Academic Book, AIDS, Bohemian Rhapsody, Effect of AIDS on Gay Male Sexual Identity and Perception, Freddy Mercury, Freddy Mercury is GOD, Gay Macho, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, history, humanity, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Perception, Personal Development, Public perception, Queen, Queer Theory, Radio GaGa, sex, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, STIs, We Are the Champions, We Were Here
Freddie Mercury is god, and not just because he was gay. It just makes god cooler is all.
The longest eight minutes of the day almost always take place once the library has closed. The way my work-clock functions is there is an electronic clock-in system that requires a password and then you have to wait until the clock reaches to a certain time before you can clock in or out and not potentially lose fifteen minutes of work and thus a quarter of an hour’s worth of pay. It’s rather convoluted if you ask me, but that’s only because I grew up watching that Loony Tunes special with the sheepdog and the wolf who always greeted each other as they punched their cards in to start and end the workday. The system being what it is, there is often a moment where, at the end of the day, there are several employees just sitting and waiting in front of their computers talking while the clock slowly ticks to 7:08 when we can all clock out. It was during this time one night that I was sitting with my friend and coworker TJ and he was scrolling through Rotten Tomatoes like he usually does seeing what films are succeeding and getting the highest ratings.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic about Freddie Mercury and Queen, but most Freddie let’s be real here, didn’t get very great reviews and that bummed me out because, as I noted before, Freddie Mercury is god. Queen was, and still is to me, a band that defines rock’n roll. While the music was at times odd, peculiar, and sometimes even a little weird, the music was such that I could always appreciate the artistry and sheer personality of the band. Because of this, the negative reviews almost scared me off from seeing the film because I wasn’t interested in seeing Queen fall from grace, but fortunately, I have an amazing Mom who saw the film before me and insisted I go see it with her. And, as I usually the case, my mother was right. Bohemian Rhapsody was not a truly great film, but by the end of the movie I was crying and singing along to Don’t Stop Me Now as the credits rolled.
Freddie Mercury was never a gay icon to me while I was growing up, and even I came out as bisexual, and then eventually pansexual, and then eventually just started using gay and queer interchangeably because ain’t nobody got time for that, Freddie Mercury never rose to prominence in terms of my queer identity. Honestly, David Bowie has meant more to me erotically speaking, but that’s only because the man looks better in lipstick than I do…the rotten old fairy.
I won’t say that I’ve suddenly become gay for Freddie Mercury, I’m kind of already there, but what struck me most about the film is how his death from Pneumonia related auto-immune disorder, AIDS hit me so profoundly. It’s a bit of a cliche I know, but watching the recreation of the Live AID performance I was weeping as I realized that had Freddie not died we might still have the man here on this earth making music. There might be more Queen albums, there might be collaborations between Queen and other contemporary singers, and as for Mercury himself, he might have finally come out himself. But like many “what if” scenarios, after a time the exercise becomes an exercise in morbidity and futility.
This thought about the life that might have been has been more and more in my mind lately. In the last few months, I’ve watched the documentary We Were Here, which explores the lives of numerous queer people who lived through the AIDS crisis. The stories were heartbreaking, but also a chance for personal reflection. I am a gay man, a queer man, a pansexual man living in a time where AIDS is no longer a death sentence and this largely because of the work of activists, scholars, scientists, and doctors who have worked relentlessly. This was a beautiful thought.
This was also a chance to complete a review I started literally two years ago, of Martin P. Levine’s Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone.
Martin P. Levine was a sociologist who specialized in the subculture of the gay male community, specifically the “clone” culture that rose prominence in the 70s. Levine tried to understand why gay men were not only rejecting the previous identity of what gay masculinity was, a.k.a. the Queen or the Fairy, and instead were appropriating the imagery of straight working-class men to create a new mold of manhood. Levine studied this culture at the same time he was living in it, giving him a unique perspective. If the reader is interested in the first half of this book they can follow the previous hyperlink, or the link I’ll post at the bottom of the essay. Levine’s book is definitely worth the reader’s time because it explores how these men were trying to make themselves into something new, something that felt satisfying, and something that would leave them personally, and often sexually, satisfied. But as Levine completed the first half of his book the AIDS crisis struck this community, and so the second half is largely an exploration of how AIDS disrupted this culture, and how it almost completely unraveled everything these men had worked towards.
Levine notes in one of the early chapters the psychological impact of AIDs:
As a sociologist who writes about New York’s gay ghetto and is very much a part of it, I have observed a wave of terror wash over our community during the past few months. Driven by an assumption that our lifestyle is responsible for these new diseases, this wave leaves in its make much psychological turmoil. (138).
He goes on to say:
The AIDs outbreak—some call it the gay cancer to the gay plague, which is no help at all—undoubtedly is our community’s main concern now. Wherever we gather—at our gyms, in bars, at parties—clone banter is switching from the four D’s (disco, drugs, dick, and dish) to whole is the latest victim of Karposi’s sarcoma. Hospital visits and funerals are becoming as commonplace as Levi’s 501 jeans. Friends who never before showed the slightest interest in gay causes are now besieging us for donations to Gay Men’s Health Crisis. (138).
Though arguably the most potent argument occurs on just the next page:
This panic lacerates our emotions.
After watching friends and lovers die, certain that tricking and drugs killed them, many of us now regard our once-glamourous and exciting lifestyle as toxins. We are left frightened, nervous, and confused. We wonder what we have done to our bodies. Do all those years of frenzied drug orgies at the baths mean it is only a matter of time before we are stricken? We felt guilt over our past ways. We are obsessed about our health. A minor sore-throat, a slight black-and-blue mark conjures up visions of pneumonia or cancer. We run to our doctors.
