23 March 2013
We intend this piece from a member of the Queer (in) Crisis collective to generate discussion about contemporary responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis.
I recently came across Adam Mars-Jones’s collection of short fiction titled Monopolies of Loss, a series of stories that write through, around, and inside the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. One story in particular—“The Changes of Those Terrible Years”—left me feeling empty—which was, maybe, the author’s intent, and I do not mean to suggest that Mars-Jones is somehow to blame in this. But I can’t shake the feeling that the story and I failed to communicate, so to speak.
I have encountered the argument that AIDS, for those affected, is incomprehensible, an experience that does not make sense. Reading Mars-Jones, though, I noticed that my unease arose from something apart from the absurdity of crisis. This feeling, too, isn’t just a one-off for me—my encounters with Sarah Schulman and her work have instilled in me a similar sense of lack. She argues in Gentrification of the Mind that this feeling of disconnection is endemic to my generation and an emerging homonormative gay culture—through which neoliberals use the promises and banalities of gay marriage to disguise ongoing crises of AIDS in queer communities. But even her emphasis on activism—on the anger I should have over AIDS—is itself alienating. Why, for me, does this legacy of queer activism feel so distant? Or am I not queer, because I have not suffered firsthand? For I have no experience of AIDS—no experience, that is, in the way Schulman might define that word. I am not HIV-positive. I know no one who acknowledges to me that they are seropositive. None of my close friends or family has died from AIDS; for that matter, very few of them have died for any other reason.
What, then, is my orientation toward AIDS? My experiences of AIDS are always half-experiences, since this thing is both massive and spectral, something that haunts both the theory I study and the sex I engage in. For Schulman and Mars-Jones, it seems, there is never a question of knowing or experiencing AIDS itself—rather, their emphasis is on the incomprehensibility of that knowledge and experience. They speak with an authority about “the” AIDS crisis that suggests, if not an ontology of AIDS, at least a language for it. They seem to understand what AIDS does, if not why.
But for me, these are things I have never understood, things I still don’t understand, and for which I have very little language. My experience of AIDS is one of not knowing, one of not experiencing, but one that is inescapably tied to AIDS nonetheless. As an adolescent my parents warned me about what they called the risks of promiscuous, unprotected sex, though they never named this disease. At that time, too, I had only the vaguest idea of what sex is, or could be—only that they meant something apparently unspeakable or unexplainable. Of course, I was free to ask as many questions as I liked, my parents told me. It was an admirable performance of liberal tolerance for discussion. But, of course, the problem with asking questions is that I must know how to formulate them. HIV and AIDS were only ever things I overheard: I could only read a bit of medical discourse about sexually-transmitted disease and compare it to an historical narrative about the 1980s, or a news report about AIDS funding and research. All this without knowing, really, what I was reading.
Since then, and since I have learned—very slowly, very confusedly—about histories of AIDS, it has become something that haunts. Every sexual encounter I have is, increasingly, an encounter with a very intimate, immediate sense of risk that I must inflect into questions about seropositivity, about which sex acts I should participate in, about which precautions are useful (or practical, or available), about whether we should fuck it anyway, and how—again—to ask these questions and make these decisions. Every sexual encounter is a series of small, intimate crises, small only because they have become so ordinary.