The three gay characters from ABC’s Brothers and Sisters: (from left to right) Saul (Ron Rifkin), Scotty (Luke MacFarlane), and Kevin (Matthew Rhys).
Still from Alexandra Juhasz’s Video Remains.
Still from David Oscar Harvey’s Red Red Red. Photography by Ben Morton.
Still from Derek Jarman’s Blue.
We cannot seem to articulate or envision HIV without harkening back to its past and to previous incarnations of failing immune responses and mortality. Take, for example, an episode of a contemporary ABC family drama Brothers and Sisters. In the episode “The Road Ahead,” which aired in May 2009, Saul, a gay man in his sixties, discovers he is HIV-positive. With his hearing aid and crotchety demeanor, Saul is marked by the show as an “old-timer,” a demographic further underscored by way of contrast with the show’s other, more central gay characters, Kevin and Scotty. These characters are partners who are expecting a child by way of surrogacy and are situated comfortably within the younger and current generation of gay men.
When Saul is painfully grappling with his promiscuous past and trying to make sense of his diagnosis, he eventually blames his situation on a lack of role models. Brothers and Sisters then seemingly rights this wrong by instilling “positive images” of HIV negative men who are family minded and endorse normative values such as monogamy. Indeed, television today has no shortage of married or civilly unionized gay men dreaming of, expecting, or having babies. Modern Famiy and The New Normal, with titles that simultaneously function as warning and self-congratulation, are the most obvious examples. Taking a different perspective in her astute analysis of “The Road Home,” Melanie Kohnen praises Brothers & Sisters as something of a pleasant surprise—a network drama dealing with the now unfashionable topic of HIV/AIDS in the LGBT community, Yet, Kohen ultimately faults the show and identifies it as in concert
As Kohnen helped remind us, representations of HIV/AIDS within the gay community never enjoyed a gilded age wherein our image was recast in a great many of incarnations, in sickness and in health, across a field of identities, and always with respect. No, these representations, especially in the mainstream, acted as morality fables that depict gay men as suffering as a consequence of bad behavior.
My contention that there are no longer adequate representations of gay men and HIV/AIDS is perhaps paradoxical. For, if I am decrying the previous representations for their rampant moralism, lack of humanity and, penchant for exploitation, what issues can I possibly have when networks abandon these strategies? Those of us who were once social outcasts are now being offered a degree of screen time. Yet, perhaps even more than the particular identity construct of the homosexual, what’s displayed in his or her representation is the neoliberal logic of incorporation and, ultimately, assimilation. Such an appearance is largely motivated by a neoliberal project that maximizes its potential by imagining its reach in the most liberal of terms. Hence, homosexuals are trotted out, but with at least one condition: “No AIDS.”
Now and then
In summer 2010, Alexandra Juhasz published an article in Jump Cut. In it, she lays out a three-phase periodization of AIDS video work, a genre of texts that she both studied and produced. The first stage, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, marked the birth of the AIDS movement and its corresponding works of video activism. The second, occurring in the mid 1990s, was an ambivalent one. The works of videos and their creators achieved a degree of success, but the accolades were frustrated as AIDS continued killing the artists and their friends. Within the third stage, beginning in the late 1990s and arguably still holding court, AIDS related deaths have abated due to anti-retroviral treatments. Video work now concerned itself with remembrance and memoriam. Juhasz categorized the period “as a time for healing and history.”
From all I knew of AIDS, art, and activism, Juhasz’s summarization was dead-on. Still, it left me wanting. “Shouldn’t there be a fourth period,” I wondered. “One that concerns itself with the present dimensions of living with HIV?” So I went and asked Alex, who told me something I already knew quite intimately—that AIDS activism was dead, that there was no fourth stage, that these works did not exist, at least not in any number significant enough to found a category.
