In 1970s San Francisco, to be gay was often to be spectacular. The Angels of Light, a free theatre formed in 1970, were then something of an emblem of San Francisco’s queer politics and opportunities for representation. The group was known for its politically radical “musical extravaganzas”: fantasy stories with titles like “Myth Thing,” “Flaming Hot Exotica Erotica,” and “Ghoul Diggers of Transylvania,” which they performed in elaborate costumes on homemade sets. These productions summed up many of the sensibilities of their community and time: liberation, unapologetic pageantry, and wild abandon.
To be gay in 1980s San Francisco meant something altogether different. The AIDS crisis hit the Angels of Light as violently as it hit communities everywhere—by 1992, 1,641 people had died of AIDS in San Francisco. Rodney Price, one of the group’s actors, was diagnosed in 1987. In 1988, he performed in “Song From An Angel,” a five-minute film directed by David Weissman. The film features Price singing “Less Time Than You,” a song with a melody adapted from Kurt Weill’s “One Life to Live” (from the musical Lady in the Dark) and lyrics by Janice Sukaitis.
“Song From An Angel” is shot facing Price head-on, alternating between full-body shots of Price sitting in his wheelchair, close-ups on his face, and, briefly, a shot closed in on his dancing feet. The film opens with white text on a black screen, describing Price’s involvement in the Angels of Light and his AIDS diagnosis. Next, the film cuts to Price. What registers first: Rodney Price is dying. His limbs are thin, his cheeks hollow. The medical objects surrounding him—his hospital gown, his wheelchair—only drive home the point his body itself makes. His head is bowed, as though in prayer, his sightline seemingly directed toward the cross that dangles from his neck.
But within seconds, the image changes completely. What registers next, as Price lifts his gaze to the viewer, raises his eyebrows, and opens his mouth, is that he is singing. Price’s voice is a powerful tenor, upbeat and clear. Stylistically, he pays homage to musical theater, as the origin of his song’s melody suggests. The lyrics he starts with are as seemingly at odds with his delivery as is his body: “There’s an element of doom and desperation / When I’m the subject of the conversation,” he sings, eyes wide, face elastic. “Locals agree / I’ll never see / My washboard stomach or my derriere,” he continues, caressing his stomach. The contrast between the vivacity of Price’s song and his emaciated body is stark.
Price goes on to outline a certain manifesto of life for a gay man with AIDS in 1988. “I start the day every morning / Inspiring angels like you,” he tells the audience, rarely breaking full eye contact. He implores, “Don’t feel that you’ve got to cure me,” then sings, “If I feel shoddy / I’ll leave my body / ’Cause I’ve got less time than you.” This line is followed by a cut to Price in the same wheelchair but a different outfit, medical garb replaced by tuxedo, top hat, and dance shoes. He performs a tap number while sitting in his wheelchair, during which he stomps percussively on both the floor and the wheelchair.
After the dance interlude, during which Price does not sing, he is suddenly wearing the hospital gown, once again and again starts singing. The song closes: “I need romance in my life, dear / Please try to open your heart / Let’s face this fear as it happens / You’ll be richer right from the start / ’Cause when they scatter my ashes / The things I said will ring true / We’re both the winner, but you’ll go to dinner / ’Cause I’ve got less time than you.” After going silent, Price stares at the camera a moment longer, wide-eyed, without expression.
Price’s performance is elementally jarring. It is rare that people as visibly sick as Price are portrayed performing alone, never breaking eye contact, unapologetic. It is even rarer that these portrayals present their audience with a challenge as great as Price’s. He dares his spectator to view his performance as a spectacle, the kind for which musical theater—and gay culture—is so well known. He dares them to put “romance in [his] life.” In doing so, in his adamant refusal to back down from the gay aesthetic he has staked out, he absolutely refutes pity. He refuses to be the object of anyone’s desire to help him on anything other than his terms, to treat him as a body with AIDS and not as a human, or to treat these two categories as mutually exclusive.
