Talkin ’bout my generation; when generations hurt

Guest writer Chase Ledin explores whether AIDS is part of a shared queer history, or an unbridgeable divide between the generations


This year marks 37 years of viral crisis. In 1981, the virus was understood as a ‘rare, homosexual cancer’, soon to be revised to the acronym GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency disorder) and, later, to the more-complex HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). With the advent of the viral load test in 1996 and effective combination anti-retroviral therapies (cART) in the late-1990s, the virus came to be understood as a ‘liveable’ condition, if only because one surpassed death by the successful suppression of the virus. The understanding of the virus as a ‘liveable’ or ‘manageable’ condition implicated in the ability to outlast immunodeficiency has overcome previous apocalyptic interpretations of the virus. Now, it would seem that, far from the devastating history of the epidemic (seen within the timeframe of 1981-1995), the virus has taken to a cold-bath within society—gay communities or otherwise—reducing but sloshing around while we wait for a cure. As the recent PARTNER study has revealed, with effective treatment, modern medicine can effectively stop the transmission of HIV. The virus that once swept through the sexual communities and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of queer folk, no longer imparts its ‘death threat’ upon said communities. Because of this change in health—the ability to live with the virus and not die—the virus has been renegotiated as something here, something there, something here but not there, significantly within in the growing (mis)understanding that AIDS has come and gone, and, in its place, a ‘manageable’ HIV remains. It’s easy to point out instances where AIDS (in the Western world) has become a disease of the past. It’s easy to see why one generation might think that, indeed, because a person is seropositive, one need not concede one’s claim on life.

That AIDS—especially the syndrome—no longer informs our present claim over gay life, however, is a popular myth substantiated by a lack of comprehensive education about the virus. That AIDS, in particular, is swept under the rug as something experienced in the past only relegates the virus to an assuming (and often lacking) pit where seropositive men are regarded as reckless and irresponsible for sexual behaviour associated with epidemic times. The boggling notion that recent generations (generations suddenly compelled to ‘be free’ with the legalisation of gay marriage, gay adoption, and generally more positive representations in the media) can—and must—build new communities without the grief of AIDS only reveals how quick we are to move past sore subjects and undermine the complex histories and people who make up our queer communities.

Upon leaving the PrEP rally, I reflected upon this distancing of AIDS-related histories from the gay community. I wondered why HIV and AIDS have perpetually come under fire in the social history of our community. Perhaps more urgently, as an activist and community builder, I thought: what will become of our community if we honestly believe that HIV, now a manageable condition, has nothing consequently to teach us about our rich and uneven queer history? Will AIDS remain a history that we feel sour about, a history we perpetually warp and denounce? Why do we slough ourselves of the viral past and let go of those men now pigeonholed as the ‘older generation’? What is so wrong with our past that we must ignore those who lived through the epidemic and continue to teach us profound lessons in life and death? Are we encouraging a generational divide simply because we refuse to acknowledge that their hurt is also our hurt? Are we dividing our gay communities on the (false) assumption that we can make something better of the future once we let go of the past?

It’s easy to point out instances where AIDS (in the Western world) has become a disease of the past. It’s easy to see why one generation might think that, indeed, because a person is seropositive, one need not concede one’s claim on life.

A growing number of academic works have focused on how HIV and AIDS have impacted gay (and queer) communities. This body of work explores the complex ways in which communities, especially queer communities devastated by the virus, have changed emotionally. For instance, Walt Odets believed that the AIDS epidemic shattered the already-precarious psychological sphere of ‘gayness’. Gay men, and the ways in which they would come to interact—to make friends, lovers, and community—could never be the same in the wake of the epidemic. AIDS had changed the ‘negotiability’ of sexual encounter(s) and, more broadly, the ability to establish deep emotional connections with others.

In a similar sense, Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed believe that the epidemic obscured the ability to construct a clear time and place for queer ‘culture’ in the present. That ‘gayness’ became predicated upon the crux of a viral past—looking back at a time before the epidemic, unable to recuperate ‘the golden age of promiscuity’ and unable to finish mourning the hundreds of thousands lost to AIDS—opened up a chasm of emotional deprivation. That time for mourning, and the emotions that came from the epidemic’s toll, was quickly swept away by renewed fervour to progress and seize our gay rights (or, our place of acceptance within the mainstream). With the combination of increasingly gentrified queer spaces, the inability to effectively mourn the loss of an entire generation of gay men, and a precipitously conservative ‘gay agenda’, the time and place of HIV and AIDS, within gay communities especially, has been forcefully pushed out of the spotlight.

Threatened by a new generation that views AIDS not as a loss, but as history, community consciousness has split into us-versus-them ultimatum: one generation pitted against the other in a confusion of what progress entails. But ignoring the fact that progress cannot be immediately accomplished, we must question how this generational divide, indeed, the relationship between the generations, relates to our disinterest in talking about the social lives and histories of HIV. After all, this generational divide is all about one’s proximity to the epidemic. At the juncture of generations (that period in the mid-1990s when protease inhibitors and combination antiretrovirals were introduced), this tension about experiences—Did you have the same seroconversion illness(es) as I had?—reared its head. This juncture produced an anxiety about one’s relationship to the virus, distinguishing those who seroconverted during the early stages of the epidemic (1981-1994) from those who seroconverted in the epidemic’s later years (1994-1998) and beyond the time of the epidemic (1996-present).

