Sunday, August 17, 2008

This collective sense of doom

I love this series called Passing on the Pen at the GLBT Historical Society -- although I don't like saying "GLBT," that's its name, right? Anyway, the series, curated by mystery writer Michael Nava, 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 may 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?

8 comments:

stephen said...

I think that is a really good point, as a twenty something -- all the years I was in school we were drilled with AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS and safe sex or abstinence. I think my age group is very enlightened on the subject and I think most of us hate it because it feels like a problem that was given to us, like so many other problems, by an older very selfish generation. And as twenty somethings, we are just now coming into our own and deciding what we think about the world and building our voices of dissent and proclaiming our loves so I think you will see something new and good ... I'm reading at Dog Eared Books on Thursday with Jennifer Blowdryer and Brontez (gravy train) and I'd love it if you could come and see what I'm working on.. xoox

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Stephen, dear --

I'm always ready for what's new and good, or old and good -- it's interesting, because I think I inhabit that space right at the beginning of "AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS and safe sex or abstinence," since when I was 12 there were those big tabloid stories of Rock Hudson and Liberace and the first thing I ever heard about being a faggot, once I actually knew I was a faggot I mean after years of everyone calling me one but I didn't actually know what it meant until I knew I was going to die of AIDS.

But I'm wondering about this "older very selfish generation" and whether it's not about age but about this gay consumerist culture that just gets worse and worse...

I'd love to hear you read, but I can't come on Thursday -- perhaps a private reading, please please!

Love --
mattilda

K.M. said...

Mattilda! So that's what you were asking! ... I guess I'm not sure I that as gay men we all share a sense of loss. Or rather, whatever "sense" of loss/doom there is differs widely based on age, experience, location. How do we bridge that? Talk...listen...face-to-face... I don't think gay men can build "intergenerational ties, a sense of communal care" without intergenerational friendship first, which comes from shared space, including (especially) social space. Which takes many forms (and to my mind means at least part of the time getting offine and meeting people in 3 dimensions). ... Interesting for me to read of Stephen('s age group) being angry that they were "given" the problem of AIDS; the Stonewall generation was "given" it too, and those of us alive/out in the 80s had to figure out how to stay alive and healthy and sexual and self-affirmative when so little information was available and people in government were talking about locking those with HIV away .... The other night I did express worry that cutbacks in sex education in high schools has led to a diminished sense of fear of illness among younger gay men, but I don't want to generalize too widely -- for "my" generation or any other. ... I also expressed a sense of optimism, because I do think there's great energy and potential for dissent among queer men younger than me and that revives my faith in a better situation for us all. ... Anyway thanks for coming to the event Mattilda. ... xxKMS

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Karl, so lovely to hear from you!!!

This is so important and true:

"I don't think gay men can build "intergenerational ties, a sense of communal care" without intergenerational friendship first, which comes from shared space, including (especially) social space."

And this:

"those of us alive/out in the 80s had to figure out how to stay alive and healthy and sexual and self-affirmative when so little information was available and people in government were talking about locking those with HIV away..."

And all of this is still true, actually, although like you said it varies depending on demographic, age, race, class, location, etc.

And yes, I do remember your sense that "there's great energy and potential for dissent among queer men younger than me and that revives my faith in a better situation for us all" -- my apologies for not indicating that in my post. I'll admit that I may not share that same optimism, except in certain trans, genderqueer and gender-defiant subcultures -- although part of my reason for doing my new anthology, Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots?, is to investigate for such potentials.

And I'm so glad I went to the event!

Love --
mattilda

K.M. said...

I put a little on my new blog, too:
http://kmsoehnlein.typepad.com

kisess

stephen said...

what i meant about the older selfish generation -- i'll try it again -- basically a lot of people my age are in debt to banks and ideologies that we don't even care about because people older than us in america didn't work to fix problems, they just worked to enslave younger people to problems. like in Scandinavia, they have a much better health system, energy power system, educational system and many of the problems americans face are unthinkable there and that is why i dislike older generations. and yes, many older gay men are guilty of many of those mistakes but i think its more of a dumbass interpretation of capitalism issue and less of a sexual identity issue. does that make sense?

i'm house sitting in sf this week - mon to sun. i am doing some journalism work all weekend at outside lands music festival and the rest of the week i'll be loafing so if your schedule is open and if you can muster up some energy we should eat.

trailerparkqueer said...

I'm not a fag - born with a vagina (fortunately or unfortunate whatever) - but my circle tends to include more fags than other queers. I've known two different generations of gay men with HIV or AIDS. One is 51 right now and contracted it in 1986. I thank the heavens he's alive every day. The other? He was 19 about five years ago, and had contracted it when he was very young. He's close to my age - so 26ish about now. I haven't seen him since he heard he had gone full blown at 19 and decided he was just going to ride off into the sunset chasing adventure.

I honestly think I've seen up close more gay men with AIDS than most people in my generation. And I love and adore these men. perhaps things are different between and among men - in men only spaces - but I think the personal stories of loss have faded since AIDS isn't seen as a death sentence anymore. Though these two men of whom I speak have changed their lives dramatically because of having AIDS. One took viatical(sp?) payments from his health insurance because he was sure he would die and now can barely afford to live healthily, and the other - well, he had health insurance, but he didn't want his parents to know he was HIV+, so he he used a different doctor and sold drugs to pay for treatment.

I don't know why I'm telling you these stories, but perhaps it's because if there's going to be change and a new generation of activism, then it's going to require talking about the way AIDS changes people's lives - even if it's no longer a death sentence. It's still a life sentence, and it can take away parts of people's identities. I don't quite think people listen unless they are somehow threatened sometimes.

Still crying and screaming and crying and screaming...

TPQ

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Karl, exciting -- a new blog to check out!

Stephen, true enough about US capitalism but it's only getting worse!!! And more selfish!!! But yes to tea or a late-night walk, call me call me call me...

TPQ, this is gorgeous:

"if there's going to be change and a new generation of activism, then it's going to require talking about the way AIDS changes people's lives - even if it's no longer a death sentence. It's still a life sentence, and it can take away parts of people's identities. I don't quite think people listen unless they are somehow threatened sometimes.

Still crying and screaming and crying and screaming..."

Thank you for such thoughtful layered beauty for my day!

Love --
mattilda