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Roy Cohn sits in a doctor’s office with his doctor, Henry. Henry tells Cohn about the causes and effects of AIDS: the body’s immune system shuts down, making the body vulnerable to all sorts of diseases and infections. Henry points out Cohn’s lesions and throat problems as examples of AIDs-related complications. Cohn laughs and says, “Very interesting.”
Not only is Joe a closeted homosexual, but it appears that Roy Cohn, his aggressive, ultra-masculine boss, is gay too. Cohn seems oddly calm about the news of his AIDS—he’s so used to being in control that he seems not to recognize genuine danger when he sees it.
Henry tells Cohn that he’s running tests on Cohn. Cohn dares Henry to suggest that he’s homosexual, threatening to destroy Henry’s career if he does so. Henry calmly tells Cohn that he’s been treating him since 1958—he knows that over the years, Cohn has had various diseases that only a homosexual man could have, and now, Cohn clearly has AIDS.
This is an important scene from a political standpoint, because it shows how political the medical community’s response to homosexuality was. A doctor’s only job should be to cure disease—but here, Kushner suggests that in the AIDS era doctors were pressured into burying some of their research, or else treating AIDS as some kind of moral “punishment.”
Cohn dismisses Henry’s focus on “labels.” Labels, Cohn explains, are only a way of fitting humans into a “pecking order.” Cohn insists that he’s not a homosexual simply because he has sex with men—homosexuals, he explains, are “weaklings” with “zero clout.” Cohn concludes, “I am a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.” Therefore, Cohn cannot possibly have AIDS—instead, Cohn decides that he has liver cancer. Henry tells Cohn that he doesn’t care what Cohn calls it—the bottom line is that Cohn needs treatment immediately.
Cohn’s speech is chilling, and one of the first good signs of the way he sees the world. For Cohn, the only reality is power: he’s been a highly influential political player for decades, and likes it that way. Cohn’s emphasis on power is so extreme that he thinks power can mask or even reverse other parts of his identity, such as his sexuality. This is called denial—the attitude of “I’m not gay, I just have sex with guys.” In real life, Cohn also refused to admit that he had AIDS, and went to his death claiming that he had liver cancer.