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December 04, 2003

Angels in America

Dear Friedrich --

The drumbeats for HBO's broadcast of "Angels in America" have gotten so loud that even I can hear them. Talk about Prestige and Importance: a two-parter! Pacino! Streep! Thompson! Come to worship, seems to be the surface message; you're a Bad Person if you don't show up, seems to be the subtext.

Count me as a Bad Person, then. I saw the play during its Broadway run, when it was being celebrated as the greatest thing in American theater since Tennessee Williams, if not Eugene O'Neill. I found it labored, exhausting, and bombastic, if in a featherweight kind of way. And, needless to say, a perfect and banal example of gay-PC groupthink. Perhaps if I were a true believer I'd have had the same swept-away, epic, ecstatic, quasi-religious experience many of the (mostly) men in the audience were having. But that's not my church, and I didn't.

The conventional-wisdom's rap on Tony Kushner's play? Cosmically fabulous, too bad about his weakness for bitchily amusing repartee. The Michael Blowhard rap on Tony Kushner's play? Amusing-enough bitchy repartee, too bad about all the cosmic overreaching.

Jeffrey Wright, on the other hand, was brilliant. (As he was in the movie "Basquiat." What a talent.)

I note this down ... well, why exactly? Oh: if anyone watches "Angels in America" and feels underwhelmed by the experience, I'm here to let you know that at least you aren't alone. Not totally, anyway. Despite what HBO would like us to think.



UPDATE: George Hunka does a much better job than I do of spelling out what makes Tony Kushner a lousy playwright, here.

UPDATE UPDATE: For an example of what the usual media take on "Angels in America" is, you could do worse than eyeball Nancy Franklin's New Yorker review of the telecast here. Franklin calls the play "a masterwork," and writes, "There is wide agreement, and no compelling counterargument, that Tony Kushner’s 'Angels in America' is the most important play of the last decade."

posted by Michael at December 4, 2003


All the hype about this movie has reminded me of something from the 80's that I (a mere child at the time) was never able to completly grasp: Ronald Reagan was looked upon as the Great Satan because he stood by and Did Nothing While The Epidemic Raged. (Apparently, though I don't intend to find out, this is one of the themes of AiA, as it was for the recent "Reagans" biopic). But I've always wondered: just what was he supposed to do? Was he the Great and Powerful Oz, who could have cured the disease with but a wave of his hand, and yet chose not to out of spite? What was he supposed to do?

Posted by: jimbo on December 4, 2003 11:00 PM

Nazi! Homophobe!

There, does that answer your question?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 4, 2003 11:29 PM

Well, realistically, he probably should have (or had his attorney general) raise the issue and open discussion and funding rather than acting like It Wasn't To Be Discussed. If it had been some virulent form of athlete's foot that affected football players I don't think there would have been as much official silence for so long.

However, opening up the discussion of it would have raised all kinds of issues, like why did gays fight the closing of the bath houses in San Fran so hard, when the wildly indiscriminate sex taking place there was truly Standing By While the Scourge Raged On. See...that's when you start to get into the Nazi-Homophobe accusations...rather than pointing to some of the real causes and prudent behaviors. Just like washing one's hands or not sneezing on the salad bar.

Posted by: annette on December 4, 2003 11:37 PM

Ooops---I mean surgeon general.

Posted by: annette on December 4, 2003 11:42 PM

On the flipside, I remember there was talk at the time of treating it like an outbreak, an epidemic, which means total isolation, etc. But that didn't happen either - as it would have for many other such things. Perhaps the fact that such a thing didn't happen, which might have had some consequences none of us would have wanted, is a good thing. ?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 5, 2003 12:57 AM

The flap about the Reagan biopic made me go back to my copy of "And the Band Played On" and actually try to find examples of Reagan evil. There seem to be two main issues:

(1) Toxic shock syndrome and Legionnaire's disease had received gung-ho, cost-no-object research projects; so why not AIDS? (A year or so after things started to heat up, AIDs research funding per death was around one quarter of the money put into research on Legionnaire's disease. Of course, the total number of deaths was also higher.)

(2) The Reagan administration, as you recall during the early 1980s, was seeking to limit government expenditures, that being an essential part of the campaign platform that got him elected. This resulted in the administration recommending less money for bureaucracies like NIH and the CDC, particularly for the CDC. (Interestingly, although I think the CDC budget was cut some, the NIH budget cuts were not passed by Congress.)

I guess the gay community didn't get the kind of Manhattan project (at least not immediately) that they wanted for AIDS, but they did get a lot more funding than many diseases, like prostate cancer, that were killing off far more people in the early years of the epidemic. So....does the outrage of Tony Kushner represent gigantic special pleading?

Small fact I noticed in the book: once an AIDS test was developed, one scientist went back and checked blood samples that had been taken from the San Francisco gay community in the 1970s and 1980 (before anyone knew of the disease.) By 1980, a quarter of the samples were positive for HIV. So, bluntly, given the obviously intractable nature of the disease relative to current medical technology, a whole lot of people were going down whether Reagan leaped in with massive funding or refused to spend a dime.

As Yamdallah points out above, the gay community had to political muscle to avoid the imposition of the only method that would have halted the AIDs epidemic: universal testing and quarantine. (They also managed to defeat even milder measures that would have helped, like partner tracing and notification.) While the avoidance of the normal activities of our public health programs may have made for a more relaxed social atmosphere during the 1980s, it has also unquestionably resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men, drug users, etc.) And they also managed to use the epidemic to seriously advance the cause of gay civil rights. So who was actually the cynical politico playing on public sentiment: Reagan or the gay lobby?

I've not seen "Angels in America" but I feel confident in predicting that these issues are not addressed.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 9:51 AM

However, opening up the discussion of it would have raised all kinds of issues, like why did gays fight the closing of the bath houses in San Fran so hard, when the wildly indiscriminate sex taking place there was truly Standing By While the Scourge Raged On.

You folks need a history lesson.

In the early days of AIDS (back when it was called "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" or GRID), most Gay people didn't know how the disease was spread. They thought it came from poppers, or other illegal drugs. Grassroots organizations within the Gay community -- most notably Gay Men's Health Crisis -- were the first (and for several years, the only) attempts to educate Gay men about transmission and prevention.

These same grassroots organizations also worked to close the bathhouses, though their efforts caused tremendous debate within Gay communities. Only thirteen years earlier, Gay bars were subject to arbitrary police raids; Gays and Lesbians were routinely blackmailed, imprisoned, or killed for their sexual orientation. Many Gay men believed that closing the bathhouses would bring back those bad old days of sexual repression. To be fair, their fears of an anti-homosexual backlash were well founded; AIDS fueled a brief but furious resurgence of anti-Gay sentiment from both the Left and the Right.

By "de-Gaying" this disease, and focusing on "innocent victims" such as the heterosexual recipients of blood transfusions, these organizations managed at last to get the federal government's attention. Only toward the end of Reagan's presidency did we see our government respond to AIDS as a truly public health threat, with education and prevention as major goals. (But even today, Gays and Lesbians must rely on the old grassroots networks for basic AIDS outreach and prevention.)

