I was skimming reviews in my RSS feed when I landed on one that described a story set in 1980 as a “historical.” Of course this made me feel old, and I sought sympathy from my Twitter buddies. But as I condensed my gripe into 140 characters, I noticed something else in the review. The story is described as an exploration of “the hurdles the two must overcome to find simple love and commitment at a time when the entire community is under attack from HIV.”
Really? Hello? The “entire community” is under attack from “HIV” in 1980 and everyone is frightened? Is this an alternative universe setting? I hope so, because ironically, this summer of 2011 is the 30th anniversary of the “discovery” of what later came to known as AIDS. The discovery and isolation of HIV took even longer.
There were 31 mysterious deaths reported in 1980, all with similar symptoms, but there was little or no public information about them. No one knew what was going on, medically speaking. A recent ABC News story described how on June 5, 1981, the CDC issued its first official notice:
At that time the disease was called pneumocystis pneumonia, a previously unknown infection identified in only five patients and discussed for the first time in a June 5, 1981, article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
On July 3, the NY Times ran its first story on the subject, calling the disease a form of cancer and using the early term, Kaposi’s Sarcoma. The first cases were clustered in New York and San Francisco. By the end of 1981 there had been hundreds of reported cases, but it took years (and Rock Hudson’s death) for the Reagan administration to acknowledge what was happening. It was a time of fear, uncertainty, and death. In the worst years of the pandemic, when thousands were diagnosed in the United States and there was no effective treatment,
“All of our patients died — 100 percent,” Dr. Carol Hamilton, a clinician with decades of experience treating HIV, told MedPage Today. She says she felt like a “midwife of death” in the early years.
All in all, not a time of hopefulness, especially given the power of the virus and the slow response of the US and many other governments. Of course, not everyone in the high-risk populations were infected, so there are plenty of romantic stories featuring gay men that can be set in the 1980s. This short story, however, is not one of those.
The (very) short story is more of a stream-of consciousness than a traditional narrative. But what story exists reaches a level of WTF-ery that I have rarely seen, and I read a lot of m/m. The basic premise is two men in their 20s sharing an apartment. Our narrator is in love with his roommate but doesn’t think his feelings are reciprocated. But then, it turns out they are. Happy ending? Hell no, and not just because the author leaves it open-ended. Let’s enumerate the reasons:
(1) The year is 1980. Not the height of the epidemic by any means, so it’s highly unlikely that Object of Affection Dude has lost 3 friends in 5 years, or that Narrator Dude is going the next day to a funeral for a college friend who has died from the same illness. But maybe the author and editor just failed to correct a date error. Let’s relocate the story to, say 1985 or 1986 (after the numbers of infected had increased but before AZT). Then the blurb can almost be correct in referring to this as the HIV epidemic (in fact, it took quite a while for most people to distinguish between HIV and full-blown AIDS).
(2) At the height of the epidemic, there was massive societal paranoia about contracting HIV/AIDS, and condom usage skyrocketed in both high- and low-risk groups. But our Love’s Young Dream couple have sex without a condom. Right after they commiserate on the awfulness of what is going on. That isn’t romantic or heroic. It’s stupider than dirt. And it’s completely unbelievable. Is this set in some magic window I missed while living through the actual epidemic, i.e., one in which everyone was dying but no one had started wearing condoms yet? Alternatively, if they are thrill-seeking bareback types, make that part of the story. Otherwise I have to assume the author doesn’t have a fucking clue.
(3) The Big Reveal at the end of the story is that Narrator Dude is also “ill.” Yes, Our Hero gave a blowjob to the man he loves without telling him that he was carrying the virus. But no worries, readers, because with love, he can live forever. He knows he can beat this thing. Even though at that point, people didn’t.
What. The. Fuck.
Can we count the dogpile of insults in this extremely short story?
(1) Using a massive human tragedy that happened in living people’s memory, merely as a setting to ramp up the angst factor.
(2) Getting basic facts about that tragedy wrong.
(3) Treating unsafe sex as unproblematic in the time in which it was most dangerous.
(4) And then suggesting that (selfish, thoughtless, possibly actionable) behavior can be equated to “love conquers all.” In a story which is supposedly set in the universe you and I live in.
As I said to a number of people after reading this, I’m not entirely sure why this particular story set off my anger-outrage meter when so many other examples of exploitation and appropriation don’t. The 1980s were a while ago, and there are a lot of readers today who aren’t old enough to remember what they were like for gay men and the people who cared about them. But there are a lot of us who are, for whom this is not history, but something we experienced. And if you’re going to write, edit, or publish a story that emphasizes the worst days of that era, don’t you have an obligation to treat it with respect?
I think Sonoma Lass said it best on Twitter:
Dealing w/other people’s pain calls for accuracy at the very least.
This story failed at that most basic level and at many others. MLR, what were you thinking?