Representation of AIDS in Poetry. The Impact of Stigmatization on an Infected and a Noninfected Persona

Term Paper, 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Concise Overview of the AIDS Epidemic (and Attitudes towards Homosexuality) in the United States from 1981 to the 1990’s
2.2 Metaphorical Thinking of AIDS
2.3 HIV/AIDS-related Stigma and its Effects

3. Analysis
3.1 Depiction of AIDS
3.2 Dealing with Stigmatization
3.2.1 Infected Lyrical I
3.2.2 Noninfected Lyrical I

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

Earvin “Magic” Johnson shocked the world when he announced his HIV infection and immediately retired from the L.A. Lakers in 1991 (Stevenson). Up to this point, HIV/AIDS was popularly believed to be a disease that only occurred among homosexual men which was heavily stigmatized. The former basketball star had to face discrimination from his own team mates when they did not want to play with him anymore and rejected him from their team (Moughty). Even though Johnson took a break from basketball and was hurt by his team mates reactions, he became one of the most important spokesmen for HIV/AIDS education (Moughty). His case helped the public understand that the virus does not only occur among gay communities and should be of everyone’s concern (Moughty).

The AIDS epidemic began in the U.S. in the early 80’s when the first few reported cases of gay men were made public. The number of infections increased rapidly and the majority of the people living with AIDS were gay. Because of this, stereotypes and stigma for the sick people developed quickly which had a very negative impact on their quality of life and their health status. Isolation, depression and self-harm were among consequences to the society’s rejection of these gay men as well as other people with HIV/AIDS. Stigma and stigmatization has many levels. It does not only involve discrimination from people who are not affected, but also refers to self-perception of the infected person, metaphors of the illness and intersection with other prejudices. Apart from the strong stigmatization of the illness, the medical condition itself is already a great burden for the infected persons.

Although today, symptoms can be medicated effectively so that an unrestricted life is possible, this was not the case in the early years of the epidemic when medical experts could not even determine the way of transmission. This interrelates with the great fear that society developed and the resulting social distance to sufferers. This issue was picked up by filmmakers, art and literature. In this term paper, I investigate upon the question how HIV/AIDS related stigma is represented in poetry in the time from the beginning of the epidemic up to the early 1990’s in the United States. I attest that HIV/AIDS related stigma is an underlying conflict that gets pushed away from both the infected and noninfected Lyrical personas as they focus on showing the reality of AIDS and how the medical condition of the disease is already a terrible burden. Though there are differences between the management of AIDS when the Lyrical I is infected or not, stigma is put in the background from them for the most part.

In order to prove this thesis correct, I consider theoretical background of the historical development of the AIDS epidemic, the theory behind the term stigma and the risk of metaphorical thinking about HIV/AIDS as well as its effects on an infected person. This information leads to the analysis of four poems that revolve around AIDS. Here, I look at the depiction of AIDS in general before I distinguish between the representation of stigma if the Lyrical I is infected in comparison to how a noninfected Lyrical I deals with stigma.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 Concise Overview of the AIDS Epidemic (and Attitudes towards Homosexuality) in the United States from 1981 to the 1990’s

The beginning of the AIDS epidemic is marked by five similar cases of homosexual men who suffered from a hitherto new and unknown disease and a weak immune system in Los Angeles, CA in 1981. By the end of that year, 270 homosexual men from throughout the United States were reported sick with the same symptoms; 121 of them died later that year. The number of infected people increased rapidly. Even though soon, cases of infected Haitians, hemophiliacs and infants transpired, the majority of HIV-infected patients and high-risk groups in the United States remain homosexual men and drug users ( In 1983, it was suspected that the disease was transmitted sexually or through blood, and in 1985, the retrovirus that causes AIDS was discovered and named HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus ( However, these milestones did not help to find an effective medical substance that could cure an HIV infection. Minimal knowledge about the illness and its unavailable cure are only two of the many reasons why the people developed a paralyzing fear towards the illness and the infected people. Society reacted with severe forms of discrimination and rejection ( In connection with this, homosexuality was perceived more negatively by a large number of people. The media displayed homosexuality as the reason for AIDS and came up with terms like “gay cancer” or “gay plague”, and conservatives advised heterosexual people to stay away from homosexual people as they believed one could catch AIDS through social intercourse. According to Herek and Capitanio (1132), there where health professionals who gave homophobic statements such as “homosexual patients deserved to have AIDS”. This attitude also is a major reason for the high stigmatization of AIDS which will be discussed further in chapter 2.3.