For some this hysteria breeds self-hatred. The threat of disease and death erases more than a decade of gay pride. Internalized homophobia steps out of the closet as “homosexuality” is blamed for the illnesses. (139).
Such passages are heartbreaking. And the testimony of individuals saying they feel that they are being punished simply for being gay only makes it worse. In this way, Levine’s book is probably not going to be a terribly uplifting read, but simply to dismiss it because it’s not fun to read is not only not a good enough excuse to not read this book (that might have been too many “nots”) it’s also a shitty reason. I admit that I’m biased here, this is a book about my community, but Gay Macho provides an important insight into how a disease is not just a physical ailment, but often-times can also be a psychological one.
Levine is able to observe this psychological impact upon the community in a later passage as he observes the reason many gay men at the time refused or feared to receive an AIDS test:
The motives cited in the interviews for not taking the test drew heavily upon the psychological definition. Most of the men reported avoiding being tested because they feared social discrimination, repressive government actions, and the adverse psychological impact of positive results. Many men feared that hostile groups would gain access to test results and use them for discriminatory purposes. In addition, they believed that a positive result, even if it was inaccurate, would leave them emotionally traumatized and devastated. (200).
It’s difficult at times to really understand the paranoia of others if one doesn’t have some sort of similar understanding. Many queer people today still live under the threat of job termination if they come out publicly, and there are even some, like me, who recognize that they can’t be fired from their job for being gay but can most certainly become a target for the ire of others. Reading Gay Macho is an opportunity to see what the social and professional reprisals were for simply being gay, and alas having AIDS at the time seen as the ultimate “outing.” Being gay meant being a carrier for plague and that would, in turn, result in personal emotional distress, possible professional conflicts, familial exile, and then eventual death.
I cannot imagine living under such emotional baggage, and I still struggle with being gay.
Gay Macho to me is an important book, not simply because it provides an important analysis of the gay community at the outbreak of AIDs, it provides a bridge from one generation to the next. Watching We Were Here recently, and listening to the testimony of the men who lost lovers, partners, and friends to the disease was a chance to see the previous generation of gay people who had endured a goddamn nightmare. And as a gay man, it was beautiful to me that I could feel empathy for these people, and that I could actually cry for their losses. Levine’s book outlines plenty of facts about the disease of AIDs, but it also helps contemporary queer, and straight, readers an insight into how AID’s disturbed the community with its presence.
Being gay became a disease almost as soon as the community had eked out some semblance of personal agency, and so it’s all the more heartbreaking that these men suffered so. But as heartbreaking as it is there is some inspiration in the darkness.
And so returning to Bohemian Rhapsody I remember one scene in particular. Freddie Mercury is leaving a doctor’s office, clearly having just been diagnosed, and waiting outside the office is a young man, clearly suffering from Karposi’s Sarcoma. He’s sitting on the bench looking sad, and defeated, and terrified, but as Freddie passes a light enters his eyes and he says after the man, “Day-oh.” Freddie stops, looks at him, and says it back before leaving the office. The camera lingers after him, holding on the young man who’s still alone, who’s still suffering, and who is most certainly going to die. But there for a moment, the two men saw each other. As for me, I was a fucking puddle trying not to curl up into a ball.
It’s a small scene, but in many ways, this moment was arguably the most powerful of the entire film for the way it took away the stigma of AIDs and showed two men who saw each other and recognized, for a moment, the beauty of their relationship. Freddy Mercury was a man who never came out of the closet publicly, and his death because of AIDs was ultimately a coming-out. It’s a testament to the culture that, almost thirty years after the man died there exists a culture that sees in his death, not a punishment for a lavish lifestyle, but a real tragedy for having lost such an important and vital artist. And that awareness trickles down to the next generation of queer artists, writers, singers, and so on. It was the work of writers like Martin P. Levine who tried to understand how AIDs hurt the community more than just the surface, physical matters, but the deeper psychological and spiritual ways as well. And it’s because such work that today AID’s is no longer psychological turmoil, for the most part, there is always exceptions.
Watching Freddy mercury perform We are the Champions at Live AID on screen there was a sadness that the man would never see an age where his sexuality really wouldn’t matter that much to a generation of people, but there was also a subtle joy in singing along to Radio GaGa with my sister and my mom, who, it must be said, always manage to have great taste in films.
All quotes from Gay Macho were cited from the paperback New York University Press edition.
I didn’t get a chance to work this into my essay but I really wanted to share it. The film The Normal Heart, based on a play by Larry Kramer, has a beautiful moment where Tommy speaks at a funeral about AIDS and the way it’s impacting the community.
I’ve included below a few links to websites that provide the reader with information about the AIDs virus as well as information about Safe-Sex practices which can help reduce the risk of catching the disease through sex. I hopes this helps.
One final note, about the images in this essay. The topic of AIDs is, despite the pretty funny bit in one episode of South Park, NOT funny.
The images of those who have been afflicted with this illness wear on the soul, and looking at image after image of those dying from it can be physically draining. It makes me sad, and it makes me cry seeing how the disease afflicts it’s host before it ultimately kills them. It’s because of this I tried in this essay to fill the spaces with pictures of beautiful, happy, gay people living their lives and loving who they are, not to deny the reality of the illness of AIDS, but rather to lift the reader. Too often AIDs has been used as a weapon against the Queer community, despute the fact that plenty of straight people have contracted the illness as well, and I wanted the reader to be able to see past the morbidity of the illness and be reminded that AIDs is not a punishment of homosexuality, but instead is only the tragedy of the disease itself andf not being informed about the importance of safe sex.
You might disagree with my aesthetic decision here, and that’s fine, but I hope you at least understand why I did it. Harvy Milk didn’t live long enough to see how the AID’s crisis would affect the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m sure his message would have been my sentiment here: