- “Luck, Classic Coke, and the Love of a Good Man”The Politics of Hope and AIDS in Two Songs by Michael Callen
“Feeling and emotion are fundamental to political life,” writes Deborah Gould. “There is an affective dimension to the processes and practices that make up ‘the political.’” A number of scholars, Eve Sedgwick, Ann Cvetkovich, Lee Edelman, and José Muñoz among them, have explored the roles of affect in queer politics by focusing on issues like representation, temporality, and memory.1 In particular, affect saturates the discourses, vocabularies, identities, communities, political responses, and art—the “epidemic of signification”—that parallels the biomedical AIDS crisis.2 In the 1980s the media, activists, and people with AIDS (PWAs) defined the health crisis in affective terms, primarily through negative feelings like fear, anxiety, desperation, frustration, and anger. “United in [End Page 175] Anger,” early HIV/AIDS activists were literally “fighting for their lives” against local, state, and federal governments, homophobia, and widespread panic about this new and deadly disease.3
This essay complicates the affective portrait of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s by considering the role of positive sentiments in the music and activism of gay singer-songwriter and prominent AIDS activist Michael Callen (1955–93). The affective vocabulary in Michael Callen’s work provides a crucial alternative to those that have perdured. What can we learn from his legacy? What is the role of hope in the sustenance of forms of activism? How does Callen’s turn to hope enrich LGBT history and that of AIDS activism? Since his death, Callen’s very queer music and his contributions to the culture of early AIDS activism have been largely forgotten. Although his recordings are available through various digital download and streaming services, neither his essays nor his speeches have been widely anthologized or reprinted.4 A frequent footnote in histories of HIV/AIDS, Callen has only recently been the subject of scholarly and historical works.5 In examining his hopeful sentiment, I contribute to a new curve in the “affective turn” in queer/feminist scholarship, one marked by its emphasis on hope, optimism, self-love, and community care.6
“Small Town Change”7
Born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio, an industrial suburb of Cincinnati, Michael Callen had never traveled beyond a fifty-mile radius of his hometown when he matriculated at Boston University in 1973. Upon completion of his undergraduate degree in English literature in 1977, he followed the Yellow Brick Road of Gay Migration to New York City. There, he thrust himself into the city’s vibrant gay sex culture. After a year of mysterious, debilitating, and increasingly exotic illnesses, Callen was declared immune deficient in 1981, a diagnosis his doctors amended after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coined the term “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)” the following year. Galvanized by the prognosis of his imminent death, Callen committed himself to the fight for [End Page 176] gay rights and the war against AIDS. His remarkable “rise from complete obscurity to the forefront of national politics” occurred at a time when few PWAs publicly acknowledged their illnesses, fearing prejudice, stigma, and violence.8 Between his diagnosis and his death, Callen combatted the negligence of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the glacial pace of Ed Koch’s mayoral mishandling of the health crisis in New York, and the toxic combination of fear and ignorance characteristic of social, political, and media responses to AIDS.
A community organizer, Callen established several important AIDS support service groups, including Gay Men with AIDS, People with AIDS Coalition—New York (PWAC-NY), and the Community Research Initiative (CRI). He worked alongside Mathilde Krim and Joseph Sonnabend, cofounders of what would become the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFar), participated in direct action protest with Larry Kramer’s AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and was even arrested while protesting in Washington, DC. A prolific author, Callen published three books in addition to hundreds of articles and speeches about AIDS. How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (1983), a forty-page booklet coauthored with fellow PWA Richard Berkowitz and their physician, is widely considered the first safe...