity in the age of liberation, following centuries of systematic abuse, cultural suppression, imprisonment and oppression of gay men at the behest of a heterosexual Christian American society. The onset of the epidemic marks the change in which AIDS appeared to redirect much of the topical direction of queer drama and literature produced at the time. Even though it is inaccurate to state that the entirety of the literature produced by gay men had completely transmuted to project the urgency of the AIDS epidemic, the celebration of sexual freedoms and libertine sexuality that Larry Kramer criticised in his novel, Faggots (1978), was now impossible to depict without acknowledging that the epidemic was spiralling out of control. Pre-AIDS novels such as Kramer’s Faggots and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) tackled the newfound responsibilities of artistically depicting the contemporary conditions of the gay community; additionally, the narratives seemed to be aware of the necessity of balancing self-representation while mitigating the consequences of misinterpretation from prospective audiences, particularly the newfound engagement with the heterosexual monolith. Kramer’s reflection on his foray into activism – both at a literary and grassroots level – provides an astute, emotional assessment on what inspired artists in the 1980s to respond to the epidemic through creative means: ‘No one involved in fighting AIDS does so without the constantly insistent, haunting, painful memories of too many friends who aren’t here anymore’.3

The reason for selecting plays as a medium for inquiry into the topic of representation reflects the reality that the earliest artistic depictions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged through theatre. The two plays considered in this article – Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) and William Hoffman’s As Is (1985) – are widely considered to be the first representations to emerge in response to the epidemic. The ideas, attitudes and concerns about the effects of representation will be assessed with a measure of interiority (within the gay community) and exteriority (the perception of these representations from outsiders, namely mass media and the general population). This construction respects the boundaries defined by sociologist Maurice Halbwach in which he recognised that within all groups of individuals there are two recognizable components: collective acts and representations.4 The concept of representation is best defined by Gabriele Griffin as ‘a cultural (re)production and imaging, and about the desire to create a presence, to achieve visibility and recognition, to participate […] in public debates.’5 Thus, the criticality and urgency to address the epidemic was largely heightened by the infancy of open gay identity as it pertained to its newfound visibility within the public sphere, which existed for just over a decade.

The era of gay narratives before AIDS

In the decades before 1969 in the United States, sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality was essentially restricted to the closet. Psychiatrists and medical professionals approached homosexuality as a disease that needed to be treated and cured until 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as a mental disorder.6  Additionally, the issue of illegality was also a factor in twenty-nine U.S. states, and the District of Columbia, which imposed criminal penalties on consenting adults who engaged in acts of sodomy.7 These laws were upheld in the 1986 Supreme Court ruling Bowers v. Hardwick (478 U.S. 186)and were eventually overturned as unconstitutional in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas (539 U.S. 558) ruling.8 Prior to the reversal of these medical and legislative restrictions, many gay men and lesbians in the country felt forced to lead “closeted” lives, conducting same-sex socialisation away from prying public eyes to avoid arrest, incarceration or institutionalisation. However, for gay New Yorkers, several continuous nights of civil disobedience at the Stonewall Inn prompted a movement to take place in public spheres.

While it is often reported that the Stonewall riots were the first act of defiance against police brutality towards gays in New York City, it was the continued momentum of activism set forth after the event, which allowed the demonstration to be reminisced as the quintessential marker of the gay rights movement. Armstrong and Crage observe that it achieved this by being ‘the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place where activists had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle – that is, where gay activists had adequate mnemonic capacity.’9 The Stonewall riots symbolised the commencement of an irreversible liberation movement – in both the literary and cultural capacity – and was able to attain momentary reprieve for citizens who had suffered under centuries of legislated tyranny. However, if history marked Stonewall as the beginning of gay liberation in the United States, then it also marked it as the emergence of a new, public queer identity movement in literature. Gay writers attained greater visibility and their works reflected a desire to contribute an individualistic interpretation of the experience of being gay in New York City. Catherine Davies argues – specifically in regards to writers of epic poetry in pursuit of Walt Whitman’s canon of queer poetics – that many of these writings ‘bear witness to a notable drive in American literature, if not in its legislation, to integrate same-sex desire into a vision of the nation.’10 In this vein, the discussion proposes that writers were not divided on the necessity of publicising their experiences via a literary platform, but rather the consequences of doing so.

