The families we choose:
on AIDS and friendship
– Alys Moody
The walk from Kings Cross, Sydney’s once notorious red-light district, to St Vincent’s Hospital takes about ten minutes up Darlinghurst Road, one of the main thoroughfares through the eponymous inner-city suburb that has long been the centre of Sydney’s gay community. An imposing presence in a suburb of terrace houses and trendy bars, this hospital looms tragically large in the history of gay life in Sydney. It’s where, in 1982, Australia’s first case of AIDS was diagnosed and where, in 1984, the country’s first dedicated AIDS ward was established: Ward 17 South. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the epidemic spread through the surrounding gay communities, as well as the nearby IV-drug-using communities of the Cross, the hospital became one of the country’s leading HIV/AIDS treatment facilities, treating over half the country’s HIV and AIDS patients.
For my generation, born during the early years of AIDS and coming of age after the beginning of the new millennium, this grim history has always been just that – history. By the early 21st century, AIDS was no longer the death sentence it had been in the early years. The 1990s saw dramatic improvements in treatments and, as more people living with HIV were able to live healthy lives, demand for beds began to fall off. In 2007, the hospital closed Ward 17 South, absorbing remaining patients into general wards or treating them as outpatients.
While our childhoods may have been haunted by Australia’s infamous grim reaper ads, as young adults, our social circles were never torn apart by this disease; we were more likely to know AIDS as an unrealised threat than as a personal tragedy. But geographically and socially, AIDS inhabits the worlds I have lived in (and likely the worlds most readers of this magazine live in) like a spectre. It maintains an uncanny proximity to our own communities, exempting us by the good luck of our historical near miss. Less than a generation removed from its most shocking ravages, the exhortation to remember this crisis feels like the exhortation to remember and understand some part of history that, if not exactly mine, is one that I identify with. Of all the catastrophes of the twentieth century, of all the ways that brutal century pulverised people and social bonds, the horror of AIDS tearing through gay communities in the 1980s and 1990s feels closest to home.
Saying that AIDS feels close to home might really just be a way of saying that the thin men in archival footage of the patients on Ward 17 South still look like my friends. But if so, I’m not so sure that this is the banal, even self-indulgent, observation that I am tempted to dismiss it as. One of the most compelling things about the AIDS crisis is the alternate forms of kinship and community that it brings to light and, in particular, the way the whole catastrophe – the heart-breaking aspects as well as the glimmers of humour and joy and relief – is rooted so firmly in an understanding, rare in our society, of the richness and complexity and passion of friendship. At a historical moment when many gay people were alienated from or not out to their families, and when partners of AIDS victims might themselves be ill or dead, friendship was an unusually crucial social bond. And for many who lived through those years, the trauma lies not just (and perhaps not at all) in the loss of individual, beloved partners, but in the enormity of losing so many friends so young.
The AIDS crisis is a rare moment in late 20th-century history that foregrounds the full force of friendship’s strangeness and its capacity to generate powerful, affiliative bonds. It brings to the fore what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in a memorial for Craig Owens, an activist and art critic who died of AIDS in 1990, describes as ‘this strange, utterly discontinuous, projective space of desire euphemistically named friendship’. Part of what continues to seem to me shocking and fascinating in the AIDS epidemic is its capacity to make friendship appear in this unfamiliar light, by way of the glimpse it offers into friendships in extremis, far beyond the anodyne and adolescent substitutes for sexual or familial relations that we commonly imagine it to be.
The importance of friendship is everywhere apparent in the cultural production of the AIDS crisis. Essay collections of and about this period – from Sedgwick’s Tendencies (in which the Owens memorial was reprinted) to British AIDS activist Simon Watney’s Imagining Hope: AIDS and Gay Identity – are dotted with memorials to lost friends. Fictional worlds set in this historical moment characteristically take the friendship network – rather than the family or the singular romance –as their organising social structure. From Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, to Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, to the ground-breaking 1986 New Zealand television show A Death in the Family, which screened on primetime only a year after the country’s first AIDS death, the disease is portrayed, time and again, as tearing through circles of friends who struggle to rally around the dying (or who pointedly fail to do so). In many of these stories, families are marginal, still playing out their own earlier dramas about their sons’ sexuality while friends and lovers offer the support necessary for the dying men to confront the real disaster at hand.
