Amy Sadao, the outgoing director of Visual AIDS, uses the term “creating lineages” to describe the cultural response of younger artists, especially gay or the more broadly defined “queer” artists. Younger artists are taking up the subject as their own, exploring the broader reach of the disease.
“Queer-identified artists, curators, performers, cultural workers, are attempting to find and define a queer history,” she says. They don’t necessarily feel themselves on the outside of a tribally held AIDS history curated by the older generation of mostly gay white men who are the heroes of David France’s film. But there’s also a sense of generosity, even gratitude to that generation.
“What I’m struck by is this younger generation’s identification of that broken lineage, that missing history,” says Sadao.
A historic moment, in hindsight
In 1996, journalist Andrew Sullivan published what was then a controversial and now classic essay, “When Plagues End,” which explored the ambiguities of what changed with the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs and the so-called “Lazarus effect,” which brought many HIV-infected people back from the brink of death. He used Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague” to describe the richly unresolved emotional transition that many people went through. “We expect a catharsis, but we find merely a transition,” wrote Sullivan. “We long for euphoria, but we discover only relief tinged with, in some cases, regret and depression.” One of the great historical and defining moments in gay history passed without any real acknowledgment, in part because people were still uncertain, still scared, still shocked, and in part because the society was still pervasively homophobic and unwilling to acknowledge the role gay people played in their own redemption.
The plague wasn’t over, as Sullivan acknowledged, and as was abundantly clear during the 19th Annual AIDS conference held in Washington last month. But something had changed, and only today is that something being finally processed. The threat of extinction passed on, yet only now is the emotional weight of that moment being acknowledged.
Gay history has always been complicated, by the very definition of homosexuality, which didn’t enter the lexicon until the late 19th century, and by the enormous and ongoing changes in how people define gender, sex and sexuality. Gay history has had trouble getting started, from the abortive and shame-filled spectacle of Oscar Wilde to the decimation of AIDS that followed so fast upon the official beginning of modern gay culture in the rebellious 1960s. What seems to be happening now, as the horizon of time casts its shadow over the years of AIDS, is that gay men can see themselves properly in the historical mirror for the first time, and they like what they see. Suffering and all.