The play Angels in America written by Tony Kushner depicts the harsh reality that homosexual men faced during the 1980s: the peak of the AIDS epidemic. The play follows the journey of two distraught relationships: one which involves a closeted gay Mormon named Joseph and his wife Harper, and the other a gay man named Prior who has contracted the AIDS virus and his boyfriend Louis. Over the course of the play, Joseph tells his wife the truth about his sexuality and leaves her, and Louis, who is having difficulty coping with his boyfriend dying, romantically enlists himself in Joseph.
Throughout the play, there are various views presented from the characters within these relationships that depict the harsh realities many homosexual men faced during this time period. Some of the arbitrary views came from their families, friends, doctors or most demoralizing, from themselves. It was during this time period of the late 20th century that most gay men became the scapegoat of the incurable AIDS virus. An analysis of the discriminatory behavior surrounding Joseph, Louis, Roy and Prior in regards to the AIDS epidemic, illustrates the adversity that those who identify as homosexual and those who illustrate same sexual desires endure and in doing so, further highlights the ideologies of the social construct present in society that oppresses minority groups.
People who identify themselves as a member of certain minority groups often face the rigid stereotypes that are held against them by society. Some of the stereotypes prominent for specific groups are more prevalent than others. Those individuals who identify as a member of these minority groups are personally affected. A group that has endured discriminatory behavior throughout history and who is still challenged with being accepted as an equal member of society today are homosexuals. The definition of what homosexuality is as presented by author Shirley Braverman is “a predominantly emotional or erotic preference for members of one’s own sex” (652). In reference to homosexuals, this can mean both those individuals who want to be in a relationship with someone of the same gender as well as those individuals who just have same-sex sexual desires, but not romantic desires. The idea of a homosexual person thus has obscured faulty stereotypes.
People often believe that it is easy to discriminate between a homosexual person and someone who is heterosexual because of the presumed belief that all homosexual men are effeminate and all homosexual women are mannish (Braverman 652). This stigma is invalid because homosexuals are normal people, they just have different sexual and/or romantic desires than what is defined as ‘normal’ by society. Therefore these stereotypes that are often assumed about people who identify as gay and lesbian encourage the oppression of them as abnormalities to society instead of as equals.
People came up with obscure ideas and theories as reasons to why some people identified as homosexual. There were many people that, at the time, thought that you could contract homosexuality as an illness through contact with a homosexual person (Seidman 188). These people felt if the cause of homosexuality could be discovered, that maybe there would be a cure for it and they would no longer have to worry about the ailment. In the late 20th century, one of the most widely accepted and published theories about why certain people ‘became’ gay was called “pathogenic parenting” (Braverman 653).
This theory accredited homosexuality entirely to the fault of the parents. It stated that the absence of a strong father figure and overbearing mother figure resulted in a young male child to become emasculated by their mother, thus causing him to grow up with same-sex desires (Braverman 653). There were other theories postulated during the same time period that used science as evidence for their explanations. Braverman discusses how many psychologists believed that homosexuality was predisposed in our genes and thus was entirely genetically influenced (653). She also notes how other psychologists believed that homosexuality arose as a result of the hormones that the fetus was exposed to in the womb, which would be considered a result of a biological influence (Braverman 653). All of these speculations aided in further constructing a discriminatory attitude towards homosexuals since it made their identities seem as if they were illegitimate.
The AIDS virus during this time period became synonymous with male homosexuality. If a man contracted the lethal virus, then the presumed belief at the time about him was that he was gay. Therefore, the majority of gay men became the inescapable scapegoat to the cause and spread of the virus. In fact, when AIDS was initially discovered it was known throughout the world as GRID, which stands for Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease (Altman 15). This name was used to denote AIDS during the peak of the epidemic further instills the idea that homosexual men were victims of oppression.
Now, decades later after the primitive identification of the HIV virus, it is known that the disease most likely originated in Africa and it is more often spread through heterosexual sexual intercourse as opposed to homosexual (Altman 15). Although during the late 20th century contracting AIDS became so synonymous with being homosexual, that “married men diagnosed with HIV or other STD often claim contact with a female prostitute as ‘the source’ as such behavior is less stigmatized then either homosexuality or injection drug use” (Altman 19). Men would rather lie about the ways in which they fell victim to the disease then be regarded as a homosexual. An example of this can be seen in the play Angels in America, when the character, Roy, is at the doctor and finds out he has AIDS. He tells the doctor, “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” (Kushner 52). Roy identified himself as a heterosexual man who enjoyed unattached sexual intercourse with other men.
