Reaching sexual maturity is an overwhelming enough experience at the best of times: worrying that everything is functioning properly and there was nothing untoward about what one did or how one did it; but for an entire generation, like myself, reaching puberty in the 1980s, that stage of our lives was made scarier yet by the arrival of a new sexually transmitted disease: one that killed. Reading Between Certain Death & A Possible Future sent me hurtling back to my own sexual awakening in the 1980s when people thought you could get AIDS from kissing, or holding hands, or from sniffing poppers; when no one really knew anything about this big disease with a little name and everyone was running scared; when each time you caught a cold or felt under the weather you immediately assumed it was AIDS, even if you hadn’t had sex or had had protective sex: somehow, just being gay made you think you would get it, already had it. An entire generation entering the minefield of adult sexuality with the grim reaper by their side and the concentrated fears and phobias of society directed at their every move. A generation for whom the usual hypochondria and insecurity of adolescent sex were amplified to a deafening level. The voices of that generation are now loud and clear in this rich, ample volume of testaments from a broad range of queer folk.
To set the ball rolling, or rather, kick it into outer space, the inimitable Sycamore – whose previous titles as author and editor include Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform and That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation– explains in her introduction how the idea for the project took shape whilst writing Sketchtasy their 2018 novel set in the year 1995 – the year, she writes, when “more people in the United States died of AIDS than in any other year”. It became apparent to her that there’s a lost generation of queers – my generation – whose sexual awakening took place within the murderous homophobia of the AIDS health crisis, knowing that sex was extremely risky and public reaction against queers was at an all-time high. Living in fear not only of the virus but also in fear of the society, the communities, the families within which their sexual truth might very likely be greeted with violence and ostracism; living in fear, that is, of ignorance. I remember it well.
In the words of Ryan Conrad in one of the pieces in this volume of essays, “An entire generation of queer men [is] missing from the present-day frame, and many of those who are still with us are deeply traumatized from decades of watching their friends and lovers decimated by a deadly virus made more virulent by homophobia and medical negligence”.
Sycamore streamlined the call out for submissions to include everyone except those who could remember a sex life before AIDS, and the result is a rich and broad collection of narratives that deliver a real punch in the gut. These thirty-six stories tell of lives lived, if not fearlessly, then boldly, intermittently, on occasion timidly, on occasion brashly – but lived. “To draw attention to difference is to be at risk”, writes Keiko Lane in ‘What Survival Means’ – the first piece in this excellent collection. These stories from the edge, filled with love and rage and survival, with humiliation and defiance, contain moments, or descriptions of moments, that will stay with me a long, long time, such as Liz Rosenfeld announcing to the stunned congregation at her bat mitzvah that her chosen charity was Gay Men’s Health Crisis; or when Berend Mackenzie, at sixteen, asks Randy, a slightly older gay man with AIDS he’s befriended, to sleep with him so they can die together;
I felt that these were my people and, at times, my experiences, being articulated across the broad range of subjectivities on display here. James Joyce once wrote that “in the particular is contained the universal” and never has it been more true than in these tales and remembrances of friends and lovers lost, of hateful families and families torn asunder; nascent identities forged in a red hot crucible of rage and confusion, adolescent sex explored in the face of denial and outrage, time spent waiting for test results, and broken heart after broken heart.
This is my world, these are my people. I know them. I am them.
“Much of my education came from watching the news about gay men dying of AIDS, wondering if this tragedy was my destiny. Or from the gay romantic comedies and movies about AIDS”, Eddie Walker writes in ‘Lucky’.
In ‘From the Inside: One Prisoner’s Perspective’, Timothy Jones gives a fascinating account of his experiences of AIDS inside the prison system and makes for a grim read.
The Conversations We Need To Save Each Others’ Lives’, is a poignant dialogue between two long-standing lovers and friends, Charles Ryan Long, born in the United States, who is black, forty, and living with HIV, and Ted Kerr, white, forty-one, HIV negative and Canadian. Ted observes, that “AIDS is a very alive topic in the twenty-first century; I just think we are not yet having the conversations we need to have to save each other’s lives. Nor are we being intersectional enough when we do talk about HIV”.
Despite the grimness of the situation, these pieces sparkle with humour – the prize for funniest line going to Adrian Ryan for this gem: “He made my dick harder than Cocteau Twins karaoke”.
Manuel Betancourt, who grew up in Colombia, AIDS was El Sida, and in his mind it was a villainous, if erotically appealing, character – “all rippling muscles and bulging veins” – to be feared as much as desired (“death and desire seemed one and the same”). Betancourt writing with eloquent candour, and speaking for many of us, myself included, “I couldn’t think of my same-sex desires without associating them with this most terrifying of possibilities. If so many in the generation before me had lost their lives because of lack of pertinent and disseminated information, my generation had to unlearn the ways in which same-sex desire was conflated with AIDS. Much of our basest instincts were irrevocably tinged with a shame that was hard to shake off.”
Because, as Ryan Conrad reminds us here, “The AIDS crisis has always been a crisis of representation, not just a medical and/or political crisis”, there’s a healthy presence of artists amongst the contributors, such as Dan Fishback, whose ‘Jason & David’ is one of the stand-out pieces in a collection of stand-out pieces. Each one is coloured by, or articulates, “the sense of being othered, of being ashamed, of being queer”, to quote from Miranda Recht’s ‘Elders’. Shame is the emotion expressed time and time again here, the underside of Pride, without which our history is incomplete.
BETWEEN CERTAIN DEATH AND A POSSIBLE FUTURE Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis Edited by Mattilda Sycamore Published by https://arsenalpulp.com/ and features at MIAMI BOOK FAIR 2021
Described as “startlingly bold and provocative” by Howard Zinn, “a cross between Tinkerbell and a honky Malcolm X with a queer agenda” by the Austin Chronicle, and “a gender-fucking tower of pure pulsing purple fabulous” by The Stranger, Mattilda Sycamore is the author of two nonfiction titles and three novels, and the editor of six nonfiction anthologies. Her new book, The Freezer Door, is one of Oprah Magazine’s Best LGBTQ Books of 2020, and received rave reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post immediately upon release on November 24, 2020.
Review by Jonathan Kemp
Queerguru London Contributing Editor Jonathan Kemp writes fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. He is the author of two novels – London Triptych (2010), which won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and Ghosting (2015) – and the short-story collection Twentysix. (2011, all published by Myriad Editions). Non-fiction works include The Penetrated Male (2012) and Homotopia?: Gay Identity, Sameness and the Politics of Desire (2015, both Punctum Books).