As the AIDS epidemic was unfolding during the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, the elected Republican leader, did not mention the word, AIDS, once until 1987, when 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and 20,849 had already died.11 Despite the Reagan administration’s eerie silence on AIDS, the laws in place, protected by the First Amendment, allowed for the dissemination of information as run by grassroots efforts led by AIDS writers and activists.12 While the mainstream press in the United States provided coverage, ridden with negative metaphors fuelling the concerns of an already panicked population, alternative publications in New York City concentrated on publishing information for a targeted readership, particularly gay men who were seeking constructive discourse on how the disease was affecting the community. Paula Treichler presents a compelling argument that the social dimensions of the AIDS epidemic are ‘far more pervasive and central’ when taking account the historical trajectory of the disease in relation to the biological functionality.13 Therefore, returning to Douglas Crimp’s aforementioned assertion, the response to the epidemic via artistic means was largely derived to attack the pervasive homophobic narratives and advocate the inclusion of gay men and women into an unaccepting society.

On 3 July 1981, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published what is regarded as the first government documentation of the epidemic in the United States. This report contained the first descriptors of the nature of the disease but it was attention to the sexual orientation and narcotic habits of the patients that garnered national attention. That same day, both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times picked up on the MMWR report that an immune compromising disease with symptoms including Kaposi’s Sarcoma, Pneumocystis, and Toxoplasmosis was exclusive to gay men in metropolitan areas of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.14 A December 1981 article in the New England Journal of Medicine emphasised that the four patients at the centre of the study ‘presented a unique and unusual clinical syndrome’ and observed that ‘the fact that this illness was first observed in homosexuals is probably not due to coincidence.’15 These initial stories succeeded in driving the idea to the public that this new epidemic seemed to be a solely gay problem caused by a highly mobile and sexual group of individuals and did not pose a threat to heterosexuals in America. The sensationalist forms of representation that unfolded in the media allowed for deep seeded homophobia in America to surface to a visibly public sphere. The detrimental narratives emanating from the press combined with the absolute mortality of the disease and the devastatingly high percentage of gay men afflicted in New York City meant that the epidemic left an indelible impression on both the gay community and gay narratives.

  1. Douglas Crimp, ‘AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism’, in AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism, ed. by Douglas Crimp (Cambridge: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1988), pp. 3-16 (p. 3). []
  2. David Roman, ‘‘It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To!’: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Circulation of Camp in U.S. Theatre’, Theatre Journal, 44 (1992), 305-27 (p. 306). []
  3. Larry Kramer, Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. xiv. []
  4. Halbwach defined collective memory as ‘revolving about men in association about groups and their complex organization, gives the human consciousness access to all that has been achieved in the way of thought and feeling attitudes and mental dispositions in the diverse social groups in which it has its being.’ See Maurice Halbwach, ‘Individual Consciousness and the Collective Mind’, American Journal of Sociology, 44 (1939), 812-822 (p. 822); Paul Ricoeur describes this in simpler terms constructing it as a variation of ‘my memory of a given event’ versus ‘our memory of the same given event.’ See Paul Ricoeur, La Memoire, l’histoire, et I’oubli (Paris: L’Ordre Philosophique-Editions du Seuil, 2000), p.158. []
  5. Gabriele Griffin, Representations of HIV and AIDS: Visibility Blue/s (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2001), p. 4. []
  6. David R. Kessler M.D., Testimony to the American Psychiatric Association on Proposed Revision of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act Us House of Representatives (Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1982), pp. 1-2. []
  7. Ronald W. Hook, ‘The Constitutional Right of Privacy: Sodomy Laws’ ed. by Former MCLU Legal Counsel (Minneapolis: Minnesota Civil Liberties Union Foundation, 1981), pp. 1-13 (p. 2). []
  8. See Supreme Court of the United States Bowers v. Hardwick (No. 85-140) 760 F.2d 1202, reversed and Lawrence v. Texas (02-102) 539 U.S. 558 (2002) 41 S.W. 3d 349, reversed and remanded. []
  9.  Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Inn’, American Sociological Review, 71 (2006), 724-51 (p. 725). []
  10. Catherine Davies, Whitman’s Queer Children: America’s Homosexual Epics (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2012), p. 23. []
  11. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 596. []
  12. US Constitution Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. []
  13. Paula Treichler, ‘AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification’, in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS, ed. by? (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) pp. 11-41, p. 15. []
  14. Lawrence K. Altman, ‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals’, New York Times, 3 July, 1981, p. A20; Harry Nelson, ‘Second Deadly Ailment Linked to Homosexuals’, Los Angeles Times, 3 July 1981, p. A3. []
  15. Michael S. Gottlieb M.D., Robert Schroff, Ph.D., Howard M. Schanker, M.D., Joel D. Weisman, D.O., Peng Thim Fan, M.D., Robert A. Wolf, M.D., and Andrew Saxon, M.D., ‘Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia and Mucosal Candidiasis in Previously Healthy Homosexual Men — Evidence of a New Acquired Cellular Immunodeficiency’, The New England Journal of Medicine, 305 (1981), 1425-1431 (pp.1428, 1429). []

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