Tops, Bottoms, and the Ghost of HIV: An Investigation of the Impact of Collective Memory on the Behavior-Group Identity Relationship Among Gay Men Open Access

Vaughn, Michael (Spring 2020)

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What happens when something integral to who you are becomes potentially lethal? In this dissertation, which sits at the intersection of social psychology, cultural sociology, sexualities studies, and health sociology, I explore the long-term sexual- and identity-related implications of the HIV/AIDS epidemic for gay men living in the United States. Sexual behavior has long been regarded as a core component of one’s sexuality. Throughout the HIV/AIDS epidemic (1980-present), gay men’s sexual behavior has become pathologized, regarded as something potentially deadly and, especially in the first decade of the epidemic, unpredictably so. Similarly, American Psychiatry framed homosexuality as an incurable mental health disorder from 1952-1980. How then do gay men understand what it means to be gay? How has the collective memory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic thus far been integrated into gay identity? And how do gay men’s lived experiences with the epidemic, which vary widely for younger and older adults, influence this relationship? I pose these questions to situate the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a sort of rupture in the naturalness of the pairing of sexual behavior and sexuality, particularly for gay men. To peer into this rupture, I pose an overarching question to all of my participants, as well as the reader: what does it mean to be gay?

In this dissertation, I examine the ways in which gay men construct their gay identity, particularly focusing on the relationship between collective memory and identity. I argue that gay men have commemorated the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a collective memory and that this collective memory influences the construction of gay identity. Individuals draw upon the collective memory differently given their lived experience with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, creating a birth cohort effect in gay identity construction. To gather data on commemorated and forgotten narratives of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I conducted archival research at three sites (Atlanta, GA, New York, NY, and New Haven, CT), and I interviewed 61 gay men in New York City, stratified across three birth cohorts and by race, to better understand individuals’ construction of their own gay identity. These gay men participated in an in-depth interview, sharing self-stories about their own sex lives.

Using the stories commemorated in the archives as a guide to the potential veins of gay collective memory, I find that gay men consistently define what it means to be gay in terms of medical collective memory. Gay men draw upon narratives from American Psychiatry and the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to define, in part, what it means to be gay. In the first of three empirical studies in this dissertation, I find that collective memories of medical trauma may influence identity verification for gay men. In the second study, I find that the historical narratives invoked when defining what it means to be gay vary across generations, due largely to lived experience. In the third study, I demonstrate the ways in white-coded gay historical narratives and cultural objects are taken as central to gay identity, and thus impact identity verification differently for gay men of different races.

Table of Contents

Prelude: Situated in Space and Time 1

Chapter 1: Rendering Visible the Ghost of HIV 6

Chapter 2: Plaguebearers and Personality Disorders 18

Chapter 3: “The Struggle Stuff” 52

Chapter 4: Three Gay Generations 72

Chapter 5: “It Was Just White Men Listening to Spanish Music” 100

Conclusion: What Does it Mean to be Gay? 122

Academic References 130

Archival References 136     

Appendix: Research Methodology 138

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