“Queer Wars” by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons

Today, May 17, is IDAHOBIT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia[i] – previously known as IDAHO, and IDAHOT). Described as a “worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities”, it was started in 2004, with the date chosen to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s 1990 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

 

To mark this occasion I thought it would be useful to focus on the issue of LGBTI rights around the globe. In my view, given the relatively advanced state of LGB rights in places like Australia[ii], it is time we devoted more attention to considering how we can effectively contribute to the international struggle for LGBTI rights.

 

Fortunately, a recent book, Queer Wars, written by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons, concentrates on exactly this issue, so I will use this post to look at the many interesting ideas and debates that they have raised.

 

Specifically, Queer Wars sets out to answer two questions:

  • “[F]irst, why, as homosexuality has become more visible globally, have reactions to sexual and gender diversity become so polarised?”[iii] and
  • Second, “what is to be done? As writers who believe passionately in the right of people to choose how they love and how they present themselves, we are equally concerned to think through how we can best achieve these rights globally.”

 

In answering the first question, the book takes a fascinating look at how, and how far, LGBTI rights have progressed in six extremely varied countries: Australia, Spain, Cuba, India, South Africa and South Korea[iv], including the factors that have aided, or hindered, change in these places respectively (the need to address HIV, and prevent its spread among men who have sex with men, being a frequent, although not universal, motivator for reform among this group).

 

It then spends some time considering the specific factors that may have held back change, especially in other parts of Africa and in much of the Middle East, as well as possible explanations for recent attacks on LGBTI rights from Russia to Uganda and elsewhere.

 

Without wishing to over-simplify what is a complex discussion of often inter-related influences, these include:

 

  • An almost inevitable reactionary backlash to the progress that has been made. This can be triggered when the rights of LGBTI people are recognised more quickly than their acceptance by the community. But it also derives from the well-resourced and highly organised efforts, of people like Scott Lively and groups like the World Congress of Families, to oppose LGBTI rights across the world. As noted on page 105:

 

“International organising to oppose gay rights – and, more broadly, anything that suggests the blurring of gender lines or acceptance of gender diversity – has paralleled the growth of international gay organising. American-based organisations defending ‘family values’ have been particularly active in promoting an anti-homosexual line both in international fora and within a number of overseas countries.”

 

  • The scapegoating of LGBTI communities by authoritarian regimes when they need a distraction from other problems, a tactic perfected by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe[v], and later emulated, to some extent, by Russian Leader Vladimir Putin.

 

  • The role of organised religion – including the Catholic Church, the virulently-homophobic Anglican Church in parts of Africa, as well as fundamentalist Islam and Hinduism – also cannot be ignored in this context. As Altman and Symons note on page 24:

 

“One of the few issues on which religious fundamentalists of all faiths can agree is opposition to homosexuality, and much contemporary anti-homosexual rhetoric is justified through particular interpretations of religious texts, even where it is driven by other factors.”

 

  • Finally, one of the more interesting recurring topics of Queer Wars is the role of ‘masculinity’, or at least particular conceptions of it, in contributing to attacks on LGBTI rights. From pages 108-109:

 

“RW Connell’s concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, aimed at preserving the dominance of men over women, is important; as Connell writes: ‘the contempt for homosexuality and homosexual men… is part of the ideological package of hegemonic masculinity’. Opposition to sexual diversity combines both consciously political and unconscious fears and desires, which makes countering it particularly difficult.”

 

The relative local strength of these four factors goes a long way to explaining why, “[d]epending on where in the world one stands there is huge progress towards greater acceptance, or increased intolerance.”[vi]

 

The more pertinent, and challenging, question is what to do about it, and in this respect Queer Wars presents a thoughtful analysis of the opportunities, and pitfalls, of ‘global gay activism’.

 

Starting first with the limits of what those in the developed or ‘Western’ world can do to assist their global queer comrades, Altman and Symons present a stark warning of the risks of campaigns for LGBTI rights being externally imposed on countries (rather than developed in partnership with or, ideally led by local groups, with support where necessary – and only where invited – from outside organisations). As noted on page 34:

 

“Is speaking out strongly for gay rights, as is now the practice of the US and other governments, helpful – or does it, in practice, help fuel, even create, more political homophobia? What to western eyes might seem a basic assertion of human rights can easily be portrayed in much of the world as echoing a colonial language of a paternalistic civilising mission.”