Annette: Had Larry Kramer not worked with Gay Men's Health Crisis to close bathhouses in New York City and San Francisco, they might still be open for business. (Note: Today's San Francisco does have a few "sex clubs" which opened in the '90s, but they're incredibly tame compared to the bathhouses and back rooms in the '70s. Plus, these clubs work with AIDS educators to offer "harm reduction strategies" for their clientele.) Likewise, had Gay health organizations not worked to educate their communities, as well as treat those living with AIDS, the disease would have been far more devastating than it was (and is).

Friedrich: Gays and Lesbians responded to AIDS with an astonishing wave of public-spirited action. We fluffed pillows, rocked screaming patients to sleep, gave our time to educate each other, and offered our money and bodies to fund treatments and cures. We did -- and are doing -- far more than our government has done, and that's probably as it should be. It's hard to call those efforts cynical (and how much charity work do you do?). But alas, we didn't have a magic bullet either.

It wasn't just the Gay community that opposed quarantines and mandatory partner tracing, though we did our part. Currently, the only way to find out if a person has HIV is through voluntary testing. If there are major disincentives to such testing -- like quarantines and partner tracing -- then people at risk for HIV don't get tested, and the disease spreads even faster. Of course, quarantines and mandatory partner tracing would work if HIV testing were not voluntary -- that is, if the federal government required HIV tests for everyone in the US, and repeated those tests every six months. Now Friedrich, would you want that level of bureaucratic interference in your own life? Most people don't, regardless of sexual orientation.

Michael: You're not a Nazi, and you're not a homophobe. You happen to be extremely heterosexist, but I'll tolerate you anyway.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 5, 2003 11:49 AM

I suppose this is an unwise question of me to float, but what the heck: I wonder how much backed-up resentment of the gay-PC world there is in the country generally because of AIDS. Any thoughts here? I suspect there may be quite a lot.

All due respect to the awfulness of the disease, etc., of course. And all due respect to the good work of many people who helped get the word out about AIDS, etc. But there was a radical element among AIDS activists who were 1) quick to use the word "epidemic," (deservedly so), and 2) quick to prevent all discussion of treating the epidemic as an epidemic. I got so fascinated by this that I looked into AIDS some. Learned a couple of things.

*One is that HIV is actually very difficult to transmit. It isn't like the flu or a cold, that can be passed along via sneezing or casual contact. Something quite extreme has to occur for it to propagate itself, something like blood-to-blood contact. And for it to make it out into a large population and thrive there, a lot of extreme behavior has to be going on.

* Another is that the reason the more radical gay-activist crowd smothered all talk of, say, quarantine was that they were so touchy about what they picture as sexual liberation. Believe it or not, they saw this as a question of civil liberties. They'd just established the "right," as they pictured it, to screw around profligately, and they don't want to give that up. What they wanted was, in crude terms, a vaccine that'll protect them against HIV so that they can get back to exercising their civil liberty to be wildly promiscuous.

* Many people don't seem to realize this (I certainly didn't), but HIV will tend to die out as a problem once rates of transmission get below a certain point. In other words, not all transmission has to end before the virus itself will run out of gas. Tragic for the final victims, of course.

* Because of this, the fact is that the only thing that's needed to stop AIDS in a country like ours (Africa's another question) is to get rates of transmission down below a certain level. At that point it'll just kind of whither away as a problem. May medical miracles be achieved, of course. But we actually don't need any medical miracles to be achieved in order to stop AIDS. The only thing that's needed to is to get rates of transmission down below a certain level.

* Which means, as far as I could tell, that the only thing that keeps AIDS a horrendous and major public-health problem in this country is the fact that some infected homosexuals continue to have unprotected anal sex. Drug users sharing needles is a big part of the problem too, of course.

* Which makes you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, given that AIDS is a consequence of foolhardy (and easily-stopped) behavior, why don't all the AIDS activists (if only out of self-protection and loyalty to fellow gays) spend ten times as much energy on getting gays to stop having unprotected anal sex as they do trying to get increased government funding? Like I say, they could stop the disease very quickly that way.

* But they won't and don't. Larry Kramer, who (in his wildman way) tried to get other gays to knock off the unprotected anal sex, got castigated and turned into an outcast for making the case. Yet he was, in simple medical terms, absolutely right. He was an early hero in terms of getting out the word. But he came to be seen as a crackpot, at least by the radical AIDS crowd. Yet, like I say, he was and is right.

* Really, seriously: AIDS would stop being a huge problem in this country in a relatively short time if homosexuals would simply stop having unprotected anal sex. Simple as that.

So, I find myself marveling: wow, it seems that the "freedom" to have lots of foolhardy, promiscuous sex is so important to some radical gays that they're willing to let thousands of people die, and to demand tons and tons of financial and other resources from the rest of society. Talk about a bizarre set of priorities.

My sense is that many people know or sense that this is all true, and while having lots of sympathy for victims and being properly horrified by the disease, are probably quietly furious at the radical gay-AIDS-activist set because of it. Like I say, as far as I could tell, if you could get gays to stop having unprotected anal sex the disease will run its course and stop being a problem. So why isn't that happening? And why aren't all the gay activists doing their best to make other gays stop having unprotected anal sex? How you decide to get off is a conscious choice, after all.

So I wonder if tons of mainstream Americans quietly seethe, thinking, Lordy, if they'd just knock off the really stupid behavior, thousands of lives would be spared and zillions of dollars and man-hours would be freed up.

What's your sense about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2003 12:19 PM

"In the early days of AIDS (back when it was called "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" or GRID), most Gay people didn't know how the disease was spread. They thought it came from poppers, or other illegal drugs."

Why was it called Gay Related Immune Deficiency if people actually thought it came from drugs? And not, say, sex? Why would it then be gay related or straight related? Seems odd.

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2003 12:29 PM

But back to "Angels in America" -- if anyone watches, please let me know how you respond to it. Like I say, I thought the play was surprisingly lame, especially given its pretences and what the press made of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2003 12:33 PM

Annette: To answer your question, it was called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency because all of the early reported cases were gay. However, they were also all heavy drug users. Poppers are consumed almost exclusively by homosexuals, so if they were the cause (and they have, in fact, been linked persuasively to Kaposi's sarcoma, one of AIDS's most virulent manifestations), the disease could be as "gay-related," statistically, as it would be if it were sexually transmitted.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on December 5, 2003 2:30 PM

Question: Everything you read about "Angels in America" describes its villain, attorney-fixer Roy Cohn, as "closeted." But, did the people he dealt with really not suspect he was gay?

In reality, Cohn's obvious homosexuality played a key role in the downfall of his one-time boss, Senator Joe McCarthy.

Cohn spoke with the classic "gay lissssp," the "super-sibilant S sound" that leads a sizable fraction of gay men to drag out S sounds. (Gays don't "lithp" more than anybody else does, but gay choruses constantly struggle with the tendency of many of their members to "lisssp").

