Why We Should Still Be Reading & Writing About AIDS

Never Forget
Why we should still reading and writing about AIDS
by Marshall Thornton

Photo by Anne Marie Fox

One of the basic rules of being a novelist is to never publicly complain about the things readers say. So, what I’m about to say is not a complaint; it’s an observation. I write a mystery series set in Chicago’s Boystown during the early to mid-1980s, which means that one of the things I’m writing about is AIDS in the U.S., and I’ve been doing that through nine books. Along the way, I’ve seen readers openly say they don’t want to read about AIDS, claim the only stories that can be written about AIDS are predictable, and even that it’s cliché to include characters with AIDS in stories about gay men in the 1980s.

On the one hand, I remember the tension and anxiety of the eighties and nineties very well and can understand why people might not want to revisit that. But I’m also afraid that if we stop reading and writing about AIDS, it will minimize the epidemic in a dangerous way. Without fiction that deals with AIDS, the further we get away from the epidemic, the smaller it will seem. The smaller it seems, the more likely it is that something similar will happen.

To put AIDS into its proper perspective, here are some numbers: as of 2014, 636,000 Americans have died of AIDS. The number of American deaths in Vietnam was 58,209, World War II 405,399, and World War I 116,516; in fact the only war the U.S. has been involved in that even comes close to the number of people who’ve died from AIDS is the Civil War and there we count deaths on both sides.

Stop for a moment and consider the number of books, films, and plays you’ve seen and read in your lifetime that deal with World War II. Vietnam. Even World War I. All are great topics for fiction, and yet none had the impact in lives lost that AIDS has had, and continues to have as thousands upon thousands of people die of AIDS each year.

If you look closely at the “big” gay books of recent years (most notably Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life), you’ll notice first that a number of them are written by heterosexuals and that many avoid AIDS—sometimes going to great lengths to avoid it. These days, readers seem more than willing to read about gay men, or at least men who have sex with each other, yet they want to avoid our history.

And I suppose it is a challenging history for straight people. The way the Reagan administration failed to deal with the AIDS crisis was not just a political failure, it was a failure of the country that elected Reagan in a landslide. He was able to ignore the AIDS crisis because it didn’t matter to the people who’d elected him. Perhaps, as a nation, we don’t want to deal with our own complicity. Or perhaps it is simply a case of survivors’ guilt. Or both.

Whatever it is, we need to get over it. We need more fiction that deals with AIDS and HIV. We need fiction about the beginning of the epidemic, the middle, and the ongoing crisis. Not just to avoid a repetition of a tragic epidemic but because there are 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. They deserve to have their stories told. And the nearly 700,000 Americans who’ve died deserve their stories told as well.

One of the things I find most interesting in writing about AIDS from today’s perspective is that the work can be very different from the AIDS fiction of the early days. Fiction written as the epidemic was unfolding was, quite rightly, very much a clarion call, an attempt to humanize our community so that the straight world would see what was happening to us. These wonderful books and plays and movies were an SOS to a world ignoring us.

Don’t assume that I’m saying AIDS fiction from the first two decades of the pandemic is not worth reading. It is. Absolutely. It’s vital and immediate. I remember being particularly affected by David B. Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, the later Henry Rios Mysteries by Michael Nava, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and the films Parting Glances and Longtime Companion.

These works, and others, still matter. If you can’t find contemporary work about the epidemic go back and read the wonderful work written during the worst of the crisis.
As distressing as I find the disinterest in gay men with AIDS, the landscape is even worse for HIV-positive heterosexuals (and other populations) in fiction. Other than a few books, At Risk by Alice Hoffman, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, and Push by Sapphire, I found very little. Though, Armistead Maupin did include a non-gay subplot in Significant Others. The bright spot seems to be Young Adult Fiction where books about AIDS and HIV are diverse and seemingly more popular.

Today, writing about AIDS is an opportunity to focus on the wonderful and terrible things that people in crisis do. As in any epidemic, some people step forward to become heroes, while others are engulfed in fear. That, of course, is the bread and butter of fiction—and, as a mystery writer, what I work with every day.

There are tens of thousands of new HIV infections in the U.S. each year (an estimated 37,600 in 2014). The reasons for this are varied and I don’t fool myself into thinking that fiction can bring down that number. I do think if we, as a culture, were more engaged with the AIDS epidemic both in the past and the present it would have a tremendous positive impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

So read about AIDS. Write about AIDS. Never forget.

Lambda Award-winning author Marshall Thornton is best known for the popular Boystown mystery series. Other novels include the erotic comedy The Perils of Praline, or the Amorous Adventures of a Southern Gentleman in Hollywood, The Ghost Slept Over, and Lambda-finalist, Femme. Marshall has an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. Visit him online here.