Movie-Made Gay Acknowledging Tragedy While Finding Love and Joy in AIDS Films
I gravitate towards AIDS stories because, behind their righteous anger and torturous despair, they lay out visions of couples and communities.
This is Movie-Made Gay, a column by Manuel Betancourt on thirst, reading queerly, and the films that have shaped his identity as a gay man.
The Normal Heart. Angels in America. How to Survive a Plague. RENT. Tidy Endings. And the Band Played On. In the Gloaming. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.
You name them, I’ve seen them.
Other friends have an aversion to these types of movies. “I decided I wasn’t going to watch any more AIDS films,” one told me just last year, as if he’d decided to not watch any more horror films, preferring to avoid being so frightened or, worse yet, having been dulled to their impact. I, however, find them comforting.
Part of it, I’ve come to realize, is because I’m a gay man in his mid-thirties. I belong to a generation of queer men and women who came of age in the ’90s, a time when AIDS wasn’t quite the health crisis it had been in the late ’80s, but hadn’t yet faded to the background of our collective imagination. Neither present emergency nor ancient history, its specter hovered over my budding awareness of my sexuality.
I was born in 1984, the year the CDC developed a blood test for the disease. I have not known a world without AIDS. Or without, as it happens, stories about it. I’ve grown up alongside the “AIDS film” in all its various incarnations—from the late ’80s features that doubled as PSAs to the current crop of ’80s-set dramas that have somehow reduced the genre to a period piece.
“Wait, is this another AIDS film?” my husband asked me once—or always, every time I hoodwink him into watching these kinds of films.
This time around, I’d sidestepped mentioning how AIDS was a key plot point in Holding the Man , a romantic Aussie flick that ends with one half of the central couple dying in the late 1980s. My husband knows me well; he was unsurprised when I came back from watching Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats per Minute) , a chronicle of the early years of ACT UP in Paris, and I gushed about it nonstop. He didn’t doubt my assessment but he made me acknowledge that I had a soft spot for this genre.
But Holding the Man contains multitudes. It’s also the kind of sweeping, romantic love story I always craved growing up. It tells the tale of Tim and John, two students at an all-boys school who fall in love and who yearn for a lifetime together. Based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir of the same name, the film is sexy and funny and just an all-around lovely depiction of same-sex desire that doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties that come with safekeeping an intimate relationship for over a decade. As Tim and John (played by Ryan Corr and Craig Stott) move from the throes of horny teenage attraction and into a more mature relationship, the film feels as authentic in its portrayal of gay male intimacy as anything else I’ve seen on screen.
As their story plays out against the backdrop of the gay activist scene of the 1980s, Tim and John bicker over their choice to remain monogamous, balance their needs to live in different cities while pursuing different career goals, and eventually grapple with what it means to stay together when they’re both HIV positive. The latter half of the film, teary and touching as it is, falls squarely into that genre of “AIDS period piece.”
Stories about AIDS on screen have often been anchored by couples facing their shared (or, worse, unequal) sense of mortality. Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance as the saintly Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, for example, requires him to have on hand a doting, caring lover: Antonio Banderas’ Miguel. Angels in America, that most canonical of AIDS tales, centers on its protagonist, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk in the HBO miniseries), dealing with his boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) leaving him upon learning of his condition.
Even 2017’s BPM, which feels light years away from Philadelphia or Angels , frames its AIDS narrative in yet another couple: HIV-negative newcomer, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), falls in love with the passionate HIV-positive veteran of the ACT UP Paris scene, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), only to see him slowly succumb to deadly complications from the disease. You can find similar narratives in two other famous stage-and-screen depictions of AIDS: Both Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Jonathan Larson’s RENT structure their respective snapshots of the AIDS crisis in New York City in couples where one half inevitably dies, leaving those who survive to mourn and memorialize them in angered monologues and rousing ballads, respectively.
I gravitate towards AIDS stories because, behind their righteous anger and torturous despair, they lay out visions of couples and communities. Coming out stories, which became more and more available as the ’90s wore on, stressed the singular experience. They centered on characters that knew they were different from those around them and were forced to deal with what that meant as they came out to friends and family.
I gravitate towards AIDS stories because, behind their righteous anger and torturous despair, they lay out visions of couples and communities.
But those all-too-tidy storylines began and ended with just one person: the son telling his father he was gay; the jock confessing to his girlfriend why he couldn’t go all the way; the best friend sharing why sports weren’t really his thing. In a way, these stories neutered much of the gay experience in the hopes of becoming didactic tools for confused kids everywhere.
But musicals like RENT and scripts like Angels in America offered instead sprawling ensembles that showed me what gay people moving out in the world actually looked like. There was death and there was disease and there was prejudice and there was discrimination. But these were stories about how there was a gay community too. They showed me a world where gay men found each other and built (if all too brief) lives with one another.
At a more primal level, AIDS stories embed within themselves the very thing that most intrigued me as I was coming out: gay sex. Where coming out stories tended to be too pat or otherwise too PG-13 (looking at you Dawson’s Creek !), Tony Kushner’s plays and attendant miniseries, for example, at least acknowledged that gay men were fabulous, sexual beings. What was most revelatory for me the first time I watched the 2003 filmed adaptation wasn’t just the way Kushner had managed to make what’s ostensibly a gay melodrama about broken hearts and adulterous lovers into a heightened campy epic masterpiece, but the way it put gay male desire front and center.
