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.

Eli Clare and the Imperfect Activist

I am the activist who has never poured sugar into a cat’s gas tank but knows how. The activist who has never spent a night in the top of a Douglas fir slated for felling the next morning but would…I am the socialist with anarchist leanings who believes the big private timber corporations…are corrupt, and the government agencies…are complicit…I am the writer who wants to make sense (Clare, 21-22).

The above quote from Eli Clare, for me, was one of the most relatable excerpts from his book “Exile and Pride”. It does so much to highlight the nature of people who believe in activism, but are held back in one way or another. His continuous usage of “I am” emphasizes his own personal identities as an activist, a socialist, an adult, and a writer despite not “living up to” the societal and personal expectations of what it means to identify with those groups. It also highlights the impossibility of perfection and the importance of “imperfection”. No one is or can be a perfect activist. No one can be a perfect adult and that is precisely what makes these identities possible. This is one of the overarching themes of “Exile and Pride”, how if everyone tried to live up to the “perfect” expectations, no one would feel truly authentic.

This quote extends far beyond activism into queerness. It made me recall Eve Sedgwick’s definition of queer – “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning (Sedgwick, 8)” – and discussions of Christmas Effects and metro-normativity. Clare knows he isn’t perfect because identity doesn’t require perfection. It only requires someone to identify as a member of that group.

I think Clare’s organization of this quote also emphasizes the individual aspect of identity. He starts with big concepts and identities – activism and direct action – and moves to much smaller and more personal groups – an adult living in corn country, a writer trying to make sense. Through this organization, he draws the reader in and confronts them implicitly with questions of their own identity – how do you identify? how do you not fit into those tiny little boxes? He rejects any attempts to be monolithized and encourages the reader to do the same.

Crystal Bowls and Crystal Cups

In Saeed Jones’ poem “The Blue Dress”, the speaker describes a dress his mother owned and how beautiful he always found it. It is a poem filled with descriptive sentence fragments that make it difficult to understand at first, but like all good poems, it slowly reveals itself over the course of several close readings.

One of the many images Jones describes is of crystal bowls and cups. He writes,

“…is goodbye in a flooded, antique room, is goodbye in a room full of crystal bowls / and crystal cups, is the ring-ting-ring of water dripping from the mouths / of crystal bowls and crystal cups…” (3).

He mentions crystal twice in these lines, indicating its significance. The location of this ‘goodbye’ is also significant. Crystal is a very formal type of glassware, often passed through generations, and reserved only for important guests and in many cases is used only for display. It is a symbol of antiquity; a symbol of “the way things were”. As such, this ‘goodbye’ becomes contextualized as a goodbye to an older way of life. In the further context of Jones’ poetry and his life, these cups and bowls represent heterosexuality and he, as a gay man, is coming to accept himself for who is. He is leaving behind the traditional life of heterosexuality that his family and society, symbolized by the antique room, expects from him.

“The Blue Dress” is a bold statement of acceptance and identity and is my favorite poem from this collection because of how bold it is. The form of the poem, with every sentence fragment starting with ‘is’, may also hearken back to Jones’ poetic beginnings, writing poems through the voices of various characters to hide his homosexuality from his parents and, perhaps, himself. However, from a close reading, it is clear to see that Jones is coming to accept himself and that he is saying goodbye, in particular, to his mother, whom he associated with the dress.