Angels in America

Angels in America

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Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Angels in America, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon

One of the key facts about Angels in America is that it was written during, and is largely about, the AIDS crisis in the U.S. During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them gay men, contracted the HIV/AIDS virus, a deadly disease that destroys the human immune system and typically results in death. (For more information on the AIDS crisis, see Background Info.) It’s impossible to understand Angels in America—not just its plot and context, but also its tone—without understanding a few things about the AIDS crisis in America.

One of the most important points about the AIDS era was that it brought a new urgency to questions of homosexuality and “the closet,” and encouraged members of the homosexual community to be upfront and vocal about their health. In the 1980s (and still today) there were many Americans who were “in the closet”—i.e., people who were gay but hid their true sexuality and led heterosexual lifestyles. AIDS then made it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for homosexuals to remain in the closet. In some tragic cases, AIDS, with its painful lesions and bruises, left a literal mark on the bodies of closeted gays, making it impossible for them to hide their sexuality any longer. This was particularly noteworthy, given that the Reagan administration (see Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change theme) didn’t mention AIDS in public until nearly 6 years into the AIDS crisis—the contrast between the invisibility of AIDS in political rhetoric and the visibility of AIDS itself was chilling. Gay rights activists encouraged AIDS victims to speak out about their disease—speaking out could be painful and humiliating, but it was also the only way to pressure the White House into acknowledging the AIDS crisis and hopefully funding medical research that could end it.

Thus, in a more abstract, political sense, the AIDS crisis forced all homosexual people to “choose sides.” According to Larry Kramer, one of the most important gay rights activists of the era, it was impossible for gay people to be neutral in the 1980s. By remaining in the closet, gay people weren’t just concealing their own sexuality from other people—they were also making it more difficult for the gay community as a whole to get recognition from the general public, and thus get the medical treatment it desperately needed. In short, if you weren’t a part of the solution to AIDS, you were a part of the problem. Kushner reinforces this idea via the character of Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man who is, quite literally, part of the problem. As a law clerk in New York City, mentored by the famous conservative homophobe Roy Cohn, Joe spends a decade writing legal opinions that punish homosexuals, undermine their rights, and generally make their quality of life worse. Not coincidentally, Joe only begins to move away from his legal career after he comes out of the closet. It could even be argued that there are no “neutral” characters in Angels in America—even when characters aren’t sure how they feel about the AIDS crisis, Kushner goes out of his way to show how their indecisiveness actually contributes to this crisis.

It might sound melodramatic (i.e., over-the-top, excessively emotional or sentimental) to argue that closeted homosexuals were contributing to the deaths of their “fellow” homosexuals during the 1980s, but this is precisely Kushner’s point. The cultural conversation over AIDS was incredibly “melodramatic”: the stakes were so high that inaction became a form of action. During the AIDS crisis, formerly abstract debates about gay rights and sexuality became immediately concrete. This partly explains the tone and style of Kushner’s play. The plot of Angels in America is extremely melodramatic: characters fall in and out of love; experience betrayals and rivalries; make grand, show-stopping speeches, etc. Yet the play is also extremely political: the characters debate about the state of race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. as eagerly as most people argue about sports or their favorite TV shows. In short, the messianic, political, over-the-top tone of Angels in America makes it the perfect play for the AIDS era: a time when the personal was intensely political, and when the stakes of political action (and inaction) could literally be measured in human lives.

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Homosexuality in the AIDS Era ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Homosexuality in the AIDS Era appears in each scene of Angels in America. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Quotes in Angels in America

Below you will find the important quotes in Angels in America related to the theme of Homosexuality in the AIDS Era.
Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 8 Quotes

Harper Pitt: I'm going to have a baby.
Joe Pitt: Liar.
Harper Pitt: You liar. A baby born addicted to pills. A baby who does not dream but who hallucinates, who stares up at us with big mirror eyes and who does not know who we are.
Joe Pitt: Are you really ... ?
Harper Pitt: No. Yes. No. Yes. Get away from me. Now we both have a secret.

Related Characters: Joe Pitt (speaker), Harper Pitt (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Joe has a fight with his wife, Harper. Joe and Harper have been trying to have a child for some time now, and they've failed--in part because Joe is gay, and so doesn't want to have sex with Harper, and in part because Harper seems not to want a child. Here Harper claims that she's pregnant, then contradicts herself again and again--still clearly living half in the world of fantasy, and half in reality.

The exchange between Joe and Harper might symbolize the state of American society during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. For many, AIDS threatened the continued survival of the human race--the untreatable disease could wipe out America. And for many in the gay community, AIDS only reinforced familiar themes of survival and reproduction, since homosexual couples couldn't have children. For the gay community, and America as a whole, AIDS prompted a lot of questions--What will happen after we die?; will our community survive, or will it disappear forever? Harper's ambiguous answer to such a question (Yes. No. Yes.) reflects the grim uncertainty of American society at the time.


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Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 9 Quotes

I don't want you to be impressed. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.

Related Characters: Roy Cohn (speaker), Henry , Ronald Reagan
Page Number: 46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, Roy Cohn--a closeted homosexual Republican who supports Reagan--claims that he's not homosexual at all. Cohn has just found out that he has AIDS, and probably won't survive much longer. And yet Cohn insists that he's not gay--he just has sex with men from time to time. (In real life, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS, but insisted that he had a rare "liver cancer" right up to the end of his life).

Cohn's argument for why he isn't gay is fascinating and contradictory. Cohn claims that homosexuality is not an act, but rather a label and a state of mind--an inability to be accepted within the American establishment. For Cohn to be accepted by Ronald Reagan is proof that he's straight and "respectable"--even if Cohn has homosexual sex.