Here's an account from the book "Gay and Lesbian History"

"In April 1953, Cohn and Schine [an attractive young heir whom Cohn had hired] set off for Europe, ostensibly to investigate U.S.-run libraries to make sure that no left-wing literature was hiding out on their shelves. The trip was a fiasco that turned up nothing, infuriated virtually every American embassy in Western Europe, and turned the two investigators into laughing-stocks. (In one incident, Schine supposedly chased Cohn through a hotel lobby, swatting him over the head with a magazine.) Upon their arrival at a particular hotel, Cohn and Schine would ask for adjoining rooms but insist on separate accommodations, explaining, “You see, we don’t work for the State Department!” The joke seems to have been primarily for the benefit of a retinue of journalists who recorded their every move; hotel reservations clerks in Rome or Vienna were unlikely to have heard very much about accusations that the U.S. State Department was a haven for homosexuals. ...

But Cohn and McCarthy soon received their comeuppance. Two months after Cohn and Schine returned from their European junket, David Schine received his draft notice. Cohn tried unsuccessfully to persuade the army to exempt Schine; when this failed, he pressured the army to grant Private Schine a commission and to assign him to some sort of duty with McCarthy’s committee. McCarthy, perhaps reluctantly, went along with him. The army resisted. Military officials released a blistering report accusing McCarthy and Cohn of trying to blackmail them with threats of anti-Communist probes unless the army gave preferential treatment to Private Schine. For their part, McCarthy and Cohn claimed the army was trying to blackmail them, using Schine as a “hostage” to pressure the committee to turn a blind eye to accusations of communism in the armed forces. The result of all this was the Senate investigation of the charges and counter-charges—known as the Army-McCarthy hearings—an investigation that would discredit McCarthy and Cohn forever. “It was Cohn’s loyalty to Schine and McCarthy’s to Cohn that led to decline and eventual fall,” notes Rovere. Was it Cohn’s loyalty to Schine that caused him to overreach? Or was it love? Infatuation? Or just blind rage and determination to assert his power over the U.S. Army? Roy Cohn was a complicated man.

The Army-McCarthy hearings of the spring of 1954 were on of the most extraordinary events in modern American history, largely because they were televised. The hearings ran for thirty-five days; twenty million Americans were estimated to have watched them. For the first time, the new medium of television brought political spectacle into American living rooms, and it gripped the nation. The hearings also featured some nasty gay-baiting, primarily aimed at Roy Cohn.

The gay-baiting began outside the hearing room when Senator Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican and foe of McCarthy, demanded in a speech on the Senate floor that the hearing get to the “real heart” of the matter. To Flanders that meant the “mystery concerning the personal relationships of the army private, the staff assistant, and the senator. There is a relationship of the staff assistant to the senator. There is a relationship of the staff assistant to the army private. It is natural that he should wish to retain the services of an able collaborator, but he seems to have an almost passionate anxiety to retain him. Why? And then there is the senator himself. Does the staff assistant have some hold on the senator? . . . . Does the committee plan to investigate the real issues at stake?”

Members of the committee were also interested in this “almost passionate anxiety” to retain Private Schine. Here was the scene in the hearing room when Roy Cohn took the witness stand:

SEN. JOHN McCLELLAN (D-Arkansas): First, I will ask you if you have any special interest in Mr. Schine?

ROY COHN: I don’t know what you mean by “special interest.” He is a friend of mine.

McCLELLAN: I mean in friendship or anything else which would bind you to him closer than to the ordinary friend.

COHN: Nothing. He is one of a number of very good friends whom I have. I am fortunate to have a large number.

McClellan’s attempt to pin down Cohn proved unsuccessful, but the subject of Cohn’s sexual proclivities soon emerged in another way that was far more damaging. This occurred when the hearings became transfixed by the celebrated case of a cropped photo. The photograph in question, introduced into evidence by the McCarthy side, pictured Private G. David Schine posing with Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens at an air force base. The purpose of producing the photograph was to show the secretary being friendly and considerate to Private Schine, demonstrating that there had been no attempt on McCarthy or Cohn’s part to blackmail the army. But the following day, Joseph Welch, the genteel, bow-tied Boston lawyer who represented the army, produced an enlargement of the same photo, which showed Stevens and Schine but also included Air Force Colonel Jack T. Bradley, to say nothing of the sleeve of yet another individual. The photo had been “altered, shamefully cut down,” in order to give a deceptive impression of chumminess, insisted an outraged Welch, proof that McCarthy and Cohn could not be trusted. After a series of denials by McCarthy aides as to who was responsible for the cropping, Welch faced down James N. Juliana, a former FBI agent who worked for McCarthy:

WELCH: I find myself so puzzled to know why you just did not take a photostat of the picture that was delivered to you that afternoon and hand it over to Mr. [Ray] Jenkins [counsel for the committee]. Would you tell us how come you did not do this?

JULIANA: I just mentioned or just stated that I was under instructions to furnish a picture of only the two individuals.

WELCH: And who gave you these instructions?

JULIANA: Jenkins and—or Cohn.

WELCH: Did you think this came from a pixie? Where did you think that this picture I hold in my hand came from?

JULIANA: I have no idea.

McCARTHY (interrupting): Will counsel for my benefit define—I think he might well be an expert on it—what a pixie is?

WELCH: Yes, I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?

The hearing room broke up in laughter. McCarthy forced a smile. Cohn tried his best to hide any expression at all. Cohn later called Welch’s parry “malicious,” “wicked,” and “indecent.” But he had been humiliated.

In the end, the Republican and Democratic committee members offered differing reports on the hearings. But McCarthy and Cohn had seemed embattled throughout and thoroughly outclassed by Welch. For the first time, senators had openly denounced McCarthy. McCarthy still retained intact at least some of his ability to inspire fear in his enemies, but Cohn had clearly outlived his usefulness. Part of his undoing had been his bullying tactics toward the army, but more than that, he had been an easy target for the kind of gay-baiting he himself practiced. He resigned his subcommittee post and returned to New York to practice law.

On December 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate voted by a vote of sixty-seven to twenty-two to censure Senator McCarthy. Two years later he was dead.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 5, 2003 3:35 PM

Mr. Hulsey:

Of course, quarantines and mandatory partner tracing would work if HIV testing were not voluntary -- that is, if the federal government required HIV tests for everyone in the US, and repeated those tests every six months. Now Friedrich, would you want that level of bureaucratic interference in your own life? Most people don't, regardless of sexual orientation.

My grandparents were quarantined coming into the U.S. at Ellis Island. It was not, as I recall, voluntary. Public health is not really a civil rights issue--avoiding treatment of a fatal, incurable infectious disease would seem to me perfectly analogous to the freedom to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. To my great relief, since I've been in an exclusive relationship throughout most of the AIDS era, this hasn't personally affected me (although it's a small worry in the back of my head for my children) but if it had, I would be furious with politicians who hadn't had the gumption to do what was necessary to deal with such a preventable problem. I do not understand the gay community's willingness to throw away tens of thousands of their own people's lives in this way--and, let's be blunt, that is exactly the outcome that has resulted.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 4:10 PM

P.S. --I am and remain a complete supporter of the civil rights of gay people; I just don't see avoiding standard public health responses as a rational way to support those rights.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 4:12 PM

Michael writes:

I suppose this is an unwise question of me to float, but what the heck: I wonder how much backed-up resentment of the gay-PC world there is in the country generally because of AIDS. Any thoughts here? I suspect there may be quite a lot.

Well, the resentment existed long before AIDS, and should AIDS ever be eliminated from the earth, the resentment will most likely continue. I offer your own post as evidence of the point.

