GSA: AIDS Crisis in Angels in America: A Story of the Mislabeled Outcast

Alice Tan, Staff Writer

With its fantastical madness and brilliant honesty, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America arrived on the Broadway stage at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was a political drama brimming with social commentary, a modern theological tale rife with sexual innuendo, and a heroic journey of individuals struggling to survive a plague. 

As a young, gay woman, I remember being viscerally disturbed when I watched Roy Cohn, one of the characters in the play, confronting his doctor with a contemptuous speech: “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who has zero clout.” Based on a real historical figure, Roy Cohn was an influential aid for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the second Red Scare. With a reputation as a homophobic, right-wing political fixer, Roy Cohn was ironically a closeted gay man who died of complications from AIDS, a disease which he insisted to his dying day was liver cancer. Through the mouth of a complex individual, Tony Kushner scrutinized the meaning of social labels with brutal honesty: “[Labels] tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout.” 

Ironically or not, the AIDS crisis was a story about stigmatized social outcasts. I sometimes look at Roy Cohn’s speech in Angels in America as its microcosmic reflection. It speaks truth to the cold reality of a homophobic 1980s social hierarchy. For many at the time, AIDS was the fitting punishment for a group of unorthodox outcasts with unnatural sexual orientation. AIDS was a disease that killed homosexuals,  while the “decent” everyday American with a stable job and a traditional family was left unscathed. 

Through rampant misinformation and homophobia, AIDS was coined as the “gay plague,” and was largely perceived by the public with prejudice. The first official report loosely connected to AIDS emerged in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on five previously healthy homosexual men being infected by Pneumocystis pneumonia, a disease that only affects people with a compromised immune system. In the following year, The New York Times published an article on the new immune system disorder, which, by then had affected 335 people and caused 136 deaths. As the disease appeared to affect mostly homosexual men, the condition was mislabelled as “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” for six months in 1982. 

Despite the death toll of nearly 1,000 in 1982, the Reagan Administration’s initial reaction to the AIDS epidemic was chilling and disgraceful. Audio of press conferences revealed Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, joking about AIDS with members of the media. When journalist Lester Kinsolving pressed Speakes on whether President Reagan was concerned about the spread of AIDS, Speakes said he hadn’t heard Reagan expressing concern, and amid press room laughter, repeatedly dismissed the question. It wasn’t until 1985 that President Reagan would mention the word “AIDS” publicly. For a long time, AIDS was not treated as an urgent epidemic within the government’s priority. Reagan’s silence about the AIDS epidemic was a hideous error of the administration and has been greatly criticized since. 

Survivors of the AIDS epidemic remember the terror and uncertainty of the 1980s, especially the apathetic inaction from the government. In an interview with the British Independent magazine, Michael Penn, one of the longest living people diagnosed with HIV, recalled the tumultuous time: “Back in the day it was very worrying. I had many friends dropping like flies.” For a man in his late thirties living in the ’80s, Michael’s calendar was filled with an abnormal amount of funerals. In the span of five years, twenty of Michael’s friends died from AIDS. “No one knew why so many people were dying,” said Michael, commenting about the lack of empathy from people outside of the LGBTQ+ community. “People were ignorant. There was nothing known about the disease. No one knew how to treat it. The ordinary man on the street was very suspicious if he knew you were gay.” There was little known about the virus back in his days.

The general ignorance, prejudice, and misinformation in the 1980s led to 35 million AIDS-related deaths worldwide. Approximately 450,000 Americans died from AIDS out of the over 750,000 reported cases. Currently, an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 people in the United States are living with an HIV infection, and an additional 320,000 people are living with AIDS. It’s important to realize AIDS never was just a viral epidemic. It was a tragedy suffered by a powerless minority, where homophobia seeped deeply into social consciousness. Today, we retell the story of the AIDS crisis with the seriousness it deserves. The AIDS crisis should no longer be a story of social outcasts. Through retelling such tragedy, we remember our mistakes in the shameful history of inequality and discrimination. Through the lens of Angels in America, we will relabel the meaning of homosexuality with respect and kindness.