Half a million of people in the U.S. received an AIDS diagnosis by 1995 ( Along the way, AIDS and homosexuality were highly associated with each other. The study by Herek and Capitanio in 1999 (1134) showed that 67.7% of the interviewed persons “thought mainly of homosexuals rather than heterosexuals (8.1%) or bisexuals (9.4%)”. All of the aforementioned radical (and false) portrayals of an HIV/AIDS-infection contribute to its development of stigma. From the beginning of the epidemic, “plague terminology and imagery” on part of the media, politics and medicine intensified the fear of the people who distanced themselves from risk groups for self-protection. More radical notions were shared within religious communities as here AIDS was seen as “lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality” (Jerry Falwell in Haas, 44). In their opinion, AIDS was a punishment and they rejected both the illness and homosexuality. Many gay men even believed that AIDS was a conspiracy enacted by the government to wipe out the homosexual community. In conflict with this, gay activists advocated for sexual education as well as contraception to eliminate these misbeliefs (Haas, 45).

2.2 Metaphorical Thinking of AIDS

Up to the early 1990’s, AIDS was closely linked with death. People concerned often had only weeks or months left until they died from their HIV infection. In this context, medical experts tend to use war metaphors in order to underline the severity of HIV/AIDS and to categorize the disease into a state of emergency. Metaphors of “fight, struggle, war” commonly occur to describe illnesses with a high mortality rate as Susan Sontag (9) explains, “disease is seen as an invasion” of the body. But war is not only a state of exception for that extraordinary rules come into existence, it also causes fear for the society (Sontag, 10-12). Thus, the illness is perceived as the enemy of which people distance themselves in order to protect themselves. This behavior manipulates health education. Further, Sontag points out that “military metaphors contribute to the stigmatizing of certain illnesses and […] of those who are ill” (Sontag, 11). The author herself experienced social isolation and panic-mongering through the metaphors of an illness in a time when cancer was regarded as certain death. She claimed that patients suffer more and worse when their condition is mystified and considered as fatal (Sontag, 12, 24-33).

Even more precisely, AIDS is not an illness, rather the last stadium of an HIV-infection, the mystification through metaphors is still given. In this term paper, I will continue referring to HIV and AIDS both as an illness and an infection. According to Sontag, AIDS replaced the negative associations of cancer and has now turned into a new metaphor for misery and death as she calls it “the generic rebuke to life and hope” (Sontag, 24). Sontag explains the “dual metaphoric genealogy” of AIDS as an invasion for its microprocess, and as a pollution for its way of transmission (Sontag, 17). The enemy can clearly be defined as a virus that comes from the outside. The metaphor of an invasion works as well as war metaphors that express the need of a fight against the intruder (Sontag, 16-21).

When it comes to the disclosure of the illness among acquaintances, HIV/AIDS reveals not only a health condition but also, in the majority of cases, “flushes out an identity that might have remained hidden from neighbors, job-mates, family, friends” (Sontag, 25). The persons sick with AIDS in the United States are perceived as disgraceful and guilty for their condition. Sontag explains that a homosexual man “deserves more blame” from the perspective of the society as the homosexual sex practices are viewed unnatural, immoral and perverse. Their social standing will be discredited and their social environment distances themselves. It seems to be overstepping taboos when being in contact with an AIDS patient. Reversely, these attitudes towards and metaphors around HIV/AIDS infections intensify fear and suffering as a result, stigmatization develops (Sontag, 24-33).

2.3 HIV/AIDS-related Stigma and its Effects

Originally, a stigma was an actual burn on people’s skin that was used by the ancient Greeks to mark them as unworthy and shameful so that society could keep sufficient distance from the branded person (Goffman, 1-2). Today, the term stigma does not relate to an actual branding but rather evolved into attributes that have the same devaluating effect and are used to describe disliked divergences from standard in a society. According to Goffman (4-5), there are three broad categories to distinguish: “Tribal identities” such as religion, race and gender; “abominations of the body” which denote physical disabilities; and the “blemishes of individual character” that imply for example mental illnesses, homosexuality, addiction to drugs and alcohol, unemployment and more social behavior that diverges from the norm. The definition of the last category also implicates living with HIV/AIDS as an individual’s mistake as stated in Pranee Liamputtong’s “Stigma, Discrimination and Living with HIV/AIDS” (2).

Soon after its discovery in the early 1980’s, HIV/AIDS has quickly been brought into one line with stigma. Herek (1109) points out that the illness follows certain patterns that are most probably expected to give rise to stigma. People who are living with AIDS are often regarded as “responsible for their condition and consequently are stigmatized” (Herek, 1109). The associations with death when it comes to AIDS underline another reason for its strong stigma as people are often afraid of this topic. However, not only death is something that one might fear since AIDS is contagious and therefore represents a danger (Herek, 1109). Further, people who are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS are suspected of being immoral, promiscuous and perverse (Earnshaw and Kalichman, 30). All this leads to discrimination of people sick with AIDS as they are socially identified as “disgracefully different from and threatening to the general public” (Y. R. Zhou in Liamputtong, 3).