First, you use the term "gay-PC world." I think you're referring to a specific activist segment of Gay communities, but in this context it's difficult to say. Certainly the backlash against Gay communities has not been limited to one element or another: The Supreme Court's Bowers v. Hardwick decision in '86 used the public health concerns of AIDS to justify anti-sodomy laws, which adversely affected all Gays and Lesbians.

You also presume that AIDS would cease to be a problem in America "if homosexuals would simply stop having unprotected anal sex." So you should be pleased to know that most self-identified homosexual men have stopped having unsafe sex. The story you read about "bug-chasers" in Rolling Stone was fabricated; most others are grossly inflated.

Lesbians, of course, are at a much smaller risk for AIDS, even though they're no less homosexual than I am. They can have as much unprotected anal sex as they want, though it's my impression they don't enjoy it as much as men do.

Of course, not all men who have unprotected sex with men identify as homosexual. Some identify as Bisexual, and quite a few consider themselves every bit as heterosexual as you, Michael. The main problem with these people is getting them to volunteer for HIV testing. Still, even these guys aren't transmitting the disease at the rates they used to. In short, if men who have sex with men were the problem, AIDS cases would indeed be dwindling in America. (That doesn't necessarily mean the number of reported AIDS cases would be dwindling; improved testing methods mean that more AIDS cases are recognized and diagnosed before the symptoms appear.)

The largest new constituency for AIDS has been people of color -- and in particular, urban Black women. Intravenous drug use has led to the spread of AIDS among several low-income groups (alas, rural figures aren't available, because grassroots AIDS organizations simply don't exist in many of these areas). The most cost-effective way to contain AIDS within these high-risk group is through needle-exchange programs, yet these efforts, where proposed, have been deemed anathema to the drug war.

Yes, there's quite a bit of resentment toward Gay communities over the continuance of AIDS. That's why you guys need a history lesson, and maybe even a little education in current events. It's one thing to float an "unwise" question, quite another to float an ignorant one.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 5, 2003 4:27 PM

I do not understand the gay community's willingness to throw away tens of thousands of their own people's lives in this way--and, let's be blunt, that is exactly the outcome that has resulted.

Don't be too sure of that.

By your reasoning, Communist Cuba should be free of AIDS by now. Castro has been quick to impose mandatory quarantines on people with AIDS, and though the details are murky, he seems to have imposed mandatory public health measures against the spread of AIDS. The iron heel of the Almighty State works wonders: AIDS is now a much larger problem in Cuba than it is in the United States.

Friedrich, since you seem eager to propose public health measures against other people, tell me this: Would you approve of such measures if you figured they would be used against yourself? Well, we didn't think much of the idea, either. We didn't want jackbooted government troops raiding our neighborhoods, chaperoning our assemblies, and generally taking over our lives.

Your namesake is surely spinning in his grave. Or did Hayek think repressive big-government solutions were preferable to limited government and individual responsibility?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 5, 2003 4:53 PM

Tim -- I think you may be scrambling several of my points.

* First, I'm asking whether there's much backed-up resentment toward gay-PC-activists and the way they've tackled AIDS. Your response doesn't address that -- you head off instead into, as far as I can tell, the question of whether some people are anti-gay and pissed about AIDS. Please do me the favor of not mixing me up with them. I may have missed a poll somewhere, but I do work in the media, and I'm not aware that anyone has ever looked into the question of what mainstream America thinks of the way the AIDS-activist crowd has dealt with AIDS. If you've got an answer to that question, I'm interested. If you think it's unwise of me for some reason to ask the question, fair enough. But surely the question is no slur on gays generally, which you seem to semi-take it as.

* As to the question of whether the AIDS crisis would end if gays simply stopped having unprotected anal sex: well, as of about eight years ago, when I researched the topic in books and articles and also talked with doctors, the answer was yes. Perhaps the balance of how the virus is being transmitted has changed drastically since then; beats me, and I'm interested in learning more.

But, as Larry Kramer and others have argued, there's no question that there would be no AIDS crisis today if early on gays had focused much, much more (and much more effectively) on stopping unprotected anal sex than they did. The reason the radical activisists didn't do this was because they didn't want to give up what they felt was their "right" to have lots of promiscuous sex.

I'm not making this up, by the way. Doctors told me (off the record, from fear of being maligned by the radical gays) that AIDS in America might well have been stopped had the stupid behavior simply stopped. And radical gay activists, who I also talked to, were quite articulate about how and why they chose to approach the problem as they did.

The key thing is this: Once the rate of transmission of a virus gets below a certain level, the disease dwindles and eventually vanishes, or at least goes back into hiding -- a simple infectious-disease fact, apparently. And not a secret fact either. Which makes me (and not just me alone) wonder: so, why wasn't the gay-activist crowd doing their best to help get the rate of transmission down below that level? And doing it as soon as possible? They might well have played a big role in saving thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and much heartache.

Incidentally, you did note how careful I was to use the term "radical gay activists" and not "gays generally," didn't you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2003 4:56 PM

Tim's first comment:

"Of course, quarantines and mandatory partner tracing would work if HIV testing were not voluntary -- that is, if the federal government required HIV tests for everyone in the US, and repeated those tests every six months."

Tim's second comment:

"Castro has been quick to impose mandatory quarantines on people with AIDS, and though the details are murky, he seems to have imposed mandatory public health measures against the spread of AIDS. The iron heel of the Almighty State works wonders: AIDS is now a much larger problem in Cuba than it is in the United States."

I'm seem to have sorta contradicted yourself. Initially you said it would work but would be a violation of personal rights, and then you said it wouldn't work anyway.

I don't know if it would work---perhaps Cuba is an important warning.

But shifting gears in the middle of the argument always kinda makes me seem a little unwilling to acknowledge that the gay community could have done anything differently. Suggesting that it could have does not seem intrinsically anti-gay to me (although I'm not gay). But I am Italian-American...I don't bristle if someone suggests the Mafia might not have been the best choice.

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2003 5:16 PM

dear michael,
i have yet to see 'angels in america' so i can't comment on it, but my friend mick from l.a. offers this amusing tidbit:

I when to an amazing screening of the HBO film of "Angels In America". Mike Nichols, the director gave a little speech before the screening and had one of the all time great quotes about show biz. He attributed it to David Mamet. "Film making is a collaborative art..... bend over"

i thought blowhard fans might enjoy it.
william sauer

Posted by: william sauer on December 5, 2003 5:47 PM

AIDS is surely an epidemic in Africa, but it has never been one in America. It is so far down the list of causes of death in this country that of course it didn't get the kind of financial mobilization some would have wanted in the US in the 80's.

Don't close the bath-houses, don't stop doing poppers, keep having unprotected sex...the cost-benefit calculation just didn't add up for the rest of the country.

And there is the political dimension too. Reagan was mostly silent to prevent a whole big heaping political mess in his Party. He worked in Hollywood for so long, he knew gays weren't evil, or much different at all from anyone else.

But the right-wing of the GOP that ushered him into office were not so kind. From accounts of those who knew him quite well, he knew it would be his political death to come out very stongly on either side of the 'what to do about AIDS' divide.

