Gay time, memory, and the death drive

My generation of gay men has no memory. The infinite scroll of torsos and faces on Grindr alone is enough to induce short-term amnesia twinned with an oblivious sense of déjà vu. My generation of gay men has no memory because it cannot imagine what it could have been like to be gay in the time of their fathers since, for the most part, their fathers weren’t gay. My generation of gay men has no memory because its teenage rebellion conflated age, heterosexuality, and parenthood as complicit evils. My generation of gay men born in the 1980s has no memory because it grew up with no role models and no blueprint from which to build a future of its own. My generation of gay men has no memory because it descended from the last generation to be driven by an all-pervasive death drive for whom passing on memories was of little use. 

I’m being melodramatic here: the mid-life’s crisis invites reflection on one’s place in the succession of generations. Judging by what I know of my parents’ generation, the easiest way to assert agency over one’s time is to condemn succeeding generations as lacking in character and to position oneself as the true rightful inheritor of the generation before. For my generation of gay men, the former will be no struggle. The latter, however, requires becoming acquainted anew with a generation whose time came and went leaving a mere caricature as a historical record. 

However much in demand they may be, some stories simply don’t age well and are forgotten even while they’re still in progress. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the historiography of the Covid pandemic will be of any more use to future generations than that of the Spanish Flu has been to us. Other stories may be forgotten precisely because the reach a terminus. As Michel Houellebecq said of Covid-19: this virus is “banal”. “It’s not even sexually transmitted.”[1]‘World Will Be Same but Worse after “banal” Virus, Says Houellebecq’, France 24, 4 May 2020, … Continue reading

Pandemic, epidemic

For my generation of gay men, that inheritance is also a story of an epidemic, the AIDS crisis that plagued the last two decades of the 20th century. It’s a story that has been told many times (from Angels in America to Philadelphia), recently in the revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play The Normal Heart. Kramer’s text, in with the main character Ned Weeks is based on the writer’s own experience as an AIDS activist and founder of the advocacy organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis, tracks the acute epidemic politics. The play brings together the fears and desires of the New York gay community fresh from the Stonewall victory, the moral and scientific ambiguity of medicine, and the political apathy and conservatism of power that came together in the city in the early years of the 1980s. Each element and character takes a moment in the spotlight to reveal their ultimate fallibility and powerlessness when faced with the unknown killer: Ned is so angry that he cannot bring his peers along with his cause, his heterosexual brother harbours a lingering anxiety at Ned’s life, the city hall’s indifference barely masquerades hostility, and the doctor Emma Brookner’s compassion saves no lives and has no sway on the politics of research funding. There’s plenty of grief, rage, and resentment, but Kramer gives us little to navigate these with because at the time the play is set AIDS barely had a name.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at National There, London. Photo by Helen Maybanks

As for Ned’s friends, the gay men who joined with him in the activism of pickets, op-eds, and support switchboards, they are portrayed as less terrified by the prospect of sexually transmitted death than by the choices it requires of them. When medicine’s only realistic solution is to advocate for a moratorium on the unprotected and promiscuous gay sex that defined the liberated gay culture of the metropolis, the play’s characters display an ambivalence rooted in their sexualities and their ideas of personal freedoms as much as in their social status. In the ensuing tactical battle between the fiery Ned and his more diplomatic activist compatriot and Wall Street banker Bruce Niles, it becomes apparent that the distinction between freedom and death is not equally clear-cut to everyone. Kramer never says it explicitly, but it seems that he is aware that some of the men whose lives Ned tries to protect may be under the spell of an extinction drive. Frustratingly, the text is unable to engage with the causes of such a fundamental misunderstanding, investing instead in externalising all the blame and anger that accompanied the horrors of the early days of the epidemic.

The politics of remembering

Why revive this script now? In the age of Covid, the questions of risk, freedom, individual and communal responsibilities, and the difficulty of translating a limited understanding of a threat into conviction politics are resonant and there are moments in Ben Cooke’s staging that make thinly-veiled gestures to 2021’s pandemic politics. Except that when they raise a laugh from the audience, it is for their Twitter-like banality: disappointingly, many of the questions that Kramer raised have seen more nuanced treatment in the public sphere in the past two years than he grants to his characters in the heat of a crisis. As a pandemic morality tale, The Normal Heart has been superseded by current events.