This type of identification is common, as Altman notes how “the majority of men who engage in homosexual sex in the world almost certainly have no sense of “gay” identity, and, there are many forms of homosexual behavior, some of which, carry almost no risk of HIV transmission” (15). Roy proclaimed that whatever disease he had wasn’t AIDS because he did not want to be seen as homosexual since he did not identify as one, he just engaged in same-sex behavior. Thus the stereotype held for homosexuals and its arbitrary link to AIDS further insinuates the notion that homosexuality during this time period was viewed as a negative by a variety of people.
Those individuals who identity as homosexual and either Catholic or Jewish, face a varying amount of adversity from other people within these religions. Some people within these religions see homosexuality as a purposeful choice and therefore the consequence they must face for that choice is damnation (Kowalewski 92). Whereas other people, over time, have become more lenient and welcoming to the diversity. For people of Jewish and Christian religions, there are three main views that encompass both positive and negative connotations in regards to their tolerance of homosexualilty and its colleration to the AIDS virus.
The first view blames the homosexual AIDS victim. Author Kowalewski describes this view as stated by Jerry Falwell, who is of the Moral Majority, when he states that “AIDS is a lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality and it is also the judgment of God on America for endorsing this vulgar, perverted and reprobate lifestyle” (93). Those whose beliefs align with this connotation do not even consider AIDS to be a viral infection, instead, they see the virus as being completely synonymous with homosexuality (92). Such judgment on the basis of homosexuals and the virus degrades homosexuals as individuals and diminishes their ability to be taken seriously and receive medical attention.
The people who hold this ideology agree that it is the homosexual’s fault for making the choice to be homosexual and engaging in homosexual activity. The second overall view that some Jewish and Christian people presume is a little less merciless to the victims. From this perspective, it is noted that “while AIDS is not a judgment on homosexuals, the lack of concern institutional religion has shown in the AIDS crisis is thought to be a judgement against religion” (Kowalewski 94). People are more open to the idea and discussion of homosexuality, but refuse to personally support any kind of gay relation. Instead, Kowalewski mentions how this particular group of people focus on obtaining government funding for research on AIDS as well as medical care and also demand public education about the disease and safe sex (94).
The last perspective from these two religions about AIDS in regards to homosexual individuals is the most supportive. Kowaleski states how people of this perspective believe that “all human beings are sinful, and that AIDS does not represent the punishment of God on homosexuality” (94). This view entails that homosexuals within these particular religious group can still feel accepted by those in their community and not fear judgment from God. The people of this view are following the scripture, as a Roman Catholic Bishop states how Catholics “should be guided by the Church’s instruction for anointing the sick, which states that while sickness is related to sin, it should not be considered punishment for a sin” (Kowalewski 94).
This perspective on the AIDS epidemic and homosexual victims presents the most genuine morality in the sense that people are all human and those that are sick, regardless of their personal actions deserve to be helped. This means that those victims who identify as gay or lesbian will still be helped, even if others do not personally agree with their sexuality. Many religious views are becoming more contemporary as the years progress so that gay and lesbians within the confines of these religions can feel as if these holy places are sanctuaries instead of purgatories.
On the contrary, contemporary Mormonism and Adventism religions define homosexuality as immoral and believe that any individual who defines themselves as such is sinful. Within the last four decades, the sexual ideals of Mormonism and Adventism began to converge (Vance 59). The two religions coincide with their ideologies of homosexuality. These religious organizations are so opposed to homosexuality that when the American Psychological Association voted in 1974 to remove homosexuality as a psychological disorder from the DSM-V, these two groups were advocates against the movement (Vance 70). This was not the first time these religions opposed homosexuality in public. The leaders of these groups openly reject homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. In fact by 1968, “homosexual acts were added to the list of excommunicable sins” for these religions (Vance 60). Instead of homosexual people feeling a sense of love and acceptance from their religious communities, they are scrutinized. Those individuals who identify as homosexual and are trapped within the confines of these strict religions are unable to escape. In many other religions, many homosexuals are able to use the strategy of religion switching to liberate themselves, but for Mormons and Adventists, this is not an achievable option (Vance 68). With the inability to escape, homosexuals within these religions are outcast and their identities are deemed invalid. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian people throughout the world are already six times more common than the general population, but for those homosexuals who are also Mormons or Adventists, it is much higher (Vance 66-67). There are many Mormons and Adventists who have admitted to having suicidal thoughts and 25% who have attempted suicide (Vance 67). There is so much hostile discrimination towards homosexuals that are a part of these groups that some individuals choose to hide their identities completely. This can be seen in the play since one of the main characters, Joe, is a closeted gay Mormon. Joe has a wife and uses her to attempt to suppress his feelings towards other men. When he finally musters up enough courage to tell his mother Hannah, she discredits his identity by telling him, “You’re ridiculous…We will just forget this phone call” (Kushner 82). The pessimistic reaction he receives from his mother once he discloses this personal information is degrading to his personal identity. Within the confines of the Mormon and Adventist religions, the inability for homosexuals to express who they are and in turn feel safe within their religious environments victimizes these individuals of their basic rights.