 

Even more damning is the description on page 144, which is perhaps one of the strongest passages in the entire book:

 

“Rahul Rao describes the plight of third world queers, trapped between homophobic nationalist governments and the frequently misguided interventions of the ‘gay international’, with a phrase that he borrows from Hannah Arendt’s account of Jews in World War II choosing between ‘malevolent enemies and condescending friends’. Since the relationship between western and third world activists will often be one of inequality, it is easy for activists to participate accidentally in a ‘discursive colonisation’, which presumes that western concerns will be universal and so ignores the wishes of intended allies.”

 

Given this, what then can ‘we’ effectively contribute? On this, Queer Wars seems to make two main arguments:

 

  • First, that – as frustrating, slow-moving (some might say glacial) and occasionally opaque as its processes are – we should primarily concentrate on using international and regional human rights[vii] instruments, bodies and, where they exist, courts, to push the LGBTI agenda. This includes:

 

“The ‘Universal Periodic Review’ of each [UN] state’s human rights records, conducted every four years by the United Nations Human Rights Council, [which] creates an opportunity for other governments and civil society actors (both domestic and international) to discuss issues of concern, [and] which frequently include sexuality.”[viii]

 

  • Second, that this agenda should be relatively narrowly conceived, focusing on the right to be free from criminalisation, and the right to be free from violence. This argument is best encapsulated on page 135:

 

“If the international system were able to protect people from violence and persecution, this would create space for local activists to push for a deeper acceptance of diverse sexualities, kinships and families. The forms of liberation they pursue may be unfamiliar to us; indeed, some western activists may regard them as ‘liberation-lite’. Since international campaigners are likely to misunderstand the kinds of changes that will gain local acceptance, the international effort should focus on universal protection against criminalisation and violations of personal safety. If international consensus can be built around these minimal protections, this will support more transformative local changes without dictating them.”

 

This is not to completely rule out other types of activity. At multiple points, the book describes the inter-connectedness between this decriminalisation agenda and global efforts to combat the HIV epidemic (with men who have sex with men recognised as a priority population by most international organisations)[ix].

 

After a long discussion of ‘aid conditionality’[x], and the major risks involved in this approach, the authors also do not exclude the possibility of ‘Western’ Governments providing specific aid “to expand support for local community-based and –led LGBTI programmes”[xi], although even here care must be taken to avoid perceptions of the external imposition of a pro-LGBTI agenda.

 

And, of particular relevance for a country like Australia, which detains LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries where they are at risk of criminal prosecution, Queer Wars highlights the importance of the acceptance of refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status[xii].

 

Nevertheless, Altman and Symons’ main focus remains on working towards an international consensus in favour of decriminalisation, and personal safety, thereby helping to allow the conditions for local activists to push the issues, and agenda, that are most relevant to them. In this way, we, as privileged activists in ‘Western’ countries can best avoid what they describe, perhaps accurately, as the “traps of well-meaning egoism”[xiii].

 

**********

 

Outside of these two main arguments, Queer Wars touches on a range of other pertinent topics concerning international LGBTI issues across its 158 pages, including:

 

  • A necessary reminder that one of the key historical forces that has contributed to the fact that, in 2016, 77[xiv] countries continue to have criminal laws against homosexuality, was the British Empire (later known as the Commonwealth of Nations, or just ‘the Commonwealth’). As noted on page 113 “[t]he majority of countries that retain criminal sanctions against homosexual behaviour are members of either the Commonwealth or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), or both”.

 

Altman and Symons also note that “Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ laws in the UK in 1988, which was aimed at preventing ‘the promotion of homosexuality’, were in some ways forerunners of what is now occurring globally”[xv], including recent laws against ‘gay propaganda’ passed by Russia.