This felt like a rebuke to endless rhetoric I’d internalized about how gay sex is dirty and dangerous. By the time my schoolmates and I were hurried into crowded auditoriums for mandatory sex-ed classes, I’d already learned that “el SIDA” (Spanish doing a bit of extra work by shaping the syndrome into a subject of its own, as if it were a kind of STD villain out to get us) was synonymous with the very sex that I so craved.
If the generation right before me had been mostly lost because of lack of pertinent and disseminated information, those of us who came of age in the ’90s had to unlearn much about how AIDS was conflated with same-sex desire, thus couching much of our basest instincts with a shame that was hard to shake off.
Therein lies much of my fascination with AIDS narratives: I owe much of how I think about my body, about my lustful thoughts, and about my sexual politics to them. Even when they were toothless (like Philadelphia ) or rightfully belligerent (like The Normal Heart ), I have found in them past explanations and imagined futures about how gay men understand the long-lasting effects that the epidemic continues to have on many of us.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a recent novel that I devoured precisely because it captured the scarring effect of the ’80s on younger generations, tells the story about the ghostly absences of those who left us and the burden of memory carried by those who outlived and came of age right after. The book spoke to me on every page.
In a conversation between various gay men, some of whom we know won’t make it to the final page (shuttling as the plot does between the ’80s and the present day), Makkai distilled exactly how HIV and AIDS haunted my own sexual awakening:
“The thing is,” Teddy said, “the disease itself feels like a judgment. We’ve all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.”
Growing up, there was a clear sense that gay sexuality came hand in hand with righteous judgment. Moreover, there was no talk of gay sexuality without it spilling over into talk of HIV/AIDS.
I took my first HIV test when I was eighteen years old. Even though I wasn’t yet sexually active, it was mandatory, part of my student visa application. The Canadian government asks for a full physical, including an HIV test. From what I gathered back then, Canada couldn’t deny you a visa if you were HIV positive. Nevertheless, one’s status was a key piece of information they required when assessing your application.
A few days later, I went in to get my results. I was handed a sealed envelope, which I was to deliver to the doctor, whose note I needed to attach to my application. (Yes, every kind of immigration process is just as confounding and labor-intensive as this sounds. My green card application here in the US was an equally Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare; it also required another state-sanctioned HIV test.)
When I handed the doctor all of the paperwork he needed to sign for my application, he noticed that my HIV test had been opened. He understood what had happened and didn’t berate me for breaking protocol. Instead, he instructed me to remind my mother: Test results like the kind she’d so blatantly opened were meant only to be opened by myself and my doctors.
I knew why she’d opened the envelope. She was working from a facile kind of math that remained all too common: gay = HIV+. Did she hope to reassure herself that the former wasn’t a fact if I was somehow HIV negative? Did she fear that my test would come back positive, a confirmation of her deepest fears about who she thought I really was?
We never did discuss it. I brushed it aside and chose to live in denial about what that breach of confidence really said about how my mother saw me. But, every time I watch an AIDS-related film, I return to that moment when I shamefully had to tell the doctor that my mom had opened the test results. Growing up, the kind of conflation she was operating from was never far. It was hard to shake off the sense that there was something inherently dirty about my thoughts and potential deeds.
Enter: Kushner. Writing all the way back in 1990 (though I wouldn’t discover his work until 2004), the Angels in America playwright was already wanting to give those sickly bodies in hospital beds back their dignity and their fabulousness. He made Prior Walter a prophet, a resilient former drag queen who chastises his boyfriend for losing his sibilant S when around family. “You get butch,” he tells Louis when he presents himself as Lou. Prior faces an angry Angel and a slew of Heavenly deities, refusing their call to choose stasis over the desiring, forward-moving ethos of humankind.
Kushner ’s plays felt like a rebuke to endless rhetoric I’d internalized about how gay sex is dirty and dangerous.
But more than making Prior a gay Everyman on the American stage, Kushner also made sure to remind audiences of the thrills of gay sex. There are cruising scenes in Central Park and as sexy a seduction scene as you’re likely to find in a play that features a flying Angel, an Ethel Rosenberg ghost, and a scene in a Heaven that looks like San Francisco following the 1905 earthquake. Tellingly, it’s a scene all about how what two gay men are about to do together is “messy, but not dirty.”
Joe (Patrick Wilson), a straight-laced and straight-acting Republican lawyer working under Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) finds himself in Louis’s apartment, unsure whether he wants to give in to his lust for this flirtatious young man in front of him. What follows is a rare moment of electric gay male attraction.
Louis knows he has to be careful with Joe lest he scare him away. Instead, he allows himself an abstracted monologue about how smell and taste are at the root of all sexual attraction. “The nose is really a sexual organ,” he says before moving closer to him. Joe swallows hard, uneasy but turned on. Later still, Louis will put his hand down Joe’s pants and then smell and taste it with gusto. It’s the kind of suggestive scene that titillates precisely because of how little it shows.
In The World Only Spins Forward , the oral history of Kushner’s opus, academic Brian Herrera notes that one of the joys of Angels in America was the way it really embraced camp and fabulousness as a way to balance the somber tones of its subject matter. His insight is a line that captures just why I’m so drawn to AIDS stories: “What’s great about glitter is that it’s light and dark. You see the flicker of the light and dark simultaneously.”
Counterintuitive as it sounds, these depressing and tear-jerking AIDS films I so gravitate towards are full of moments that handle gay male sexuality with a frankness that was eye-opening back then and which remains refreshing to this day. This is no mere morbid fascination. After all, even as they depict a harrowing moment in queer history, they single out the very things I’m most happy to have found within this community: the solidarity and the resilience, the strength and the vulnerability, the heartbreak and the love.