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After the Tragedy: An Interview with Professor Paul Butler on the Fight Against AIDS

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Story and illustration by K. Garner

“A few years ago, as I found myself packing for a move to upstate New York, I came across a set of address books, collections of names and phone numbers that I could never bring myself to throw away. As I flipped through the pages, I saw Dallas’ name and phone number penciled in lightly under ‘D.’ I also found other entries: Henny and his partner; Andy, who was going blind when I saw him last in Long Beach; Chris, known for his barbecues and bonfires at an old country farm, who seemed completely healthy before he suddenly succumbed to dementia and moved to a hospice; David, who blurted out his diagnosis over breakfast at a Louisiana diner, his hair now gray, his face now old and anguished. I remember so many men—smart men, young men, strong men, with sunken cheeks and hallowed eyes, the dead, the almost dead, the dying. What has become of their memory? Who is, or will be, left to bear witness to their lives, to those they loved, to the suffering they experienced? How many more people might become exposed to HIV because they have not heard these stories or known of these lives?”

This excerpt from Paul Butler’s moving essay “Embracing AIDS: History, Identity, and Post-AIDS Discourse” was published in the quarterly JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics. The essay sheds light on one of the most difficult episodes in LGBT history. Paul Butler is a phenomenal composition and rhetoric professor at the University of Houston and a prolific writer. Additionally, he is the author of Out of Style: Reanimating Stylistic Study in Composition and Rhetoric, and his work has appeared in many scholarly journals and edited collections. I had the privilege of being his student and getting this wonderful opportunity to interview him about his essay.

Professor Paul Butler
Professor Paul Butler

K. Garner: You state that “a crucial part of gay history has seemingly disappeared from the radar screen, mentioned only occasionally by the media.” You discuss “normalization” as a reason for this “cover-up.” What is the cause?

Paul Butler: I wrote the article 12 years ago. New treatments have been developed, yet there is still no cure for the disease. AIDS continues to be stigmatized, and people living with the disease are often subject to discrimination. The LGBTQ community is disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic today. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than a million Americans are now living with HIV. Each year, more than 50,000 new infections are reported, and nearly two-thirds of new infections are among gay and bisexual men. In addition to these sobering statistics, it’s important to note that relatively few states have laws to guard against discrimination in employment or housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The defeat of HERO [in Houston] is an example of the recent phenomenon of so-called “bathroom bills.” In North Carolina, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, signed by the governor, bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex. The bill also says that [this new state law will] preempt any local [civil-rights] ordinances. All of these reasons contribute to the relative invisibility of AIDS, still today. Those living with the disease often feel shame that accompanies the discrimination they experience.

Your essay does such a good job of discussing a difficult part of our history. What do you think is the best way we can record it well?

In my article, I tried to honor everyone who has been affected by the AIDS epidemic—from those who died to those living with the disease, and those who made valiant efforts to fight the disease and for the rights of those infected and those being cared for. I think the best way to honor [these people] is to never forget the past and current history of the epidemic. One way to honor them is through films like The Normal Heart [2014], documentaries like How to Survive a Plague [nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary] and We Were Here, and books like And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, Borrowed Time by Paul Monette, and Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. These are just a few examples of the many works of fiction, nonfiction, and art about the AIDS crisis. In the future, I feel we can continue to honor those who have died, as well as those on the front lines fighting against all aspects of the epidemic, by creating a national museum of AIDS and HIV. I feel it would be a significant way of honoring, remembering, and continuing the fight against the biggest plague of our recent history. It would honor the memory of those who have died of AIDS and those who continue to struggle.

The way you honored the memory of your friends and loved ones who fought the AIDS epidemic was beautiful and emotional. Before we close, tell us more about that.

I wrote about some of those I knew most closely in my article. To honor them, I used their real first names, though I omitted their surnames. These men were vibrant, outstanding parts of their communities. They had friends, families, and partners they loved. They had jobs. They were taken from us much too soon at a time before antiretroviral therapy (ART) was available to help them fight the ravages of the disease. They were my friends. I want to honor their memory, along with everyone fighting the disease today—those still with us, and those taken from us far too early.

K. Garner is a queer interdisciplinary artist and University of Houston creative writing student. Garner’s spoken word and film has appeared at Aurora Picture Show. Garner’s first contribution to OutSmart discussed a personal journey with gender dysphoria during pregnancy. In light of that, Garner’s most proud creation, Stormy Garner, just turned three. This interview hit close to home because Garner’s cousin, Robert, passed away from AIDS when he was only 21.

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