“Don’t you think I’m handling this well?”: Angels in America and the AIDS Stigma

Fear can be a deadly poison. It spreads quietly and without warning for reasons we cannot always understand. It tears us apart from loved ones, and keeps out all other emotions: joy, anger, remorse, grief. Few understand fear’s silent power like victims of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a disease just as poisonous as the fear that surrounds it.

We learn a lot about what this fear can do in Tony Kushner’s landmark play, Angels in America, a 1980s commentary on life for gay men, the group most associated with the decade’s AIDS epidemic. Since the disease broke out in 1981, 777,467 people in the United States had been reported with AIDS by December 31, 2000. 448,060 had died, and a majority passed in the 1980s. 41 percent of those living with AIDS contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) through male-to-male sex.[1] With these staggering numbers, AIDS almost becomes its own character in Angels. It affects all the players with powerful and troubling convictions—whether they have it or not.

Take main character Louis Ironson, for example. The play introduces him at his great aunt’s funeral, which he attends with his partner of several years, Prior Walter. Louis does not know how to express his feelings at his relative’s death. Either sensing this discomfort or missing it entirely, Prior chooses to reveal his own deadly secret to Louis when he lifts up his sleeve just after the ceremony ends:

LOUIS: That’s just a burst blood vessel.

PRIOR: Not according to the best medical authorities.

LOUIS: What?


Tell me.

PRIOR: K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death.

LOUIS: (Very softly, holding Prior’s arm): Oh please . . .

PRIOR: I’m a lesionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion. Lesionnaire’s disease.

LOUIS: Stop.

PRIOR: My troubles are lesion.

LOUIS: Will you stop.

PRIOR: Don’t you think I’m handling this well?

I’m going to die.[2]

Prior just discovered he contracted AIDS. He tries to mask his pain and fear with humor, which does nothing to help Louis. Instead, Louis slowly breaks away from his partner. Fear, anger, and frustration fill every thought until he decides he cannot handle Prior’s pain and eminent death. He leaves one night to cheat on Prior with another man, then later tells him he will not come back, even as Prior is bedridden in pain. Louis even tries to escape his fear with a second set of romantic encounters with Joe Pitt, another of the play’s main characters.[3]

Fear drives Louis to abandon his partner, thanks to a disease he does not completely understand.  In the 1980s, he was not alone. In fact, misinformation and a need for blame caused a national hysteria that ostracized AIDS victims. While fear commonly associated the disease with homosexuals, others suffered just as much. I recently watched a brilliant high school presentation on Ryan White, a child born with hemophilia whose treatments were infected with the HIV virus. He was diagnosed with AIDS at 13 years old, and was subsequently banned from school. Teachers, parents, and students alike spread rumors that he was spitting in his classmates’ food, and purposefully biting them so he could keep spreading the disease. Fear turned to hysteria until Ryan and his mother took the case to court, where the school’s ban was eventually overturned.[4]

Ryan passed away in 1990, a hero for AIDS advocacy and one of the first to teach the public how to think again about the epidemic. Many believe his story was so powerful because he fell so far outside the stereotypes associated with AIDS: most pictured gay men like Prior.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988. As seen in Hide/Seek at the National  Portrait Gallery.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988. As seen in Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery.

Fear is never an excuse for leaving behind those who suffer. People affected by AIDS need help understanding, and grieving. Museums can provide some of that help. The Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibition uses art to connect visitors with the struggles that come with AIDS. The Museum of AIDS in Africa encourages online testimonials to remember those lost from the disease, reminding others of the humanity in those infected and those who lost friends and family.

AIDS is still very real, and we cannot let fear turn a blind eye to how we remember it.


[1] USA.gov, “HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981-2000, Morbid and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 1, 2001. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm

[2] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 21.

[3] Kushner, Angels in America.

[4] Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, “Who was Ryan White?” Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health, accessed April 28, 2014. http://hab.hrsa.gov/abouthab/ryanwhite.html

16 thoughts on ““Don’t you think I’m handling this well?”: Angels in America and the AIDS Stigma

  1. I’ve heard multiple people from more than one ideological perspective say that AIDS gave the Gay Rights Movement a massive setback–that gay men were less accepted during the epidemic than they were before it. It just goes to show that progress, however defined, is not inevitable. I was not around to remember the terror associated with AIDS, but I can remember how pervasive fear was after 9/11. I suppose it was something similar. People get irrational when they’re afraid and angry, and will hate people they formerly had nothing against.

    I wonder if the media can have the same effect, only producing a lower intensity of feelings over a longer period of time. How many of the stories we read make us angry at someone, or some population? How many of them make us afraid? What does this do to how we treat others because of a single descriptor?

    1. Actually fear of AIDS, the treatment of patients with HIV and AIDS, and the Reagan administration’s denial of the epidemic played a major role in the formation of the modern moderate gay liberation movement. Almost all of the most well known LGBTQ political organizations– Human Right Campaign, the Triangle Foundation, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation–began as an effort to get DC to do something about AIDS. The experience really pushed many men, who were more moderate politically then early gay liberation activists, to get involved in fighting for equal rights. Many times the experiences you are describing, galvanizes a community together in a way that nothing else can. So, perhaps AIDS led many straight people to fear all gay men, but you could hardly call AIDS a set-back for the movement.

  2. I thought I’d leave another example of someone destroying the stereotypes surrounding AIDS. Here’s a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vTKDFcRDLY I first saw this video of Mary Fisher in my Public Speaking course. At the time, people believed only gay men living promiscuous lives were positive for HIV. Mary Fisher was none of those things. She was a married woman and positive for HIV which made her speaking out about the subject so powerful.

    Also, RENT is a musical about a group of people who live out a year of their lives with have HIV/AIDS. I feel that it’s a successful means of depicting the humanity behind the disease.

