(Re)turning to AIDS in Queer Young Adult Fiction

In the age of PrEP and U=U, why does queer young adult fiction remain nostalgic for early AIDS narratives? asks Gabriel Duckels, Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge.

This article is part of a week-long takeover (23-27 March) of The Polyphony by HIV Humanities guest editors José Saleiro GomesLouisa Hann, and Stian Kristensen.

In 2011, Jon Davies curated Coming After, an exhibition at The Power Plant in Toronto which sought to identify and address a creative reinvestment in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s – a chapter of queer cultural memory “only now being historicized, as if it were too close to properly appraise before” (Davies, 2011, 10). Davies describes the uneasy nostalgia in the art world for the early experience of AIDS – a yearning to go back to a past that could kill us. Nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym famously notes, “is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy” (Boym, 2002, xiii). Collective nostalgia for the AIDS epidemic is a romance with an imagined past as well as an attempt at righteous grief. This romantic fantasy of AIDS enables the expression of other nostalgic yearnings, such as the desire for an ungentrified New York, or a renewed interest in the cultural symbolism of the condom in the age of PrEP.

Almost ten years since Coming After, the return to AIDS has made its way from the highbrow art world to the kids and teen sections of the bookshop, as with Keith Haring biographical picture books, or new graphic novels about LGBT pride. New AIDS narratives now proliferate in the ostensibly lowbrow and mass-market domain of queer young adult fiction. These representations include Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, recently nominated for the Stonewall Prize, and We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar, both published in 2019. Unlike Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, an important young adult novel about a young black woman’s experience of dating in high school with a U=U (undetectable=untransmittable) HIV status in the 2010s, new AIDS narratives transport the reader back to a time when HIV transmission was synonymous with death (Cart & Jenkins, 2018).

What does it mean to represent an early queer AIDS narrative – the slow, AIDS-related death of a queer person during a time of greater homophobia and a drastically lower rate of survival – for adolescents coming of age in the present moment of PrEP and U=U? What does the narrative (re)turn to AIDS say about the development of queer young adult fiction as a genre which has so notoriously been preoccupied with the negative side of queerness (Crisp, 2009; Kokkola, 2013; Trites, 2000)? How to situate AIDS as a resurgent point of identification in the young adult market, one seemingly written about on behalf of an idealized, implied queer adolescent reader that the genre both creates and demands?

Monica Pearl makes the important claim that the catastrophe of AIDS permitted the “pre-existing and mostly vague and inarticulable, sadness around unacceptance and loss of family bonds to be at last articulated” (Pearl, 2013, 10) in queer writing.  However, this is not the case in young adult fiction – an indicator of the genre’s ambivalence and its different social context. Published more than thirty-five years after the outbreak of AIDS, Love Story and Lost and Found are the first young adult novels to seriously foreground the epidemic as an integral part of queer adolescent subjectivity, rather than a jettisoned “shadow” (Cart & Jenkins, 2018). Robert McRuer calls the conspicuous absence of AIDS in children’s literature a “double bind” – publishers sought to “de-gay” AIDS to avoid its conflation with gay men, yet simultaneously, gay identity was already deemed too controversial to portray in novels for young readers. The symbolic value that Pearl rightly ascribes to AIDS, then, was not realised in the young adult market.

What I want to emphasise is that the absence of AIDS from queer young adult fiction should be understood as ironic, because the genre remained nevertheless wrapped up in narratives of negativity, while the primary source of death and isolation in queer lives in the 1980s and 1990s remained hidden in plain sight. Returning to AIDS as a narrative, then, is about re-gaying AIDS, and is thus about returning gayness (or queerness) to a time of crisis and making that crisis legible in a present that must be understood to be better than the past. The return to AIDS, as Matos would tell us, is first and foremost a reparative act.

