There is something magically beautiful in something that can never be.
I’m not talking about reading all of Ulysses in a night or not finishing a box of cheesy bread. I’m talking about the past in the most nostalgic, clichéd, Midnight in Paris-esque way. Tragedy drips from this impossibility like water from a roof—slowly forming a puddle that will soon submerge my foot as I’m running late to a meeting and which will leave me cold, numb, and sad for the entirety of the day. That is my impossibility. That is my art.
This never-can-happen thing, however, was just within my grasp by a few years. It’s not ancient Egypt, it’s not revolutionary France, it’s not even the roaring 20’s.
1980’s America in the midst of the AIDS Crisis is my impossibility.
[Sidenote: Do not misunderstand me though. I’m not nostalgic for a time when I most likely would have died. I’m not nostalgic for a time when I would have seen my best friends and lovers suddenly die in front of me. I’m not nostalgic for a time when the government refused to say the word “AIDS,” nor for a time when AIDS only “affected” men, nor for a time when the AIDS only “affected” gay men, nor for a time when AIDS was seen as a punishment to gays. This is not my nostalgia.]
My nostalgia is for community.
I had the opportunity to watch “United in Anger,” a documentary by Jim Hubbard. It played at the Michigan Theatre and was an amazing way to spend my first time in that space. Now, as I’ve seen many a film on AIDS (having taken English 314: Culture of Aids, with David Halperin) I was prepared to cry. To shout. To literally shake in my seat. To want to light the world on fire. To love like I will never be able to love. And this movie made me feel all.
It put me in the action and perspective of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in such a fresh way. It showed me how the group started, transformed, and how they were able to achieve their goals. And the film even did more than that. It showed me a sense of community. These people faced death everyday; they faced active discrimination and a government that did absolutely nothing. And to see a group of people protest is one thing. To see a group of people do a “die-in” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is another. They didn’t care if anyone liked them (because in my opinion, had they been liked they would have been doing something wrong). ACT UP was ruthless in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of those they loved.
This is my nostalgia.
I long for the period when identifying as a gay man meant so much more. It meant community, it meant family, it meant weird and different, it meant being tied to a disease that would kill you (even given the fact that sex doesn’t cause AIDS but HIV does). And it meant action. It meant anger.
What I’m trying to get at is: gay people weren’t fighting to be assimilated into a heteronormative culture dominated by the belief that gay marriage is something interesting to fight for. They weren’t fighting to be normal. They were fighting for survival. And in doing so, they created a way of life that is beyond my imagination.
I crave a community that is tied together intrinsically and I will never have it. I’m lucky to live in a time where there is vast knowledge about HIV prevention and where antiretroviral drugs are not only effective but also accessible. I’m privileged enough to never have to experience sheer terror and I’m thankful for that. I’m so lucky that I can feel safe.
But still, there is something so artful in something that can never be.