 

  • We should also remember that, just because LGBTI rights might be reflected in a country’s laws, does not automatically mean the ‘real-life’ situation for LGBTI people in that country is especially ‘rosy’. Examples of this include the contrast between Singapore, where homosexuality remains illegal, and Russia, where sexual acts are lawful[xvi], as well as variations within South Africa, with it Constitutional protections around sexual orientation – and recognition of marriage equality – but which also gave the world the term ‘corrective rape’[xvii] for the sexual assault of women perceived as lesbian.

 

  • Highlighting that the rate of ‘advancement’ on LGBTI issues can vary within countries between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some places are more likely to recognise diversity in gender identity – such as India, through the hijra identity[xviii], and fa’fanine in some Polynesian cultures[xix] – while in others transgender rights lag far behind those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (with few countries explicitly acknowledging, and therefore protecting, intersex status).

 

  • Above all, that even the use of ‘Western’ terms like LGBTI can be problematic, because it assumes that all countries, and all cultures, will adopt the same approach to, and definitions of, differences in sexual orientations (or even that a person’s sexual practice should form the basis of an ‘identity’ in the first place), gender identities and intersex characteristics.

 

Overall, then, Queer Wars was a pretty appropriate book to read in the lead-up to, and then explore via this post on, IDAHOBIT. In my view, it asks the right questions that ‘we’, as LGBTI activists in the ‘Western’ world should be considering about the contemporary global situation, and how we can best assist our ‘queer comrades’ in other countries.

 

Better still, it provides thoughtful answers, even if Altman and Symons’ conclusions can be somewhat frustrating because of their limited scope (although the reasons for that narrow focus are well-argued). And it wraps it all together in an accessible and engaging package.

 

Finally, if I did have one criticism, it would be that the book doesn’t answer some of the more detailed or specific questions that I have, as an Australian cis gay man, about how I can contribute to campaigns for the recognition of LGBTI rights of people in the countries in our region, and especially Papua New Guinea and South Pacific nations.

 

However, given Queer Wars is explicitly global in focus, that’s an entirely unfair criticism to make – instead, it’s a conversation that I’ll need to have elsewhere, albeit one that will be better-informed for having read Altman and Symons’ book.

 

Queer Wars

 

Footnotes

[i] Taken from the official website: http://dayagainsthomophobia.org Personally, I prefer to describe it as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, although that terminology is not yet in widespread use.

[ii] Noting that some discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians remains, not just marriage equality but also barriers to inclusive education and limits on anti-discrimination protections, and of course acknowledging that the rights of transgender and intersex Australians remain poorly protected in many more areas.

[iii] Page 3.

[iv] Pages 47-70.

[v] From pages 28-29: “As president Mugabe tightened his hold over Zimbabwe he scapegoated the small homosexual organisations as un-African and responsible for many of the economic troubles of the country, paving the way for increasing homophobic rhetoric from a number of African leaders.”

[vi] Page 32.

[vii] Altman and Symons take a nuanced view of ‘human rights’, including defining it by how they fit within the political systems within which they are recognized – from page 141: “The ‘political conception’ of human rights offers a persuasive explanation of how human rights are formulated in the international system, but it is also inherently conservative: a claim will only become a human right when a preponderance of international opinion (as expressed by states) accepts it” (emphasis in original). As they readily acknowledge, this conception “makes more modest claims for human rights” (p140), which may help to explain their focus on campaigns against criminalization, and for personal safety, to the exclusion of other issues.

[viii] Page 154.

[ix] “The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was founded in 2002 as a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by the diseases, and has sought to link funding to governments’ demonstrating that they are willing to work effectively with marginalized populations most vulnerable to HIV, usually identified as MSM [men who have sex with men]” pages 127-128.

[x] Defined on page 124 as “[c]onditionality refers to linking conditions to the provision of benefits such as loans or aid.” This is a practice that has been emerging in recent years as the Governments of the US and UK have sought to require greater acceptance of different sexual orientations as a pre-cursor to receiving, or continuing to receive, aid.

[xi] Page 130.

[xii] Discussion on pages 88-89.

[xiii] Page 144.

[xiv] The exact number is different according to different sources – this is based on the website of Australian Professor Paula Gerber: https://antigaylaws.org

[xv] Page 98.

[xvi] Page 112.

