It’s no secret that LGBTI representation in film and television has come an impressively long way in a short period of time.
Queer lives are shown on screen in a more diverse array than ever before, with an evolving focus on trans stories and the unique perspectives provided by LGBTI people from non-white backgrounds.
In so many ways we, as a community, are still wrestling with the seismic impact of the AIDS epidemic that it’s difficult to focus on anything around the topic but the past.
Media hysteria throughout and since the AIDS crisis has meant that the idea of depicting the virus has always been a matter to handle with extreme care.
That we now live in a time when HIV is no longer a death sentence and have the capability to end transmission of the virus entirely, it’s a pertinent time to think about how we represent HIV in media going forward, and how we’ve historically done so.
Much of what we see of HIV on screen comes through documentaries. The loss of life that occurred in the ‘80s and ‘90s left a massive cultural gap, thousands upon thousands of lives and their accompanying history lost.
Documentaries have been a way to fill the gaps for people further removed from the immediate history; films like How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here shed a great deal of emotional light, but are fundamentally didactic.
At the time, filmmakers took a different approach. One of the most famous documentarians of the era, Marlon Riggs, directed the film No Regret, in which five black gay men discussed the overlapping stigmas they faced for their status, sexuality, and race.
Other queer filmmakers took a more experimental angle, such as Isaac Julien’s stylised, impressionistic This Is Not an AIDS Advertisement.
Others approached the topic through camp and humour; Rosa von Praunheim’s irreverent A Virus Knows No Morals refigured the AIDS crisis as an irreverent burlesque, while John Greyson’s The ADS Epidemic mocked the media response to the crisis in a catchy music video format, counter-diagnosing those who looked on in judgement as suffering from ‘ADS’, or “acquired dread of sex”.
I’ve talked about other relevant works from this era in previous pieces, because AIDS and films about LGBTI people have been so closely intertwined that academic Monica B. Pearl argued that queer cinema is a “cinema of AIDS”.
Films like Derek Jarman’s stunning Blue or Todd Haynes’ transgressive Poison both reflect the epidemic, while Silverlake Life: The View From Here is a heart-rending home video account of a gay couple dying of AIDS.
Representation elsewhere has been more varied; films like An Early Frost and Parting Glances kick-started a more sympathetic fictional depiction of people living with HIV.
Philadelphia won Tom Hanks an Oscar, while Randy Shilts’ epochal non-fiction account of the crisis was adapted into And the Band Played On for HBO.
By later producing adaptations of the legendary plays Angels in America and The Normal Heart, HBO would prove integral to enriching the representation of HIV and its cultural impact.
Boys on the Side proved a rare instance of an acknowledgement of women living with HIV on screen, while The Living End, Rent, and Holding the Man have given us unique, specific stories that add to the tapestry of our representative understanding.
Other films have been less successful; a notable example, Dallas Buyers Club, deliberately erased its main character’s bisexuality in order to increase the subject matter’s straight appeal.
In recent times, TV has proven to be the difference-maker as it has in many other ways. Pedro Zamora gave a face to a generation on reality series The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, dying just months after filming his scenes on the show.
In more recent times, both Looking and How to Get Away with Murder have brought frank acknowledgements of PrEP and serodiscordant relationships to millions of viewers.
This is where things get tricky. These shows have made huge strides to normalise people living with HIV, and that’s the necessary step forward because huge degrees of stigma still exist both outside and within the LGBTI community.
But ‘normal’ is off-trend when it comes to broader LGBTI representation; the perceived need to make sexuality as incidental to someone’s personhood as possible has rapidly become outmoded despite its dominance across the past decade.
So how do you balance the new normalcy that now comes with living with HIV with the need for variety between safeness and transgressiveness in your depictions of queer people?
If the conversation has become as simple as, “I’m undetectable and on PrEP.” “Okay, great!” is there as much of a need for contemporary representation at all?
The answer, as always lies largely beyond our immediate selves. The HIV pandemic continues apace in developing countries, and lack of resources is one of the major factors in how HIV continues to be transmitted.
These are fascinating journeys for characters to take because they’re intimately reflective of those so many real LGBTI people do, closely shadowed by the memories of those who left us before they saw how possible life would become.
Now we just need to see more of those journeys on screen.