As I began to analyze the panel of David Feinberg I found two distinct points of research. First, Feinberg’s raw publications which served the purpose of shedding a light on AIDS and the struggles individuals with AIDS confront day to day. In addition, I wanted to analyze why his publications with a platform of awareness were even necessary in the first place. During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, President Regan along with many other prominent officials were accused of ignoring an “HIV/AIDS epidemic.” I wanted to discover the grounds of this claim and explore the attitudes towards AIDS and see if I could draw a connection between Feinberg’s passion for activism and the opposition which activists faced. I would find that activism often times draws an opposing force towards a cause.
David Feinberg: An Author, An Activist, AIDS as a Reality
First, it is important to identify who David Feinberg was and the platform on which he stood on in order to promote change.David Feinberg was an author and wrote books that illustrated various aspects of AIDS and HIV. Not only were Feinberg’s novels a chance for him to express himself through literature, but a chance for him to illustrate his own message of urgency in relation to AIDS.
In the opening of his novel, Feinberg states, “This is as close to the truth as I can get, ” in this stunning nonfiction debut – a collection of autobiographical essays, gonzo journalism, and demented Feinbergian lists about AIDS activism and living, writing, and dying with AIDS. With the startling blend of satiric wit and pathos, black humor and heroism, found in his widely acclaimed and iconoclastic novels, he charts a harrowing personal journey down that “HIV highway to hell.” (Feinberg, pg 3.) From just an excerpt of Feinberg’s novel, we can see that through essays, journals, and humor, that Feinberg was able to bring a type of realistic quality to he publications. I find that Feinberg did that with the utmost intention of illustrating a persona in order to show the greater public that individuals with AIDS were for the most part, just like you and me.
Feinberg’s publication Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, discusses the raw life of reality of living day to day with AIDS. However, Feinberg was known for his use of “black humor” when discussing his battle with AIDS. While Feinberg found AIDS as a serious issue at hand, he explained that “I would probably literally go mad if I tried to deal with AIDS at face value, without the filter of humor.” Feinberg used his publication Quuer and Loathing in order to shed a light on a topic that was frequently met with dismissive attitudes from the general public. Feinberg’s humor illustrates he personality. In the midst of personal hardship, he was able to find a remedy through writing with a twist of humor.
In addition, Feinberg also published the novel Eighty-Sixed.
The novel Eighty-Sixed is a fictional take on the day to day life of a character living with AIDS. While this book is filled with fictional characters, it uses aspects of from Feinberg’s personal life and experiences and brings those aspects to life in terms of literature.
A critic from Google Books describes Feinberg’s novel Eighty-Sixed “story of two years in the life of B.J. Rosenthal: pre-AIDS 1980 when his only mission is to find himself a boyfriend; and in 1986, when a deadly virus pervades his world and attacks his friends and ex-tricks. Combing high-wire wit with genuine emotional resonance, “Eighty-Sixed” explores the pressing matters of life in contemporary America: maintaining a long-term relationship with a person of suitable gender and appropriate species; staying cool in the face of bad haircuts, appalling sex, and mortal illness; and other issues like life, death, truth, despair, therapy, sex, God, more sex, Jewish guilt, abstinence, phone calls in the middle of the night, safe sex, alcoholics, the meaning of life, and AIDS. Shockingly frank, bitingly satirical, and ultimately moving, “Eighty-Sixed” is a classic in the literature of AIDS.” (Google Books) Once again, from just a single excerpt of Feinberg’s novel, we can make many inferences. First, the time period is 1986, which will come to be extremely relevant. Second, we see the character B.J Rosenthal as someone who is trying to find himself. Through love, AIDS, death, religion, and many aspects of the average individuals day to day life, we see the B.J isn’t too different from us, but that the hardships he faces are only amplified by the hostile attitudes of the general public. From the description of Eighty-Sixed, it is not hard to identify the humor in which Feinberg used in his novels. In addition, it is easy to see how Feinberg takes the daily aspects of life and mixes them with the hardships of AIDS in order to illustrate the hardships in which individuals with AIDS encounter day to day.
Through his own publications, Feinberg was able to bring the struggle of individuals with AIDS to live. He used AIDS, a concept that was ignored at the time by many, and illustrated a reality through fictional characters. Feinberg wanted an individual to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. According to columnist Dunlap, a writer for the New York Times, “Mr. Feinberg’s two fictional works, “Eighty-Sixed” and “Spontaneous Combustion,” traced the devastation of gay life in New York by the AIDS epidemic.” Feinberg wanted to raise awareness, and he did just that through his writing. Feinberg wanted to show an America, that at the time was extremely prejudice towards individuals with AIDS that they need fear people with AIDS. Feinberg illustrated that even with AIDS, individuals still live a normal life, filled with ups and downs, yet he was adamant to ensure that his readers were conscious of AIDS.
