There are No Angels in America: AIDS and Queer Identity

“Nobody knows what causes it. And nobody knows how to cure it. The best theory is that we blame a retrovirus, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Its presence is made known to us by the useless antibodies which appear in reaction to its entrance to the bloodstream, through a cut or an orifice. The antibodies are powerless to protect the body against it. Why, we don’t know. The body’s immune system ceases to function. Sometimes the body even attacks itself. At any rate, it’s left open to a whole horror house of infections from microbes which it usually defends against.”[1]

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s became a social and political touchstone for the gays and lesbians men who lived through it. AIDS first began appearing in 1981, when doctors began to notice that many of their gay, male patients were contracting a rare type of cancer. A decade later, it had become the second-largest killer of men between the ages of 25 and 44. [2]

For all its horror – or perhaps because of the unifying force of the tragedy – the disease also “brought about a political and social unity [within the LGBT community] on a scale much larger than ever before.” [3] No surprise that Tony Kushner’s seminal play, Angels in America, centers around the effects of AIDS on a group of soul-searching New Yorkers, and, in fact, uses the disease as a symbol for larger societal problems that are eating at the heart of America. In doing so, Kushner (like many of his contemporaries) puts AIDS at the center of the gay experience, posing the epidemic a specter that continues to haunt understandings of queerness to this day.

Throughout the play, Kusher examines AIDS through numerous lenses: as a horrifyingly common experience for gay men, an othering disease that came to symbolize the political, social, and moral weakness of homosexuals for conservative pundits, and as a world-altering plague full of historical import. When Louis laments, “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no angels in America,” while his ex-boyfriend suffers in his hospital bed next to him onstage, one cannot help but think that he is speaking about not only spiritual death, but the literal death of his community. [4] Similarly, Prior’s otherworldly experience with the “prior” Priors (to steal Kushner’s pun) places AIDS as a turning point comparable to other historical turning points:

Prior 2: They chose us, I suspect, because of moral affinities. In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by plague.
Prior 1: The spotty monster.
Prior 2: Black Jack. Came from a water pump, half the city of London, can you imagine? His came from fleas. Yours, I understand, is the lamentable consequence of venery. [5]

For Kushner, the AIDS epidemic is not only a significant event for gay men who lived in the 1980s, but a historical moment on par with the Black Death, the definitive moment for American history and queer history alike.

Yes, the importance of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overstated. But we do a disservice to LGBT history if we focus on it exclusively. By presenting so many queer characters who are tied up in the AIDS epidemic, Kushner’s play begs the question: how can we understand queer identity outside AIDS? I find it significant that the character least touched by AIDS, Joe Pitt, is a closeted, politically conservative, Mormon gay man who is finally left lost, adrift, and community-less at the end of the play. What does that mean for queer identity before AIDS, or after it?

Hide/Seek, the groundbreaking art exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, seeks to answer this question by looking at the way queer identit(ies) changed over time. “How, in the United States of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, did sexual behavior evolve into sexual identity, from what you did to what you were, and how, as the twentieth century shaded into the twenty-first, has sexual identity morphed back into sexual behavior?” [6] In this narrative, AIDS is a major turning point that, as curator David Ward put it, “destroyed the progressive narrative that would have transpired if the epidemic had never occurred.” [7] But understanding queerness via AIDS is not the only model set forth. Instead, queerness is seen through lens of heterosexual-identified early twentieth century men who sometimes slept with other men, socialite lesbians, drag queens, kinksters, AIDS survivors, and countless people who existed in the grey area in between. By breaking through the narrow boundaries of queerness that the AIDS epidemic created, even as it brought a community together, Hide/Seek presents a decidedly complex view of LGBT identity and history.

[1] Tony Kushner, Angels In America: A Fantasia on National Themes Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 48.

[2] AVERT, “The History of HIV/AIDS in the United States.” Accessed April 30, 2013.

[3] Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 293.

[4] Kushner, Angels in America, 98.

[5] Kushner, Angels in America, 93.

[6] Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 2010), 16.

[7] Katz and Ward, Hide/Seek, 231.

8 thoughts on “There are No Angels in America: AIDS and Queer Identity

  1. I enjoyed the Hide/Seek reading. Knowing very little about LGBT and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the visuals and accompanying stories moved my soul. My favorite (if I can call it that) is Untitled (face in dirt) by David Wojnarowicz. The intimacy of death and knowing the man within the image died not soon after was haunting.

  2. Becca, I really agree with your point about the importance of highlighting the history of LGBT in America without strictly focusing on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, hearing, reading, and thinking about Joe Pitt was the most interesting part of this play to me, he was such a dynamic character. The layers of meaning in this play run deep, and I definitely need to read it several more times to begin to unpack it.

  3. I definitely agree that focusing too much on AIDS does a disservice to LGBT history. One of the tragic things about history is how groups end up being defined by the terrible things that happen to them. Not to go off topic, but it’s unfortunate the most prominent Jewish museum in the country is the Holocaust Museum. It’s important to remember that even if terrible things happen to certain groups of people, but their history is far deeper than tragedy and oppression.

    1. Oddly enough, it seems that tragedy and oppression are much easier to deal with than real human complexity. It is easier for people to focus on the AIDS epidemic, which has no human villain than other parts of LGBTQ history where straight people can see themselves as perpetrators of injustice and where the complexities of queer culture make many people uncomfortable. This is what makes exhibits like Hide/Seek so important, in how it addresses LGBTQ history head on and honestly, helping people confront what is for many, a difficult past.

    2. Colin, I thought the same thing. Sometimes I wonder if the focus on aids/the holocaust/slavery does a disservice to the rich history that could be told in conjunction with these topics. Of course, these tragedies and crimes need to be discussed, but I think a more complete narrative needs to be incorporated into the history of many groups.

  4. Living through the 80s I remember the intense focus on the AIDs epidemic. In truth, when looking back I thought of it not as a sexual-orientation specific disease but one that struck at the whole nation. As I remember it as part of a chapter in LGBT history, I think considering it as the whole chapter does begin to define a group by a tragedy. It seems we are quick to forget, however, how much it affected the LGBT community, as well as how it is still affecting the world today.

  5. As I was reading “Angels in America” I was think about how they focused on the AIDs epidemic. To try an gain some more context on LGBT community, I turned to documentaries available online, many of which also focused on the AIDs crisis. I wondered what else was out there that talks about this community without focusing largely on AIDs.

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