THE BLOG

The Man in the Front Row

Apr 30, 2013 | Updated Feb 02, 2016
AP

"Why did you feel compelled to write an AIDS death scene?" the man in the front row asked with a scowl, arms folded across his chest. "Nobody wants to read about that."

I had just finished a reading from my new novel, The Heart's History. This was supposed to be the fun part -- the Q&A, the writer's chance to see firsthand how his work affects readers. I had sailed through the easy questions, which inevitably come from the budding writers in the audience, hoping I'll share a secret that will foster their own success. Do you write every day? What time of day? Do you write in the nude? How did you manage to get published? Have you made enough millions to quit your day job? Trust me, I usually tell them: there are no secrets, nor are there any universal rules. Just that old saw about inspiration and perspiration: that always rings true. Oh, and as for the millions -- forget about it.

But this question was different. Instead of receiving the usual treatment -- the wide-eyed admiration so many people have for someone who's actually managed to complete a book -- I suddenly felt more like a guest in the hot seat on Jerry Springer. Not just because the man was deliberately provoking me, but because the question itself forced me to think beyond the sheltered world of literature. It shifted the conversation to the harder topic of what the novel was actually about, what it had to say about the real world.

The man was a few years older than I. He would have been in his prime when AIDS hit. He probably knew far more about it than I did -- I, who had seen fewer friends die but still knew enough pain to fill a book.

For the generation that lived through the darkest days of the epidemic, AIDS fatigue is understandably real -- and so, apparently, is AIDS novel fatigue. There's been a rash of them over the past couple of decades. For years, it seemed, no gay-themed novel appeared without at least touching on the subject, without forcing the reader once again to live through death.

Nobody wants to read about that.

Gay literature, like the world it depicts, has been breathing a sigh of relief for the past several years. As fewer people have died, so too have fewer fictional characters. We have more things on our minds these days, more issues for fiction -- and real life -- to explore.

That's as true of my work as anyone else's. AIDS exists on the margins of my other fiction, if it appears at all. Of the two HIV-positive characters in my first novel, Chemistry, one appears briefly in a single scene; the other is simply talked about, and just as briefly. My short stories are virtually devoid of any mention of AIDS. Only The Heart's History deals with it to any significant degree.

But silence on AIDS -- silence, which we once equated with death -- is precisely the theme of my book. This was not intended as an AIDS novel, but a novel about how our priorities as a community have shifted. In the 80s and most of the 90s, HIV was an immediate death sentence: it was our deepest fear, our greatest enemy. Now, if you believe the media and our political advocates, our greatest enemy is the National Organization for Marriage. I think we should count ourselves lucky.

So that's what I told him, the man in the front row with his arms defensively folded. "I felt it was important," I said, "to show that AIDS isn't over, that we still don't have a cure. I think that message has gotten lost recently, and it needs to be acknowledged."

He nodded, but his expression didn't change. He was unconvinced. Whatever noble aims I may have had were uninteresting to him. What he got from my book was a trip back in time, to experiences he had no interest in revisiting.

But his resistance was something I couldn't get out of my mind. For days afterward, I found myself thinking about him. Other readers had told me the novel had moved them, sometimes to tears. And they had meant it as a compliment.

No writer can please every reader, of course, but clearly I hadn't accounted for people like that man at the reading. And in the days that followed, I found myself rethinking who my audience really was. Perhaps, I thought, my novel is not for people with AIDS fatigue. Perhaps its ideal reader is from a slightly different demographic -- not people of my own generation or that of the testy man in the front row, but those a bit younger, those who haven't quite gotten the message because they haven't had to sit beside death beds or go into a what-if panic with every sore throat.

Like me, the central character of the book, Edward, came out in the 80s -- in the middle of the crisis. By contrast, his younger lover, Robert, came out several years later, when safer sex was firmly established and protease inhibitors were changing the face of the disease. In a key scene, Robert confronts a friend -- a man in his 20s, for whom AIDS is less a crisis than a fact of life. The friend evinces an indifference to HIV, a willingness to risk infection because of a misguided belief that AIDS is no longer fatal.

That's the person for whom I wrote this book.

The recent past has been remarkable for the gay community. We are serving openly in the military. We are legally marrying our true loves in nine states and more than a dozen countries. It's a great time to be gay, better than any previous time in history.

And we are still dying. And that story still needs to be told.

So does the story of the man in the front row. I imagine him standing on the front lines of the gay movement in the 70s, protesting for AIDS treatment in the 80s.

The irony is that among the many things about history that younger gays often don't understand is that the valiant efforts of people only a generation older are what paved the way for their own freedom, their own casual approach to their sexual orientation. Because others marched in the street, and because thousands died of a horrible disease that put our community in the spotlight, younger gays have the luxury to think that homosexuality is just another aspect of their lives rather than a defining characteristic. Because for the previous generation it was everything, they can now take it for granted.

So I'm grateful for the man in the front row, and for his brothers in arms. Strangely enough, he reminded me of Tom Brokaw's powerful book about the courage of the men and women who pulled this country through World War II. In the gay community, it is that man, and the ones who died and the ones who helped ease their pain -- including, quite pointedly, our lesbian sisters -- who may be our greatest generation.