Peter Nardi: The Cultural Impact Of AIDS

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While AIDS is far from over, its stranglehold on the gay and lesbian community is loosening. After two decades of HIV and the illness it causes, Peter Nardi says it’s time to look at the impact the virus has had on the evolution of the gay community — and the world.

“Consider, for example, how the media — from newspapers to TV — had to deal with discussing unsafe sex, bodily fluids, same-sex sexuality and gay people in a way it never had to before,” Nardi said in an interview. “This type of discussion points out how HIV and AIDS does not narrowly affect only certain segments of the population, but that it has and will continue to have profound effects on the society as a whole.”

Nardi, who co-edited In Changing Times: Gay Men and Lesbians Encounter HIV/AIDS with John Gagnon and the late Martin Levine — a book available on Amazon — also noted that the legal system has had to create new laws and new interpretations of old ones to accommodate changing definitions of disability, discrimination and inheritance.

“By talking about these things, people might realize that HIV is everyone’s problem since, in its social form, their lives will be effected by it,” he says.

Nardi, a sociology professor at Pitzer College near Los Angeles, has long been active in gay politics and has been doing gay-related research for about 15 years. When the health of Martin Levine, the co-organizer with John Gagnon of the conference on which In Changing Times is based, began to fail, Nardi was asked to edit the conference papers and prepare them for publication. He had already agreed to write a paper on interpersonal relationships for the book.

It is difficult to determine exactly what impact the virus has had on the world. For example, one of the points of Nardi’s chapter is that it may not have been true, as some have suggested, that gay men were more likely to enter into relationships as a result of AIDS in the 1980s. The percentage of gay men in couples was 40 to 60 percent before the AIDS years, and the number remains about the same today, according to Nardi.

While that is an example of something AIDS may not have impacted, it has effected other aspects of the community.

“Even if HIV may not have caused more people to couple, it probably did heighten the importance of those who were coupled on the need to establish legal connections — to inherit after the death of a partner and to ensure the right to visit in hospitals,” Nardi says. “Who knows, maybe the current debate about gay and lesbians marrying and raising children is due in part to the impact of HIV on our lives.”

Another reason it is hard to determine HIV’s cultural impact on the gay and lesbian community is because the community is a difficult one about which to generalize.

“I’m not sure there is such a monolithic and unified gay culture,” Nardi says. “If you mean gay movements, HIV saw the emergence of ACT UP and the mobilization of activists who wanted change in everything from the media to the way drugs were approved by the FDA. The media watchdog organization, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), also grew out of the AIDS activist movements.”

Nardi does not believe that AIDS slowed the development of the lesbian and gay community.

“The immediate response to AIDS by gay people in the early 80s … demonstrates that some infrastructure of gay organization was already in place,” he says. “Remember, gay neighborhoods, such as Castro, West Hollywood, Christopher Street and Montrose were in existence, so HIV only heightened the importance of community organization, mobilization, and communications. In many ways, HIV strengthened what was in place and pushed it forward.”

This benefit does not make up for the thousands of deaths attributed to the disease, however.

“Communities organize and strengthen when forces of oppression exert themselves. If not AIDS, then maybe the conservative Reagan years, the rise of the religious right or the anti-gay propositions on the ballots would have had the same effect,” Nardi says. “The tragedy is that so many activists and potential activists died in the prime of their lives, so the numbers and voices were minimized.”

Nardi says he believes AIDS will someday be a disease locked in the past, but he does not speculate on how long it will take to end the pandemic.

“I’m 50 years old. My estimated life expectancy as an HIV negative man is 72. Will it take 22 more years?” Nardi wonders aloud. “It’s already been over 16 years and I never would have guessed it would take this long when I first heard about AIDS in 1982.”