It should come as no surprise that as we recede from the ‘time of AIDS’ (1981-1996), the greater the disparity, and the greater the feeling of abandon and hurt, between generations appears. As was the implicit feeling at the PrEP rally, when we talk about engaging our ‘gayness’ or ‘queerness’ in the present, we are necessarily implicated with hurt feelings. When Sarah Schulman says that the younger generation is unable to empathise or ‘imagine a more humane, truthful, and open way of life’, she means to say that a real emotional disparity exists and continues as a result of the epidemic. Forget about the place of our community within mainstream society: the progress of our feelings (our emotions, our community aura, if you will, shared amongst all who experience homosexual desire) are so disproportionate between generations, our ability to conceptualise and share similar emotions becomes a demanding, if seemingly impossible, task. The generational division that emerges from the epidemic has much to do with one’s proximity to epidemic times, but it also depends upon our willingness (both from the ‘younger’ and ‘older’ generation) to reconcile our emotions, even when they’re disparaging.

Threatened by a new generation that views AIDS not as a loss, but as history, community consciousness has split into us-versus-them ultimatum: one generation pitted against the other in a confusion of what progress entails

At base, the inability to effectively reconcile our emotions arises from the fact that the virus refuses to sit still: it mutates, it infects some and not others, it spreads across ‘at risk’ populations and ‘the public’ alike, and it fails to discriminate. The problem is that the virus is a distinctly ‘new’ virus: in a sense, a virus informed by thirty-five years of medical progress and a virus that is experienced by the younger generation as a ‘manageable condition’. This is in stark opposition to the hopeless time of inevitable death that characterized the age of epidemic. Much of the anger that fills the divide between generations is not only about the inability to reconcile emotions but even more about the very potential (in terms of health, lifestyle, and longevity) that this new viral state enables.

‘In the event of a cure,’ Odets once wrote, ‘the enemy [AIDS] will no longer seem indomitable, but petty and unworthy of those it took from us’. While we haven’t come up with a vaccine, we have come into a time of a ‘false cure’: which is to say, the new, liveable virus has drawn from the well of this anxiety, that all those lost to AIDS no longer need to be exemplified or remembered. The virus appears, in retrospect, questionable and outmoded, and those who fought so hard against a virus they knew so little about will come to be seen as nostalgic, melancholic, and, themselves, lost in history, simply because they feel the need to remember that loss, to remember what came before. The managed virus (‘the [false] cure’) has no history and has no need to remember bad feelings or conditions before it. The new virus has swept in to eradicate death—death, which proliferated a life of honest and respectful feelings, which required so much community involvement and care—and will sweep AIDS out from our shared history.

With that in mind, the stress placed upon generational differences is understandable (if understated). The growing gap of empathy is not of our own choosing, but of an inevitable and historical context. The generations cannot be blamed, per se, for their hurt or experiential differences. We can only be questioned based on our inability to come together and recognise the ways in which the virus has changed us: as individuals, as a community, as members of a shared history that hasn’t stopped and must not be eradicated. That we regularly slough the value of the virus’s history is the crisis that destroys our ability to be a cohesive (virally-impacted) community. We have turned from the fear of viral apartheid to the negation of community, under the assumption that because our health is manageable, we no longer need to learn from the virus in its past forms. Because of this, we have failed to mobilize our cross-generational differences. We have failed to synthesize our experiences based on the old and new forms of virality. Our disinterest in connecting the severity of AIDS in 1980s New York with the manageable HIV in 2010s London stands in the face of what community can enact today. It substantiates the divide that threatens to keep us apart.

We can only be questioned based on our inability to come together and recognise the ways in which the virus has changed us: as individuals, as a community, as members of a shared history that hasn’t stopped and must not be eradicated.

There is no one solution to reconcile the differences in emotion and hurt currently dividing our community and destroying our shared history. There is no one utopian time and place where our differences can come together in perfect harmony. As many activists have argued, fervent engagement with the powers that be (though important) is no longer the gel that brings us together as a community committed to change. We have changed a lot, and for the better. And we need to accept that we must build strong emotional communities based on what tools we now have. As much as this ambiguity feeds into the bad feelings that thread our disinterest in talking about the virus (in letting it back into our history so that we can make some meaning of how it will continue to inform our present and future), recuperating these emotions and reconciling the difference will re-new the well of hope that seems to be slowly (but surely) filling as we distance ourselves from the epidemic.

We must endeavour to make of history what it makes of us. We must engage our viral history. We must take it upon ourselves—as seropositive men, as seronegative women, as sero-unsure queers—to learn our history, which is not material laid to rest in textbooks and necessarily forgotten. The virus lives with us. We can make something of its queer (and viral) potential to imagine and build wildly different cultures based on our ability to be here and our ability to functionalise history, and ultimately our ability to propose and rearrange our communities based on the fact that we live, we live virally, we are all, in a sense, connected.

Community is built on the realization of our connectedness, a connectedness that is larger than anonymous encounters (though those are important, too); a connectedness that renews the pressure of human contact, through sex, through oral history, and making history by self-documenting the lives of all queers, of all ages. Undertaking this task, we will strengthen the sense of urgency that our lives—far from merely mediated, managed, and maintained by effective biomedical advancements—are part of a vast and intelligible network of queer bodies and pleasures and statuses. Our lives can be our own intelligible and communal histories when we see that the virus does not simply evaporate when a false ‘cure’ seeks to separate us. The virus is a part of us.

In short, I ask myself: Is the virus a means by which we can better understand our community connections? Or is the virus, in itself, a grave?

Follow Chase on Twitter (@chaseledin)