Ripping off RL tragedy for your angstfest? For a start, get your dates right.

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?

20 thoughts on “Ripping off RL tragedy for your angstfest? For a start, get your dates right.

  1. I just want to post a picture of the fail whale for this.

    My rule of thumb for accuracy is that it should be at least Wikipedia-compliant. You’ll never satisfy experts in a field, but be good enough that a layperson can’t debunk you in a single step, ya know?

    • Maybe wordpress can come up with a fail-whale plugin. Or Goodreads! That would be awesome.
      I understand screwing up dates, I’m terrible at them myself. But yeah, something that a lot of people are bound to remember? Hell, stream Longtime Companion on Netflix. It’s not a great movie but it captures a lot about the time.

  2. This sounds like one of those stories that actually foments the very stereotypes it probably wanted to defy.

    The backlash against the gay community, especially the gay male community, at the height of the AIDS paranoia, was substantial, and much of it was fueled by ridiculous stereotypes about gay men — that they were by nature promiscuous, selfish, debauched, etc. And from what you’re saying here it sounds like the story actually reinforces those awful stereotypes, which, given the subject matter and the historical realities (which you detail so well, Sunita), is especially pernicious, IMO.

    • Yes! I was having trouble articulating that point, but it’s exactly right. It’s not just that the characters are behaving in unbelievable ways, they are way beyond that, acting in ways that reinforce the prejudices and paranoias people had about gay men and homosexual practices at the time. And because during those early years the information was so sketchy and unreliable, there weren’t good ways to refute them. The lethality was bad enough, but the context made it even more nightmarish.

    • Well Robin um I hate to point out that I became HIV+ because I was “promiscuous, selfish, debauched”. I fully admit to excelling in all those aspects when I was young.

      What amazes me is that folks use those problems that pretty much all young people deal with to some extent to justify witholding medical care and treatment or to promote some sort of vengeance from god deal into the debate. You see the same tactics used for abortion, teenage pregnancy and STD Treatment. Which is why Family Planning is under attack and being rigorously defunded in this country.

      All I am saying is that having well documented (gay suicides, gay bashing, etc etc) self destructive “issues” while living in a society that despises and hates you and constantly promotes legal discrimination against you at every turn is not surprising or really a “stereotype” so much as it’s an expected reality.

      It’s just yet another blaming the victim situation.

      • Yeah but that was your choice not necessarily your nature. :-)

        More seriously though, while being promiscuous increased one’s chance of getting HIV, some men who weren’t got it, and some men who were didn’t get it. So there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence. But as you say, it was a great excuse to withhold funds and treatment and to blame the victim.

        • Nah, I am still pretty selfish or self involved which is why I would never have kids or many pets to take care of. Which is simply true for a lot of gay men I know… So my thing is it’s not so much a “stereotype” as much as “we are fucked up” because what so many of us went through growing up gay was pretty much fucked up.

          What did you expect? Healthy normalized folks?

  3. I remember first hearing about AIDS in 1983. I knew members of the gay community who died in those early 80’s of AIDS related diseases. So I can imagine that in this story it could be possible that several of their friends had died by 1980. But they probably wouldn’t have known it was AIDS related.

    I did a who semester of an AIDS class and it was quite informative and intensive and I learned a lot about what went down during those years outside of what I personally knew about.

    I’m in agreement with you that a story about AIDS set in 1980 with it saying that it was an epidemic at that time is off.

    I remember that there was something about members of the gay community at that time pushing against the use of condoms, but I have to look it up why that was. But again, that would have been mid-late 80’s after it became more well known and how transmission actually occurred.

    There was and still are bug chasers. Those are people who want to become HIV+ to supposedly be part of the “special” community and or like the rush of sex with a possible death sentence attached. Although nowadays, HIV+ people are living long lives. I don’t know the percentage within the gay community who do this, but it does happen.

    I think though from what you say, these characters were just acting dumb. Not having that supposed “romanticized” notion of being HIV+ to commiserate with those in the community.

    I think if you write a book set in a time where many readers were around and lived through things, better to really get it straight. Especially if it includes a tragedy that predominantly hit a specific community and you’re trying to romanticize it.

    • What a great comment, thanks! Yes, I remember the anti-condom stuff too, but as you say, it was late 80s. And the whole risky-sex thing became an issue in the 1990s, as retroviral cocktails were more reliable. This is an interesting article with somewhat speculative theories for why gay men would push back on the 100% condom usage advice, and the role of promiscuity more generally in the culture.
      I think what set me off the most was the romanticization, that the narrator’s naivete about his immortality once his love was returned was a signification of the power of love, and that this would be true love even when they both died. The guy was 28 in the story. That’s old enough to want to shield your loved one from death, not romantically take him down with you, especially given how this particular disease worked.

  4. Thanks for quoting me, and even more thanks for this post. I was upset enough about historical inaccuracy; the rest of this just blows me away. Nothing says love like exposing your lover to a disease with a mortality rate of 100%.

    • You captured it perfectly in less than 140 characters (and again in your second sentence here). The author could learn a lot from you!

      I wonder if she thought that a blowjob wouldn’t be seen as dangerous, since retrospectively we know that it’s less commonly transmitted that way. But the point is that *they* wouldn’t have known that. Not only in reality, but within the context of the story, if they are talking about “the illness” in vague terms, the reader is led to believe that it is mysterious and not well understood. At least this reader was.

    • I tend to be more forgiving of historical inaccuracies, even about people, if they and those most connected to them are long dead. But it’s still a matter of respect. People do not exist in order to supply fodder for someone’s imagination.

  5. I’m still completely unwilling to regard a book set in the 80s as a historical. I regard anything set after World War I as something other than historical, either modern (or even vintage) or contemporary. I might even be persuaded to extend that to World War II. But 1980? No fucking way.

    • Exactly. Vintage is not historical. I say we invoke the antiques rule. But no matter what we pick, the 80s is not going to qualify. Argh.

  6. Excellent post and comments – I’m now extremely curious as to what exactly the author was thinking… and why the editor didn’t raise some of the same issues raised here. :(

  7. Apart from the complete wrongness of the author’s approach to the story – her approach is ahistoric I was thinking – treating the past as if it did not really exist except as it relates to her and her needs. So is this also about appropriation?

    • treating the past as if it did not really exist except as it relates to her and her needs,

      Yes, exactly. Appropriation in a nutshell. Beautifully put.

  8. Pingback: Historical authenticity and reader resistance | VacuousMinx

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