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. 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.
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.
PRIOR: My troubles are lesion.
LOUIS: Will you stop.
PRIOR: Don’t you think I’m handling this well?
I’m going to die.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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
 Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 21.
 Kushner, Angels in America.
 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