Price’s use of spectacle is a reflection on and critique of culturally legitimated models for gay self-presentation in the late 20th century. These models underwent seismic change during the early AIDS crisis. Before the onset of the epidemic in the United States, gay aesthetics of camp and pageant were widely regarded as exciting, cosmopolitan, and stylish. One need look no further than the success of the Village People to realize that gay culture had been made, by the 1970s, into an enormously popular product for straight consumption. It may be impossible to trace the origins of a trend so widespread and diffuse, but it is possible that the popularity of musical theater was a manifestation of mainstream enthusiasm for gay aesthetics. Musical theater’s deployment of camp sensibility—an aesthetic of artifice, excess, and irony—is part of what makes it an appealing art form, and it is an institution both cherished and significantly shaped by gay culture. Straight audiences cannot miss musical theater’s campiness, especially when it is so integral to the form. Instead, that campiness is part and parcel with what draws straight viewers. To watch a musical is to engage, on some level, with gay cultural aesthetics, and that engagement was held at a premium up until the 1980s.
The American AIDS crisis, however, dramatically shifted cultural responses to gay bodies. The optics of gayness had once been constituted by camp, promiscuity, exciting and fashionable deviances from heterosexual norms that the mainstream denounced for their so-called perversion even as it ravenously consumed their cultural expressions. The gay body of the AIDS crisis, on the other hand, was entirely different. Whereas the representation of the 1970s gay body was a spectacle, a display of the aesthetics of inflation, the 1980s gay body was represented as fundamentally deflated—weaker, smaller, less. Because terror of AIDS-contagion reached a fever pitch early in the ’80s that has, perhaps, still not quieted, the passive threat of an ill gay man was just as potent as the active threat of a gay man whose body was represented as excessive (too bright, too loud, too sexual, too much).
The political rhetoric of the ’80s shows clearly the development of pathologizing models of gayness during the AIDS crisis. In 1987, arguing for an amendment barring the Federal Centers for Disease Control from funding AIDS-related programs that “promote[d], encourage[d] or condone[d] homosexual activities,” Senator Jesse Helms said, “We have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”
Then-mayor of New York, Ed Koch, wrote a New York Times op-ed lambasting Helms for his comments. But in that op-ed, and in his other actions during the crisis, Koch participated in a type of pathologization different than Helms’, but just as pernicious. In his op-ed, Koch refers to people with AIDS as “AIDS victims,” writing that cutting funding to programs would cause “the deaths of not only homosexuals but heterosexuals of both sexes and, most tragic of all, innocent infants.” At first glance, these remarks may seem hypocritical, given Koch’s notorious inaction during the crisis. They are. But, fundamentally, Koch’s inaction and his rhetoric share ideological ground. The language of victimization, sympathy, innocence—the language of pity—was a useful tactic for containing the threats of queerness and AIDS. By casting people with AIDS as inert victims and bystanders as spectators to suffering, pity placed the straight public in the role of audience, gay men with AIDS in the role of performers. Pity never encouraged straight people in power to break the fourth wall.
In The Social Construction of Freaks, Robert Bogdan investigates the historical transition from spectatorship to pity in cultural responses to “freak shows,” circus sideshows displaying people whose bodies were, for a wide variety of reasons, conceived of as “abnormal.”
Bogdan first outlines the ways freak shows were initially marketed to audiences. “Exhibits,” he writes, were advertised by their relationship to prestigious institutions, like science. Potential audiences were drawn in by the promise that the exhibits were immensely popular cultural phenomena, the opportunity to see one was “the chance of a lifetime.” Freak shows were also portrayed as “morally uplifting and educational, not merely as frivolous amusement.” In other words, audiences stood to gain from the experience of spectatorship. To consume a freak show was to access a certain kind of cultural capital, a kind many audiences were willing to pay for, just as gay bodies were marketed to straight viewers as cultural currency and education. Gay bodies have been conscripted into the same roles in broader culture as the “freak” bodies that performed in these shows, used to elicit the same audience responses.
