The Importance of Knowing AIDS History
There’s an entire generation of queer men missing from the present-day frame, and many of those who are still with us are deeply traumatized from decades of watching their friends and lovers decimated by a deadly virus made more virulent by homophobia and medical negligence. When I heard that Roland Blais, the owner of a defunct gay bar in Lewiston, Maine, inconspicuously named the Sportsman’s Athletic Club, was retiring to Florida, I hastily interviewed him so there’d be some sort of official record. Mid-interview, he made me turn off the video camera and wept while describing what it was like to lose bartender after bartender to AIDS and what loss on that scale meant for gay men like him living in small cities and rural towns. I didn’t realize what kind of trauma I was prodding. I didn’t know any better. The history of HIV/AIDS that I had learned up to that point had been an urban-centric one, where small-town queers were unaccounted for—or, worse, unimaginable. The presumptive lie was that the only way for queers to survive and thrive was to move to the city, a lie that continues to circulate today.
By 2009, I grew restless for greater intellectual stimulation and queer mentorship with older gay men that I couldn’t connect with in central Maine. The economy had just tanked, so, like a lot of un/underemployed millennials, I headed back to school that September. Uniquely, my studies were paid for in part by settlement money from the city of Miami, where I was beaten unconscious by riot police and illegally jailed as part of the anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in 2003. Through my studies, I would be paired with an adviser from outside the school, my main reason for applying to the program in the first place. I fought with administrators so that I could work with James Wentzy, a video artist and long-term survivor of HIV living in New York City.
As part of my studies in queer history, cultural memory, and HIV/AIDS, I met with James monthly in his basement apartment in the bowels of lower Manhattan. His apartment was filled with thousands of videotapes and pieces of AIDS activist ephemera that, at the time, you would never find in a museum. On my monthly visits, he would fill me with stories, tea, and biscuits while we reviewed hour upon hour of video footage, both raw and polished. It was through my time with James that I learned inspiring queer histories I had never been taught, particularly the work of AIDS activist video projects like Damned Interfering Video Activists Television, the AIDS Community Television series, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Living with AIDS series. I watched, in awe, the raw power of James’ un-narrated collage documentary Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP and the performance poetry of David Wojnarowicz that James had captured before David’s death in 1992. It was through my time with James, and the exposure to his work and the work of his friends, that I’d come to understand the AIDS crisis as a genocide committed by a government against its own people. In particular, James’ experimental short, a 1994 collaboration with Kiki Mason titled By Any Means Necessary, shook me to the core.
I’ve always understood the AIDS crisis, both in the past and present, to be deeply political. It wasn’t until this moment with James, however, that I began thinking through what it means to understand this history as a history of genocide. Why don’t we remember the AIDS crisis in the same terms as it was described at the time by the people who experienced the mass death and destruction firsthand? What’s lost as metaphors shift? How is cultural memory passed from one generation to the next? Of course, I’d never know loss on that scale. I’d never know what it was like to drag a friend’s coffin through the streets, enraged and exasperated. I’d never know what it felt like to throw fistfuls of ashes of dead friends and lovers onto the lawn of the White House in protest. There are limits to what I could know of history, no matter how hard I wished otherwise.
For me, history has always been about understanding how we got to the very moment of the present we inhabit—to understand how we’ve survived, who our enemies and allies have been, which activist strategies have worked and why, what is made (im)possible through shared collective experiences and moods, and how the queer political imagination expands and contracts to render certain futures viable and others impossible. To think through these ideas, I made a short film, things are different now…, in the fall of 2011. I was at a particularly low point in my life—depressed, broke, recently uprooted, heartbroken, full of self-doubt, deeply alienated from living in a city for the first time in my life, and burned out from a decade of activism that never seemed to produce lasting structural change. At that moment, it felt like nobody gave a shit about queers, poverty, or HIV/AIDS, while the upwardly aspiring gays and lesbians were clamoring for marriage, open military service, and hate crime protections. I could barely get through my day most weeks, but making this film gave me structure and focus.
My short film struck an apparent nerve and was picked up by queer film festivals in North America and Europe, most excitingly, MIX NYC, where it premiered on opening night in 2012—the same film festival where James Wentzy’s By Any Means Necessary screened for the first time when I was just a kid. What I didn’t perceive was that I was part of a new wave of HIV/AIDS historicism in film, art, and literature. Suddenly, lots of people seemed interested in the history of HIV/AIDS. Documentaries and historical dramas came out every year for nearly a decade, some winning mainstream accolades and awards. Retrospectives of AIDS activist art were suddenly in vogue. New biographies and memoirs dotted the shelves at mainstream bookstores. It all felt a bit strange to be swept up in this moment, especially as a largely unknown artfag from a small town in central Maine who made irritatingly experimental short films that hardly anyone had seen.
This wave of HIV/AIDS revisitation projects was the subject of much criticism, some of it pointedly directed at me—my work was dismissed as merely nostalgic, and I was put on blast alongside famous and well-resourced artists, curators, and writers. I remain sympathetic to many of the critiques of whitewashing; of self-aggrandizing, questionable hero narratives; and of historical revisionism, misogyny, and lack of engagement with historiography itself. There were so many things to discuss, but it felt bizarre to me that any interest in the past was being dismissed as merely nostalgic.
History is how I understood myself. I had no sentimental wish for the good old days of mass death and hopelessness, and I continue to have a hard time believing that one can’t engage with history while also being involved in activist projects in the present—the very thing myself and others were doing. Importantly, though, this conflict over concentrated attention to the past was a symptom of a larger issue: How do we balance the urgent need to remember rapidly disappearing HIV/AIDS activist histories with the bifurcated urgency of HIV/AIDS in the present?
Surely, the imagined 40th anniversary of AIDS in 2021 will create new waves of HIV/AIDS historicism, for better or worse. Of course, how we tell stories about the past tells us just as much about the present. The renewed interest in critical and artistic work exploring HIV/AIDS speaks volumes to the desire in the present for a better understanding of recent history that younger queers and activists aren’t getting through formal and informal education. Thankfully, we now have a plethora of tools, both visual and textual, to continue thinking through how histories come to bear on the present. These tools are not simply part of a clichéd directive not to forget the past lest we repeat it but also an injunction to recognize and deal with the traumas of the queer past that will always haunt the unfolding present. History is not a luxury.
Ryan Conrad’s essay “Looking for Gaëtan” is excerpted with permission from Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Essay copyright, Ryan Conrad 2021. Anthology copyright, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore 2021.
Ryan Conrad is a queer activist, artist, and educator living in the Ottawa Valley. You can learn more about his work online at faggotz.org.