How could two viruses that spread in widely different ways cause the same effects in a community? The AIDS epidemic created extreme tragedy and unrest particularly in the LGBTQ+ community during the 1980s. Covid-19 has affected people all over the world and has disrupted lives to varying degrees. These two deadly viruses have more in common beyond the evident devastation they caused. The social, sexual, and romantic lives of queer people have been stunted and shaped by COVID and AIDS in their respective times.
In the article “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic”, authors Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen talk about the importance of physical touch and affection, even in the face of potential illness. Gay men were the most affected by AIDS/HIV, which led to them being further ostracized not only in society but also from each other. Gay men specifically were encouraged to distance themselves from each other out of fear of getting the virus. Dispersing a community hurts its members by not allowing them to explore their sexuality and share common experiences. This, unfortunately, occurred again in 2020.
During the current pandemic, many LGBTQ+ people have “come out” or have realized their identity, partially due to ample time without the influences of society. Many creators on the social media platform “TikTok” have shared their experiences coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community during quarantine. While the idea of a complete shutdown or quarantine was not as prevalent with the HIV/AIDS crisis, the same inability to be close to anyone or express your sexuality occurred. The feeling of loneliness, feeling lost, and missing a sense of community that the queer people are known to create permeates both ages. These experiences are isolating and will likely affect the way queer people interact in the future.
Connecting the effects of these viruses matters because they are both cultural and societal moments that shaped the way queer people could discover themselves, as well as the way that society sees them. However, because the community has an online presence in the 21st century, there is still the ability to connect on an emotional level, which was not possible for queer people during the AIDS crisis. Acknowledging the loss of both lives and experiences has been common in both the AIDS crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be a part of our community’s history, which is why it is helpful to compare both situations in the context of each other.
The stories of LGBTQ+ people vary across cultures around the world, but they also are wildly different even within the same country. The experiences of queer folx vary within the United States due to the disparities between middle America and the LGBTQ+ community in cities or on the coasts. Samantha Allen’s book Real Queer America tells a selection of the stories of those who lived happy and fulfilling lives fighting for LGBTQ rights in conservative states. Her own life has been characterized by years lived in these “red” states that queer people stereotypically want to run away from. She resisted that compulsion to flee, instead opting to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights within those southern/midwest states. Eli Clare told a similar story in his novel Exile and Pride. He felt a deep love for his home in Oregon, despite the homophobia and transphobia that pervaded the culture of his town.
While Allen’s account of her time in middle/southern America is explained by wanting progress and change, she does not go in depth about why this area of the country deserves “saving”. Yes, LGBTQ+ people are everywhere in the United States, but why shouldn’t they just move? Why do we need to push back and populate the towns where many are likely to be hostile to us? Clare’s emotional account gives a clear answer. The beauty of the landscapes and the quality of life that could be had in these places are sometimes worth the pain of not being accepted. Eli Clare expressed that the memories made in middle America are unlike those people in cities share. People in cities often live lives of privilege. They benefit from the struggles of the working class. These struggles are what Clare experienced early in his life. He could not relate to people in his community because they lived in the upper class most of their lives.
Memories, experiences, and beauty are what make up conservative America. Clare’s accounts clearly prove that we cannot leave behind the “Real Queer America” that Allen tells us about.
Picture By Guzzler829 – A self-edited version of the file found here, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80458825
Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself examines themes of identity and nature. I was compelled to analyze section 46, where Whitman details a “perpetual journey” (p 48), because the meaning of his travels are deeper than physical movement through space. In the lines from this section that I focused on, Whitman writes,
“Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself./
It is not far….it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.”
The “road” that must be traveled on one’s own could be interpreted as an emotional voyage to find happiness or self-fulfillment. However, I read these lines to be about coming out and the queer experience. Walt Whitman was known for being gay or bisexual due to the implications of his writing and his close friendships with men. With his sexuality in mind, it is fair to read the poem with special attention to sexuality.
The word “you” is repeated five times throughout these five lines, which leads me to believe it is significant to the truth of the poem. Identity is expressed through “you”. The author is telling the readers that they must look inside themselves in order to reach the end of the road. It is something that only they can complete because sexuality is a personal matter. No one can tell you how you feel or who you love. That finish line could anywhere or “every where”, according to Whitman. If the end goal is so broad, what could it be? I interpreted it to be coming out to both yourself and the world, but it could also be seen as the journey of living your life as a queer person.
Another line I found interesting was the fourth line, “Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,”. Realizing that you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community takes a great deal of time and introspection. Being queer is not a choice, it is who you are, therefore, it is only natural that the journey of queerness has been going on from the time one was born.
Whitman’s depiction of the experience many in the LGBTQ+ community go through as a private journey makes me question if the journey he described could be relatable to every person, or if it is too simple to encompass the experiences of an entire group. On the contrary, his poem could also be broad enough to fit in the lives of any queer person and their journey.
I took a closer look at a quote from Karen Hansen’s “‘No Kisses is Like Yours’: An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-19th Century”.
On page 187, one of the women, Addie says to the other woman in this closely examined friendship, Rebecca in a letter,
“You are the first girl that I ever love so and you are the last one. Dear Rebecca, do not say anything against me loving you so, for I mean just what I say. O Rebecca, it seem I can see you now, casting those loving eyes at me. If you was a man, what would things come to? They would after come to something very quick. What do you think the matter? Don’t laugh at me. I not exactly crazy yet.”
Although homosexuality was not widely acknowledged or sanctioned at this time, these women feel love with the intensity and depth of any heterosexual relationship. The phrase “If you was a man” (187) indicates that the relationship is not one of friendship. This distinction in the type of relationship is from a standpoint of gender, not devotion or attraction. In addition, Addie refers to Rebecca as “the first girl that I ever love so and…the last one,” (187). Singling out Rebecca and putting her apart from all other women that she could have relationships with indicates a romantic connection. Finally, the notion that Rebecca would think of Addie as “crazy” for loving her suggests that their love would not be sanctioned by their general community. This is typical of a homosexual relationship, both then and, in some circumstances, now. However, it is important to note that the author of this chapter found that this type of relationship between two women was not looked down upon by many in their African-American community at the time.
The entirety of the chapter deals with reading notes between two African-American who had an “erotic friendship”. The author noticed that these women were far less subtle in their displays of affection and sexual attraction when compared to white women from the same time period. Addie’s note exemplifies one of the ways in which black women, presumptuously, were more transparent with their amorous feelings towards each other in comparison to white women in the same age.