How Has Queer YA Addressed HIV/AIDS?
Derritt Mason on What Fiction Gets Right—And Wrong
The first YA book to deal with HIV/AIDS was M. E. Kerr’s Night Kites. Published in 1986, the novel features a teenage protagonist whose older brother is sick with AIDS-related illnesses. As Christine Jenkins and Michael Cart point out, this novel did not inspire a trend: HIV/AIDS “would receive major thematic or topical treatment in only three other YA novels in the eighties.”
In addition to the four novels published in the 1980s, only thirteen texts “that included any character who was HIV positive or had AIDS appeared in the nineties.” Moreover, just one of the affected characters in these thirteen books is a young person; the rest are adults, “usually uncles or teachers.” Lydia Kokkola concludes that, during this time period, HIV/AIDS functions mostly as a “punishment” for sexually active and/or queer characters.
In addition to under-representing HIV/AIDS, YA novels tend to inaccurately portray the transmission of HIV/AIDS and the lived realities of HIV+ people. Melissa Gross, along with Annette Y. Goldsmith and Debi Carruth, conducted several studies of HIV/AIDS representation in YA, which culminate in an annotated bibliography published in 2010. As of 2008, they counted 93 YA novels that are “written for young adults aged eleven to nineteen, contain a protagonist in this age range, are written in or translated into English, are fiction, and contain at least one character who is HIV positive or who has AIDS.”
These authors conclude their detailed content analysis with an overall negative assessment: the characters with HIV/AIDS overwhelmingly “have little to no relationship to the protagonist”; although the American blood supply has been safe since 1985, novels published as late as 1995 used blood transfusion as “the primary explanation for the transmission of HIV”; “unreasonable fears” such as casual contact, kissing, and transmission through tears or sweat “dominate the reasons why protagonists fear HIV/AIDS”; despite advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, most characters with HIV/AIDS “die or are dying by the end of the book”; and books tend to make a “mystery” out of “how the largest single group of characters acquire HIV/AIDS”—these are “marginal characters who the protagonist knows only slightly, if at all.” Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth report that “the message being overwhelmingly sent by this set of books is that HIV/AIDS does not happen to people about whom the protagonist cares.”
Gross et al’s research demonstrates how YA has consistently kept HIV/AIDS at a substantial remove from youth themselves. Novels that feature HIV+ young people are often “set outside of the developed world,” primarily in Africa and Papua New Guinea. The anxiety, here, seems to stem from adult desires that (white, “Western”) young people remain untouched by HIV/AIDS, or if they are affected, that they remain somehow “innocent”: thus, the blood transfusion plot. Gross et al. offer Alex Flinn’s Fade to Black (2005) as a rare example of a YA novel that exposes the inaccuracies and critiques the unreasonable fears present in so many other books. The novel’s HIV+ teenage protagonist, Alex, has a mother who insists on telling others that he was infected through a blood transfusion. To her chagrin, Alex eventually reveals the truth: he was infected through heterosexual sex. The book “does an excellent job of depicting the consequences of superstitious thinking, bigotry, and illogical panic,” Gross et al. write, yet Fade to Black remains an “outlier” in the genre.
Sarah Brophy argues that “Stories of HIV infection and AIDS in the mainstream media are invested in managing and containing anxiety,” and this is equally true of how children’s and YA literature handles the relationship between young people and HIV/AIDS. In Megan Blumenreich and Marjorie Seigel’s 2006 study of books about HIV/AIDS written for children in kindergarten through grade 5, for example, the authors conclude: “In all of the books in which children are the people with HIV/AIDS and in those in which a heterosexual person has HIV/AIDS, the idea of an ‘innocent victim’ is invoked.”
Robert McRuer’s “Reading and Writing ‘Immunity’: Children and the Anti-Body” exposes a similar attachment to the “innocent” narrative. Children’s literature about AIDS from the late 1980s and early 1990s, McRuer argues, reflects liberal notions of AIDS as “everyone’s disease,” evacuating the gay male body while individualizing and desexualizing the context of the epidemic. He posits a binary of “immunity/implication” at the core of these texts: by virtue of their innocence, children are “immune” to the virus while the heterosexualized carriers are represented as requiring nothing more than compassion from the stories’ young protagonists.YA anxiously keeps HIV/AIDS at a “safe” distance from its young protagonists.
