Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

This collective sense of doom

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | August 19, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: ACT UP, Andre Techine, elderly gays and lesbians, HIV/AIDS, Intergenerational memory, Karl Soehnlein, loss, Michael Nava, San Francisco, Trebor Healey

I love this series called Passing on the Pen at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, curated by mystery writer Michael Nava. The series consists of writers in conversation -- last week it was Trebor Healey and Karl Soehnlein. They both read excerpts from their novels-in-progress, and I thought it was interesting and exciting that they both took place at similar times -- Karl's in 1985 I think, Trebor's in 1991 -- and both centered around AIDS.

Sometimes at events I end up thinking of a question the whole time through, and then it just gets more and more layered and I'm about to explode but I don't feel like I've fully figured out what I want to say, but then it's the end and I better ask or else I'll implode.

So here's what I say: "I thought it was interesting that you were talking about the lack of 20-year-old readers, when actually I feel like in my audience there are a lot of 20-year-olds, and the lack is more among people over 45 or so (Trebor and Karl are both in their mid-40s), and I wonder if that's because of the anti-assimilationist politics -- so I kind of have the reverse situation from what you're talking about."

"But I thought it was really interesting that both of your novels center around AIDS, and I wonder if it's time for a new generation of writing about AIDS -- I went to that movie by Andre Techine, what was it called? Anyway, all the promotion described it as talking about AIDS activism in Paris in the '80s and I was really excited to see it, but actually it's just the same tired crap, I mean you watch this young guy die of AIDS and then at the end the enlightened straight people sail into the distance -- I almost couldn't believe it.

"And also you were talking about ACT UP and how it felt young and angry and punk, and I guess I had a different experience of ACT UP -- I was involved a bit later, and I was 19 in ACT UP San Francisco in 1992 and that was a bit after its trendy point, and ACT UP for me was actually about elders, all these brilliant activists who I met who were 10 or 20 or 30 years older than me and now so many of them are dead or are not interested in that kind of politic and what I'm wondering is about AIDS and intergenerational memory and loss."

Oh, no -- is that really what I said? Where's the question? No wonder they were confused! Anyway, what surprised me was that both of them talked about sexual safety and risk-taking among young fags, and the cluelessness of some of the 20-year-olds they've encountered, with regards to safer sex norms. Karl certainly expressed a sense of optimism for future queer generations, but what I meant to invoke was this sense of loss that we all share as fags, regardless of age, and I don't believe the mythologies that young people just don't know or don't care. I mean I haven't seen that at all, although Trebor brought up an interesting point that my audiences may be much more politicized than theirs.

What I meant to ask was: what do we do with that loss? How do we build intergenerational ties, a sense of communal care, a defiant challenge to our sense that early death is part of our destiny? It's true that I know more people, many of them in their 20s, who have seroconverted in the last seven years than I knew who seroconverted when I was in ACT UP in the early-'90s. I don't believe it's because of a lack of information, but rather the kinds of mistakes we all make, and also this collective sense of doom. How do we create something else?

Mattilda also blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com.


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I don't buy into the whole "collective sense of doom" theory. Instead, I think a lot of the increased seroconversion rate has to do with younger folks not watching everyone die around them, but instead seeing HIV+ men taking their pills and continuing to live their lives. I perceive from my talks with 20-somethings that they're not worried about HIV/AIDS because "You'll live for a long time - until you're 60 or so. And who wants to live past 60?" That, of course, leads us straight back into the gay worship of youth.

Bil, that's a good point about gay worship of youth, but I think that exists side-by-side with this collective sense of doom, and they reinforce one another. I guess I haven't met any fag who's not worried about AIDS...

Really? As Alex has blogged, most of the guys in Indiana that want to hook up from online also want to bareback. While I agree that the threat of HIV makes people want to rebel, most of those I've talked to simply say that HIV is no big deal. It's astounding. They don't see it as a quick and painful death. Instead, they see guys my age and older who still look healthy and hearty, so they seem to think, "Well, that's not so bad. No one dies of this anymore..."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 20, 2008 1:03 AM

OK, I am a veteran of the first wave and lost more friends than I care to count. When this happened I resolved to live each day for the most I could get out of it. That meant actively thinking about the meaning of my daily actions both to myself and the greater world. In that this included friendships and relationships with all manner of people, where their sexuality was a side issue, it enriched my life.

Are we too insular? Have we become so wrapped up in ourselves and other Gay people exclusively that we have forgotten how to relate to a variety of people? I think plenty of people have and need to revisit the whole world where babies are born, old men and women play board games while they share the mystery and beauty of their life experience.

Mere length of life is irrelevant if it has been spent being in a dark hole of doom. Youth is irrelevant if it is consumed by fear. A sense of self value is vital if we are to value others and that dictates safe and respectful sexual conduct.

But Bil, strangely enough I think most of those people who want to bareback also say in their posts, "HIV-negative and STD free, UB 2," so I don't think that barebacking necessarily means that people aren't afraid of AIDS.

Wouldn't barebacking itself be a statement that they're not afraid? Just because a casual trick tells you that they're HIV- doesn't mean they truly are. It's a dice roll. That involves some level of courage...

Good post, Mattilda. I think that this is the most you and I have discussed one of your posts. :)