The disease itself is often not the only reason for discrimination towards people sick with AIDS as it often “intersects with other social prejudices [including] homophobia, sexism, and racism” (P. Aggleton and R. Parker in Liamputtong, 3). Most notably, homosexuality is predominantly associated with AIDS in the United States. A reason for this might be the early years of the epidemic when the first reported cases impacted gay men. In fact, this intensified homophobia and misbeliefs about homosexuality as for example the media of the time between 1981 and the early 1990’s referred to the epidemic as “gay disease, gay cancer, or gay plague” or even suggested quarantining and tattooing infected people and assign guilt to homosexual men for the AIDS epidemic (Herek and Capitanio, 1131). An extreme example, as already mentioned in chapter 2.1, is that “some health professionals believed that homosexual patients deserved to have AIDS” (Herek and Capitanio, 1132). As a consequence to these attitudes, homosexual men who are infected with HIV/AIDS are stigmatized intersectional. They have often been blamed for their health condition because of their sexual intercourse with another man but also “simply because they were gay” (Herek, Capitanio, 1135).

An effect of the HIV/AIDS stigma is that society constructs stereotypes which reduce a person to limited and often negative characteristics. Despite being inaccurate, stereotypes represent deviances of a socially accepted standard that are isolated and exagerrated. A person who is stereotyped experiences value judgements and discrimination. Earnshaw and Kalichman (27) state that “stereotypes continue to associate HIV with gay men and intravenous drug users in the USA” which leads to prejudices and discrimination towards these groups of people. As an example, a homosexual man would be reduced to the assumption of being infected with HIV/AIDS and thus, being immoral. Stereotyping ruins the opportunity of introducing oneself as a blank piece of paper without prejudice. Discrimination at their work place, health care and education as well as social exclusion negatively affects the quality of life of stigmatized people and can “result in isolation, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, poor academic achievement and social relationships, poor physical and mental health” (Liamputtong, 5).

3. Analysis

3.1 Depiction of AIDS

Almost every acknowledged and existing symptom of AIDS is displayed in Melvin Dixon’s “Heartbeats”. Although the Lyrical I does not appear explicitly as a textual speaker, the words and content portrayed make clear that this is an experience of an individual person as some information are rather intimate or involve personal feelings. The poem shows the radical development of an HIV/AIDS infection and focusses on the physical and emotional condition of the person fallen ill, rather than social effects of the illness itself. However, signs of stigmatizations or reasons for it are still observable in “Heartbeats”. This will be discussed further in chapter 3.2.

Dixon neither mentions HIV or AIDS nor does he use any other terms that indicate the illness in particular. The obtrusive description of symptoms, e.g. “short breath”, “night sweats”, “weight loss”, “short breath” and “nodes hard”, combined with other topics such as “Safe sex”, “no sex” and “CAT scan” as well as the strong will to survive in the last stanza (“Sweet heart. Don’t stop.”) narrow the illness down very distinctly and make clear that this is a poem about AIDS. The situations created in the first lines reach from physical exercise and call home to food and sex. This wide range of everyday situations provide the possibility for the reader to identify with it and associate personal experiences. Even in the fourth stanza, when the Lyrical I mentions a “long flu”, there is likely a chance that the reader can identify with this as almost everybody has experienced a flu or similar illnesses and knows how miserable you could feel under this condition. The first four stanzas do not make it foreseeable that the flu turns out to be a severe disease. Up to this point, empathy and proximity could be built up as AIDS seems to be hidden.

Also, a development of the illness is depicted. In the first three stanzas, the Lyrical I appears strong and good looking as he is able to do an intensive work out and even accomplish chin ups. This powerful air fades quickly in stanza four to ten when the author displays a variety of feelings and effects of the medical condition. The strongness from the beginning is replaced by fatigue (stanza 6, line 2), madness and anger (stanza 8, line 1), and unhappiness (stanza 9, line 1). The author even depicts devastating and disgusting qualities of the illness in a very honest manner (“Loose stools. Weight loss.” in stanza 7, line 2; “Sore lungs” in stanza 17, line 1; “Mind gone” in stanza 17, line 2.) that many people in society avoid talking about in their daily lives (Herek, 1111). The symptoms of AIDS appear in almost every stanza after the first three. The varying repetition of certain symptoms such as “short breath”, “no air”, “breathe in” and “breathe out” underline the severeness of the infection and its lethality. Death is a current attendant not only for the Lyrical I’s concentration of breathing but also for the questioning of how long is left of live in stanza 18: “Six months? Three weeks?”; and stanza 19: “Today? Tonight? It waits. For me.”. The poem consists of twenty stanzas that all involve four sentences of two monosyllabic words or less frequently one word with two syllables which represent a heartbeat. This emphasizes that the Lyrical I is a human being and still alive. These two aspects show how the Lyrical I is hovering between life and death due to AIDS.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Representation of AIDS in Poetry. The Impact of Stigmatization on an Infected and a Noninfected Persona
University of Paderborn  (Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
The Body in American Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
AIDS, Poetry, Body, Illness, Stigma
Quote paper
Anna Dierks (Author), 2018, Representation of AIDS in Poetry. The Impact of Stigmatization on an Infected and a Noninfected Persona, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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