The Gayby Boom & the AIDS Epidemic: overlapping metaphors between reproductive futurity and queer futurity at large.
In Familiar Perversions, Liz Montegary asks, “How, in such a short span of time, have we gone from queers dying in the streets at the height of the AIDS crisis to queers raising children and buying family homes in the age of marriage equality?” In both Born of Man and Could it be Magic?, these widely divergent experiences are expressed and conflated in the idea of male pregnancy. Within these works, this trope is used not to trace out the trajectory that Montegary identifies but to illustrate how the pregnant gay male can mean one and the same thing—both the beacon on the horizon and a glance back (or a “feeling backwards,” as Heather Love describes it1) to queer pasts. This post looks at how the two novels mentioned above employ male pregnancy as both a method for creating queer families and an analogy that explores the discourse surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As both of the novels we’ve examined were published in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, it should come as no surprise that they frequently return to HIV/AIDS discourse and allusions. These references run throughout Gray’s Born of Man. From the mention of condom use during gay anal sex (due to anxiety around unprotected sex, 43) to Henno’s bad jokes about refusing to bottom as an alternative means of prevention (46), the entire text looks to the AIDS epidemic as a pivotal element to queer culture. The narrator records what might be perceived as a mainstream (or heteronormative) mindset at this time, which desires to distance the notion of futurity and the cult of the child from any kind of “infection.” Going back once more to the sensational journalists reporting on Kev’s pregnancy, one states, “We don’t want our viewers to think the baby may be infected” (123). From their rhetoric, the narrator concludes, “They’re even more afraid of mentioning gays than they are of AIDS” (125). The narrator, too, worries over AIDS and its impact on futurity, in his own queered way. When he discovers that the sex worker whom he has been having an affair with (and whom he also refers to as a kind of surrogate child) frequently bleeds after his encounters with rougher clients, the narrator warns “[Y]ou’ll get infected and you die” (189). Yet, the young sex worker shrugs this off, “[I]t’s jus’ like a period,” he replies, “It comes and goes away” (189).
In Could it be Magic, Andy, too, worries about AIDS. Unaware of his pregnancy and surprised by his body’s changes, he wonders whether or not he’s contracted the virus. His anxiety increases when spots begin appearing all over his skin. These spots, which turn out to be a symptom of carrying a leopard-baby, are mistaken as a rash, and Andy fears what they might indicate. Thus, while Born of Man highlights AIDS discourse that runs tangential to queer futurity, Could it be Magic? conflates these narratives. Emma Parker identifies this line of thinking in her work on Magrs’s novel, writing, “By using male pregnancy to align homosexuality with life rather than death, the novel employs the impossible to convey the inconceivable as well as offering imaginative redress for the losses of AIDS.”2 But while Parker views this conflation as a reimagining, I suggest Avery Gordon’s conceptualization of “haunting” from Ghostly Matters as a more accurate framework for thinking through these narratives. For what both of these novels seem to propose is that the promise of a queer future requires the haunting of a queer past.
The sociological method of “identify[ing] hauntings and reckon[ing] with ghosts” is one that Gordon offers as a means for accounting for the narratives that have been repressed, erased, or excluded from the historical record.3 In the realm of affect theory, Heather Love’s Feeling Backwards gestures to much the same idea. And while Gordon focuses more on the repressed hauntings of past racial injustices, Love looks to how we might engage with a history of queer trauma, longing and loss “without being destroyed by it” (1).
In both of the novels mentioned above, the excitement around a queer future, symbolized through the figure of a pregnant gay man, is simultaneously plagued by anxieties and fears emerging from AIDS discourse, that—by the time of Could it be Magic?’s publication—already seem to have shifted from current reality to past hauntings. One thread in which this is evident, as Parker points out, is in the similarities between “gay ‘body fascism’” and the AIDS epidemic. “Gay body fascism” refers to an insistence for gay men to have the “right” type of body. To be a validated gay man, this often means being white and masculine, as we’ve seen in the last posts (and as noted in a recent post on the queer digital magazine Into).4 According to Phillip Henry, the writer of this article, “[G]ay body fascism […] tells gay men their worth is determined by their race, waist size, and their proximity to masculine beauty standards displayed by straight counterparts.” And these standards have changed very little between the publication of this 2018 online article and Magrs’s 1998 novel. In terms of Could it be Magic?, Emma Parker expands on her claim comparing body fascism to the AIDS epidemic by noting Andy’s reaction to his body’s changes—namely, to work out more. Through this textual detail, Parker observes that body fascism is “a phenomenon that the novel critiques but also situates sympathetically in the context of AIDS. Like a significant number of gay men who sought to stave off illness by cultivating bodies that look healthy and strong, the gym is ‘the place where Andy took control of his life’” (1047).