[xvii] Discussion of South Africa from page 62 onwards.

[xviii] Page 59.

[xix] Page 16.

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Review – Looking, Season One

12 months after its initial screening, and on the eve of season two, how does the first season of Looking (HBO) stand up to scrutiny on repeat viewing?

The answer is, surprisingly well. Looking was always going to be judged according to an incredibly high standard – not necessarily by TV critics, but definitely by members of the gay male community, looking for an accurate representation of ‘our’ lives, right now, on the small screen.

By and large, on this front, it was successful. The major characters were plausible (albeit with one exception, see below), and the storylines were similarly realistic (again with one exception).

It dealt with issues which ‘we’ are dealing with (including relationships in the era of marriage equality, and the societal mores and pressures that it brings, job and financial insecurity, and the ever-present, if just off-screen, HIV) and, even if on some of these it used language that was less than desirable (for example, Patrick’s conflation of HIV and AIDS, or some of the descriptions of CJ’s sex-work), it is nevertheless language that is used by (some of) us in the real world.

It didn’t hurt that the cast were attractive, either – let’s be honest, a television show about the gay community in San Francisco was always going to focus on the ‘good looking’. But even in this respect I didn’t find them impossibly or unrelatably so.

In short, the main strength of Looking is that it is a show that is both about us, and explicitly for us. Although by ‘us’ in this context I mean gay men in their 20s, 30s and 40s: it is (thankfully) not another production solely focused on young people ‘coming out’; despite the character of Lynn nor is it largely about older members of the community; and as has been pointed out by several (vocal) lesbian friends, it is very definitely not about, or for, them either.

Unlike some other programs about gay male life that have come before, it also doesn’t appear as though it is attempting to ‘explain’ us to outsiders, or that it is trying to use ‘shock value’ to gain a mainstream audience.

Instead, Looking is comfortable enough to be made, and made well, for the gay male community. Given the number of ‘out’ actors and others associated with the production, it even feels a little bit like a show by ‘us’ (which is another point of difference with some of the other shows gone by).

Of course, whether a television program like this, which so neatly fits into this ‘niche’ is sustainable, even as a small cog in the larger machine that is HBO, is questionable – and the ratings for season two will likely be make or break. For as long as it lasts, however, I intend to enjoy the ride.

Turning to some of the particular strengths of season one, it is hard to go past the impressive writing. Through eight very short episodes (of roughly 25 minutes or less), we were given several fully-formed characters, with dialogue that usually rang true. The humour (especially via Doris), and the pop cultural references, were spot on (and yes, that includes the multiple tributes to the Golden Girls).

But it was more than that – there was also subtly, and obvious care. One of my favourite conversations was where Dom met Lynn in the bathhouse, and particularly when they discuss the 1970s and early 1980s heyday of that scene:

Dom: It must have been cool back then.

Lynn: Back then? Suddenly I feel like I’m one hundred and three.

Dom: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…

Lynn: But it was, it really was… and then it wasn’t.

It takes a skilful degree of restraint to keep this description of the impact of HIV/AIDS on San Francisco so simple, and enormous – and well-placed, as it turns out – confidence in the ability of the actors (and particularly Scott Bakula) to convey its poignancy.

One other example of the writing conveys what I was discussing earlier – that Looking is a show about us, for us – and that is one conversation among many in ‘Looking for the Future’ (episode five), with Patrick and Richie walking through Golden Gate Park as part of their day-long ‘date’:

Patrick: But I feel like I don’t want to know about my parents’ sex life, so why do they need to know about mine.

Richie: You know your parents meeting your boyfriend has nothing to do with your sex life.

Patrick: Yeah, I know, I know…

Richie: It’s more about them meeting the person that you love, and care about, and share everything with.

Patrick: Yes, no, I get it. No I get it. (long pause) I don’t know, I feel like for parents though it is almost about the sex. Even if they are meeting a boyfriend, they’re just imagining that dick up your ass.

Richie: Your parents are obsessed with sex I think.

Patrick: Maybe. I think everyone’s is. Your like “I’m gay” and they’re like “Oh, so you’re butt-fucking now.”

