Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
As a cultural phenomenon, AIDS has clearly arrived. But even after countless newspaper and magazine headlines, and now the apparent beginning of the deluge of television shows, we have yet to get a good, comprehensive book on the subject. AIDS in the Mind of America doesn’t quite fit the bill, but it is nonetheless far superior to most of the sensationalist trash being churned out on the subject, and it provides valuable insight into the reaction of the culture most affected by AIDS: the homosexual community.
For Dennis Altman, one of the most prominent authors on homosexual culture, this latest work is a natural addition to a series of five books that had proceeded from Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation through The Homosexualization of America. Indeed, AIDS in the Mind of America could well have been subtitled The Dehomosexualization of America. Altman traces the epidemic from its discovery when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta noticed a sharp increase in requests for drugs to treat such theretofore rare diseases as pneumocystis carinii and severe anal herpes. From here he explores the political, social, and psychological ramifications of the illness.
At times he plays Creighton the historian, at others Camus the philosopher (although curiously he avoids reference to Camus in favor of quoting the pop philosophy of Susan Sontag). The press, he argues, has abdicated its responsibility to provide health information in favor of "Gay Bug Kills Gran" sensationalism. Likewise, politicians have delayed funding for AIDS, and even then underfunded it, because of their personal revulsion toward homosexuality ("homophobia," to use Altman’s term - one which he uses with slightly less frequency than "a" and "the"). Altman writes: "How perverted the rhetoric of interest-group politics becomes when research undertaken to understand and control an epidemic disease can be seen as a response to ’special interests’ and the encouragement of unpopular lifestyles." Beyond that, however, Altman declines to take hard positions, preferring to relay the reaction of prominent members of the homosexual community, with occasional statements of agreement or disapproval.
Since Altman himself is a homosexual male, he is able to provide a personal testament to the epidemic, giving us a view that most of us can be thankful we don’t have.
Within the gay world AIDS is becoming omnipresent; gay men stand in bars talking earnestly about T-cell counts and retroviruses; on the ferry between Fire Island and the Long Island shore I overhear a man, ten years younger than me sic though he looks older, describing the chemotherapy that made his hair drop out; in Honolulu, where I stopped on my return to the States in the spring of 1984, a man in an outdoor bar tells me he has left San Francisco because he cannot live any longer surrounded by dying friends.
The media have capitalized on AIDS, and even normally respectable publications have splashed headlines across their covers distinguishable from those of the New York Post only by their length. Life’s July 1985 cover ("Now No One Is Safe from AIDS") epitomized this, preying upon the fear that AIDS would "break out" into the general population. In fact, as the managing editor wrote in an introduction, "no one is safe" doesn’t mean that now you can get AIDS from a toilet seat; it means that society as a whole is being affected in some way or another. Even sensible articles are often undercut by sensational titles.
The funding controversy is far more subjective, since we have no standard by which to measure how much the government should spend on killer epidemics that prey on readily definable minorities. If cancer is the yardstick, it must be noted that cancer kills far more persons than AIDS, is less preventable, and causes much more of a drain on society’s resources. But the incidence of cancer isn’t doubling every 11 months, either. It does no good to say that if AIDS were affecting the general population to the same extent it affects homosexuals there would be far more funding for research than there is now. Of course there would, and there would be far more funding still if it affected only lawmakers. So what?
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this work is the insight it inadvertently gives into the paradoxical reaction to AIDS by the homosexual community. In any given copy of the Washington Blade, New York Native, or other homosexual papers, most of the articles and letters to the editor concern AIDS. There might also be a picture of a young man with a caption reading, simply, "In Memoriam." You don’t have to be told how he died. Yet flip over a few pages and you’ll come to the personals section, which will contain such ads as "Gay white male ISO in search of men anytime." At the end of the personals you’ll find a listing of "prime boys" (prostitutes, as they’re known in the heterosexual world). What’s going on here? Altman writes:
The central dilemma that faces gay men as the epidemic spreads is how to
develop "safe sex? without feeding the traditional moralism that condemns both homosexuality and sex outside a committed relationship and so easily feeds into the heightened homophobia unleashed by AIDS.
If that doesn’t sound like a solid plan for action, it’s not. Many homosexuals don’t want to be told they can’t have their cake and eat it without worrying about Kaposi’s sarcoma. And Altman, at least in any straight-forward way, isn’t going to be the one to tell them. Consider a personal ad Altman reprints in which the placer tells the respondents to his "AIDS CONSCIOUS, SO AM I" ad that "the 157 responses I received are more than one guy can handle." Altman says this "reflects the new caution," without asking why persons so concerned about contracting a sexual disease would pick their partners through a newspaper ad.
Personal ads, often for anonymous sex, have become a respected part of the homosexual courting ritual. Bathhouses, so much more in the public eye, are fair game for commentary and criticism, but the personals are inviolable. To Altman’s credit, he does let others speak more strongly than he will allow himself to, quoting on several occasions the two AIDS victims who wrote the landmark "We Know Who We Are" article for the New York Native, declaring that they had sentenced themselves to death through incredible promiscuity.
Throughout the book altman finds it necessary to resist the characterization of AIDS as a homosexual disease, calling the characterization a creation of the media and the Reagan Administration. "From available evidence it appears that the Administration, particularly the White House, has collaborated in fostering the idea that AIDS should be seen as a gay issue rather than a health emergency which should transcend the characteristics of those involved." Altman argues that "AIDS is American and homosexual only in the sense that the first group in which the disease was discovered was American homosexuals." He later states, "AIDS is intrinsically no more gay or American than Legionnaires’ disease is an illness of ex-soldiers or than rubella (’German measles’) is inherently German."
The comparison is ludicrous: Germans do not account for 73 per cent of all rubella victims. Nor did the more than 13,000 homosexuals to date who have contracted AIDS all just happen to be in the wrong hotel at the wrong time. It is the homosexuals’ proclivity toward sex acts that cause tissue to tear and the virus to enter the bloodstream, multiplied by their relative promiscuity, that has earned for them their ignoble status as plague carriers.
Most important, indeed, is the carrier status. Even among the 27 per cent of AIDS victims who are not classified as homosexual (and many in fact are, being members of more than one high-risk group) the key to the disease’s spread is homosexuals. If AIDS is the Plague of the Eighties, then homosexuals are the rats. The "gran" who died of AIDS and the young hemophiliac who is barred from school for having contracted it both probably received the virus from a homosexual blood donor who contracted it from engaging in consensual sexual intercourse. It’s a terrible responsibility to bear and naturally homosexuals resist it.
Yet they do so even as they reinforce it by insisting on the maintenance of "gay rights." The closing of the bathhouses is portrayed by militant homosexuals as the first step toward pink triangles (which is ironic, considering that Hitler ordered homosexuals into the death houses, while today’s militant homosexuals fight for the right to march in), and even the test to detect the HTLV III virus in carriers was fought. Altman notes that several homosexual groups urged people not to take the test except for research purposes, and a group called the Lambda Legal Defense sought an injunction on the grounds that the test had a high error rate.
Altman asks, but cannot bring himself to answer, the fundamental question of whether AIDS can be successfully fought without sacrificing the "advances" made by the homosexual-rights movement. To the "homophobes" among us, of course, the answer is simple. To those who felt they had finally achieved "the homosexualization of America," however, it’s a bitter choice. The only thing that is certain is that being "gay" is becoming less fun all the time.