“The issue is disease – not sex.”

       The beginnings of the AIDS epidemic were filled with uncertainty and many questions. However, within a year, it was understood that AIDS – known as GRID [Gay-Related Immune Deficiency] at the time – was sexually linked.  Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, however, chose to focus on the subject of disease in a section of their paper, How to Have Sex in An Epidemic. They state: “the issue is disease – not sex” (573). This message is repeated three times within the section, almost verbatim, to place an emphasis on the misconceptions of the AIDS epidemic and the misdirection of the ‘safety guidelines’ during the era.

         While it is true that AIDS can be transmitted through sex, the act of sex itself was not the problem. As the paper points out, the epidemic is about disease and its focus should be on the prevention of the spread of the disease. With the statement: “the issue is disease – not sex,” Berkowitz and Callen highlight the dangerous misdirection of placing sex at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic. They are not arguing that people practice what we may now consider as ‘unsafe sex,’ however. What they argue is that instead placing the focus on sex – specifically how many partners should one have, who should one have sex with, and how many times should one have sex – the focus should be on the nature of the disease. As they point out in their writing, even if a man limits himself to one partner a month, he can still contract the disease from one of them (572). By placing sex at the forefront, the importance of understanding the spread and prevention of the disease is undermined. 

         By focusing the discussion on sex, the discussion turns towards the sex practices of gay men. The name ‘GRID’ itself was explicit in identifying one group: thereby, changing the topic away from the disease and towards gay men. Which then gave the government, medical practitioners, and media an excuse to scrutinize and violate the lives of people within the community. In other words, instead of discussing how many lives were taken and discussing the prevention of more deaths, the discourse focuses on scrutinizing sexuality. What I believe the authors’ purpose in repeating this message was to bring our attention to this problem. The discussion is not focusing on the correct topic – disease and the spread of the diseases is the issue, not sex.

The Mountain as a Metaphor

       The mountain as a metaphor describes an end goal, it is a point in one’s life when we can truly say we have made it. It implies that you can only experience the accomplishment of life once you reach the summit. However, as Eli Clare points out, this metaphor was created for and by a heteronormative ableist society. It disregards the people that they label as ‘others’ and blames them for their failure to get to the top. For Clare, the mountain metaphor describes more than an end goal, it describes an accomplishment that society has made impossible for him to achieve. 

       “We hear from the summit that the world is grand from up there, that we live down here at the bottom because we are lazy, stupid, weak, and ugly…. We speak the wrong language, with the wrong accents, wear the wrong clothes, carry our bodies the wrong ways, ask the wrong questions, love the wrong people” (Clare 1).

As he describes, this metaphor blames them in their failure to reach the top. Implying that by being who are, for having been born a certain way or loving certain people, we are the ones who choose to stay at the bottom.

       This metaphor is what drew me to the metaphor of Brokeback Mountain. For Brokeback Mountain this location is more than just a place, it represents a time and a series of memories. For Jack and Ennis, Brokeback Mountain was a place filled with passion, affection, and love. It was the one place where they could spend months together without people questioning their relationship. In a way, Brokeback Mountain is the summit. It is the place where they were free to indulge in the pleasures of mundane affection – where “Ennis [could] come up behind [Jack] and [pull] him close” (Proulx 43). Emphasizing that while this was a place where they could be sexual, it was also a place where they can just be. This moment, where Ennis can “pull him close,” is a moment full of love – a moment of affection beyond the pleasures of sex. A moment that would otherwise have been rejected by their heteronormative society. In Brokeback Mountain, they could freely love.

       Connecting Jack and Ennis’ experience in Brokeback Mountain to Clare’s mountain metaphor makes it easier to understand why they could not return to Brokeback Mountain. Just as the mountain metaphor describes an impossible goal for Clare – as it was constructed to be impossible for him – so too is Brokeback Mountain a love that Jack and Ennis could not experience. In a society that values heteronormativity and disregards disability, the mountain metaphor makes it impossible for people who do not fit the ideal to partake in it. For Clare, society has made the summit impossible to reach. For Jack and Ennis, society has made the summit impossible to return to. For all of them, the summit represents a desire that they cannot have.

Helen and The Question of Success

       Number 46 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself helps us identify and understand Helen from Judy Grahn’s The Work Of A Common Woman. Together, they reveal the sacrifices that Helen has made in order to live the life of a successful woman. Most importantly, 46 helps us understand why those sacrifices leave her dissatisfied in the end.

       The seventh stanza of #46 in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself contemplates the meaning of success and fulfillment in life. The speaker questions their spirit: 

       “… When we become the enfolders of the those 

       orbs and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them,

       shall we be filled and satisfied then?”