This staging of The Normal Heart was planned before the pandemic and perhaps it reveals the interests of a generation of gay men that influences, if not controls what appears on the bills of London’s theatres. Judging by the tearful reactions of the plays’ audience, for the most part as young and as dashing as the casts and for whom the AIDS crisis could well have been news, the story is compelling as a piece of costume drama. But as a cultural narrative that forms a lineage of ‘queer history’, the script feels at best a historiographic exercise that may as well be set in Tudor England. Can my generation and the next who narrowly escaped having to understand what AIDS is contend with the fact that only twenty years ago, HIV was an inextricable part of gay sex and gay life and that if there was such a thing as a gay community, HIV was its primary concern?

The artefacts left behind by those who died in the AIDS crisis like David Wojanrowicz’s memoirs Close to the Knives[2]David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). or Derek Jarman’s elegy Blue[3]Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993. appear as rarefied relics that can hardly resonate with the post-Millennial mainstream. Some recent attempts to write a gay history for the present have failed because they rely on a shared understanding of a traumatic moment that most born after 1990 don’t remember. The Inheritance, a sprawling 2018 stage play by Matthew Lopez loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howards End that over six hours lays the crisis over the generations that survived it, failed to convince Broadway audiences even despite the odd reference to Grindr contemporaneity. Can one blame Lopez, only a couple of years my senior, for failing to own Forster’s 1910 novel and the ghost of a generation he never knew as his own? 

Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993 (except).

Living outside history

Like me, Lopez likely navigated his coming of age between a series of activist victories and cultural shifts. Perhaps, like me, he led a rarefied existence that displays what is now termed ‘privilege’ and that by the time he was ready to make any declarations about who he was, his world was ready to accept him. I, for one, seem to have repeatedly been at the right place at the right time so as to just remain almost unaware of the struggles around me.

By 2017, when activist groups were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, effectively the moment of gay liberation in the UK, I felt new guilt for having contributed so little to the fight. I have excuses: I was at boarding school in the 1990s where nothing of any sexual nature was promoted, so Section 28 passed me by. When the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho was bombed in 1999, I was sitting exams and concerned myself with little else. At university, the dreaming spires made everything seem perfectly cosy. Civil partnerships and gay marriage came before I had any use for them. And AIDS? By the time I moved to the proverbial Sodom that is central London, the combination of developments in the antiretroviral treatment of HIV, the by then decades-long safer sex campaigns, and the nature of my own sex life made this a marginal worry. 

The Inheritance at The Young Vic, 2018. Photo Simon Annand.

Unlike those friends who are ten years my senior or whose lives didn’t spare them the anxiety or grief of HIV, my coming-of-age trauma was purely individual: I had to be reminded that I was thrown out of my family home by a homophobic father before I stopped blaming myself for not having been a member of Act Up. Such experiences, present as they are in reality and in the Lopez script, are no matter to build a generational legacy on.

The death drive and eros

Must it, therefore, come down to storytelling such as Russell T. Davies’ high-energy, high-colour TV drama It’s a Sin[4]Peter Hoar, It’s a Sin, 2021. which, unlike The Normal Heart, place the AIDS epidemic in the middle of a community for whom living and dying are more than intellectual or activist pursuits? Davies spoke of the ‘joy of representation,[5]Nick Levine and Russell T. Davies, ‘It’s A Sin Creator Russell T Davies: “Cast Gay as Gay”’, AnOther, 20 January 2021, … Continue reading the idea that it is the subjects of a story that can reproduce it best and perhaps the fact that the cast of his TV series became cultural gay icons for the Instagram generation attests to this. But It’s a Sin shows something that The Inheritance doesn’t and that The Normal Heart narrowly shies away from: it depicts the confused death drive that ruled the behaviour of some gay men amid all the chaos, loss, pain, and fear of the AIDS epidemic. In Davies’ account, the gay men are for the most part left to do the dancing, fucking, and dying, while the care and activism is the domain of the straight female friend.

It’s a Sin, dir. Russell T. Davies, 2021.

Houellebecq’s suggestion that sexual transmission is a culturally ‘redeeming’ feature of a virus may play into the idea of the death drive, a concept developed by Freud as standing in opposition to eros, the propensity towards reproduction and survival.[6]Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C. J. M. Hubback, 4 (London, Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 1922), https://www.bartleby.com/276/. Freud explained the death drive by reference to traumas like war or simply characterised it as a pathology, but he was not concerned with homosexuality here. In his terms, however, the gay experience lies at the very mutual contradiction of death and eros: gay sex, a manifestation of the life-affirming drive shared by most humans, does not ultimately lead to procreation and therefore foreshadows the end of a genetic line. For countless gay men, whether participating in sexual reproduction by other means, gay life meant social ostracism and persecution, another form of extinction. 

