HIV/AIDS, Aging, and Diminishing Abilities: Reconfiguring Gay Masculinity in Literature and Theology
Clark, J. Michael, The Journal of Men's Studies
"'[We're] supposed to be dead'" (Maupin, 2007, p. 1). At least that's how most gay male, long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS must surely hear the opening conversation in Armistead Maupin's 2007 novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, a text that provides a valuable window into the combined realities of aging and long-term survival for gay men living with HIV/AIDS. As a result, and because gay fiction has so often reflected changes in the lived realities of gay men (cf., Clark, 1986), not only does the novel eerily parallel the experiences of my partner Bob and me, but it also provides an important starting point for a conversation seldom undertaken in men's studies generally and particularly at the intersection of men's studies and gay theology: Specifically, we need to explore the theological ramifications of both aging and long-term HIV/AIDS survival in order to better understand gay masculinity and even masculinity in general.
HIV/AIDS and Gay Male Aging
At age 55, Maupin's main character, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, falls between Bob's (54) and my (57) ages at the moment and, also like us, he has been HIV+ for over twenty years (Maupin, 2007, pp. 141, 19). His is certainly a representative voice for all of us who constitute the "sweet confederacy of survivors" (Maupin, 2007, p. 4), the very long-term survivors not only of HIV/AIDS itself, but of decades of the extremely strong and sometimes nearly toxic antiviral medicines and drug cocktails that have made such multiple decades of survival even possible. In short, "Mouse" speaks to the "double whammy of HIV and advancing age" for many gay men (Maupin, 2007, p. 215).
Another recent, albeit very different, novel provides some additional insights into this "double whammy," including reflections upon its beginnings well over twenty years ago. The unnamed narrator and central character in Andrew Holleran's tersely entitled Grief recalls that "AIDS ... was a nightmare. I used to think the eighties were like a very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating" (2006, p. 50). Bob and I certainly remember how frequently news came back then of yet another friend's or acquaintance's death; by the late nineties we felt as if we'd survived virtually all but a handful of our gay male friends. That eerie feeling comes home for me again later in Holleran's (2006) novel because his narrator/character, like me, is a college teacher whose life and losses are now our students' history. He notes,
We had survived something so many of our friends had not [and] here I am ... sitting in a seminar ... twenty years later, discussing as a historical event the thing that killed my friends. "AIDS is over," I told them one afternoon. "At least in this country.... It galvanized the nation for a brief period, but that moment is past.... When the public learned that it was not going to affect them, that it was [after all] mainly a gay disease [or a disease affecting other equally marginalized groups of people], it moved on." (pp. 73-76)
And, in moving on, the "public" has failed to acknowledge the now aging, HIV-wounded survivors of that deadly "dinner party" still living in our midst.
Unfortunately, Holleran's view of gay male middle age is no less bleak. His narrator observes of a contemporary, for example, that "at fifty-five things had stopped happening to him.... Nothing happened to him anymore. Or rather: Everything that did had already happened before--many, many times.... He was now a sort of homosexual emeritus" (2006, p. 39). Holleran's novel is also ironically the sadder of these two and the less helpful for theological reflection as a result--ironic because his survivors of the pandemic years are not themselves HIV+ and yet they come off far more grief-filled, isolated, and alone than Maupin's character(s).
Granted, Maupin's "Mouse" does have his melancholy moments. …