How America Encouraged Stigma around HIV/AIDS and The Gay Community Amanda Lawrence, left, portraying The Angel and Andrew Parker as Prior Walter in Angels in America "Perkestrokia


Tony Kushner's Angels in America parallels a lot of the feelings of resentment that the American population had towards people living with HIV/AIDS during the epidemic in the 1980's. In this analysis their will be a prime examples of how America encouraged the stigma around the virus during that time period.


Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that occurred during the 1980’s. Kushner was able to capture a lot of the feelings that the United States of America’s population felt about the virus and the effects that those who were inflicted with it had to undergo. Through the character of Roy Cohn (who is based off of the real-life American lawyer of that same name) and Prior Walter the audience can better understand what is what like to be a queer person living with HIV/ AIDS which both were heavily stigmatized during that time period.

During the early days of the HIV/AIDS the infection was being met with lots of stigma and not too much research to figure out a cure for it.

Publicly funded videos of HIV/AIDS prevention were homophobic and further the stigma of the virus. Instead of encouraging people to get tested they suggested abstinence and put the blame on those who had the disease.

The United States played a big role in the stigma of queer individuals who had contracted HIV/AIDS virus. The government refused to speak to the community that HIV/AIDS was affecting the most (queer men) in fear of endorsing deviant behavior. During the peak of the AIDS epidemic a lot of the health campaigns which were publicly funded did not address the realities of those most affected from the virus. Instead of addressing the ways that queer men could have safer sex and reduce the spread of infection they instead supported the idea of monogamy and celibacy( AIDS: Homophobic and Moralistic…”)

Various groups of people protesting for HIV/AIDS


There were many cases of discrimination against those inflicted with the virus. In the year 1985 a 13 year old boy named Ryan White who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion was kicked out of school in the fear he would pass on the disease to his fellow classmates ( Emergence of the AIDS crisis).

Public officials were even feeding into the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Patrick Buchanan who was a senior advisor to presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan said this about the disease

“ [homosexual men] have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

These are just two out of many cases where discrimination was enacted on HIV positive indivduals.

Roy and Prior

Through the character of Roy Cohn (who is based off of the real life American lawyer of that same name) and Prior Walter the audience can better understand what is what like to be a queer person living with H.I.V/ A.I.D.S which both were heavily stigmatized during that time period . In Angels in America Roy, is depicted as a closeted queer man. He is someone who comes from a place of power and he will do anything to stay in that place, this lies the challenge of him being a queer person. Roy, just like many other Americans at that time, had a negative perception on the LGBT community and more specifically gay men and thought of them as weak and less than. Roy voices out that opinion in one of the scenes in the show when he is talking to his doctor about how he does not really like or approve of labels when it comes to sexuality and he says

“Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows, who have zero clout. Does this sound like me Henry? No. I have clout. Lots.” (Kushner)

Roy lived his life out in a secret because ultimately he was afraid of the criticism and backlash that he would have faced for being queer and having A.I.D.S. He was the epitome of the disgust that the American public had for queer individuals with AIDS because even with all the power that Roy had he so much self-hatred for being queer.

Prior Walter is another character in the show that is afflicted with the AIDS virus. Unlike Roy, Prior is an openly gay effeminate man and his struggles with social prejudice and the virus are much different because of it. When Prior tells his partner Louis that he has AIDS he is met with Louis leaving him. Prior voices out his hurt from his partner leaving him when he says to him “there are thousands of gay men in New York City with AIDS and nearly every one of them is being taken care of by…a friend or by…a lover who has stuck by them through things worse than my…So far. Everyone got that, except me. I got you. Why? What’s wrong with me” (Kushner.) This was a common struggle that many other people with the virus faced (find quote). Not only did he have to deal with all the stigma that society gave him but from his own community America’s stigma for AIDS was so strong that it had even seeped into the community it was effecting the most.

Francesca Faridany, top, as The Angel and Randy Harrison portraying Prior Walter at the Berkeley Rep

Stigma is still alive today

Unfortunately, HIV/AIDS stigma is still in effect and misconceptions on how HIV is spread is happening today. Many of the stigma and fear associated with the virus today comes from the images that many saw during the 1980’s. Today there are many HIV prevention medication like PReP which is used to keep HIV negative people hold their negative status (What is PrEP?). There is even treatment for those with HIV. Today, HIV positive people can receive treatment that lowers their viral load ( the amount of HIV that is in one’s body) and can eventually become undetectable. Recent study has even found that when those living with HIV who maintain an undetectable status cannot sexually transmit the virus onto others (The science is clear…)

There is no reason to still have stigma towards those who live with HIV. With treatment readily avaible to the public there is no need for fear. People fear what they do not know and if they took the time to learn about HIV/AIDS they would recognize that is not this scary thing that it once use to be.


“Emergence of the AIDS Crisis.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2016, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/modern-us/1980s-america/a/emergence-of-the-aids-crisis.

Florêncio, João. “AIDS: Homophobic and Moralistic Images of 1980s Still Haunt Our View of HIV – That Must Change.” The Conversation, 29 Jan. 2019, theconversation.com/aids-homophobic-and-moralistic-images-of-1980s-still-haunt-our-view-of-hiv-that-must-change-106580.

“The Science Is Clear: with HIV, Undetectable Equals Untransmittable.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10 Jan. 2019, www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/science-clear-hiv-undetectable-equals-untransmittable.

“What Is PrEP?” What Is PrEP?, www.whatisprep.org/.