Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Interview with Edmund White

Written by Jeromy Carpenter
Published on May 5, 2014

Edmund White is a prolific writer and an icon of the Gay rights movement and the fight for equality for those living with HIV in America today. He has written a series of books beginning with his coming of age memoir, A Boy's Own Story, followed by his memoir about maturing to adulthood in The Beautiful Room is Empty, which culminates in the Stonewall riots of 1969 which he had the good timing to witness with his own eyes. His stories are easy to identify with as an angsty gay man who remembers the challenges of growing up gay in a country that didn't fully accept gays and lesbians at the time. His stories are a scrapbook of moments strung together with wonderfully descriptive detail and engrossing prose that will suck the reader in and keep him or her turning pages. Edmund has been a contributing writer to a number of publications and is currently teaching at Princeton University. His work captures the zeitgeist of not only his own generation but the ones that came after his as we progress through the gay rights movement and into a new era that will surely be better than the closeted days of the past. 

I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to interview Edmund recently at his home in Chelsea [a neighborhood in Manhattan]. We discussed his books, his life and his thoughts on the gay rights movement and the future of the HIV positive community in America. Being HIV positive himself for decades, Edmund has been a pivotal member of the community. He helped form the Gay Men's Health Crisis when the AIDS crisis first began in the early 1980s. Not only is he very knowledgeable and influential in the gay community, he also happens to be a very nice guy. I very much enjoyed interviewing him. He seems to make as good a subject as he is a writer. 

If you are an aspiring young writer, like me (although I'm not so young anymore), Edmund suggests that you set your sights high and don't be discouraged easily. He says that you need to be 'self affirming,' which means that you need to do what makes you happy because it makes you happy and be content with that despite what others may think. He didn't start publishing books until he was in his thirties and now he has a whole collection of them. I personally, just turned 33 and have been a contributing writer to a few gay news publications over the years, but have never written a book or anything longer than a college paper. But, thanks to modern medicine, I've been given a second shot at life and will hopefully live long enough to see some of my work published someday in the longer form. As with anything, practice makes perfect and the more you write, the more likely something is to be read by somebody who appreciates it. So, to all the young writers out there: keep writing! 

I asked Edmund about the progress of HIV issues in America today. Edmund expressed concern over the fact that many people still aren't getting tested for HIV today. The reason people aren't getting tested, according to Edmund, is because 'the attitudes on cruising websites are so hateful.' The use of phrases like 'Are you clean?' which inherently imply a kind of filth of those who might have HIV or other STDs, is damaging to the effort to get people tested and treated because it shames individuals from going to a doctor. People are afraid of being positive and even more afraid of having to tell their sex partners if they are. Edmund then pointed out something that I am well aware of, but many gay men still haven't figured out yet, which is that an HIV positive man who is on medication and has an undetectable viral load is a much safer person to have sex with than someone who does not know their status or 'thinks' they're negative, but hasn't been tested in over a year. It is those individuals who typically have the highest viral loads and it is those individuals who are spreading the virus today. 

I then asked Edmund for some advice for our readers, any young person living with HIV today. He stated that, 'You're not obliged to tell every person you fuck that you're positive.' There is still a great deal of judgment toward HIV positive people out there, especially in the gay community, unfortunately, and if you are taking your medication and your viral load is undetectable, you're probably not going to give anyone HIV. If, however, you want to enter into a dating relationship with someone, Edmund pointed out, that it is nice to find someone else who is also HIV positive, just so that you don't have to worry about the subject too much. There also happen to be quite a few people out there who are HIV negative, but who are OK with HIV positive people, because they understand what the real risk is and they're not unduly frightened by it. Those people are also dating material. But, as Edmund pointed out, our health is our responsibility, and that means that nobody else is responsible for protecting you from HIV besides you. 

I asked Edmund about the progress of the gay rights movement and where it's headed. He and I both agree that the next twenty or thirty years will hopefully usher in an era of normalization of gay life in America, not in the heteronormative way that so many militant homosexuals are afraid of, but in a way that allows gays and lesbians to be who they want to be, without being entirely consumed by their own gay identity. For years, gay men have flocked to stereotypical gay careers, many of them feeling compelled to do so in order to express their identity as a homosexual. But Edmund's hope, and mine as well, is that in the years to come, a person will be an engineer who happens to be gay, as opposed to a gay man who happens to be an engineer. We're hoping that who we choose to love will not identify us so much as merely describe a small part of who we are. Historically, going back to the time of the Greeks, there hasn't even been a word for people who love others of the same gender. Homosexuality is only a recent construct in the mind of society and it is one that we all need to get over and put behind us so that we can get on with the business of being ourselves. Edmund also speculated that religion, which is the root cause of so much fear and loathing of gay people in America today, will slowly die out in years to come (God, save us from your followers!), and that will help further ease the transition of gays and lesbians into mainstream culture in America. 

My final question for Edmund was 'What is the greatest challenge faced by the gay community today?' To which he replied, 'If we're going to have a gay identity, then there should be some nobler definition of it than cruising for guys on Grindr and going to the gym. I always wished we would get involved with HIV in Africa. Some sort of public service, because there are forty four million people with HIV/AIDS, and most of them are in Africa.' I could not possibly agree more with Edmund. We have fought so hard for medication, recognition, government assistance and respect and we have come so far and the greatest tragedy of all would be if we let all that hard work and all those lessons that we learned in the process go to waste by not using them to help fight AIDS in Africa and around the world. We have been given an incredible gift through our struggles with HIV and we now have a responsibility to use that gift to make the world a better place for those living with HIV in other countries. 

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