Crucially absent, McRuer writes, are a sense that HIV/AIDS is a collective, political issue and not an individual one; representations of sex-positive education as opposed to abstinence-based curricula; and the notion that HIV+ people (in addition to doctors and HIV-protagonists) have the right to be centered in these stories. Like Gross et al., McRuer makes it clear that the misrepresentation of HIV/AIDS in children’s and YA literature can be potentially harmful to its young audiences. Together, these critics illustrate how adult authors and publishers seem more interested in anxiously rehearsing the imagined innocence of young people—keeping them at arm’s length from HIV/AIDS—than engaging with the realities of how young people navigate their relationship to the virus.
To this day, Jenkins and Cart indicate, “AIDS-related literature remains a very modest subgenre of LGBTQ+ literature.” There has been no significant study conducted on the topic since Gross et al. published their annotated bibliography, which is now a decade old. Moreover, an informal Goodreads search that I conducted with a research assistant yielded only eight YA titles published in the last five years (2015–2019) that deal directly with HIV/AIDS. Of these titles, six are set in the 1980s or 90s; of the two titles that feature a contemporary setting, only one (Christopher Koehler’s Poz) is about a young HIV+ protagonist (the other is about a protagonist with an HIV+ father).
YA seems determined to represent HIV/AIDS as a historical issue that is largely detached from young people themselves. Yet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics indicate that in 2017, “youth aged 13 to 24 made up 21% (8,164) of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas.” Moreover, HIV+ youth “are the least likely of any age group to be linked to care in a timely manner and have a suppressed viral load” (“HIV and Youth”).
Despite what YA suggests, HIV/AIDS continues to be a very real part of the lived experience of many young people in contemporary America.
Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, which initially seems to defy the trend of displacing or eliding HIV/AIDS, has garnered critical attention for the uniqueness of its narrative voice. Levithan’s book is set in the present and focuses on the lives of seven queer teens: Craig and Harry, ex-boyfriends who are trying to set a world record for the longest kiss in support of their friend Tariq, who was gay bashed; Neil and Peter, whose relationship is affected by Neil’s reluctance to come out to his family; Avery and Ryan, who are beginning to date after meeting at a queer prom; and Cooper, who is accidentally outed to his homophobic father. The story is narrated by a chorus of “shadow uncles,” the ghosts of gay men who died during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “We are . . . your angel godfathers,” they explain, “your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation.”
Generally speaking, critics praised Levithan’s use of this chorus, commenting on its innovativeness and affective force. Readers “can’t shake the dead souls to which Levithan has given such eloquent voice,” writes Louis Bayard in the Los Angeles Times, arguing that the chorus “enlarg[es]” the story’s themes and “tease[s] out cross-generational epiphanies.” In the School Library Journal, Karyn Silverman calls the chorus “a magnificent construct,”“the true emotional core” of the novel and “a serious contender for best voice of 2013” that communicates a “palpable and powerful”“sorrow for the lives left behind, the lives unlived.” s.e. smith’s blog review argues that the chorus preserves voices that “played such an important role in queer history, in the history of radical health activism, in social history.” Although she is ambivalent about the narrative authority evoked by the shadow uncles, Jackie C. Horne concedes that “the first person plural narrator clearly gives the book much of its power.” And in the Lambda Literary Review, Lydia Harris calls Two Boys Kissing “a powerfully explosive work of literary art” due in large part to the chorus, which “gives [Levithan’s] words a resonance, melding history with the present and projecting into the future.”
