Books

What it was really like to live through the height of the AIDS crisis: ‘There was beauty and humour’

Patrick Kelleher June 12, 2022
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A picture of Tucker Shaw, author of When You Call My Name, on the left, with a picture of the UK cover of his AIDS era novel on the right.

Tucker Shaw (L) and the UK cover of When You Call My Name (R). (Andrew Janigian)

Almost four years ago, Tucker Shaw was on a train when he overheard a young gay couple discussing the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

One of the men explained to the other that the crisis had “galvanised” the community, that it had “spurred change”. In the long run, he said, it had made things better.

Tucker Shaw was perplexed. It wasn’t the first time he had heard such a theory, but to hear the epidemic discussed without any awareness of just how awful it was for queer people didn’t sit right with him.

In a powerful, impactful Twitter thread, Shaw detailed just how terrifying that period was. He wrote about the friends who died “brutally”, about notebooks filled with names of the dead, and about losing lovers.

The impact was swift. Tucker’s thread took off and racked up thousands of likes – and then the unexpected happened. An editor from a publishing house reached out and asked him to write a novel about that era. He jumped at the opportunity – he had often thought about writing a novel aimed at young adults about the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

The result is When You Call My Name, a heart-wrenching novel following two teenage gay boys as they navigate life and love in New York City in 1990 partly inspired by Tucker’s own experiences as a young gay man.

“I lived in New York all through the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s, and those first few years of the ’90s were really informed by AIDS in a saturating kind of way,” Tucker tells PinkNews. “It was really everywhere.

“I don’t think there’s anybody my age or older or a little bit younger than me – I’ll be 54 later this year – who wasn’t affected by HIV/AIDS in some very personal way. It was just devastating, and for many of us it was a defining element to those years.”

When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw shows queer people loved each other in the face of AIDS

Tucker left New York in 2006 after spending 15 years in the city, but he still finds himself thinking about those days.

 

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A post shared by Tucker Shaw (@tuckershaw)

Like many LGBTQ+ people of his generation, Tucker watched as friends and acquaintances died from AIDS-related illnesses. Writing When You Call My Name was his chance to work through some of those lingering feelings, but it also gave him the opportunity to rewrite the narrative. Yes, queer people went through impossibly difficult times, but it was also a vibrant, exciting time.

“The fact is we still had fun, we still went out, we still made friends, we still built families together. We still fell in love despite it and I think that says something about who we are and about our capacity for life.

“The gay community in particular has an extraordinary capacity for creativity, beauty, celebration and humour, and an extraordinary capacity for friendship. When you find people that you can truly be yourself with and talk in shorthand with and not have to constantly come out to, it’s really exciting and empowering.”

Tucker was also eager to show teenagers of today that, even in the face of hardship, the LGBTQ+ community was never “lost”.

“We really made space to care about each other and to celebrate each other, and I think that’s important to show.”

I think there’s an opportunity now to break through the blanket assessment of everything just being so dark.

At the centre of the novel is Adam, a young gay man who is falling in love for the first time. Does Tucker think it’s important younger readers have access to those kinds of stories – ones where queer people experience love and passion?

“I think we’re seeing it more and more, aren’t we? Heartstopper – that’s really the thing this year in that realm. But yeah, we need to believe we can lead full lives. We need to believe that we can lead complex lives. Adam’s story, for me, is really this idea of falling in love against the odds and deciding to do it even knowing that it’s going to be difficult and that there will be a lot of unknowns ahead.

“When you lead with your heart, especially when you’re young, you run a lot of risk of damaging it or harming it or hurting it, or at least feeling it sting, but it’s still worth it. I still believe that. It sounds corny but I do think that there are depths to the human heart that should be explored.”

When You Call My Name comes hot on the heels of a number of high-profile cultural explorations of the AIDS epidemic. On television, Pose and It’s a Sin have explored how queer people weathered that storm. That cultural discussion feels long overdue for people like Tucker, who lived through the crisis.

“I think there’s an opportunity now to break through the blanket assessment of everything just being so dark and to really look at individual stories within that,” Tucker says.

 

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A post shared by Tucker Shaw (@tuckershaw)

“When we talk about HIV and AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s, oftentimes you hear numbers – 100,000 people died or a million people tested positive this year.

“It’s sort of esoteric when you talk about it in numbers but when you really start to look at stories and at individuals, you see it in a different way. So maybe in media and in publishing, maybe there’s just a little bit more space to talk about it in terms of relationships and friendships rather than strictly through medicine or tragedy.”

Much has changed for people with HIV – if you live in a wealthy country, at least

It’s also worth noting that much has changed in the years since the AIDS epidemic first started. Antiretroviral medication means that people who are HIV positive can now live just as long as people who don’t have HIV, while PrEP can stop a person from contracting the virus through sex. Moreover, a person who lives with HIV and is on effective treatment can’t pass the virus on to another person.

Tucker wants young people to know that the outlook is not the same today for a person diagnosed with HIV as it was 30 years ago – but he’s also keen to point out that much of that depends on where you happen to live.

“HIV is still a very complicated experience and it’s rife with inequity. You can look at it in one way in a wealthy country and then in a very different way in a not wealthy country. Even within wealthy countries, certain communities are affected in different ways, some better and some worse,” he says.

“I think it’s important that we don’t blithely pretend it’s not important anymore. I hope we don’t lose any steam on trying to get rid of it because I think that would be better. It’s great to have PrEP and all the other treatments and methods to keep it from taking over your body and to keep from transferring it, but really the goal has to be to get rid of it, to send it away.”

While much has changed, HIV stigma still persists.

“It’s different – it’s maybe not as acute, but you still hear people make jokes about it, or you still hear people talk about it in ways that are either inaccurate or somehow adding to the marginalisation.

“It’s been interesting seeing monkeypox and the way that people are starting to talk about that. Over here there have been some politicians who have said things along the lines of, ‘Well it’s mostly spread from gay people to other gay people’ – the implication being, ‘You don’t need to worry about it and we don’t need to worry about it because it’s just them.’ And a lot of those things feel like a faint echo of a different time.”

 

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A post shared by Tucker Shaw (@tuckershaw)

The LGBTQ+ community continues to face terrible challenges – ones that sometimes seem insurmountable – to this day. That’s why Tucker hopes queer readers will find some belief in themselves when reading his novel.

“There will be new challenges tomorrow – we don’t know what they’ll be, but they’ll always be there,” he says. “When you look at our history, particularly this history – which to me feels very recent but to somebody younger may not – you can see how strong and creative and collaborative and committed we are to taking care of each other and to hopefully finding a better day.

“I hope that if my book finds the right reader, they’ll have that feeling.”

When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw is out now.

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