    1. I also feel obligated to mention Dallas Buyer’s Club, where the main character is diagnosed with AIDS, doesn’t understand it fully, and equates it with a “f–s disease.” I think it’s important that the dangerous misunderstandings about sexually transmitted diseases are still getting air time in major motion pictures. Movies can be a humanizing force.

  3. I watched Ryan White when I was in elementary school! Anyway, Patrick, your post reminded me of our discussion from last week in regards to care takers. When I think of cancer, there is a strong public support of people facing that disease and sympathy for the family. I don’t get that same sense with AIDS. I recall no portrayal of the family or loved ones of somebody suffering with AIDS. But as you point out, it effects more than just the people who are diagnosed. I have a friends who was diagnosed with AIDS. He did not want to tell his boyfriend or family, fearing what their reaction would be. He did not expect their support, but rather fear and discrimination. Our perceptions of a disease can impact our relationships.

  4. Its strange how AIDS was originally seen (and in many cases still seen) as a disease of the Gay community, especially since the disease is not limited to sexual transmission. I suspect that a stronger media focus on cases of AIDS in members of the Gay community, along with older misconceptions that homosexuality resulted from noticeable biological differences, might have shaped our society’s early understanding of the disease. Unfortunately, that first impression is hard to change, and as a result, anyone with AIDS (and their families indirectly) may experience undue criticism because of it. I am glad that Patrick shared some examples of museums that are seeking to address this issue. A variety of museums have the potential to address the negative stigma around AIDS and encourage us to think about it in a different way. One example I found was the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which is developing an exhibit of artwork related to the disease. http://www.internationalfolkart.org/exhibitions/letstalkaboutthis.html

  5. As I was reading this, it made me think of several television shows or specials I remember watching, but not fully understanding, when I was a kid in the ‘90s. On Nickelodean, there was a special about a little boy with AIDS that challenged the stereotypes associated with the disease. Similarly, a Golden Girls episode in the 1980s challenged the idea of who had AIDS when a doctor told Rose she might have the disease. She felt scared and equated the disease with sexual promiscuity. Blanche challenged her by saying it was not a “bad person’s disease.” These are two different examples that challenge the beliefs and stereotypes of AIDS but I wonder how effective they were. I think many of us today do not think of AIDS as a “bad person’s disease” but how many of these old stereotypes still exist?

    1. It’s interesting that you bring that up, Emily. I was just looking at some U.S. AIDS statistics (http://aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/statistics/). It is difficult to break stereotypes when even governmental agencies define the categories of those affected with AIDS by risk groups, such as gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men and heterosexuals and injection drug users. If you look at just that website, you would think those are the only types of people to be affected by it.

      1. This is a good point, Kahla. A CDC report, however, from 2012 showed that while the overall rate of new cases of HIV in the US were stable, cases of new infections in people under the age of 25 were on the rise (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/27/166012216/hiv-infections-rise-among-young-black-men). This was especially true of young black men who have sex with men. I think to isolate this population would be a mistake though. The problem may be with young people in general, who are less aware, and as you have pointed out, do not think they are at risk. While I don’t think we need the scare of the 80s and early 90s, as that NPR article suggests, more people need to be tested regularly and at younger ages. Perhaps we have become complacent, but it is important for us all to remember that HIV/AIDS is not something of the past.

    2. I also thought of 80’s television when reading this, specifically 21 Jump Street with Johnny Depp. One episode deals with a teenage boy who was excluded and bullied in school because he had AIDS. It would be interesting to look at portrayals of individuals with AIDS in the media at the time, and to see how shows like these affected public opinion.

  6. My brother cannot donate blood to the Red Cross because he is gay. The fear of AIDS in the 1980s led the Red Cross to exclude any man who has had sex with another man from donating blood. Though infection rates of AIDS in the gay community are lower than all other high-risk groups, the ban remains.

    1. Jillian, I was thinking about this too. While it is important to ensure that the blood donated my any person, not just gay men, is not contaminated the Red Cross really needs to rethink their techniques. AIDS is still in the recent memory for many Americans and unfortunately I do not see a change in public opinion or memory in the immediate future.

    2. Thanks for sharing, Jillian: I never realized that the Food and Drug Administration and Red Cross exclude men who have had sex with other men from donating blood. Also, I didn’t realize some women are disqualified as well: if, within the last 12 months, a woman had sex with a man who had sex with another man since 1977, she is ineligible to give blood.

      Last year, an individual organized a National Gay Blood Drive, which aimed to increase attention on the ban. According to its website, gay and bisexual men would show their support (through donations) while allies would donate in their place. The event–held at various cities around the country–came at a time when the Red Cross issued an emergency request for donations, which had been diminishing. Nonetheless, the Red Cross issued a statement saying, “we are concerned that the event has the potential to disrupt blood center operations”…


      1. “According to its website, gay and bisexual men would show their support (through donations) while allies would donate in their place.”

        Just to clarify something in my post, I meant that gay and bisexual men would show their support through financial contributions. Allies would donate blood.

    3. Jillian, I had no idea that The Red Cross has this ban. I agree with Michelle, the Red Cross needs to rethink their techniques. They are leaving out a huge community of people who could donate blood to their cause. This makes me want to stop giving blood; perhaps a good protest technique would be to temporarily boycott American Red Cross blood drives. Just a thought.

  7. Fear of a disease is a really powerful thing. Reading this I couldn’t help but think of the cholera book the 2nd years had to read and Gretchen’s exhibit on TB, which was done as a way to talk about HIV/AIDS without actually talking about it. Both showed how when people don’t understand something they are more likely to react badly. Museums have a responsibility to tackle difficult topics such as HIV/AIDS to help dived truth from fiction. I wonder what a science exhibit on HIV/AIDS would look like today.

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