Why We Still Need AIDS Stories

by Sam J. Miller

Here’s the thing about apocalypses: they happen all the time. They’re easy to ignore, unless they’re happening to us. Maybe we don’t have zombie hordes wandering through Times Square, but we have entire populations — in the developing and the developed worlds alike — who are living lives as hard as those of the characters in our worst apocalyptic literary imaginings.

Case in point: I’ve spent over a decade working with homeless folks in NYC, who are living in an apocalypse that millions of New Yorkers are perfectly comfortable walking past on a daily basis. From where homeless people stand, society has already crumbled. On any given day, eating is not a given. Gangs of marauders prey upon them, setting people on fire in the anti-homeless hate crimes that continue to happen regularly. The rule of law is already gone. Cops exist only to harass and arrest them for life-sustaining behavior like sleeping.

There are countless other examples. By some estimates, there are at least five genocides happening right this minute on our planet — and many people would put that number much higher — genocides are always contested territory; the people engaged in them are always quick to argue that that’s not what’s going on at all. Only bad people are genocidal, and we’re not bad people!

Apocalypses are illuminating. They show us how things work. Who’s safe; who’s vulnerable. Who the state wants to help, and who it doesn’t.

Almost forty years ago, all over the world, an apocalypse began to unfold. Initially reported as a “gay cancer,” HIV/AIDS hit queer folks and people of color the hardest. The response from elected officials and religious leaders ranged from icy murderous silence to outright venomous hostility, with mainstream voices calling it “God’s judgment” on sinners, or calling for mandatory tattooing of HIV-positive individuals. When federal officials visiting New York City expressed alarm at the high number of homeless people with AIDS living on the streets, and how those numbers were projected to increase, city officials told them not to worry, that people with AIDS were dying so fast there’d be no visible increase. An epidemic was sweeping the country, and the President refused to say its name — not doing so in public until 1985, when over 8,000 people had already passed away.

HIV/AIDS made something else visible, too: our power. With our backs against the wall, with nothing left to lose, with everyone we loved dying while the world around us pretended not to see — we fought back. With fearless, flamboyant, edgy direct action and unforgettable visuals, ACT-UP and other groups raised wonderful hell and forced the status quo to pay attention. They disrupted mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They brought rush-hour traffic to a halt at Grand Central Terminal. They staged mass die-ins at the New York Stock Exchange, to demand an end to pharmaceutical companies profiting off of AIDS meds. They even protested some guy named Donald Trump back in 1989, to call attention to the ways city government helped out rich real estate developers but refused to create housing for homeless people with HIV/AIDS. Art and activism came together in gorgeous unstoppable ways, and they changed the game.

HIV/AIDS took all the hate and homophobia that had been implicit and invisible in how patriarchy works, and made it visible. And seeing all that ugliness is awful — but what we can see, we can fight. In the era of HIV/AIDS, the fight for LGBTQIA equality and visibility kicked into high gear, and the years since have seen incredibly transformative strides, with victorious fights for same-sex marriage and gays in the military, and an explosion of amazing queer art, including adorable Hollywood gay teen rom-coms.

But the apocalypse didn’t end. Patriarchy didn’t crumble. HIV/AIDS is still ravaging our communities. And people still don’t want to talk about it. The fact that it’s no longer necessarily a death sentence doesn’t make it any less insidious, or the demographics of its infection rate any less indicative of injustice.

I don’t want us to forget that.

With my new novel, Blackfish City, I wanted to keep those two narratives alive. In a future where rising sea levels have transformed the globe, and where refugees huddle in a floating city near the Arctic Circle, a mysterious disease known as “the breaks” is ravaging the population. Hitting the most marginalized hardest, the disease’s symptoms are purely psychological — and universally fatal. People with the breaks — and their loved ones — wait in vain for the inscrutable AIs that pull the levers of government to find a cure or even make a statement.

But the disease also enables people to share knowledge and information, memories and dreams, to link up telepathically. Isolated and alone they were powerless to shift the balance of power, but as one organized effective body they could shake their society to its core.

Kinda like us, now.

The toxic stew of hate that helped make HIV/AIDS into the apocalypse that it was — it’s alive and well. It propelled our current president into the White House. It’s fueling a rise in hate crimes, and it’s deepened the extent to which a whole lot of people are currently living in dystopia. Moms are being detained when they bring their sick kids to the hospital. Tax codes are being rewritten to make the hyper-rich even hyper-richer. Families are being torn apart by aggressive, explicitly racist immigration enforcement & deportations.

This is not new. Some people were surprised by things like Brexit or the 2016 American election results, but folks on the frontlines of our war with ourselves were not. This is who we are. Who we’ve always been. When I wrote Blackfish City, the political ambitions of the current U.S. president were an absurd punchline. When we sold it — a week before the election — he was still a joke, albeit a significantly less funny one.

We still need AIDS stories because AIDS is still real. Still hitting low-income people and people of color and non-cis-male people hardest. And because we still have so far to go. The fact that white gay boys can see themselves on movie screens now does not mean we succeeded in dismantling toxic masculinity. Nazis are rallying on our streets and dominating social media; cops are still killing unarmed people of color. Our ugliest voices are controlling the conversation.

We changed the world once, when our backs were up against the wall. We can do it again.

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer who lives in New York City. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus and Theodore Sturgeon Awards and have appeared in over a dozen ‘year’s best’ anthologies. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop, and a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. Blackfish City is his first adult novel.

Find Sam online www.samjmiller.com and follow him on Twitter @sentencebender