In the archaeologies of queer knowledge, the generation that grew into Gay Liberation and then suffered the ravages of plague holds special distinction, experiencing both newfound freedom and cataclysmic crisis. In quite different ways, the generation of people who came of age after the development of effective treatments for HIV also stands distinct, the first generation to know AIDS as a manageable disease. In between these two generations stands one other: the people who came of age during the crisis years, those of us who learned early that desire is inextricable from death, the generation for whom “internalizing this trauma,” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes, was itself “part of becoming queer.”
Sycamore has edited a collection of essays, memoirs, and interviews that explore these generational distinctions while showing how they are complicated by class, race, gender, and geography. Between Certain Death and a Possible Future presents more than thirty-five different voices and perspectives from around the world, with a wide range of identities and experiences that sometimes confirm the mainstream tale of how queer generations have been shaped by their relationship to HIV and AIDS, and just as often show that the most common stories are the least common realities.
After an insightful, moving introduction by Sycamore, the anthology begins with Keiko Lane’s narrative essay “What Survival Means”, which starts us off in February 1991 with a scene of Christian fundamentalists protesting outside A Different Light bookstore in West Hollywood being met by a Queer Nation counter-protest. The book ends with “Across the Gap Between Us” by Liam O’Brien, born in 1990, reading Paul Monette, loving an HIV-positive boyfriend decades older than himself, coming to grips with the gaps, providing a final sentence: “We had plenty of models for death in the face of love.”
Death in the face of love? It’s an unsettling formula, thus appropriate to the book as a whole, which specializes in the work of unsettling. It does not seek to unsettle primarily through stories of illness and loss, though plenty of those are collected here, but more through a wide range of testimonies: men, women, nonbinary, cis, trans, essayists, playwrights, performance artists, drag performers, activists, prisoners, academics, students, sex educators, sex workers, Black, Native, Asian, Latinx, urban and suburban and rural, housed and unhoused, positive and negative. As we turn the pages, moving from witness to witness, each new paragraph loosens ground lithified by the pressure of public service announcements, afterschool specials, medical brochures, news reports, political postures, gossip columns, family lore, cranks, quacks, ghosts, and rumors spread by the winds of time.
The most common assumption that these writers undo is the belief that AIDS “is no longer a death sentence” — one of those phrases that originated somewhere in the ’90s and now feels unavoidable, a cliché salted with truth and boiled in hegemony. The truth is that yes, with enough money and luck, an HIV-positive person now has a good chance to live a normal lifespan and perhaps even get their viral load down to a point where it is undetectable and untransmissable. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) offers significant protection against HIV transmission in a way that would have seemed miraculous not too long ago. But these are not cures; access is not evenly distributed, pharmaceutical companies are not charitable organizations. In many places, including places in the richest countries of the world, AIDS is as deadly as it ever was for people beyond the margins of wealth and power. “The movement surrendered the need for structural change around racism, homophobia, and capitalism,” Andrew R. Spieldenner writes, “and instead settled for neoliberal solutions that included HIV medication.”
Decades of research and information sharing doesn’t help young people who have no access to it. Kate Doyle Griffiths describes teaching a course titled “Anthropology of HIV and AIDS” at a Catholic university where students’ sexual knowledge might as well be from the nineteenth century and even the queer students don’t know how HIV is transmitted. Sassafras Lowrey’s essay is bluntly titled “Homeless Youth Are Still Dying of AIDS” and describes young people “sick in ways gay people blocks away in the gentrified West Village of NYC no longer had to experience—for these youth, lesions and wasting syndrome were still common.”
The effect of AIDS on queer youth, regardless of their status, links the generations in ways the mainstream narrative of generational difference doesn’t account for. Writers younger and older than each other express, often in similar language, abiding feelings of fear and shame. “There was something about finally coming face-to-face with El Sida (or, in this case, his henchman El VIH),” Manuel Betancourt writes, “that made me have to reckon with how uncomfortable I was with my own homosexuality. In my mind, I couldn’t think of my same-sex desires without associating them with this most terrifying of possibilities.”
I first opened the pages of Between Certain Death and a Possible Future with my own assumption (unrecognized, unanalyzed) that my generation, who entered puberty when skeletal queers were headline news, suffered the unique trauma of an identity and desire never free from impending disease, pain, abjection, and death. From the first memory of my feelings, sex meant not pleasure and joy, but wasting away. I did not expect to live to be older than, at most, 35. I’m a decade past that now. Going on in health and prosperity brought a strange survivor’s guilt, as if I had somehow betrayed life by living.
What these writers show is the persistence of such feelings, and worse, for all but the most lucky and carefree among us, old and young alike. “The collective trauma of the HIV epidemic has been passed down through generations, but we rarely contend with it as a community,” Alexander McClelland says. “The grief and deaths of thousands of gay men, trans women, injection drug users, sex workers, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized people were not taken seriously then, so how can the grief and fears of subsequent generations be taken seriously now?”
It is the achievement of the book Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has assembled that each of its many writers, regardless of age or circumstance, takes grief and fear seriously, recognizes history, dreams of a better future, and offers models of love that are not solely models of death.
Between Certain Death and a Possible Future
By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Arsenal Pulp Press
Published October 5, 2021