I do not know an adult life without HIV. In 1981 I entered college, began my life as a gay man, and like the rest of the world, first became aware of the AIDS epidemic. The formative years of my young adulthood were colored by the devastation of AIDS and this was a time of great fear and anxiety for me and millions of gay men. When I reflect on the 1980’s my sense is that my body experienced one decade-long anxiety attack.
At the same time during this period, I had the opportunity to experience the reaction of our artistic community to the epidemic in the multitude of inspiring plays that were produced – Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, William Hoffman’s As Is, and Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive, and the original production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I remember being immersed in these theatrical experiences feeling somewhat numb because of the devastation that was occurring in the gay population of New York City, yet grateful that this reality was being reflected in these great works, which have now become critical documents in the history of AIDS. This Spring I once again experienced The Normal Heart, and found myself less numb but highly emotional in reliving those events at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. For me, it was two hours of reflecting on the many in my life who had lost their lives to AIDS, most of all my partner, Robert Massa, who was a theater critic turned AIDS journalist at the Village Voice.
Each year, I have the opportunity to teach students at NYU in a course I have developed, “HIV Prevention and Counseling.” Many are surprised that the first assignment requires them to read the original MMWR report of the disease, the original New York Times article by Lawrence Altman, and an anthology of AIDS plays, The Way We Live Now. Year after year, my students, many of who were not born when AIDS was first detected, are moved by these master works and transported emotionally to a time that they have only intellectually considered. The art of the play, the words of the play, bring to life the tragedy of AIDS.
Many have written about HIV/AIDS in different genres of literature; for one overview, see this review article from glbtq.com.