A handful of scholarly articles has also been written on Two Boys Kissing. Of particular interest is Angel Daniel Matos’s essay, which argues that Levithan’s chorus defies temporality to cultivate a “trans-generational” and “trans-historical” queer community. Matos convincingly makes a case for the novel’s “reparative agenda,” which aims to historicize contemporary queer struggles in the context of a collective that includes the shadow uncles, Levithan’s coterie of young present-day protagonists, and, presumably, the reader, who “can potentially become intimately familiar with [their] place in history.” For Matos, this collision of past and present enables a hopeful political agenda uncommon in other queer YA novels. He maintains: “Two Boys Kissing breaks away from the conventions of YA novels with queer content and unsettles many of the generic expectations of YA fiction.”
Indeed, as all of the novel’s critics flag, Levithan’s story offers a powerful reminder of the entire generation that was lost to HIV/AIDS. The ghostly chorus certainly makes Two Boys Kissing stand out amongst other YA novels on similar themes, which tend to—as McRuer points out—focus on individuals instead of the collective. This communal impulse, as Matos highlights, is a compelling rarity. Two Boys Kissing does not, however, depart from how YA anxiously keeps HIV/AIDS at a “safe” distance from its young protagonists.
In her moving memoir of the AIDS crisis, Susan Schulman writes:
We still have to work every day to assert the obvious, that in fact, there are two distinctly different kinds of AIDS that are not over.
1. There is AIDS of the past.
2. There is ongoing AIDS.
Neither is over, although they are treated quite differently in the present moment.
Two Boys Kissing primarily represents “AIDS of the past” while neglecting “ongoing AIDS.” Despite the centrality of the chorus, AIDS is explicitly named only a handful of times in the novel, first on its eighth page, when the shadow uncles proclaim that “some of us swear we died of heartbreak, not AIDS.” Prior to that, the uncles use coded language to describe their relationship to AIDS: they are “characters in a Tony Kushner play” and “names on a quilt,” references that would elude readers without the relevant intertextual knowledge.
Otherwise, the virus remains absent from the present-day setting, aside from one incident when a homophobic radio caller expresses his hope that Craig and Harry, the two boys kissing, are “giving each other AIDS.” None of the novel’s young protagonists are affected by HIV/AIDS, and only one secondary character—a teacher, Mr. Bellamy—is explicitly connected to the virus. HIV remains a fundamentally historical issue, and the record-breaking public kiss becomes the locus of contemporary queer activism—as opposed to, for example, the kinds of collective political action that McRuer calls for, those that would center sex-positive education and the voices of people living with HIV.
The fissure between past and present takes shape early in the novel, when the shadow uncles narrate how Neil, en route to his boyfriend’s house, “is struck by a feeling of deep, unnamed gratitude. He realizes that part of his good fortune is his place in history, and he thinks fleetingly of us, the ones who came before. We are not names or faces to him; we are an abstraction, a force.” Certainly, as the chorus points out, Neil is lucky to have been born following the worst of the AIDS epidemic. However, Neil’s thoughts are “fleeting” and the shadow uncles remain an “abstraction”: HIV/AIDS is relegated to the past, to a “place in history.”
Matos acknowledges that HIV/AIDS causes a “spatial and temporal divide” between the shadow uncles and the novel’s contemporary protagonists, but he highlights how the latter “inhabit a time in which they are not only aware of AIDS, but ultimately able to control it with relative success thanks to the existence of protease inhibitors and increased awareness of safe sex.” If Levithan’s present-day characters are indeed aware of HIV/AIDS as something that exists beyond a historical “abstraction” or recourse for homophobic slurs, they give no indication.
HIV is also something of an abstraction in Castro. The game’s “bacterial virus” is not HIV—it is not called HIV, nor is it transmitted like HIV—yet its role in this game (which was, again, designed to raise funds for AIDS charities) links it to HIV. Castro’s “circuit of feeling” is powered in large part by hyperbolized anxieties about HIV/AIDS that also circulate in YA and popular discourse about HIV/AIDS. Recall Gross et al.’s observation that “unreasonable fears” like “casual contact” (i.e. kissing, sharing drinks) are pervasive in YA about HIV; Castro gives us a “fast acting” virus that spreads though alcohol consumption and, like HIV, has “no antidote.” The origin of Castro’s virus is at the center of the game’s mystery, just as YA often makes a “mystery” out of how characters acquire HIV.
