Spindelman, Marc, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law
D. Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?
Leo Bersani's essay Is the Rectum a Grave? (453)--published at the same time and in some of the same volumes as Crimp's How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic--is one of the most interesting and challenging essays on sexuality and its relation to HIV/AIDS written in the high years of the epidemic. It covers an amazing amount of sexual and political and conceptual ground, rehearsing and engaging and challenging and discarding many of the standard ways in which some gay men and "pro-sex" lesbians had been theorizing sexuality in efforts to make it more acceptable to the heterosexual (and homosexual) mainstream. While others were busy trying to prettify sex, to redeem it, particularly in the age of AIDS, Bersani set out to chart a different course. Traveling deep into sex's dark side, he sought to recover and name the "inestimable value" (454) of the gay sex so many others inside the gay community were busy denying and running from, even as they were sideways uttering the claim, as they looked back in horror, that sex was a value of, and for, the good. Fascinated by what they were all trying to escape, Bersani wanted to stare sex and its relation to death square in the face. When he did, he could not but marvel and celebrate it for its gruesome powers, and in particular, its capacity to humiliate, to injure, to smash, to shatter, and to destroy the self. Complexly written, once its code is cracked, Bersani's analysis comes close--of the texts engaged here, the closest--to a full-bodied embrace of the ideology of sexual freedom's erotics of death. Resoundingly, on both descriptive and normative levels, the rectum is a grave.
Bersani opens with two kinds of aversion to sex, (455) together widespread. The first, reflected in the "big secret" (456) about sex he shares--"most people don't like it" (457)--is summarily treated. A malignant version of aversion to sex--his principal concern-comes in for closer examination. It has, after all, been given a renewed lease on life by the emergence of AIDS, a "spectacle of suffering and death" that "has unleashed and even appeared to legitimize the impulse to murder." (458) This impulse to murder is, as Bersani initially describes it, fully heterosexualized: It is a straight lust to murder gays. Concretely, it can be seen operating in homophobic governmental policies that, among other things, have limited life-saving scientific research and medical services, and also promoted the stigmatization of, and attacks on, homosexuality, (459) all in effect numbering gays' days.
If these policies achieved gay deaths or would have largely by inaction, the murderous, anti-gay impulses of heterosexuals were also visible in threats of more direct gay-killing that hung heavy in the air. All these years later, the story Bersani retells that must continue to give "the greatest morbid delight" (460) is the one that "appeared in the London Sun under the headline 'I'd Shoot My Son if He Had AIDS, Says Vicar!' accompanied by a photograph of a man holding a rifle at a boy at pointblank range. The son, apparently more attuned to his father's penchant for violence than the respectable reverend himself, candidly add[s], 'Sometimes I think he would like to shoot me whether I had AIDS or not.'" (461) Gallows humor aside, Bersani is not venturing any very speculative claim. By his own compass, he is only surveying familiar ground. He thinks it obvious that political "power is in the hands of those [heterosexuals] who give every sign of being able to sympathize more with the murderous 'moral' fury of the good vicar than with the agony of a terminal KS patient." (462)
But, as if to establish the irrefutability of the point, Bersani catalogues other examples, including a U.S. Department of Justice opinion that "employers could fire employees with AIDS if they had so much as the suspicion that the virus could be spread to other workers, regardless of medical evidence," (463) as well as proposals for national quarantine camps, (464) which lead him to suggest that, if then-U. …