Power and Identity in the Face of AIDS

In Act 1, Scene 9 of Angels in America, Roy Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS but he rejects it. Henry, his doctor, has just taken samples of lesions for a biopsy which he believes to be Kaposi’s sarcoma, an early indicator of HIV. Roy is angry at his diagnosis, stating, “It afflicts mostly homosexuals and drug addicts,” (44) and attempts to goad his doctor into calling him a homosexual so he can “…destroy [his] reputation and [his] practice and [his] career in New York State…” (45). This threat and Roy’s following monologue, is what interests me. His attempt to wield his political power over his diagnosis shows the importance of identity during the AIDS crisis, and the attitudes of the heterosexual majority toward HIV.

Roy Cohn is a powerful man. This is not a revelation. When we are introduced to Roy in Act 1, Scene 2, we find him at his desk in a flurry of conversations and phone calls. He exudes power and confidence (perhaps a bit too much of both) by putting clients and his in-person meeting with Joe on hold, swearing on and off hold to his clients, and making dinner plans while working. The next time we see him is in Scene 9 in Henry’s office.

Henry knows there is something queer about Roy’s sexual behaviors. He notes that he has treated Roy, “[f]rom syphilis to venerial warts. In [his] rectum,” (45), but he hesitates to call him a homosexual out of fear. He instead concludes that Roy has had sex with men and diagnosis him with AIDS. Roy claims Henry believes too strongly in labels and believes label only describe where one sits in the pecking order. He does not identify as a homosexual because “[h]omosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows, “(46). To Roy, homosexuality is a statement of inability; an inability to shape the world around their own self-interest like Roy can. He does not deny to Henry his sexual interactions with men. He denys his diagnosis because, “AIDS is what homosexuals have. [He has] liver cancer,” (47). This attitude mirrors the attitudes of the heterosexual majority. For years, people were convinced they were safe from the “gay cancer” and it wasn’t until heterosexual people contracted it that anything was done to combat it.

In the end, Roy’s political power fails to defeat his diagnosis, but even in his final moments, he attempts one last time to take control. He dies the way we were introduced to him, by attempting to put a hold on his own mortality.

3 thoughts on “Power and Identity in the Face of AIDS”

  1. I think that the quote you chose to include on page 46 speaks to the lack of visibility provided to individuals a part of the LGBTQ community. What I think is interesting is how Roy, a man who wields both power and privilege as you highlight, cannot escape AIDS, no matter his high status. Once he receives his diagnosis, his privilege and power that he once had mean virtually nothing; although this power increases his access to care and medical resources, even those cannot save him because there is no cure to AIDS. This speaks to how the play underscores the severity of AIDS, and constructs it as a national theme.

    1. This is such a good point. Building on your comment, Roy Cohn’s situation really emphasizes the feeling of hopelessness that permeates the atmosphere around AIDS. Universally, there was a feeling that everything was spiraling out of control and that the world was essentially ending for gay people. Even all of Roy’s power, money, and connections were not enough to save him. That being said, it is also interesting that Prior ends up surviving and living with AIDS at the end of the play. In a way, he serves as a vessel of hope for the future, leaving the audience with just a bit of optimism after the hours of heavy content.

  2. The analysis you chose is actually quite brilliant as on both pages 45 and 46, through there image of Roy, you manage to demonstrate the two ugly parts that the LGBTQ does not want to acknowledge, even when it’s there. In scene 9, Roy’s refusal to accept his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS symptoms portrays the trait of toxic masculinity which in a sense, is part of many members in the LGTBQ community (at least in the context of this play). The lack of awareness/acceptance for how dangerous AIDS was is the 2nd point that is displayed through Roy’s behaviors, which also reflects part of the blindness within the LGBTQ community itself.

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