The few novels that did show the impact of AIDS on queer people mostly deployed a juvenilized version of the Philadelphia prototype, what Cindy Patton might call the narrative of compassionate heterosexuality. For example, in Night Kites and When Heroes Die, the adolescent protagonist has his world turned upside-down after learning that his older relative is gay and has AIDS. A typical AIDS narrative, the dying queer character comes home to the straight, white suburbs to die in isolation (Cart & Jenkins, 2018) and the adolescent protagonist matures into a heteronormative sexual identity through the experience of bearing witness to their decline and readjusting their self-image accordingly. The abject spectacle of the AIDS-related decline only appeared in the genre as a symptom of the pre-existing generic convention to “tokenize queer death for heterosexual characters’ growth” (Browne, 2020, 2).

Love Story and Lost and Found both replicate the Philadelphia prototype of Night Kites and When Heroes Die,but with crucial and distinctive differences in how AIDS is portrayed. These novels emerge from a sort of back-and-forth between what could not be told and therefore what must now be spoken. It reveals what was once obscured, tells what was once not told; a strategy of recuperation (Matos, 2019) which is inherently retrospective and self-consciously belated. The success of these new representations depends partly upon an awareness of what they represent in and of the genre – the radically central role of queer voices in how American adolescence is conceptualized, at last articulated through the no-longer-denied symbol of AIDS.

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Like Night Kites, Lost and Found features a gay older brother who begins to experience AIDS-related symptoms as the narrative progresses. Like When Heroes Die, Love Story features an older gay uncle who dies in a drawn-out death-bed scene at the novel’s end. While Night Kites and When Heroes Die both otherize AIDS to install compassionate heterosexuality in their protagonists, the protagonist of Lost and Found andLove Story are also gay or queer (the latter term is used anachronistically in both novels). Moreover, while early AIDS narratives are set in the suburbs with New York evoked only as the forbidden scene of contagion, Love Story and Lost and Found are both set in the middle of Manhattan. This change of setting brings the domestic sphere of the adolescent protagonist into convenient proximity with queer and multicultural New York in that era, allowing queer community and people of colour to be central instead of peripheral. This includes the lionizing depiction of ACT UP, the iconic protest group credited with bringing about political change in the 1990s (Schulman, 2013). The protagonists claim pride in their sexuality not in spite of their association with a dying queer person but because of it.

It easy to confuse equality with the collapse of sexual difference (Bersani, 1996) and thus characters who “just happen” (Cart & Jenkins, 2018) to be gay are often celebrated. In these novels, however, AIDS is an anomaly in an otherwise fabulous and wistfully rendered heyday of gay culture. The radical potential of camp is underscored against the homophobic and tragic backdrop of the epidemic. AIDS provides a way for the contemporary reader to return to a time of unambiguous social exclusion and thus replenishes the primary symbols of queer life – AIDS, the closet, adolescent sexual awakening – with potential for how queer adolescents today conceive of themselves.

If the AIDS sufferer is always about to die, the adolescent is always about to emerge; a liminal, borderland figure that represents the renewal of the future that AIDS, at one point, seemed to foreclose altogether. The adolescent represents a period of righteous calamity (Sturm und Drang) that AIDS has also been conceptualized as, and crucially, assures us that it is only a temporary state. That it is finally possible to (re)turn to AIDS in young adult fiction suggests that the “deviant bodies” (Patton, 1996) associated with the epidemic are now grievable figures in the canon of American adolescence. Indeed, in Lost and Found this even includes an expression of solidarity with IV drug users. In this sense, to publish new AIDS narratives is to make an apology and offer a warning against apathy. Writing in the 1990s, Simon Watney calls gay men a population group “that had ceased to believe in its own future” (Watney, 1994, 190). The inclusion of the adolescent (as both character and reader) in an AIDS narrative forces faith in the future, because the adolescent is deeply implicated in the political promise of the present at the moment that present becomes tomorrow.

This irretractable future-facing logic forces the AIDS narrative into a happy ending – even though the older queer character must still die, representative of an entire generation of gay men. The adolescent, then, represents a future that was once not only unguaranteed but that appeared to be actively receding. Yet while the collective nostalgia for the 1980s/1990s experience of AIDS is shaped by a powerful queer pedagogy of feeling, this nostalgia is nevertheless a fantasy – even the fantasy that the past will protect young people from HIV/AIDS in the present.


Gabriel Duckels is a Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge.


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Watney, Simon. 1994. Practices of Freedom. Durham NC: Duke UP

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