Edmund White Talks Gay Rights and HIV in America
Edmund White is a prolific writer and an icon of the gay rights movement, and the fight for equality for those living with HIV in America today.
He has written a series of books beginning with his coming of age memoir, "A Boy’s Own Story," followed by his memoir about maturing to adulthood in "The Beautiful Room is Empty," which culminates in the Stonewall riots of 1969, which he had the good timing to witness with his own eyes. His stories are easy to identify with as an angsty gay man who remembers the challenges of growing up gay in a country that didn’t fully accept gays and lesbians at the time.
His stories are a scrapbook of moments strung together with wonderfully descriptive detail and engrossing prose that will suck the reader in and keep him or her turning pages. White has been a contributing writer to a number of publications and is currently teaching at Princeton University. His work captures the zeitgeist of not only his own generation, but the ones that came after his as the nation progressed through the gay rights movement and into a new era that will surely be better than the closeted days of past.
In a recent interview with him we discussed his books, his life and his thoughts on the gay rights movement and the future of the HIV positive community in America. Being HIV positive himself for decades, White has been a pivotal member of the community. He helped form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis when the AIDS crisis first began in the early 1980s.
For aspiring young writers, White suggests setting your sights high and don’t be discouraged easily. He says that you need to be "self-affirming," which means that you need to do what makes you happy because it makes you happy and be content with that despite what others may think. He didn’t start publishing books until he was in his thirties, and now he has a whole collection of them.
I asked White about the progress of HIV issues in America today. He expressed concern over the fact that many people still aren’t getting tested for HIV.
The reason he says: "The attitudes on cruising websites are so hateful." The use of phrases like "Are you clean?," which inherently implies a kind of filth of those who might have HIV or other STDs, is damaging to the effort to get people tested and treated because it shames individuals about going to a doctor. People are afraid of being positive, and even more afraid of having to tell their sex partners if they are. White then pointed out that many gay men still haven’t figured out yet that an HIV positive man who is on medication and has an undetectable viral load is a much safer person to have sex with than someone who does not know their status or "thinks" they’re negative but hasn’t been tested in over a year. It is those individuals who typically have the highest viral loads, and it is those individuals who are spreading the virus today.
I then asked White for some advice for any young person living with HIV today.
If you want to enter into a dating relationship with someone, White pointed out, then it is nice to find someone else who is also HIV positive, just so that you don’t have to worry about the subject too much. There also happens to be quite a few people out there who are HIV negative but who are OK with HIV positive people because they understand what the real risk is and they’re not unduly frightened by it. Those people are also dating material. But, as White pointed out, our health is our responsibility, and that means that nobody else is responsible for protecting you from HIV besides you.
I asked White about the progress of the gay rights movement and where it’s headed. He said that over the next twenty or thirty years will hopefully usher in an era of normalization of gay life in America, not in the hetero-normative way that so many militant homosexuals are afraid of, but in a way that allows gays and lesbians to be who they want to be without being entirely consumed by their own gay identity.
White’s hope is that in the years to come, a person will be an engineer who happens to be gay, as opposed to a gay man who happens to be an engineer. He hopes that who we choose to love will not identify us so much as merely describe a small part of who we are.
White speculated that religion, which is the root cause of so much fear and loathing of gay people in America today, will slowly die out in years to come, and that will help further ease the transition of gays and lesbians into mainstream culture in America.
My final question for White was "What is the greatest challenge faced by the gay community today?"
"If we’re going to have a gay identity," he said. "then there should be some nobler definition of it than cruising for guys on Grindr and going to the gym."
"I always wished we would get involved with HIV in Africa. Some sort of public service, because there are 44 million people with HIV/AIDS, and most of them are in Africa."
I could not possibly agree more with White. We have fought so hard for medication, recognition, government assistance and respect and we have come so far, and the greatest tragedy of all would be if we let all that hard work and all those lessons that we learned in the process go to waste by not using them to help fight AIDS in Africa and around the world. We have been given an incredible gift through our struggles with HIV and we now have a responsibility to use that gift to make the world a better place for those living with HIV in other countries
Originally featured at HIVster.com