No future

These biological and social conditions were in force long before AIDS, although perhaps the epidemic was the last moment when the gay death drive could take a decisive cultural turn. In his theorisation of the queer death drive in No Future,[7]Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Lee Edelman argues that not enough attention was paid to the ‘culture of death’. When he cites Kramer’s call “to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals”,[8]Larry Kramer, ‘Gay Culture, Redefined’, New York Times, 12 December 1997. he finds naïve the implication that gay men should return to being understood as ‘artistic’ or ‘gentle, loving people’ worthy of communing with eros

Where the death drive found recognition and inevitably spiralled out of control was in the lens of the news camera. Edelman recalls that the story of Andrew Cunanan, a “gay club kid turned serial killer of (mostly) gay men” who included Gianni Versace gave the media a sort of ecstatic jouissance. One commentator observed that because “young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed”, they would “now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.”[9]Edelman, No Future, chap. 2.

And from here, it’s only a short trip to the likes of Dennis Cooper, whose novels are filled with acts of sexual cruelty that would turn Jean Genet’s stomach. Cooper’s antiheroes make death the most explicit and irresistible of aphrodisiacs and for many of them, the act of killing is synonymous with being killed. I am again, however, again unable to judge the historiographic value of such fictions, in part because the names of Cooper’s characters in Frisk,[10]Dennis Cooper, Frisk (New York: Grove Press, 1992). that of the serial killer Dennis and of his would-be victim hustler Pierre, bear an outsized sentimental significance for me. No wonder that in French, the orgasm is referred to as une petite mort. Todd Verow’s 1995 film adaptation of the novel, thankfully, changes some of the names to make for a mesmerising exponent of the death drive; even though (or because) it makes no mention of AIDS, it offers a clearer and alarmingly compelling insight into the thrill of sexual annihilation than any of the mainstream representations.[11]Todd Verow, Frisk, 1995.

Trailer for Todd Verow’s adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s ‘Frisk’, 1995.

Murder is a moral transgression reserved for only a few. AIDS, on the other hand, made the exulted act of sacrifice or killing accessible to all. For many years, the underground culture of bug-chasing, that is of HIV-negative men deliberately seeking unprotected sex to become infected with the virus, horrified onlookers. Who in their right mind would seek to contract HIV? Documentaries like The Gift[12]Louise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN4w8e432_o. made explicit the surprisingly widespread nature of the practice: it wasn’t just a fringe ‘kink’ far off to the side of the Kinsey scale. Instead, all the predictions that Freud and later Lacan made checked out and as much as part of the bug-chasing phenomenon was driven by abandon in response to generalised anxiety, another part of it was inextricably connected to its erotic appeal. Risk is hot.

Louise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003)

In the past decade, concerns over the spread of HIV have faded into the background as the key political concerns of the gay community. The availability of PrEP, the now near unaffected life expectancy of HIV-positive men, and the confirmation that well-managed infections do not transfer during sex mean that that HIV has become part of a general background of sexual health in the gay population. Social acceptance of gay lives is higher than ever. My generation of gay men that only glanced at the earlier crises in passing is now busy thinking about mortgages and marriages. Not many appear to have yet confronted the fact that they may not produce offspring. Edelman follows Baudrillard in suggesting that the lack of reproductive variation contributes to a state of stale sameness. I expect, however, that the above-average ownership of pet dogs that I have observed among gay men is only part of an ongoing transition to an existence where even the reproductive aspect of the gay death drive comes to an end, even if it is through simulacral reproduction. It’s not as though, as Nina Power observes,[13]Nina Power, Non-Reproductive Futurism: Rancière’s Rational Equality against Edelman’s Body Apolitic. Borderlands, Jacques Rancière on the Shores of Queer Theory, 8, no. 2 … Continue reading children are synonymous with politics.

Part of a user profile on the Hinge dating app

The Straight Truvada

Was the death drive a product of circumstances that afflicted gay men for cultural reasons or is it somehow inalienable to male homosexuality? Assuming that Freud’s generalised diagnosis was correct, where does the drive manifest itself when the gay man gains more satisfaction as a perfectly formed neoliberal subject than as a sacrificial fantasist? In the DIS video UBI: The Straight Truvada,[14]DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcYdELt_gdc. Christopher Glazek compared PrEP to the contraceptive IUD that promised women liberation from the inevitability of reproductive biology, at the cost of turning them into economic subjects. “What good is a sexual revolution without an economic one?” The pessimism of the emergent generation of anti-capitalist activists represented by Greta Thunberg’s campaign Fridays for the future which bizarrely sees the future in the bleakest of terms suggests that your ‘the end is nigh’ placard may still come handy. But whereas Thunberg’s performance of the death drive is Instagram-friendly, the gay death drive was essentially a clandestine, closeted affair. 

DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018,

Perhaps the gay man’s death drive has migrated to other arenas of queer culture. If Kramer’s unambiguous fear of death has ongoing cultural relevance, it may be in the imagination of a new generation of the LGBTQ+ community. This forcibly assembled political community, distinct in many dimensions from the earlier generations of LGB rights activists, seems united by the belief that its members are subject to more extreme threats than its predecessors. Reports of hate crimes abound and contribute to the understanding that the risk of harm is an inalienable part of belonging.[15]Libby Brooks and Jessica Murray, ‘Spate of Attacks across UK Sparks Fear among LGBTQ+ Community’, The Guardian, 29 August 2021, sec. UK news, … Continue reading When it comes to death, it is trans activists who point to the shocking number of murders (43 in the first ten months of 2021 in the US alone)[16]Trudy Ring, ‘Here Are the 43 Trans Americans Killed in 2021 So Far’, Advocate, 31 October 2021, … Continue reading which one recently described as a ‘Holocaust’.[17]Greame Massie, ‘Whistleblower and Transparent Creator Joins Hundreds in Netflix Walkout’, The Independent, 20 October 2021, sec. Culture, … Continue reading

Death, performed

To echo the question I posed to bug-chasing gay men: who in their right mind would dare to put themselves at such great risk? It takes no great investigative effort, however, to understand that this new queer death drive is the most Baudrillardian of simulations: the harms and deaths mourned by survivors often act as mere symbols for events that may as well not have taken place. Stories of hate crime are rarely accompanied by context, such as the recent changes in statistical methods for recording what are in fact declining rates of hate crime in the UK,[18]‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2019 to 2020’ (Home Office, 28 October 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020 nor do they correlate with surveys of increasingly liberal social attitudes.[19]Eir Nolsoe, ‘International Survey: How Supportive Would Britons Be of a Family Member Coming Out?’, YouGov, 31 August 2021, … Continue reading A cursory Google News search of the names of trans murder victims reveals that the vast majority died for the very same reasons that cis-gendered people do: drugs, robberies, crimes of passion, sex work and that they die at rates lower than the general population.[20]Georgina Lee, ‘FactCheck: How Many Trans People Are Murdered in the UK?’, Channel 4 News, 23 November 2018, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-how-many-trans-people-murdered-uk. Where a motive is identified as homo- or transphobia, it sticks out like a sore thumb. 

The gay community has been complicit in perpetuating similar fictions too, for example, by clinging to the memory of the iconic 1998 homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard despite the significant evidence for its more quotidian motives of drugs and debt.[21]Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2013). Likewise, many may refuse to accept that the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen did not seek out gay men for his targets.[22]Jane Coaston, ‘New Evidence Shows the Pulse Nightclub Shooting Wasn’t about Anti-LGBTQ Hate’, Vox, 5 April 2018, … Continue reading Even if seemingly unstoppable deaths have not always been myths as Kramer’s play bitterly attests and all are tragic, the lack of a particular ‘hate’ or biological cause that underlies them should bring some muted relief.

Matthew Shepard

Much has been written about the deployment of vulnerability in the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes in needlessly combative terms,[23]Madison Smith, ‘Neither Marginalised, Abused nor Vulnerable’, The Critic Magazine, 21 October 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/neither-marginalised-abused-nor-vulnerable/. and it is no far stretch to suggest that a death drive simulation is an effective tool for creating community bonds and ensuring a broadly empathetic hearing in the public sphere. But as Edelman and Glazek suggest, the desexualised nature of today’s performed death drive is a distraction from the reality of the next obstacle with which the individualised sexual subjects must contend. The performance also risks ingraining a kind of infantile Romanticism in the at-risk subject, painting them as someone capable of flirting with death for everyone’s entertainment. The next chapter of this history should perhaps be written by Michel Houellebecq.


Even if my personal and limited reading of a history to which I barely bore witness, one motive seems unchanged: the heteronormative liberal dream of a country house and a life filled with love underpin The Normal Heart as much as they represent the desires of today’s LGBTQ+ activists. In Kramer, the only character who is allowed to remain apolitical is Ned’s partner, an attractive and successful fashion commentator. Ironically, he’s the only one we get to see die on stage. 


Main image: Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart, National Theatre, 2021. Photo Helen Maybanks.

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