Coincidentally, at that very moment, I was finishing an experimental documentary, a video essay, on Iowa and HIV criminalization, Red Red Red. The majority of states within the U.S. possess laws specific to HIV and its potential transmission. Iowa, the state I then lived in and would until 2012, had the most strenuously worded of all these laws. While many of the states included punishing an intention to transmit the virus within their laws and most necessitated that the virus actually be transmitted, Iowa criminalized any sexual act in which an HIV positive person did not disclose their status. In other words, an HIV positive Iowan need not intend to transmit HIV, nor actually do so, to be deemed a felon
By focusing on the present of HIV/AIDS, my video belongs to a fourth stage of work that explores HIV in the 21st century. But Alex was right; a corpus of videos with which Red Red Red would belong, a fourth stage, did not yet exist. And so my video is also about that, about cultural apathy and about personal and representational poverty juxtaposed against nostalgia for previous era and its commanding presence.
Red Red Red gained titular inspiration from Derek Jarman’s last film Blue (1992), a sixty-two minute film that famously contains but one static image of a blue screen. Jarman’s bold choice bears in it many logics. For one, he was going blind and the film’s lack of representation, its absence of images, alludes to the despairing consequences of its creator’s malady. Second, the blue of the film is particularly the blue immortalized by the artist Ives Klein, an artist Jarman admired and hoped to make a film about. Understanding he would not make such a film, Jarman utilizes Blue as an occasion to pay Klein tribute. Finally, and most compellingly for me, the static blue of the film was made as a protest against a cultural warehouse of images that have manufactured AIDS as spectacle. With Blue, Jarman is adamant that he would represent AIDS differently. If AIDS connotes the red of ribbons, of distress, blood and emergency, he gives us blue and its accordant tranquility.
In 2010, I felt as I do now, that the cultural warehouse was vacant. I pined for a return to red and my film calls for it thrice, emphatically. Indeed, the circumstances around HIV criminalization are dire and the situation calls for a rancorous response. Such a response has yet to come and so the tone of the film, like AIDS is Different Now, is melancholic. Moreover, and unlike Ryan’s film, it is cross and bitchy. Though I am happy with my video, as I imagine a fourth stage of work representing HIV in connection with gay men but also otherwise, it is not the stuff of Red Red Red. What I imagine is articulated with less affective and polemical tenacity, less drama. It is quieter, simpler and more in the register of orange or even yellow.
Kind of a big deal
Earlier this year, a glimmer of the fourth stage caught my eye in the form of a public service announcement aired on Logo TV, a gay-themed cable network. Upon first viewing, the PSA nearly dumbfounded me. It seemed almost surreal. Foreign to me had been representations that confronted HIV and gay sexuality with a sober rationality and a comedic finesse that wore minimal traces of anxiety or doom. The PSA was one of six created by Jeff Twitty, the author of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q, and “starred” three of his characters from that production, all puppets. In a press release announcing the ads, Amy Wigler, a marketing executive at Logo TV, stated:
The first PSA is a one-minute scenario in which the puppets/characters Rod and Ricky are on their first date. Both men wished to escalate their encounter towards sex, but are unsure if the other feels similarly. Upon Ricky’s disclosure of his HIV status, Rod is relieved. He fears an admission of Ricky’s romantic disinterest as he attests to his own lack of hang-ups with HIV, though he understands many men have them. Meanwhile, to control HIV, Ricky has received anti-retroviral treatment, which with safer sex further decreases the chances of infecting others. Finally, Lucy the Slut encourages viewers to speak openly with sexual partners about HIV, before concluding, “spread the word, not the virus.”
Another lengthier episode, clocking in at two minutes, self-reflectively takes place on set as Ricky and Rod are filming the first episode. This second installment acknowledges that real life acts of disclosure are likely more complicated than the idealized version imagined in the first. Yet, having made such an acknowledgement by way of Ricky’s redoubled hesitancy to disclose, the second ad ultimately mimics, in Rod’s instantaneous acceptance, the logic of the first. Transmission of the virus is represented as preventable, while alternative logics are sidelined by a straight-forward embrace of facts: Safer sex and anti-retroviral treatment alone and especially in concert decidedly minimize risks of infection Furthermore, the reference to treatment represents HIV itself as a manageable condition.