Feinberg knew first hand how devastating AIDS could be. He knew the day to day struggle of living with AIDS because he had to deal with those struggles himself. My next point of research would explore the opinions and attitudes of others during the late 1980’s and 1990’s with relation to AIDS and take a closer look into the opposition Feinberg was facing, and why he felt the need to speak out in the first place.
The Wave of Silence
In order to understand Feinberg’s publications from a sense of activism, it is imperative to know who his audience was, what group of people he was trying to persuade, and why his publications were deemed radical in the first place. As a researcher, I went back and researched attitudes towards AIDS from the 1970’s to the late 1980’s. Attitudes are telling in the sense they give a complete picture of the society one lives in.
In relation to AIDS, AIDS was not deemed a crisis until 1981, which was during the early stages of Regan’s Presidency. While AIDS had been around in previous years, it was gay men at the time who began to contract the life threating disease. The connection the Regan administration and AIDS were evident in the sense that the timeline of the AIDS epidemic would increase under his watch.
According to the author Allen White, who talked to biographer Lou Cannon, following the discovery of the first cases in 1981, it soon became clear a national health crisis was developing. But President Reagan’s response was “halting and ineffective,” according to biographer Lou Cannon, “those infected initially with this mysterious disease — all gay men — found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility.” I was able to conclude that the Regan administration met the challenge of AIDS with their backs turned. Not only was the President dismissive towards the national health crisis posed by AIDS, Americans as a whole were also hostile, which only added fuel to the opposition.
However, what were Americans and the President opposed to? Was it AIDS or was it the individuals who were contracting AIDS? Researching these questions was imperative to my work. As I wanted to see what Feinberg was writing against and who he was trying to speak for.
Allen White also reported that “A significant source of Reagan’s support came from the newly identified religious right and the Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate, and discrimination. Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” America was now being shaped by religious fundamentalists, such as individuals like Rev. Jerry Falwell. Discriminatory attitudes were not exclusive to the public, but also very much alive inside the White House. From a ranging spectrum of government officials to the greater society, prejudice and stigma were cultivate by a complacent attitude towards AIDS and a hostile view of individuals with AIDS. Allen White also reported that “Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Even inside the White House, individuals who had a preconceived notion about individuals with AIDS were doing as little as possible in order to ensure that AIDS would be confronted. In addition, outside the White House, individuals were noticing a rift in society as well.
CNN published a story about Dr. Jesse Peel. According to CNN, “Peel said he would sometimes attend two or three funerals for friends in a week. People were getting sick, deathly sick, long before the disease even had a name.” Dr. Jesse Peel is just one example of how AIDS was impactive the personal lives of individuals in society. AIDS had widespread repercussions on communities, families, and it was only spreading. The AIDS epidemic was directly resulting in the death of gay men, and it was without a doubt going untreated.
Evidence from the CDC only reaffirms what was already true, AIDS was unquestionably turning into an epidemic. From a place of inaction grew an epidemic. From the Regan administration to the religious right, society was becoming influenced by false and untrue narratives.
The chart above is a study conducted by the CDC, the chart shows the rise of ADS incidents, deaths, and prevalence starting from 1981 all the way to 2000. It is while Regan was in office that AIDS was enabled by the silence of many, including our top government officials. I would assert that if our government officials at a federal level had taken action in relation to AIDS, an epidemic could have been contained an prevented.
Activism Is Just Begining
As we can see, Feinberg’s platform of activism was needed. Feinberg was fighting against a false narrative and the stigma of AIDS which had been normalized through our government and through personal beliefs. Literature is a platform that is able to communicate ideas and spread stories to a wide range of people. Individuals like Feinberg who worked tirelessly to ensure that AIDS was a cause that was not dismissed by society were vital in the movement of AIDS awareness. Feinberg’s message would grow and become more relevant in society. While Feinberg wasn’t the only AIDS activist, he was one of many. Often, we feel that there can only be “one leader” of a movement, but in this case, Feinberg was one of many. We can learn from Feinberg that through one voice, and echo was formed. As our government did little to raise awareness towards AIDS, we as a society turned our back on individuals with AIDS. Feinberg was working against a force of dismissive attitudes and stigma. With the federal government doing little to serve the people, it was going to be activists such as Feinberg that would push to cultivate social change through activism in order to create and ensure change and rewrite the understanding of AIDS in America.