Even the best writing though can be let down without the acting talent to match – and the casting directors for Looking did their job superbly. The leads do everything they are supposed to (especially Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett), but being honest once more, it is the supporting cast that steals the show.

Scott Bakula is perfect as the business partner/love interest Lynn to Bartlett’s Dom, while OT Fagbenle does a commendable job of bringing Agustin’s ‘wronged’ boyfriend to life. Russell Tovey suits the role of Patrick’s charming, yet slightly sleazy, boss (although perhaps Kevin was used too much as plot device and not enough as a stand-alone character, something which will hopefully be remedied in season two), while Raul Castillo inhabits the sweet, yet somewhat temperamental, Richie.

But it was of course Lauren Weedman, as Doris, who emerges as the true star of the first season, with too many brilliantly sarcastic one-liners to mention here. And, with “Dom’s worth it… He’s just, he’s worth it”, who doesn’t want a best friend like Doris?

Other strengths of Looking season one include the production values – it is clear that this is a (well-funded) HBO production, from the film-quality cinematography, to the attention to detail in costume and set design. The city of San Francisco, and surrounds, is almost an actor in its own right (if the producers didn’t secure funding from the Tourism Board of San Francisco, well, they weren’t doing their job properly). And the music is uniformly amazing (making it almost criminal that, as yet, there doesn’t appear to be an official soundtrack).

One final strength that I feel compelled to mention is the Patrick/Richie ‘date’ (in Looking for the Future, as touched on above), where for 25 minutes they are almost the only two people on screen. It is a beautiful paean to the early days of love – and one that makes much more sense when the involvement of Andrew Haigh (who wrote and directed the British film Weekend) is taken into account.

Of course, not everything about Looking season one worked. The biggest, and most obvious, problem was Agustin. It is understandable (and for dramatic purposes, almost obligatory) that one of the lead characters is a self-professed ‘fuck-up’, but he was so unlikeable, with so few redeeming features, that it made it difficult to believe Patrick and Dom would still be friends with him.

Indeed, Agustin was so ‘unappealing’ in personality that, as well as feeling sorry for Frankie J Alvarez for portraying him (lest anyone in real life mistook him for the character), I am left to hope they spend the necessary time to ‘rehabilitate’ his character in season two (it will be especially interesting to see how the addition of the officially “too gay to function” Damian aids in this recovery effort).

Other ‘flaws’ include the sub-plot in episode two – Looking for Uncut – which, as the title suggests, essentially revolved around Patrick’s supposed lack of knowledge of, and then almost instantaneous fetish-isation of, Richie’s presumed lack of circumcision. While overall Patrick is written as naïve, he’s still a 29 year old, sexually-active gay man – and this complete lack of sophistication is not just implausible, it’s borderline silly.

I found the pace of the final episode (Looking Glass) somewhat off-putting – after a season which developed slowly, taking time to explore characters and situations at a ‘natural’ pace, the eighth episode felt far too rushed by comparison (to the extent that I suspect that the original script may have been written for a season of nine or even 10 episodes).

Finally, I am also aware of a range of criticism – which appears to be warranted – that, despite the inclusion of multiple Hispanic characters, Looking season one was nevertheless an overly ‘white’ show. Here’s hoping that season two delivers greater ethnic diversity (including more than just Owen in terms of Asian-American characters).

Overall though, and despite these weaknesses, Looking season one was generally good, with moments of greatness. About and for the gay male community, it was successful in reflecting our lives back to ‘us’, portraying characters with which ‘we’ could identify (my fiancé and I can see ourselves in Richie and Patrick respectively, to the extent that we even instinctively adopt each character’s side in their arguments).

The first season of Looking deserves to be mentioned among the best gay male television shows of all time – and I for one am looking forward to seeing where the characters, and storylines, head in season two.

Looking Banner

No 11 Telling the Histories of the HIV Epidemic

One of the main cultural phenomena of 2013, at least from my perspective, was a welcome move towards telling the history of the HIV epidemic, and in particular looking back on the key years of the 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the US.

This started with the fantastic documentary How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, focusing on the story of ACTUP activists in New York City. I wrote earlier in the year about how powerful this documentary was – almost 10 months later and I would still say this was the best, and most important, film I saw this year.

