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Have we really forgotten the epidemic?

By Julian B. Gewirtz

In the past several months, American cultural life has exhibited a curious nostalgia for the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the gay community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The revival of Larry Kramer’s “Normal Heart”, which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play, and a new documentary, “We Were Here”, which excavates narratives about the epidemic in San Francisco, are only two of many prominent examples.

As one might expect, coverage of both of these events focused primarily on the historical project that they exemplify: a kind of cultural preservation, a revived vigil, in an era often labeled “post-AIDS.” But throughout articles and reviews, one sees another strain emerge: the idea that young people in the United States today “have no clue” about the epidemic, in the words of one Bay Area filmmaker quoted in a review of “We Were Here.”

Do we “have no clue”? Certainly, many young people—both straight and gay—don’t personally know anyone who died from the disease, nor have they heard the countless stories of loss and suffering that marked the worst of the plague years. Our generation has grown up, for the most part, in the world of “living with AIDS,” of understanding HIV in the United States as a chronic condition, managed and monitored. In the imaginations of many young people, perhaps AIDS figures primarily as an African problem, over there but most definitely not here.

To be sure, this is cluelessness of a sort. But American young people reveal a surprising consciousness of the disease in other ways. At Harvard, safe sex is widely practiced; it’s certainly the norm, if not perfectly so. The condom’s small ritual—the pause in intimacy, the tearing open, the unrolling—is one instance of implied knowledge of HIV/AIDS, or at least an acknowledgment that the “pre-condom” era, in which fevered, unprotected promiscuity spread this disease of feverish night sweats, is over.

This tangible example accompanies a range of more abstract anxieties and attitudes that follow from the epidemic. If plague can be said to teach lessons, then the AIDS epidemic shows with terrifying precision that sex and love, the body’s double quintessence, can destroy the body. We are left with a fear of the body, a distrust of intimacy, and a longing for a world in which risk was an excitement, not a form of fatality. A song like Cher’s “Believe” (released in 1998) expresses these anxieties over club-ready production, asking, “Do you believe in life after love?” There is a beautiful irony in imagining the club kids of the late 90s, lithe and drug-flushed after their elders were ravaged by plague, dancing to these words—embodying, after all, an answer to this question.

In less bodily ways, the AIDS epidemic has become part of our consciousness. The gay marriage movement, with its recent success in New York, can be understood in part as a response to the experience of gay men who were denied the ability to visit their sick partners in hospital. One can imagine the need for legal recognition of gay relationships arising with new force beside the body of a lover sick from AIDS—and this image remains an indelible component of the political movement’s emotional core.

The continuing influence of the epidemic is at the center of the world in which the Harvard students of today grew up: We can feel its legacies, in ways both explicit and implicit, in our sex, our politics, and our culture. Perhaps, then, we are not entirely clueless about the epidemic—even if our knowledge is of a more ulterior, unconscious nature.

None of this is intended as an argument against teaching or learning about the epidemic; on the contrary, we must do so if we want to understand the forces that continue to shape us. This summer, I received an Artist Development Fellowship from the Office for the Arts at Harvard to study the epidemic and write poems about the issues that I have discussed here. I learned many things from this experience, but the most urgent understanding I carried forward from the summer is that people of our generation should begin considering their experiences from new perspectives: that of the body’s frailty as a starting point of self-understanding, of desire as “a deadly force” (in the words of the great contemporary poet D. A. Powell), of growing up in a world ravaged and remade by plague. Even more, these insights should spur us to speak, write, and create.

Writing history and making art are two approaches to advancing this mission, but they are far from the only ways. This project is necessarily both personal and public, and we should take full advantage of the multiplicity of possibilities that this dual identity offers. At the most basic level, we should talk about AIDS—not only as a historical phenomenon, but also as a political, social, and cultural force—with our parents and our politicians, our friends and our lovers.

We all have an obligation to engage with the AIDS epidemic, whether we are among those who were there or those who were not. An anagram of the disease’s acronym should be our imperative: AIDS transformed into SAID.

Julian B. Gewirtz '13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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