The TV adaptation of Angels in America shows how far gay men have come in the 20 years since Aids emerged, says Simon Fansh
The terror comes rushing back. Watching a preview of the television film of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America this week, the fear swept over me. I had forgotten that when Aids first appeared, I felt we were cursed. I have always remembered the iceberg ads, the Dies Irae, the story that Norman Fowler had to ask his civil servants what a blow job was. But I had put from my mind the cold sweat of dread that broke when Aids first became our gay reality.
It is more than 20 years ago – 1981 – that Aids was discovered. I was in love, with a straight man. It was the safest sex I had ever had – abstinence. It was not my first choice, but I suspect he chose it with relief. He was a scientist. He was also the first person to tell me there was “this new gay cancer”. I rounded on him, hurling every rhetorical guilt trip in my anti-discrimination sling-shot. “Gay” cancer? He was homophobic, sexist, typically straight. Inside, I churned with panic as Aids pushed my gay self further towards the edge of society.
I was so out of the closet, but I hated being gay. I did not let on – even to myself. I was scared of sex, I just didn’t realise it. Instead, I bit my nails, acted defensively and hated myself. And you could see in the strident assertions of the legitimacy of our gayness that I was not alone. We had not long been out in the daylight, walking through towns and cities on the pavements rather than skulking at night in basements, so Aids felt like an attack aimed at us. Gays were one in 10 of the population. We were all to die.
Today, we understand so much about the pandemic in Africa, about the real routes of transmission, which are not via bigotry into the bloodstream of a minority, but via unprotected sex into the lives of those unable or uneducated to protect themselves. Back then, all we could do was grab a lifeline for our self-esteem by always mentioning the heroin addicts and the haemophiliacs – the three Hs. But the fact was that it was mainly us. Aids was the moment when liberation turned to annihilation.
Kushner’s great sweeping epic weaves that millenarial feeling of crisis around a brilliant anatomy of the assault in the early 80s by the Reaganite right on liberal values. “It’s a real revolution in Washington,” says Martin, a henchman of Ed Meese, Reagan’s brutally flatfooted attorney general. “We’ll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defence, Central America, protecting the family … It’s the end of liberalism, of ipso facto secular humanism.”
The right must have thanked God for Aids. Through fear, it struck at the core of our fledgling public identity, threatening to shut the fags up for good. Not only were we dying, but we were also politically powerless, dispensable, ignorable. Kushner uses the real-life character of the McCarthyite acolyte Roy M Cohn – the lawyer who harried a judge to ensure he sent the accused communist Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair – as the vehicle for this idea. In what will remain one of the great speeches in 20th-century drama, Cohn (Al Pacino in the HBO/Channel 4 film), receiving his own diagnosis of Aids, rants to his doctor: “Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. No, like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only; where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste but something much simpler: clout.”
He then weaves a ferocious description of his own power, his access to the president, around the denial of his sexuality, triumphantly declaring, “I am defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys.” Meanwhile, the rest of us had to stagger on as ordinary homos, trying to mop up the blood, tending the wounds of the dying and trying to salvage our status as human beings and demand a place at the table.
The right didn’t kill us off. Clinton – and in this country, New Labour – appeared, and drew up a chair for us. Thousands of brave souls fought through the fear and terror to catch the imagination of the world – and people started to try to tackle Aids across the globe. When we started Stonewall, the first activists founded the Terrence Higgins Trust in memory of their friend, and gay men in New York played dead in St Patrick’s Cathedral as part of an Act-Up protest, we had to invent a sense of political legitimacy. Now, as the struggles move beyond the basic legislative programme of equality, we can feel the scope of gay activism broadening. No longer the pained howls of a minority against discrimination, it operates on the maturing realisation that the rights of lesbians and gay men illustrate the freedoms and responsibilities that we all deserve as citizens – being parents, being respected as next of kin, being protected by decent inheritance laws.
Angels in America reminded me that there really was a Dark Ages, a time when those of us who are gay were on death row. We fought for our reprieve. We are not there any longer. Nor are we as easy a political prey. We have learned how to walk the corridors of power with a little confidence. We are less of a pushover for Bush than we almost were for Reagan. Until I watched Angels in America, I had forgotten how frightened we were, and it made me realise how good sex is now.
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