If he had pushed for a big public research expenditure his first term, he would have been toart in 1984. And we'd still have a Soviet Union to deal with (if you doubt that, go read "The Strategy of Technology").

Sorry, defense of the entire nation via getting the Soviets to collapse in an arms race they couldn't win won out over any personal feelings he may have had about those suffering from voluntarily actions. Sounds like a statesman's calculation for the greater good to me.

Would you be less pissed at this analysis, Tim, had I told you at the start of the message that I'm an open bisexual?

Posted by: David Mercer on December 5, 2003 6:08 PM

Annette -- I think you of Italian descent can relax. I'm a hetero white mostly-Anglo male, and I think we're still responsible for everything wrong in the world, aren't we?

William -- That's hilarious, thanks. And it's a story that should be repeated at the opening of every film-studies class. It'd help the kids get real.

Mercer -- You are a wildman.

Just to forstall -- or try to -- too much antagonism ... I think it's fair to say that everyone here is sympathetic to AIDS victims and would like to see the epidemic, er, plague, er, whatever stopped cold. The only question that seems to me to be up in the air, at least in this comment thread, is whether the approach the radical activists took early on in dealing with the situation was the best one. I think decent people can disagree about this.

I do understand why they took the tack they did, excessively politically-motivated though I think it was, and tragic though I think the consequences have been. But it didn't achieve what still needs achieving, which is to bring the rate of transmission down below the disease's tipping point. Emphasizing condom use didn't work, at least not well enough. Scaring heteros didn't work, at least not well enough. So perhaps a different approach might have been a better one.

If anyone wants to read a good, down to earth, book about HIV/AIDS that bypasses the politics and goes straight for the medical facts, I suggest trying Gabriel Rotello's "Sexual Ecology" (buyable here). There's a good interview with him here. He got roasted, drawn and quartered by the radical-gay set for the book, by the way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2003 7:20 PM


I'll admit my first posting was a muddle when it came to the subject of governmental intervention. The basic point of that first post is that, despite what Michael has said, you can't blame AIDS on homosexual men anymore -- or at least, you can't do it if you stick to the few facts we have. Alarmist (and often falsified) reports aside, AIDS is clearly dwindling among Gay men. But it's increasing in other segments of the population.

The second post to Friedrich gets much closer to my convictions in terms of what government can and can't do. You'll notice that it is more consistent with principles of limited-government conservatism. Frankly, the more I thought about AIDS education and prevention, the more I suspected that, pace Michael and Friedrich, mandatory quarantines and testing would be far less effective than the voluntary system we have now. Cuba is a particularly good example of how state coercion can backfire when it comes to treating STDs.


Would you be less pissed at this analysis, Tim, had I told you at the start of the message that I'm an open bisexual?

Nope. Fortunately (for me), I'm not at all pissed. In fact, I'd say your analysis is the most charitable way to explain Reagan's reluctance to address AIDS during his first term, as well as most of his second.

For my part, I don't much care whether Reagan was a good person or not. Instead, I'd claim that federal inaction proved a blessing in disguise for many Gay communities, since it compelled us to stand up and provide services for ourselves through locally-oriented, grassroots AIDS organizations. Blame Gay activists for the spread of AIDS, or praise them for trying to deal with it -- the fact is, these folks were trying to do something about this disease when no one else would help them.

The downside is that rural areas have never had this infrastructure. There, men who have sex with men don't receive much in the way of AIDS education, and they don't have access to HIV support groups should they contract the disease. (They're also reluctant to get tested for HIV, or admit that they have AIDS after they start to show symptoms. So clients of rural AIDS organizations tend to be at death's door by the time they apply for assistance.)


I think I took some pains to note that you tried to indict a segment of GLBT communities, rather than all of us. But I also noted that your distinction wasn't clear (perhaps because you didn't mention any alternatives). My quote: "I think you're referring to a specific activist segment of Gay communities, but in this context it's difficult to say."

Certainly the backlash against "gay-PC" activists has not been confined to them; rather, it's directed against all Gays and Lesbians, whether we're activist or not. You could conduct a poll of mainstream America on Gay activists and AIDS, but I think you'll find that most Americans don't bother to make the distinction you're trying (not very successfully) to make. (In all fairness, your later posts strike me as more nuanced and thoughtful than your earlier ones, which are just plain offensive.)

Had you known of the intense internal debates that occurred over this issue, you might have been less inclined to blame AIDS on a monolithic group of left-leaning Gay activists. True, some activists wanted to keep the bathhouses open, but other activists (Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts et al.) wanted to close them down. Both sides were firmly entrenched in what you would call the "gay-PC world," but I'm sure you know which bunch won. Frankly, if it weren't for those "gay-PC" activists, the bathhouses might still be open.

Mind you, I'm not convinced that closing down the bathhouses was a good idea. (You can probably guess why: It has to do with standard arguments against prohibitionism.) Still, that's a matter for another time.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 6, 2003 12:22 AM


I think your embrace of limited government arguments in the face of an infectious, deadly and incurable disease to be beyond libertarian. (It's sort of equivalent to saying that you can't violate the civil rights of an invading army by shooting at it.) I also find your apparent defense (on the grounds of civil liberties) of behavior that continued to spread an infectious, deadly and incurable disease mystifying.

If we were talking about a dangerous infectious disease that wasn't particularly identified with the gay community, I don't believe you would be taking the same tack. Are you seriously suggesting that people with T.B. should face no legal consequences or controls on their behavior if they run around spitting in other peoples' faces? Really, if a terrorist attack were to spread, say, epidemics of smallpox or plague, would you maintain that quarantine is simply unthinkable on civil liberties grounds--and the heck with how many thousands it might save? I think you need to check your logic; it appears to be being swayed by emotion here, big time.

And as to your other comment: do you seriously think Friedrich Hayek would have objected to legally limited coercive measures designed to protect public health? I mean, get real, man.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 6, 2003 12:48 AM

I be happy to have the govt. doing lots of HIV vaccine funding, too much of the dollars in my opinion go towards things other than HIV vaccine research.

Vaccines are the kind of public health measure that govt. should get involved in, as it's up against a collective action problem (who wants to fund vaccines? much more profitable to fund ongoing therapies, rather than not have sick people in the first place. Just no money in it).

Rock Hudson announcing he had AIDS in 1985 is what eventually broke Reagan down, and got him to boost funding. Second terms is when Presidents tend to do politically risky things, since their horse is no longer in the race, and he'd known Hudson for decades. At that point it was personal, and he could afford to burn political capital on the issue.

Posted by: David Mercer on December 6, 2003 12:53 AM

Tim -- I don't know why you're so determined to pretend that I haven't been clear about who I'm talking about. Direct quote from "offensive" early comment: "All due respect to the awfulness of the disease, etc., of course. And all due respect to the good work of many people who helped get the word out about AIDS, etc. But there was a radical element ..." I don't know how I could have been clearer than that.

I also don't know why you're continuing to conflate some people's resentment of gays generally (which certainly exists and is a relatively known quantity) with what mainstream people might or might not think about the work of radical AIDS activists. Separate questions, as you're certainly aware but for some reason don't care to admit. Your "misunderstandings" here seem more than a bit willful, but I'll let 'em pass.

