Dr. Brian J. Troth // “Le passé est passé. The future is now.” These temporal adages, for all intents and purposes platitudes uttered without much thought, suggest that we are obsessed with moving forward, going so far as to prematurely announce the impossibility that the future has already arrived. Yet we are also apt to lament that history repeats itself, consoling ourselves that in remembering the past, we may secure our future. Inasmuch as we love to talk about moving on, however, we nevertheless either fetishize the past or we find ourselves unable to break our bonds with our history.
In My Father & I, Dr. David Caron tells the story of an encounter in the street with another man. They pass each other and, mutually attracted, glance back. This glance, Caron argues, is understood by gay men as a sexual advance precisely because they have a backlog of memories that have created this association. The look is a silent yet complete conversation as Evelyn Hooker notes in her 1965 “Male Homosexuals and their ‘Worlds.’” Many have been those who have argued for the importance of location to the gay man’s identity (see Warner, Berlant, Alessandrin, Hooker, Caron), yet here I aim to briefly elucidate one of the ways in which time is equally as tied to gay identity and how this relationship – rendered physical by the act of looking back – conjures negative images of a gay cultural heritage marked by the AIDS crisis.
The gaze can be a powerful marker of membership. Homophilic groups recovering from wartime silence were cautious to be too outspoken and Hooker’s 1965 article predates the creation of HIV advocacy groups that would unite gay men under a common goal. In the absence of these communitarian venues, the gay bar and these silent conversations become a form of initiation into the gay community. They gave men a sense of belonging. Yet belonging to this community, from 1981 onward, would also mean belonging to an at-risk group of pariahs, as they were called by Susan Sontag. This look – whether it be across a bar or over your shoulder as you walk down the street – becomes loaded with meaning far beyond its invitation to engage in sex when gay men were in the middle of an epidemic.
The trope of the deadly look toward the past is common in Western mythologies. One need not look further than the biblical tale of Lot’s wife who betrays God’s command not to watch Sodom be destroyed as she flees. Her glance resulted in her transformation into a pillar of salt. Similarly, Greek legend tells of Orpheus fleeing from the Underworld and checking that Eurydice is still behind him, only to lose her forever because of the forbidden glance. Is the gay man’s gaze – the outward expression of his desire and the cultural heritage that he has inherited – as deadly?
Ducastel and Martineau’s Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau (2016) invites viewers to consider this very question: it was written as a modern retelling of the Orphic tragedy, the queering of which is the subject of Todd Reeser’s 2018 “The Anti-Orpheus.” Théo and Hugo begin their ascent from the basement of a sex club (the Underworld) to the top floor of an apartment of Paris’s highest hill, Montmartre. In the end, as Théo and Hugo leave to have breakfast, Théo realizes he’s left his phone. Hugo warns him not to turn back, lest he lose the life that they could have together. Théo obeys and breaks the curse of the Orphic tragedy and the film concludes with the boys running down a spiral staircase back to street level.
Their encounter began with the gaze described by Hooker and it initiates a medical excursion for post-exposure treatment. Hugo is HIV-positive and Théo did not use protection. The love story blossoming between these two men is punctuated both with the ghosts of the past (the other men in the club appear like ghostly, skeletal shadows in Théo’s memory) and a gaze that accompanies these memories (Hugo and the nurse both stare intently as Théo ingests his medication along with a madeleine – itself a Proustian symbol of memory in French canon).
Théo et Hugo is part of what we might consider a litany of AIDS-related film that came out in France in the past few years. Others included Plaire, aimer, et courir vite (2018), 120 battements par minute (2017), and L’Etincelle (a 2019 documentary of LGBT history from 1969 onward). Yet Théo et Hugo differentiates itself from the other films because it does not present its audience with the task of carrying on nostalgia and memory (see Girard and Berdougo). Indeed, though ghosts of the path and representations of death are not absent in the film, Théo et Hugo offers an alternative that is based on the possibility of life after AIDS.
What’s changed? In my previous contribution to Synapsis, I wrote at length about how PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) has changed our notions of risk and how we should talk about it. Théo et Hugo is a story that exists in a similar world, where advances in medication and knowledge about disease transmission have allowed certain risky behaviors to occur without fear of deadly consequences. At this stage of HIV/AIDS knowledge and research, it is absolutely crucial that we recognize two different types of nostalgia at work. In the first, the epidemic continues to haunt because that is our reality: there is still no cure and the epidemic has indelibly marked the sexual habits of generations of gay men. In the second, there seems to be the promise of a new reality. There is no return to pre-AIDS, but medicine suggests that we may someday see a world that is post-AID. This necessarily alters the way we will speak of HIV stories. In this post-AIDS world, the gay man’s gaze loses the burden of death. No one turns to salt.
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