Of course, AIDS alone did not invent these queer communities. In the 1997 preface to her 1991 study Families We Choose: Gays, Lesbians, Kinship, anthropologist Kath Weston recalls the atmosphere in which she undertook the fieldwork for her study: ‘in the mid-1980s, popular wisdom had it that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals put kinship ties at risk when they came out’. In response to this presumed or actual loss of family, ‘people had begun talking about something called “gay families,” the “families we choose.”’ These ‘gay families’ were formed overwhelmingly from constellations of friendships and relationships, newly imbued with the emotional and social weight that elsewhere was reserved for more traditional kinship structures.
These communities were already organising in the brief moment between the beginning of gay liberation and the onset of AIDS, when coming out was beginning to have a social and political pull, and gay friends were stepping into the holes left by families who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. But in this pre-AIDS moment, at the height of the sexual revolution, these communities tended to understand themselves not in the language of family, but of sexuality. When AIDS began ravaging these communities in the 1980s, often to the indifference or hostility of the wider community, these communities reformulated themselves and, when Weston began her fieldwork in AIDS-ravaged San Francisco, she realised that, in the talk of ‘gay families’, she was confronting ‘an entire discourse in the making’.
The discourse of the gay family that Weston identified in the 1980s and early 1990s is still evident in contemporary gay activism, but the term has increasingly converged on the straight family to which it initially opposed itself. Now, rather than alternate kinship structures built around shifting networks of friends and lovers, the gay family is increasingly built on the model of the straight family. Access to marriage and reproductive rights – the cornerstones of the heterosexual family – have been the key issues for gay activism in the twenty-first century.
This convergence is itself in part a legacy of AIDS, which disrupted the promiscuous sexuality of the gay liberation era while painfully bringing home the stakes of inhabiting social structures that are excluded from legal and social recognition: the denial, for instance, of the right of partners to visit dying loved ones, or the forfeiture of the right to make decisions about medical actions and funeral arrangements to families who may have never accepted their son in his lifetime. It is also in part a result of the success of the gay rights movement. Over the last couple of decades, gay life has increasingly moved out of marginal subcultures, where radically reimagining the family seemed like a vital task, and into the mainstream, where inhabiting the straight world on an equal footing suddenly feels much more important.
While the simple fact that alternate kinship structures are no longer a necessary part of gay life is, in and of itself, testament to the tremendous success of gay activism, there has always been a radical tradition within the gay community that has hesitated before the assimilationist logic of the discourse of the family. In another essay in Tendencies, Sedgwick quotes a 1989 interview with her friend Michael Lynch, one of the founders of gay studies: ‘I don’t like the idea of the gay family,’ he says, ‘it’s a heterosexist notion. I’d like a straight family to see themselves in terms of friends. I’d rather see same-sex friendship be the model to straights.’
In some sense, Lynch’s dream may also have come true. In the 1990s, as the AIDS crisis was passing and the gay family discourse was solidifying into a political agenda, popular culture, from Friends to Sex and the City, suddenly became interested in models of straight community that placed friendships, rather than relationships or traditional families, at their heart. As the age at which straight people get married and have children has risen, these models of support networks stitched together from friendships continue to be important, particularly to childless people in their 20s and 30s.
But much as the growing sense of the inevitability of gay marriage (if not its reality, for many outside Australia) offers real cause for celebration, the sense in which I identify with the AIDS crisis – and one of the things that this crisis still seems available to teach us – is rooted in this alternate legacy of gay friendship. In fact, my identification with this crisis is, more precisely, an identification with the communities and the friendships that AIDS decimated and made visible, and with the kind of powerful, risky social bonds that friendship can be.