Cohn is in denial, of course--he can't accept the fact that he has AIDS, or that he doesn't fit his own conservative ideal. Up until now, Cohn has had an easy time denying his homosexual behavior: his prominence in the Republican community expunges him. But now, Cohn has been "marked" with an undeniable proof of his homosexuality--a disease that (at least at the time) is almost exclusively a homosexual disease. Even after he's diagnosed, however, Cohn continues to cling to his old strategies of denial.

Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 6 Quotes

Prior: Are you... a ghost, Lou?
Louis: No. Just spectral. Lost to myself. Sitting all day on cold park benches. Wishing I could be with you. Dance with me, babe...

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Louis Ironson (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous dream sequence, Prior Walter reunites with his boyfriend, Louis Ironson. Louis has abandoned Prior because Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS, and Louis is frightened of contracting the disease himself. But in the realm of dreams, Louis is no longer afraid of Prior. Prior dreams of dancing with Louis--death and AIDS are no longer a danger for either one of them.

The passage is also a good example of how dreams can help humans escape from the pain of their day-to-day lives. At times, dreams help the characters confront reality with a new depth of insight. But here, the point isn't that Prior is gaining some new insight (although what Louis says about cold park benches is true)--rather, Prior dreams about Louis so that he can feel happier. Of course, it's tragic that Prior and Louis can safely engage in an act as simple as dancing only in the world of dreams. The very simplicity of their reunion reinforces how greatly AIDS has fractured and endangered the gay community.

Perestroika: Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

That ludicrous spectacle in there, just a parody of the funeral of someone who really counted. We don't; faggots; we're just a bad dream the world is having, and the real world's waking up. And he's dead.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Belize / Norman Ariago
Related Symbols: Funerals
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Prior and Belize have just come from a funeral for an AIDS-diagnosed drag queen they both knew. In contrast to the funeral in the first part of the play, the drag queen's funeral is glitzy, glamorous, and defiantly optimistic--despite the tragedy of the occasion. Prior finds the spectacle of the funeral to be disgusting and indecent--how dare the mourners sing and have a good time?

Although Prior dislikes the funeral, Kushner evidently doesn't agree with him (as is shown in Belize's response to Prior). For Kushner, the only appropriate response to the misery unleashed by the AIDs crisis is to defy it--to respond to misery and death with life, love, and laughter. The funeral is, in short, a stand-in for Kushner's play itself: a big, over-the-top spectacle that uses humor and fantasy to address deadly serious social issues. The very fact of Kushner's play's existence proves that Kushner favors the "ludicrous spectacle" that Prior criticizes.

Perestroika: Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.

Related Characters: Belize / Norman Ariago (speaker), Louis Ironson
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Belize tells Louis that he hates America. Belize is speaking somewhat metaphorically--he certainly doesn't seem to despise the idea of America; the idea of a country in which everybody is free and equal, protected by the same laws and the same authorities. But Belize knows perfectly well that such an idea is just that--an idea, an illusion. Where Louis naively believes that America's courts and congresses protect all races and sexual orientations equally, Belize knows better. The law does not apply equally to everyone, contrary to what patriots claim: heterosexuals are better taken care of than homosexuals; whites are better protected than blacks, etc. The idea of America is a sinister fable, designed to hide the concrete facts of racism and homophobia in the country--and nobody who's in touch with the real world, Belize implies, could believe in such an idea.

Perestroika: Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

If [God] ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again. If after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century, He returned to see... how much suffering His abandonment had created, if all He has to offer is death, you should sue the bastard. [...] Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 275-276
Explanation and Analysis:

In the climactic scene of the play, Prior Walter is summoned (or perhaps just dreams he's been summoned) before a council of Angels. The Angels want Prior to spread death and disease all over the world--in other words, one could say, they want AIDS to wipe out the human race. The angels hope that by killing humans, they'll be able to summon God back to Heaven--he's been missing for some time.

Prior responds to the angels' pleas by telling them that their real "beef" is with God, for walking out on them, not human beings. But Prior does more than simply re-direct the angels' anger. By expressing his own anger with God, he's condemning the universe itself for allowing something as awful as the AIDS crisis (and other horrors of the 20th century, like the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Holodomor, etc.) to occur. More subtly, Prior's comments could be interpreted as a criticism of organized religions, especially Christianity, that argue that everything happens for a reason. If there is a God, Prior suggests, and if everything is a part of God's plan, then God should be sued.

By the same token, Prior's words suggest his exasperation with the very notion of prophecy--with the idea that people can be "chosen" by the angels and ordered to work God's plan on Earth. Prior no longer seems to believe that there's any pre-determined order to life. Things don't happen for any particular reason, and so the belief that prophecies must be fulfilled no longer holds any currency with Prior.

Epilogue Quotes

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker)
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Epilogue to the play, Prior speaks directly to the audience. He claims that he's been living with AIDS for several years now, and doesn't know how much longer he's going to last. And yet Prior refuses to cower before the possibility of death. Instead, he speaks out--bravely and boldly--about his condition and his sexuality.

By having Prior speak directly to the audience (in an homage to the theater of Bertolt Brecht), Kushner suggests the political ramifications of his play. Kushner wants to use his play to make political points and provoke political engagement in the audience. Prior seems to urge the audience to go out and fight for AIDS research and homosexual rights--a mandate that many fans of the play have taken up. At the same time, Prior's speech seems to sum up many of the play's key themes. Prior has no idea what the future holds, but in spite of his uncertainty, he looks forward to the future with a cautious optimism. In the meantime, Prior will not hide behind fantasy or delusion. Instead, he will be a citizen--he and the other members of the gay community will use political methods to fight for themselves and their allies.