This particular example persists in the 2015 film Paternity Leave, directed by Matt Riddlehoover.5 In the film, a gay couple becomes pregnant after engaging in anal sex. Greg (who is, at first, unaware of his pregnancy) confuses his symptoms with “being fat.” While this surface-level claim might be regarded as one indicative of a post-AIDS mentality (in which more dire concerns have been replaced by shallower, more normative ones), it’s also possible to read it as a haunting of the gay body fascism mentioned above. The complexity of these two trajectories is further complicated through the rest of the film. While much of the story gestures to a post-gay, post-AIDS universe, in which gay male couples are viewed in normative ways and their new, biological modes of reproduction usher them into a new era of assimilation (a “miracle,” according to many of the film’s characters), hauntings of a queer past resurface as well with every reference to the “epidemic” that these pregnant gay men find themselves facing.6
While this post has analyzed the ways in which queer modes of family making envision AIDS discourse and queer futurity as running alongside one another, this relationship is further complicated through the lens Tim Dean offers in his 2009 text, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. In this work, Dean identifies the transmission of HIV/AIDS as its own means of alternative family-making. Accordingly, the transmission of HIV/AIDS is celebrated by a subculture of HIV-positive gay men, who view the virus as a tangible way of tracing lineages and blood relations—framed, by some, as “bug brothers.”7he transformation in national sexual culture from thinking about sexuality in terms of lives already in progress to imagining sexuality in the shadow of deaths to be avoided registers a shift in the contours of national personhood that is widely experienced, but little narrated.”8 By drawing this “shadow of death” into the narratives of kinship, reproduction and life-giving gay men, works like Born of Man and Could it be Magic? suggests that antisociality and queer futurity represent a false dichotomy (similar to Dean’s later framework). This is to say that queer futures and queer utopias will always be haunted by a queer past and a feeling backwards. A return to the family from this past will nevertheless be a return with a change.
- Heather Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007, p.1. ↩
- Parker, Emma. “Male Pregnancy and Queer Utopia in Paul Magrs’s Could It Be Magic?” Textual Practice, vol. 28, no. 6, Sept. 2014, pp. 1035–56. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/0950236X.2013.858074, p. 1036. ↩
- Avery Gordon. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University Of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 23. ↩
- Henry, Phillip. “Thiccness Is Getting Co-Opted By The Masc, Muscular Gays.” Into, https://www.intomore.com/culture/thiccness-is-getting-co-opted-by-the-masc-muscular-gays. Accessed 30 July 2019. ↩
- In extending and queering the analogy of creative generativity being akin to reproduction, Dustin Tittle, Riddlehoover’s husband and co-writer of Paternity Leave, commented that the couple thought of the film as “our baby and it looks like both of us!” ↩
- Readings of homonormativity run throughout this film. Gender hierarchies remain prominent as the film does away with the middleman (so to speak) of surrogacy pregnancies, relying on active and passive erasures of birth mothers and midwives in order to highlight this queer dynamic. Additionally, following the neoliberal trajectory identified by antisocial queer theorists, Riddlehoover’s films move from gay marriage—with Scenes from a Gay Marriage (2012) and More Scenes from a Gay Marriage (2014)—to queer family advocacy. ↩
- Tim Dean. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. University of Chicago, 2009, p. 92).
While this alternative mode of kinship remains controversial, it also actively combats the mentality which plagued gay men and which emerged at the same time as the AIDS epidemic. According to Lauren Berlant, “[t ↩
- Lauren Berlant. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Duke University Press, 1997, p. 16. ↩