During the ’70s, the fetishization of gay aesthetics constructed gayness as a freak show and gay men as freaks. In dancing to disco, framing Warhol facsimiles, and wearing Chester Weinberg (a prominent gay fashion designer), the straight public was able to try on the exotic qualities of the gay other without submitting to its stigma. Consumers could be swept up in the pop cultural phenomenon of gay aesthetic without engaging with the realities of gayness; they remained audience, never crossing over into performer.
In the ’80s, this fetishization of gay aesthetic morphed into an obsession with sensational details of the bodies of gay men with AIDS. This, too, constructed gay men as freaks, and is reflected in news reporting on the AIDS crisis. Dudley Clendinen, writing for the New York Times in 1983, catalogues the state of the AIDS-infected gay body in painstaking, visceral detail: he describes Paul DiAngelo, a gay man with AIDS, as “gripped by a cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma, racked by infections his body's stricken immune system cannot throw off, losing 10 quarts of fluid a day to a diarrhea the doctors cannot quell.” Noting the precise amount of fluid a sick person loses per day might otherwise be considered in poor taste, but Cleninden uses it as a pyrotechnic flourish, a proof of the spectacular quality of the gay body with AIDS.
Pity rose to prominence alongside freak-spectatorship as a mode of response to gay men with AIDS. In the very same sentence in which he describes the medical details of DiAngelo’s illness, Cleninden writes that DiAngelo “struggles at the age of 33 to survive, to hope, to remain brave and to divine the meaning of this dread disorder.” At one stroke, Cleninden both sensationalizes DiAngelo’s body and elicits sympathy on its (not DiAngelo’s, but his flesh’s) behalf. Straight consumers of this kind of media needed never to reckon with gay bodies as human bodies, only as objects to be either marveled at or pitied. Across spectatorship and pity, mainstream culture’s relationship to gay culture—a relationship firmly based in voyeurism, delegitimization, and contempt—remained intact. Audiences to gay performance and experience were still rewarded with certain pleasures. These pleasures had merely changed from the gains in social capital enjoyed by straight audiences who appropriated the signifiers of gay culture to their own ends, to the self-satisfaction of distancing oneself from a suffering person through sympathy.
Rodney Price weighs two models of AIDS crisis-era gayness, the spectacular and the pitiable. He chooses the model in which he has a choice. The situation of gay men in the ’70s, when they were so often perceived as nothing more than an aesthetic to be aped, was unenviable. The ’80s focus on the condition of the bodies of gay men with AIDS was profoundly dehumanizing. But pity, in secluding the sick (or “sick”), in creating distance between viewer and viewed, kills quietly. It was self-distancing pity that allowed government agencies to ignore AIDS, coded as it was as a “gay plague,” as blithely and for as long as they did. Pity reifies a division between viewer and viewed; it allowed straight bystanders to justify inaction with the reasoning that they were audience, were observer, were fundamentally separate from the suffering they witnessed. Ronald Reagan, then president, did not publicly discuss AIDS until 1987, after the disease had struck down more than 20,000 Americans. Self-distancing pity creates the so-called “tolerance” of queerness that often amounts to a tolerance of the conditions that endanger HIV-positive people, queer and straight. Although the straight public was increasingly conscious of gay people in the ’80s, and is even more so now, the rhetoric around AIDS continues to cast the needs of people with AIDS as separate from the health of the general, implicitly straight, public. Straight viewers remain rapt in their own immobilizing sympathy.
Freakishness can be resignified as an identification: a marker not to be bestowed, but to be claimed, to be staked out. In “Song From An Angel,” Rodney Price names himself, proudly, a freak. Price died two weeks after appearing in “Song From An Angel,” and his performance suggests that he found, in staking out spectacle, a way to maintain dignity in the face of all circumstances arguing against his dignity. You wanted a show, he seems to tell his audience. Here: take it. Take it all, and don’t for a second convince yourself that you are kind for it. “I’ve got less time than you,” he says, speaking directly to everyone who does, in fact, have more time than he does. Price refuses to shield viewers from that truth.
CATE TURNER B’21 doesn’t like RENT.