Which is not meant as any disrespect to the also rather wonderful All the Way Through Evening, directed by Australian Rohan Spong. This documentary presented a much more targeted examination of the impact of HIV, through the story of Mimi Stern-Wolfe, an incredible woman who, each year, organises a concert in New York which plays the music of composers lost to AIDS-related illness.

In theatre, I finally fulfilled a long-held ambition by seeing the Belvoir St revival of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Staged 20 years after Tony Kushner’s 2-part epic first debuted, director Eamon Flack, and indeed the entire cast, did a brilliant job of making the pain, and fear, and hope, and hopelessness, seem all too real (which is a pretty decent effort when the plays ask the audience to suspend their disbelief about angels suspended on ropes, or in this case, standing on stepladders).

It was also a privilege to see the 7-hour marathon (we saw Millenium Approaches and Perestroika back-to-back) with my fiancé Steven. Not normally a fan of theatre, he was as engrossed as I was by this production.

More importantly, these films and plays served as a ‘history lesson’ for both of us. Steven was born in December 1983, after the first deaths from AIDS-related illness in Australia. His entire life has been in the shadow of this epidemic. Even though I am (*cough*) a little bit older than that, I still turned 18 after saquinavir and ritonavir had been approved by the FDA in the US, fundamentally altering the nature of the epidemic for the better.

It feels right that all generations of gay and bisexual men, and indeed all people potentially affected by HIV, should take the time to reflect on the history of this epidemic. That we should remember the people who fought to overcome stigma and discrimination, who fought for better access to treatment, who fought for the right to survive.

And of course it is vital to remember the personal stories of those who lost their own fight.

But it is also vital that, in doing so, we do not lose sight of the challenges that remain. Because the activists of yesterday might be somewhat disappointed in us if we did not also fight the battles of today, and tomorrow, with the same conviction that they did.

This includes tackling the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV that continues to exist in our society. And working hard to help prevent new transmissions – something that was thrown into sharp relief by recent figures which showed that HIV notifications increased 10% nationwide in 2012, including a jump of 24% in NSW.

Above all, the global challenge of HIV is in ensuring that all people have access to effective treatments, irrespective of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, their class or their nationality. Cost should not be a barrier to receiving the latest drugs. Indeed, access to treatment must be considered a fundamental human right.

Hopefully, Australia can play its part in the reinvigoration of this fight as it hosts the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne next July.

In the meantime, the recent trend towards (re-)telling the history of HIV on stage and on film, which arguably started with We Were Here back in 2011 (about the impact of HIV on San Francisco), shows no signs of letting up.

Next month, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club will hit our cinemas. It is reported that John and Tim, a documentary about the life of the author of the memoir Holding the Man, Timothy Conigrave, and his partner John Caleo, will also be released early in 2014. [Incidentally, that book was the first I read as a young gay man, and remains my favourite to this day].

Image

Just this week, director Neil Armfield received Screen Australia funding to develop a film version of Holding the Man, based on Tommy Murphy’s 2007 stage adaptation. The Hollywood version of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical 1980s play The Normal Heart looks on track for a 2014 release, too.

Which, in a way, brings us all the way back to How to Survive a Plague. The scene of Kramer sitting in a room full of divided and dispirited activists, yelling “Plague!” is the one that has stayed with me above all others. One day, the epidemic that is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus will be over, in part because of the work of ACTUP activists and others like them.  Til then, we must keep remembering, and keep fighting.

Related posts

My post after watching How to Survive a Plague: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/02/23/how-to-survive-a-plague/

My post after watching Angels in America: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/belvoir-st-theatres-angels-in-america/

Belvoir St Theatre’s Angels in America

Angels in America Tickets PictureAnother thing which happened during June, and which I am still thinking about more than a fortnight later, is that I finally had the opportunity to see Angels in America.

Steve and I (somewhat ambitiously) went to see Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika, in a double bill on Saturday 15 June. And it was one of the best theatre productions which I have ever seen. In one of the biggest compliments that a production can get, Steve even managed to stay awake – and interested – for all 7 hours.