By the way, for a straight guy, I'm pretty familiar with inside-gaydom debates about how to approach AIDS. I've had tons of gay friends and acquaintances for the last 25 years, and I've done a fair amount of journalistic looking-into the subject. I've read a number of books on the subject and have talked to AIDS doctors and AIDS activists. Interviewed Mathilde Krim once and Larry Kramer twice, for instance.

And as far as I could tell, something that seldom got discussed (except in private, where many of my gay friends expressed disgust with the radical activists even while admiring them, as I do, for their p-r work in scaring up attention and funding) was the possibility of aggressively, unrelentingly haranguing the gay world from Day One about the suicidal and murderous stupidity of combining promiscuity and anal sex, let alone ever, ever indulging in unprotected anal sex. There was a radical element in the AIDS-activist set that did not (for a whole variety of mainly-political reasons) want that done, and who succeeded in making sure it didn't get done. I don't know what kind of phase Larry Kramer is in now, but when I talked to him he was absolutely livid with these people, whom he saw as responsible for causing lots of gay deaths. (By the way, a recent quote from Kramer, plucked from the Web: "It's heartbreaking to see infections on the rise again in the gay world when people know better now," he said. "It's like a slap in the face to everyone who died. We didn't fight like hell to get you the medicine so that you could go out and get infected.")

All I'm suggesting is that the approach that was settled on instead -- scaring straight society, yakking a lot about condoms -- may not have been the wisest one. It's been very effective in some ways (generating awareness, funding and research, for instance), but not effective enough in terms of reducing rates of HIV transmission. I'm a little out of date, but figures I saw in the late '90s indicated that gay transmission rates, almost 20 years in, still hadn't gone beneath the tipping point.

As I say, if you can get that transmission rate beneath the tipping point, the epidemic will eventually run its course and cease being a problem. Why hasn't there been more of a focus on that key figure, the rate-of-transmission tipping-point figure? Why aren't people as aware of the concept of an infectious disease's tipping point as they are of, say, passing-out-condoms campaigns?

I suppose it's arguable, but the fact that transmission rates hadn't yet (as of the late '90s) gone below HIV's tipping point seems to me to represent a policy failure on someone's part. And so I've wondered out loud about what mainstream America thinks these days about how the radical AIDS activists handled the early days of the epidemic. Perhaps they think the radicals did a great job; perhaps they hate 'em. I don't know, and you don't either. No harm in wondering about it, though, is there?

Have you read the Rotello, by the way? It struck me as one of the most sensible and interesting of the AIDS books I looked at. And, big surprise, it wound up getting much attacked by the radicals ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2003 1:26 AM

Here's the issue that some people (including Micheal) seem to be tiptoeing around: how much responsiblity do gays have for loosing AIDS on the world? As far as I can remember (and I'm eager to be corrected if I'm wrong), there is a fair amount of evidence that HIV in some form or another has been around for quite awhile. The fact that it is so difficult to transmit prevented it from ever causing more than a few unexplained deaths. But the advent of "gay liberation" in the 70s transformed gay sex from a few furtive encounters to the open, many-partners-a-night scene of the bathhouses: a perfect transmission mechanism that the virus had never had before.

Once it achieved critical mass, it had the opportunity to cross over to other populations - populations that were "innocent bystanders", as it were. Gay AIDS activists continually portray themselves as the victims of societie's prejudice and/or neglect, but how many non-gays would have been infected if they hadn't opened Pandora's box?

Posted by: jimbo on December 6, 2003 10:06 AM

After jimbo's last point, I feel the need to say: How many of them would have been that promiscuous if gay marriage had been allowed?

Not as many from what I can tell...

Posted by: David Mercer on December 6, 2003 1:40 PM

WHAT? I gotta blow the whistle on that one. I never once heard a gay or straight person EVER blame a lifestyle and priorities choice like promiscuity on whether or not they could get a piece of paper!! Should we begin to trot out a list of the married straight people who have hardly felt constrained in that regard by a marriage certificate, or the number of unmarried straight people who do not make that choice? That sounds like the ultimate childish response: I can't get traditionally married so what am I to do? I know---I'll fuck eight people in one night! No other choice! C'monnnnn.

But it certainly does seem to bear out FvB's point that people do seem to use this issue as a lever in the gay civil rights cause, and rather cynically at that.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2003 2:48 PM

Michael writes:

There was a radical element in the AIDS-activist set that did not (for a whole variety of mainly-political reasons) want that done, and who succeeded in making sure it didn't get done.

On this point you're mistaken: It did get done, and radical Gay activists like Kramer, Fleming, and Wojnarowicz were among the people who did it. In part that's because Kramer and Wojnarowicz were among the most obnoxious of AIDS demonstrators. The confrontational left-wing spectacles from ACT UP -- those "die-ins," for example -- were largely their idea.

Now you may think that ACT UP took the right tack, but people outside our GLBT communities hate Kramer even more than they hate Petrellis or other wild-eyed radicals.

It's also true that Kramer criticizes Gay men in precisely the terms that many Straight people -- yourself included, Michael -- seem eager to hear: Gay men are irresponsible, stupid, self-absorbed, promiscuous and so forth. (That he got more of this info about the Gay scene on hearsay doesn't necessarily mitigate the potency of his criticism.) But he's also leveled some criticisms at heterosexuals that you seem less eager to credit -- in particular, that Straight people, as well as the government they control, are perfectly happy to watch Gay men die, and that Straight people place more value on half a dozen heterosexuals more than thousands of Gay men.

For my part, I think Kramer's wrong on both counts. But if you're going to endorse him on the one point, Michael, you'd best hear him out on the other.

Friedrich writes:

I think your embrace of limited government arguments in the face of an infectious, deadly and incurable disease to be beyond libertarian. (It's sort of equivalent to saying that you can't violate the civil rights of an invading army by shooting at it.)

Far from it, as you of all people should know. If a deadly virus could be spread through a sneeze, or through using a drinking fountain, then it might justify the sort of response you describe (though even there I might have some qualms). A recent meningitis outbreak among Gay men in Chicago was contained using the public health measures you've described, with the result that a disease with the potential to kill millions only managed to kill three people.

But HIV can't be spread like meningitis, or smallpox, or the common cold. It's pretty tough to get, and it takes quite a long time to show up in the bloodstream. If a quarantine were in place, a government would have to impose it on any person suspected to have the virus -- which would probably include all self-identified Gay men -- for three to six months before they could reliably determine whether these people indeed have HIV.

When it comes to HIV transmission, sexual activity -- homo- or hetero-, oral or anal -- isn't the only way you can get it. In fact, it isn't even the primary way anymore. Intravenous drug users are the new problem group now, and given the state of America's ongoing Drug War, there may not be much Americans can do to keep AIDS from spreading among them.

Sex, drugs -- the only thing missing is rock 'n' roll. But in most cases, these methods of transmission involve a certain level of individual choice. Your namesake, Friedrich, will tell that governments ought not to direct individuals' choices; that way lies serfdom.

Harm-reduction strategies, including safe sex education and needle exchange programs, are proven to reduce HIV transmission. In America, we've learned that private, locally oriented charities can do this job pretty well, as long as governments don't get in their way. (Alas, sodomy laws and drug wars ensured that governments would interfere.) But as the hard-hit countries of sub-Saharan Africa have learned, governments don't provide harm-reduction services or treatment very well.