The PSA’s slogan “HIV: Spread the Sign, Not the Virus” rallies viewers around not only issues of HIV transmission but also around dismanteling its stigma. Between the two terms, transmission and stigma, the slogan implies a causal relationship. In today’s climate, silence may no longer be death, but it does yield false impressions and misinformation. The ghost caught in throats of HIV-positive people can foster a disavowal of our status. Speech and representation are a recursive remedy for the silences of HIV. In speaking himself, for instance in the avowal, “I am HIV-positive,” the subject bears the very real risk of being misheard and framed by discourses that judge and greatly exaggerate. The tendency to falsify is apparent in the colloquial propensity to conflate HIV and AIDS. For many, these terms are used interchangeably, though AIDS stands in for HIV far more often than HIV does for AIDS. To have AIDS is to be sick. To have HIV is to be well, if under certain conditions. HIV and AIDS are vastly different and always have been, though perhaps especially today.
Spreading the sign of HIV freely, if absented of false notions and panicked affect, can curb infection. Should HIV positive people expect news of their disclosure to be received as Rod receives Ricky’s news, we would make such avowals far more often and freely. Once known, people can then make more informed decisions regarding risk and circumnavigating HIV infection. Stigma and fear also prohibit many people who have engaged in unsafe activity from getting tested. Should healthcare be an option for the newly HIV-positive person, they can commence treatment, which minimizes the chance of infecting others. Fear and stigma encourage infection. They stymie one’s self-identification as HIV-positive, just as they obstruct the creation of the safe spaces and candor needed to comfortably discuss HIV. While I could not agree that HIV/AIDS is “no big deal,” I am confident that today it is not quite as big of a deal as we so often make of it. Indeed, absenting it of dramatics, we can begin to better deal with HIV.
Though I believe in its logic, my recourse to prevention tactics is somewhat put upon. My longing for the fourth stage is not rooted in these terms. This is not to say that I wish for the proliferation of the virus; the case is quite the opposite. Yet what I desire more truly, perhaps in a primordial sense, is to regard an image that I, HIV-positive, finally identify with, recognize, and dance before with jubilation. I long for recognition as an experience, indeed as experiences available in numbers adequately significant to found a sort of collective: a fourth stage.
My dream is ever challenged by an awareness of something sentimental and quixotic about it, but it is threatened far more concretely in remembering Wendy Brown and her theorizations of identity. Brown posits identity as a defensive reaction against injury. We experience obstacles, criticism and difficulties in life deeply. Should these troubles result from something about us that others view negatively, this attribute is endowed with a special significance. Meanwhile, should the attribute be present in others, a community of those with that attribute may be built so as to cope more ably with the pains of difference. This, in the barest of terms, is how Brown imagines identity construction.
Before such a manner of thinking, the fourth stage seems unlikely. If identities commence through empathy and recognition of another’s plight as like that of one’s own, how might a demonstrable identity around an HIV-positive serostatus be instilled if such a diagnosis now entails less hardship than it had previously. I find myself in a rhetorical bind, perhaps even a paradox. In answer to this and in conclusion, I can offer little closure. Still, having HIV is far from easy. Its troubles with representation are but one of many. The depictions currently available most often look back at HIV/AIDS, duly bidding remembrance to incommensurable losses as well as significant victories. The era was difficult and widely injurious and so many are often compelled to speak of it. Lacking the dire stakes that motivated the organizations of yesterday, we may well remain silent. Indeed, engaging in a comparison between the eras, we may feel that we have little to complain about or express. Should we choose to look not only back but also ahead, we might usefully challenge such a sentiment.
Introduction: Ghost stories by David Oscar Harvey, Marty Fink, Alexandra Juhasz, Bishnu Gosh
Two ghost stories: disability activism and HIV/AIDS by Marty Fink
Acts of signification-survival by Alexandra Juhasz
What time is it here? by Bishnupriya Ghosh