Something about the production just clicked. The actors were uniformly great, so much so that it would be difficult to single anyone out for individual praise (although, having said that, Deobia Oparei as Belize/Mr Lies was hilarious and mesmerising at the same time).

The music, lighting and set design didn’t get in the way of the story-telling either. In fact, the decidedly ‘low-fi’ and rather ingenious way that the ‘Angels’ were brought to life in what is a small performing space actually helped – it took away some of the over-the-top fantasticality of the idea of angels appearing in contemporary society. And that, to this atheist at least, was a very good thing.

But as with most good theatre, the strength of Angels in America, and particularly in Part 1: Millennium Approaches, is the writing. Tony Kushner set down some absolutely amazing conversations between the characters. The back-and-forth about racism in America, between Belize and Louis, is still running through my head – and is still near-perfect in its encapsulation of problems of race as they are today (whether that is in the United States or indeed Australia).

The core subject matter of the play – the existential crisis presented by HIV/AIDS, how society responded to that crisis, and how the gay male community in particular was affected – has been the subject of some wonderful ‘art’ in the past 12 months, with Angels in America coming so soon after the brilliant documentaries All the Way Through Evening and How to Survive a Plague.

It is vitally important that we remember that time in our collective recent history, and the people who have been so tragically lost because of that awful virus. And just as important that we continue to work to ensure that it does not continue to claim so many lives now, and into the future.

Anyway, well done Belvoir, and Director Eamon Flack, for what really was a fantastic day – and night – at the theatre.

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague

So, last Sunday Steve and I had the privilege of watching the documentary How to Survive a Plague at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, presented by Queer Screen.

I say privilege, because this is both one of the best, and one of the most important, documentaries that I have ever seen. This blog post is my way of saying thank you to director David France for putting this documentary together, something which must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do, because of the subject matter involved, and because of the heavy responsibility of portraying the people and events involved honestly and respectfully.

How to Survive a Plague chronicles the activities of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its off-shoot TAG (the Treatment Action Group), from the epicentre of the AIDS crisis, the gay male community in New York City in 1987, through to the introduction of protease inhibitors/triple combination therapy in the mid-1990s.

I must admit that I cried (well, more accurately, sobbed) at many points during this film, from the visceral sense of fear experienced by these men and unflinchingly projected through the screen, through to the wonderful moments of comradery as they fought for and often won small victories in their long (and ultimately, but much too late of course, victorius) war for fair treatment, and including the tragic loss, too soon, of crusaders like Ray Navarro and Bob Rafsky (the scene with his ex-wife and child in the church after his funeral is especially raw).

Many direct action protests are captured, including the October 11, 1992 political funeral in Washington DC (where activists scattered ashes of the fallen on the White House lawns), and then the funeral of Mark Lowe Fischer in New York just before the 1992 Presidential election, where they took the open casket and chanted pleas for the polical class to listen and do something, anything, right outside the Republican Campaign Headquarters there.

But it is two speeches which for me truly stood out. The first, the amazing speech by Peter Staley to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco in 1990. That speech is just about perfect in terms of political oratory, conveying a message while also grabbing the audience and forcing them to take on as their own the opinions and priorities of the speaker. The second, more ‘impromptu’ speech, is heart-breaking because of the sense of disunity and despair it revealed – I dare anyone not to be jolted out of their seats when they see Larry Kramer yell ‘Plague!’ to a room full of activists, who are themselves depressed and divided about the scale and severity of the challenge confronting them.

Of course, the documentary ends on a relatively positive note, as we see many of the activists from the archival footage, alive and now doing other, very worthy things with their lives (like most audience members I am in awe of the capacity of people like that to have fought such a long campaign, and then to sign up for one or indeed several more eg Mark Harrington, Peter Staley).

But just because many people in the Western world, and some in the developing world, are doing well health-wise in the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, does not mean that we can’t do better, both in terms of reducing transmission, and increasing access to treatments (and ultimately, of course, to finding a cure).

And the fact that as a society we are now doing comparatively well on this issue is the exact reason why we should watch movies like this, to reflect on the battles fought that got us here, and to thank and pay tribute to the activists who gave so much to ensure that people who followed would have a better, and more hopeful, existence.