The outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s gave rise to one of the most tragic periods in history, triggering social stigma and intense homophobia amongst the general population. The taboo surrounding sex led to the ostracisation of the victims of the virus, especially gay men, resulting in a striking 39,772 confirmed deaths in the USA in the 80s alone.
The demonisation of the LGBTQ community during this epidemic increased the stigma tenfold. Despite obvious evidence, the government and the people refused to believe that the disease could affect women or men involved in heterosexual intercourse. More interestingly, in spite of acknowledging the fact that gay men were victims of the virus, no steps were taken to increase awareness and knowledge for further prevention. Rather, the disease was used as an excuse to ostracise the LGBTQ community further — a concept that is illustrated beautifully in Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Great Believers.
The story begins with Yale and his partner Charlie attending the funeral of their friend Nico. The beginning prepares readers for the imminent heartbreak that is sure to follow, and through Yale’s eyes, we get to see how the tragedy tears through an entire community and how starkly negligent the government is towards the numerous deaths that occur every day. In fact, the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, mentioned the word AIDS in 1985 for the first time in public, four years after the first case of AIDS and three after the first time the term was used.
Yale Tishman belongs to a tightly knit group of friends. Rebecca Makkai develops each character intricately, giving each a unique story that allows us, readers, to fully understand the tragedy of the epidemic. The characters, more than the plot itself, are the main force that drives the story forward. We see how the epidemic destroys lives and friendships and affects not just the victims but the people around them as well. We see Fiona, Nico’s little sister, who embraces Nico’s friends with affection, and who in turn lovingly accept her into their group.
The book follows two different narratives, the second of which features a grownup Fiona in 2015 and illustrates how the tragedy impacts a person even decades after it has ended.
News articles during the 80s served more to spread fear and hatred towards the LGBTQ community than to spread awareness of the disease. With headlines such as “Alert over gay plague” and “Gay plague may lead to blood ban” circulating through the country, infected people were far less likely to get tested for the disease, further increasing the spread of the virus. Even health campaigns were disgustingly homophobic, urging people not to engage in homosexual intercourse rather than educating them on the basics of safe sex.
Reading the book is sure to raise various questions. Would the death toll of the epidemic be as high as it was had the government not been so indifferent towards the deaths of thousands of gay men? It’s difficult to answer the question. The number of deaths from AIDS continues to be high in the present day, with 774,476 reported cases in the USA since 1981.
The terms “AIDS” and “homosexuality” seem to go hand in hand. Despite large amounts of scientific evidence, people still associate the disease with homosexual intercourse, with biology books going as far as suggesting that students avoid homosexuality as a possible measure of prevention.
According to a study published in 2016 in China, men who engage in sexual activities with other men experience depression due to social stigma, which directly affects their likelihood to get tested for AIDS. This infuriatingly ignorant idea that only gay men can contract the disease marginalises not only the LGBTQ community but also other victims of AIDS — women as well as men who have only female partners.
The book progresses slowly, following the life of Yale as he watches his friends die one by one. The wonderfully crafted characters and their interactions with each other provide power to the story. Rebecca Makkai also portrays the government’s unwillingness to help the people, as well as moments of homophobia that are still prevalent in the current society.
The Great Believers is truly a masterpiece in that it perfectly captures the horrors of the AIDS epidemic during the 80s with historical accuracy and without disrespecting the LGBTQ community. But more importantly, this book helps us realise how the oppression and stigmatisation from the 80s are still prevalent today and how there is still a long way to go before we can truly say that all humans have gained basic human rights.
Nadira Tasnim is a Harry Potter obsessed math-nerd who loves watching psychology videos in her free time.