Furthermore, Castro’s virus is the result of a conspiracy targeted specifically at the queer community, who felt and continues to feel the impact of HIV/AIDS in a profound way. Schulman notes that US governments have been “pretending away the deaths of 540,436 adults and 5,369 children from AIDS in the United States of America (as of 2008),” that they disregarded “AIDS as it was happening” and continue to imagine “that past AIDS has no impact on survivors,” and “that ongoing AIDS is inevitable, sad, and impossible to change.” Placing a villain named “Straightman” at the center of a plot to murder queers, in Castro’s case, is an apt reflection of how many queers may feel about the deficient government responses to the AIDS crisis in America.
Castro also invites us to feel these anxieties through its aesthetic. The Castro neighborhood, as represented in the game, is something of an apocalyptic wasteland. Although the bacteria has yet to be released when the game begins, Castro’s landscape—rendered in crude, black and white graphics—is a haunting one. The game unfolds at 3:30am, and the Castro is all but abandoned. If the player clicks on the night sky outside “The Gayme Room,” the game’s opening setting, a text box appears containing the first stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s melancholy poem “The Day is Done”: “The day is done, and the darkness / Falls from the wings of Night, / As a feather is wafted downward / From an eagle in his flight.” The only non-player characters Tracker McDyke can encounter are the Gayme Room’s unconscious bartender, a dead body in the trunk of a car, a naked woman who can be spied upon through the window above Straightman’s office, the bouncer of Club 102 (who will murder you unless you correctly answer his question), a handful of couples in the aptly named “Red Herring Cafe,” and Tessy, the kidnapped drag queen whom you ultimately discover chained to the wall of a secret room.
East of the Gayme Room is a boarded-up, scorched building: the “Gay Apparel Clothing store,” which “burned down last week under mysterious circumstances” in a fire that also killed its proprietor. Every time McDyke passes the bank, “You hear gun fire and feel 2 bullets whizzing just over your head” (if you try to enter, you are arrested and lose the game). Dying in the game returns players, again and again, to the image of a tombstone that reads,“Here Lies a Mediocre & Unsuccessful Private Detective.” The affect evoked by this digital world is one of dread and impending doom. It is a place that has already been harmed by Straightman and is under threat of further, more significant harm—unless McDyke can put a stop to it. This further threat is, of course, the virus that both is and is not HIV.
Castro exemplifies what Anable calls “the aesthetics of failure” in video games. She emphasizes the close relationship between affect and aesthetics, given that the latter “is derived from the Greek word aesthesis, meaning ‘sensation’ or ‘feeling.’” Anable theorizes the aesthetics of failure vis-a-vis contemporary games that deploy “simple graphics and low-resolution imagery”—akin to what Castro offers—to mislead the player into believing that victory will be easily achieved. Ultimately, through challenging controls and frustrating gameplay mechanics, these games deny the player such satisfaction. Anable considers this to be an intentional game design strategy, a “preferred aesthetic and an ideological tactic,” which has the potential to “shift our attention away from perceived personal failings and back to failures of a larger ideological system”—capitalism, for example, which relies heavily on glitch-free relationships between machines and their operators.
In Castro’s case, the story of Straightman’s conspiracy—as told through the game’s stark landscape; rudimentary, monochromatic graphics; and looming threat of queer genocide—might return us to the government’s failure to see queer lives as worthy of recognition, protection, and mourning.
In terms of the gameplay failures it causes, however, Castro is something of a different case. When players such as I fail at Castro, it is not always as a result of intentional pathways built into the gameplay, despite the game’s many avenues to character death. Castro invites the question: how does a video game make us feel when it unintentionally denies us the chance to succeed, when repeated failures are the result of a glitch?
Excerpt from Chapter 3, “HIV/AIDS: Playing with Failure in Caper in the Castro and Two Boys Kissing” from Queer Anxieties of Young Adult Literature and Culture by Derritt Mason, Copyright © 2021 by University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.