Infected homosexuals have had to endure an immense amount of resurging hatred and prejudice attitudes towards them from society when the AIDS virus first appeared. During the late 20th century, homosexuality had begun to be recognized as a sexuality. Gay and lesbian people and other people who were advocates of the movement were working diligently to help expand their rights as equal. Unfortunately for these people as they were fighting for their rights, there was a disastrous overlap: the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. There was an anti-gay backlash as homosexuals were portrayed as a public menace and the source of the virus (Seidman 189). Seidman discloses how there was a “resurgence of anti-homosexual discourses, and escalating discrimination and violence towards homosexuals” with the aim to “dismantle gay subcultural institutions and return homosexuals to a condition of invisibility and marginality” (189). With such corrupt ideologies infiltrating societies perspective on these innocent people, homosexuals were once again faced an absurd amount of hostility. Homosexual men that became infected during the outbreak played a double standard role as both the victim of the virus and the chief perpetrator of the epidemic (Seidman 193). Seidman, therefore, states how infected men were intensely victimized, both by the disease and society’s response to it (193). He mentions how they were “blamed for their own affiliation, accused of spreading the disease and death to innocent people, criticized as a drain upon scare national resources” (Seidman 193). They became a source of blame and were seen as villainous. Since the virus was believed to be spread by homosexual men only, many of them faced serious repercussions that affected their daily lives. There were stories about how “hospital staff, police, and criminal justice personnel refusing physical contact with AIDS victims, of AIDS victims left unattended in hospitals leaving friends and family responsible for their care” (Seidman 193). This distorted way of thinking would cause many men to lose all sense of hope and die a painful, irrational death with the feeling that they would never be up to society’s standards and worthy of their acceptance.
Surprisingly, positive consequences have come about due to the arbitrary link between homosexuality and AIDS. While the generalization was incorrect, the amount of attention it received was beneficial. By having homosexuality publicly discussed at such a large scale, it has allowed for a more socially accepting environment towards gay people to develop. As the author, Dennis Altman states, “AIDS has undoubtedly been one of the major factors leading to a rapid globalization of gay identities” as well as “a major force in the widening concepts of human rights to include sexuality” (20-21).
So much public consultation on homosexuality and its relation to the AIDS virus has actually proven to be beneficial in the long run for homosexuals. All the attention and deliberation has challenged stereotypes and has caused an upsurge in defense of gay and lesbian people and those individuals who engage in same-sex activities. This is mentioned in Dennis Altman’s journal article when he discloses how all of the publicity during the crisis was positive since it “made for a new linkage between the language of AIDS, sexuality, and human rights” (Altman 21). Although it was unfair that homosexual men had to become the scapegoat in order for a change to commence, in the end, the result was advantageous for those who identified as such.
Every individual should have the right to choose their own identity and in turn, be proud of who they are. People should not have to live their lives in fear because they are worried that what they identify as is seen as ‘wrong’ in today’s society. This manifested fear will then accordingly dictate how a person might live their life. In a world with such great diversity, we should be accepting of other people’s beliefs.
People who identify as homosexual or take part in same-sex activity are a minority group that has faced this sadistic type of adversity throughout history. At the beginning of the outbreak of the AIDS virus and through an extensive portion of it, homosexual men were stereotyped and became the world’s scapegoats to the disease. These innocent people who fell victim to the virus became victimized by both the society and the virus. At the peak of the epidemic, it seemed like local authorities, the government, doctors and even many religious groups were against anyone who was or was affiliated with homosexuals or the AIDS virus itself. Kushner’s’ play Angels in America gives a sententious view to the inhumane degradation of homosexuals during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
Through his representation of various types of characters, it can be seen how the homosexual was seen as inferior and suffered gravely from the dehumanizing effects of discrimination. Those who identified as homosexual were at the mercy of societies judgment and were oppressed as they became the scapegoat to the situation. Progress is being made in the world’s acceptance of these people as equal, but there are still challenges faced. Hopefully, in the future people both old and young, people that are part of various religious groups, and people that come from different backgrounds and cultures will learn to become fully accepting of these people as equal.