To which the spirit replied: “No, we level that lift to pass and continue beyond.” In these passages, the speaker questions if striving to be the best and desiring to have the most knowledge will give our life satisfaction. With the word “then” the speaker questions if only with greatness will we feel fulfillment in life. The spirit answers the speaker by denying these assumptions – they advise that we don’t need to have everything in this life, that it is impossible to have “knowledge of every thing” so we “we level” and “continue beyond.” It suggests a message to be satisfied with what you have and implies fulfillment of one’s life is not defined by how much you have accomplished.

       Using Whitman’s question of fulfillment and success, we are able to better understand one of Grahn’s common women, Helen. Helen defines herself as a woman who has found success in her occupation, a “boss” who “[wears] trim suits and spiked heels.” She is a woman of authority, “pitting the men against each other / and getting the women fired.” In her position, she holds authority over both men and women – revealing the power that her position allows her to have. If success were defined by society, Helen lives a successful life and she believes she does. However, as the poem makes explicit, “ she doesn’t realize yet, that she’s missed success, also.” The word “yet” greatly implies that Helen has defined success as becoming one of the greatest and accomplishing more than any other woman has. The word “missed” reveals to us that this is not how we should define success. As Whitman outlines, greatness and accomplishments do not guarantee success in living life.

       The seventh stanza of Whitman’s 46 reveals to us that fulfillment and satisfaction in life cannot be found by measuring your accomplishments or by continually striving to be the best. Helen, to be in her position, has sacrificed parts of herself. She becomes “stiff” as she “tries to make it in a male form.” This line reveals to us that she feels, in order to be successful, she must act as men do in society. That in order to be successful in this male-dominated society, she cannot be herself. She “[wears] trim suits” and says “‘bust’ instead of breasts” just as men do. Most unfortunate of all, in her successful life, “she misses love and trust” and in her “grief” she acts in “fits of fury.” These lines reveal that she is not satisfied with the life that she has chosen to live, that she is unhappy in her successful life. Just as the spirit of Whitman’s 46 tell us, satisfaction is not defined by our successes. By living a life where she continually sacrifices parts of herself for the promise of success, she unknowingly chooses a life that is not full or satisfactory. 

The Effects of Gender Norms In “Diving into the Wreck”

Upon my first readings, I find myself drawing towards the mirroring of its first and last stanzas. Most interestingly, it begins and ends with the mention of “the book of myths” (1, 92). I question what this book could be and what the wreck could mean. Ultimately, I believe “Diving into the Wreck” by Adriene Rich is a commentary about gender norms and their effects on gender identity.

The “book of myths” is what pushes the speaker into this journey and what disappoints them in the end. I believe that the “book of myths” is a metaphor for the history of gender norms. The word “myth” indicates a false belief, a tale that has been passed down culturally. Gender and how it is perceived, is subjected to history and culture. Therefore, it is possible that upon reading and familiarizing themself with this notion, the speaker begins to believe that they must act a certain way to be accepted by the culture. In relation, they would be allowed to travel to and into the wreck. 

The wreck is a representation of society, it is the world where gender norms dictate who is ‘normal.’ In the first stanza, the speaker gets ready to go out into the world. They describe that in order to do so, “[they must] put on / the body-armor… the absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask” (4-7). They speak of “having to do this” in order to be accepted (8). These lines allude to the idea that the speaker must prepare in order to exist in this society. The words “body-armor” and “mask” support this idea, as the speaker must cover themself before they leave. In addition, the words “absurd,” “grave,” and “awkward” connotes that these actions are not voluntary. The anaphora in lines 5-7 indicates that it is a routine, as it elicits a feeling of familiarity with the task. The first stanza highlights that in order for the speaker to travel to the wreck, they must not be themself.

In the last stanza, the speaker finds themself in the wreck. By the end, it is unclear if the speaker chose to live as themself or as how society wants them to be. The words “cowardice” and “courage” paired with the enjambed line “the one who find our way / back to this scene” does not make a clear distinction (88-90).  The first part of the enjambed line seems to indicate that the speaker chose to live as their true self. The words “find our way” heavily implies it. However, the line continues with “back to this scene” indicating that they did not. Either way, despite having lived a life – true or pretend – the speaker and others like them find that “[their] names do not appear” in the “book of myths.” (94, 92). It relays a discouraging message, even if the speaker chose to live as their truth or not, they’re still erased from history – their identity is not acknowledged.

“Diving into the Wreck” may be disheartening in its message, but in it there also exists bitter-sweetness. The first stanza emotes a feeling of isolation, referring to a singular “I” and ends with the word “alone” (1, 8, 12). It indicates that in the society they live in, one must face the disappointments by themselves. Whereas, the last stanza talks of “we,” “you,” and “our” (87, 89, 94). This alludes to the idea that the speaker is not alone, that there are others like them. There is solidarity in this ending, despite the discouraging message.