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.