Maybe AIDS is a special case in the history of public health. You have to admit that most deadly diseases have shorter incubation periods, and that true plagues are usually much easier to spread. In a way, AIDS is more analogous to lung cancer -- it's often the result of purposeful action and individual choice, and it's very difficult to transmit to others.

I'm not sure what we can do about lung cancer, other than spread the message that cigarettes can cause it and that if you choose to smoke, you'd better know what you're getting into. But quarantining smokers and banning all cigarettes won't help, and would constitute a major infraction of individual rights -- or would you support these measures, Friedrich?

The same for AIDS, then: Gay-funded and -led organizations can educate people about AIDS, provide harm-reduction strategies, and make sure that condoms and clean needles are widely available for those who choose. We know that this approach works, because the number of AIDS infections is going down in America, while it's increasing in much of the rest of the world (including many Western European countries -- France, for example).

Gay men may have "loosed" AIDS (though the virus didn't seem to need our help elsewhere in the world). But in America, Gays have crafted an effective, community-based response to the disease -- the only one to date that has been proven to work. Frankly, Straights here owe GLBT people big time for containing AIDS before it really got out of hand (cf. South Africa). Heterosexual men and women should thank Gay people for what we've accomplished on their behalf, instead of criticizing and deprecating us.

Of course we know that'll never happen.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 6, 2003 6:07 PM


I never once heard a gay or straight person EVER blame a lifestyle and priorities choice like promiscuity on whether or not they could get a piece of paper!!

If you think marriage is just "a piece of paper," then you don't know very much about marriage.

Still, that's to be expected. If the current debate over same-sex marriage reveals anything, it's that most Straight people tend to take the institution of marriage (and alas, divorce) for granted. Marriage may be a basic right among Straights, but it's also a social expectation: How many times did you hear your parents and friends ask when you were going to marry that nice young man/woman you'd been seeing for the past several months?

I can't speak from firsthand experience on Lesbian culture, but most Gay men I know work on precisely the opposite assumption: We assume that we won't get married, and that we won't have a lifelong monogamous relationship. These are the social expectations that occur when a society is predicated on the absence of marriage.

Michael brought up Rotello's book Sexual Ecology, though as with Larry Kramer, he tends to notice Rotello's criticisms of a Gay male subculture while ignoring his critique of the repressive governmental restrictions which define and shape it. Michael may quote from Rotello approvingly, but I doubt he'd agree with many of the man's conclusions.

For Rotello is a firm believer in same-sex marriage. He claims it's the key to what he calls a "sustainable" GLBT culture. Regardless of the partners' gender, the social expectations and imperatives that surround marriage provide a powerful incentive for long-term monogamous relationships -- something which is currently absent in many Gay male subcultures.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 6, 2003 6:23 PM

Tim---you obviously feel very passionately about this, and I don't want to further inflame the discussion. But just one correction---I never said marriage was just a piece of paper. I said not being able to get married was no excuse or explanation for promiscuity (just like getting married does not stop promiscuity). For either sexual orientation. And I still say it. As I would say to anyone, if certain elements of the gay community had behaved a bit more like responsible adults, society might react to them more like they would to responsible adults. Why does the inability to marry preclude a monogamous relationship? Getting married certainly does not ensure one. I know it is important to you to feel other commenters here get their facts straight. I simply think it's important to other commenters that you not misquote them...which I something I respectfully point out you seem to have done repeatedly.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2003 6:52 PM

I'm going to have to side with Tim on this one annette. If you don't think that the lack of health insurance and a myriad other financial and legal benefits doesn't discourage much more gay monogamy than there would be if gay marriage was legal, I'll have to most respectfully submit that you don't know that many gay people all that well.

The overwhelming depression I've seen all too many gay men sink into has very often had despair at the lack of ever having a stable relationship enter into things as a large component of it.

Don't think that piece of paper has got nothing to do with that; as with many things in life, follow the money. Of course most gay men forego monogamy, there is no financial incentive otherwise, and that's weighed against (in a reproductive sense) consequence free sex.

So no, I don't think that if gay marriage is legal that it will ever have the incidence rate of straight marriage, but it's lack most assuredly does do real human harm.

Posted by: David Mercer on December 6, 2003 8:39 PM

I saw Angels in America two years ago as a production at my school (required attendance for my theater class). Now that I think about it, I should write about it for, it's a pretty shameful thing to make college students sit through something like that.

Side note: Tony Kushner was our commencement speaker as well, and although I was wise enough to go to that, I read a transcript of it. Utterly disgusting.

Side note: We're having special screenings of Angels in America, or we already had them. Since I've already had a taste of it in the form of a low-budget student production, I can't imagine what a big-budget version would do except exaggerate the flaws to the Nth degree.

I have plans sometime in the future to write a satire of Angels in America, as it basically represents everything I think is wrong with theater today. Pompous, overblown, self-involved, politically charged, humanly void.

My main complaints:

1. Every character in this play is gay. What the hell kind of world does Kushner live in? (Answer: Theater world.)
2. Political masturbation masquerading as serious thought. After I saw this play I came to the conclusion never to trust any work of art in its proclamations on the human condition or politics, since we artists are all neurotic, myopic lenses.
3. Misappropriation of Christian religion by an atheist for his own personal crusade is offensive.

Posted by: . on December 6, 2003 10:45 PM

Tim -- You're carrying on some argument of your own, not responding to me, when you accuse me of criticizing (in your words) "gay men in precisely the terms that many Straight people -- yourself included, Michael -- seem eager to hear: Gay men are irresponsible, stupid, self-absorbed, promiscuous and so forth." I can apparently repeat that what I'm doing is wondering what mainstream America thinks about certain radical elements in the AIDS-activist leadership until I go gray and it's just not gonna register. But far be it from me to get in the way of your monologue. Take it away. All yours.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2003 11:42 PM

Every character in this play is gay. What the hell kind of world does Kushner live in?

Why, what the hell kind of world do you live in? Do you also take offence at plays/novels/etc for being populated entirely by heterosexual characters?

Posted by: James Russell on December 7, 2003 6:01 AM

Hey! I'm too lazy to go look anything up, but I recall the CDC being very interested in AIDS and spending money and understanding the potential very early on. Reagon may not have been waving a banner, but federal money was going to research. The CDC had an enormous amount of information available, as did the local public health clinics. That kind of thing costs money.

I also recall that about six months after safe-sex Teddy Bears started showing up, most of the local STD clinics closed down because, by then, the kind of gay men who would show up for HIV and other medical tests were on the safe-sex bandwagon and therefore now avoiding the clap. (That was when people had to wait several days for their results, and because of privacy issues the would have to return to the testing facility.)

The whole Reagan thing confuses me, a bit. I get the sense that the early 80s was when people, in general, began to expect that their disease of the week - whether it was a congenital defect or something based on lifestyle choice or rarer than hens teeth - should be the number 1 health concern of the entire nation all day every day.

And finally, the reason we see rising infection rates in drug users is that the population of gay men has topped out.

In a side note, back in the early 80s, I got pissed off every time I heard a gay man say it was terrible that merely having sex carried a risk of death. Excuse me, but what about the risk of childbirth throughout history?

Anyway, we all may be at risk for a major flu epidemic so, you know, start dressing like Howard Hughes.

Tony Kushner doesn't do anything for me, unless he also wrote "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" which is not bad.

Posted by: j.c. on December 7, 2003 4:02 PM

James, have you see this monstrosity? I think the more relevant question is why does Kushner take offence at the prospect of non-gay people existing in the world? By the end of Angels we've seen Kushner's heavy hand transform an entire family of Mormons into homosexuals in perhaps the most ridiculous character "developments" I've ever seen.

My take on it is that every character is a cipher for Kushner himself, and what the mormon characters, husband, wife, mother, represent is Kushner's nominal counterarguments to the bombast he's pushing throughout the play, but eventually they are converted as well (because they are him and he's writing this play).

Posted by: . on December 7, 2003 8:12 PM

Hmm. I love this board but have to say that the progression--and in some ways deterioration--of the current thread basically saddens me. What begins as an inquiry about the worthiness of Angels in America devolves into a lengthy finger-pointing over who loosed AIDS among us, and why can' t those gay people learn personal responsibility. To me it's a confirmation that the degree of deep personal feeling/comfort about this topic colors all discussion and analysis, and of course deeply affected the public policy, or lack thereof. (And by the way MB, please-- it's bit over the top to set up "gay PC groupthink" as a strawman to knock down. Jeez. We got a nation that's crazy about Paris Hilton and we need to critique the fact that one piece of art is overhyped?)

Let me reveal my agenda up front--I tend to agree wholeheartedly with Tim's breakdown of the epidemic. But wasn't the point of the post to suss out the value of the play?

I didn't think it lived up to the hype. But I thought it did a tremendous job of mixing the personal and the political, of showing how not everyone infected or affected acted nobly, and how horribly insidious the virus could be.

Tragically, AIDS brought gay America out of the closet with an urgency it had never felt before. I think the assimilation of gay sensibilities into popular culture is linked to this. (And hey, what I like about Queer Eye--it shows how gay and straight men can be different and be friends). But there's always backsliding and work to be done.

Posted by: tom on December 8, 2003 1:25 AM

Also, it should be noted that many of the comments posted reflect a current sensibility toward "gay people" (let's assume that all gay people belong to one big community,) as opposed to one of 20 years ago. Even as late as the eighties simply being gay was a burden to bear for people, a shameful, condemned, immoral secret that invited prejudice, violence, and separation (in many cases) from those things that people held closest to them--family, community, religion. Perhaps individuals today don't grasp this simple fact, which explained a lot of the reticence on the part of gay individuals to have such measures as partner tracing and mandatory testing--to do so would enable many of the prevailing prejudices and anti-gay practices to florish regardless of the virus!

It saddens me that in retrospect, with the profound wave of infection and death upon us, that most of the "straight" comments focus on the moral irresponsibility of gay men to prevent the AIDS epidemic. Don't people understand how many tens of thousands of infections occurred long before people were aware of how it was spread? It's so much easier to blame "those people" for recklessness than seeing this as a far more nuanced and complicated issue in which the complicity of people who could have done something played a major part.

Don't people want to reckon with the fact that the illness only began to matter when it was attached to sympathetic "innocent" people like Ryan White and Kimberly Bergalis and Alison Gertz?

Frankly, the same lack of compassion that facilitated the spread in the first place resonates in some of the comments I read here. As Rodney King said, can't we all get along?

It took about a decade for some of the better cultural works to emerge that grappled with Vietnam. I always thought that while there has been some amazing work about AIDS (Paul Monette's Borrowed Time), we have yet to see the definitive work on AIDS. Angels, while it has great parts, isn't quite it, in my opinion.

Posted by: Tom on December 8, 2003 11:20 AM

Just getting accustomed to the blog and the comments, and won't, by any means, jump headfirst into this debate, especially since I don't have the knowledge to back up my opinions. I will let j.c. know, however, that "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" is by Terrence McNally (also a gay playwright, and, with his "Corpus Christi," no stranger to controversy), not Kushner. I'll also say that, on the page only, as that's the only place I've experienced them, I absolutely adore Kushner's Angels plays.

Posted by: John on December 8, 2003 4:19 PM

Sorry to keep on posting, but this thread has been bugging me. It's the tone, the agenda, the subtext about it all...the way the focus has inexorably settled on blame, the way so much time and resentment and spite is trained on apocryphal bad boys, the sex-crazed amoral fuck-murderers who are convenient villians in the epidemic.

Look, I don't condone unprotected sex, I think its criminal, utterly criminal for anyone to knowingly transmit the virus, and I think its stupid for anyone to get it in this day and age--if they can avoid it.

But typecasting gay men as Patient Zeros, as the Gaetan Dugas's of the world who intentionally infect others, is just too damn convenient. And it begs other questions. Why are infected gay men so quickly vilified? Could it be because they were already villians in the minds of so many? Why is there so much resistance to clean needle programs today when there is significant proof that they reduce the rate of AIDS? Could it be that we'd prefer the moral high grounds of preventing drug use to the knowledge that we are helping people avoid a miserable, brutal death?

I understand the need of people to find villians and culprits in a time of death, loss, grief, and anger. It's what you do, whether you are going through the plague or watching as an outsider. Ronald Reagan made an easy target for many (I certainly hold him accountable for much, but that is another post); obviously, as this board reveals, many still cling to the image of callous gay men as the source of the epidemic rather than look at the broader picture of what happened and is happening--beyond the gay culture/subculture in this country and beyond.

In Angels Kushner argues that the personal and the political cannot be separated. That's partly why each of us carrries such strong and often irrational responses to this complex topic. I may be straight, married, have kids, but I lost far far too many friends to AIDS. But what really drives my feelings? The fact that I lost my brother. So my blood, as it were, will always be tainted by the scourge.

Personally I feel that the line between gay and straight is less important than other forces that hold us together and apart. My brother was gay and I was not, which made us different; but in a way that didn't really matter, since, as brothers there were so many other dynamics that dictated how we got along. His being gay was both important and trivial, in terms of other matters.

My point? In Angels, Kushner does a brilliant job of showing the convergence of personal and political, how this particular health issue pulled together so many conflicting strains and prevented so many from doing the right, or compassionate, thing.

For people to focus only on this false issue of cavilier sex criminals is to divert time from the questions of why our culture turned its back on its sick at a time of need, why it couldn't get over its homophobia, and how it can reckon with a real plague that persists, and now rages in new communities with far less resources and clout than the gay community. My God how are those individuals now being infected going to find help? Must we go through a new generation of pundits tut-tutting at drug addicts, callously blaming them for getting the virus and seeing the ravages of the disease as just desserts for their lifestyle?

Kushner's play strives to make some sense of what went so bloody wrong. I haven't figured out his message yet; I'm going to continue to reflect on it this week, and next, when I see the second half of Angels. It's time for a reckoning in this country, one which we have not yet had. I only wish I believed we could realize this.

Posted by: Tom on December 8, 2003 9:40 PM

awesome! thanks. cnn international runs a weekly wrap-up of the show, but i miss not getting all the juicy stuff. ;-)

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:20 PM

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