Surviving The Rampant Wrath Of Extremism: Examining The Social And Political Backdrop of Angels In America: Millennium Approaches

© Tim Garcia 2020. 

Homophobia, “[the] irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” has historically ravaged societies, inflicting irreparable mutilations on the lives of those who are tainted with this dangerous social venom. Set during the 1980’s, Angels In America by Tony Kushner depicts how the swelling forces of right-wing conservatism triggered a frenzied climate of irrational fear and inflammatory homophobia, sparking a ripple effect that substantially affected and altered the interconnected lives of the major characters throughout the plot. Moreover, there proves to be more than one raging epidemic or “disease” afflicting and influencing key players in the storyline. Just as AIDS fatally deteriorated the physical bodies of its victims, the mounting surge and social contaminants of “Reaganism” proved to decay the souls, corrupt the minds and adversely puncture the lives of their vulnerable and impressionable hosts, a disturbing phenomena most notably demonstrated in the characters of Roy, Joe and Louis.

Roy Cohn, “a successful New York lawyer and unofficial power broker” (Kushner 3), comes off as extravagant and explosive through his fluctuating vocal tones and mannerisms. His intensely flamboyant behavior and tendency to drown others out with his guttural voice and presence evoke a sense of self-centeredness that speaks volumes about his character. Louis, “a word processor working for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals” (Kushner 3), who faces the crushing reality that his partner has AIDS, exhibits a similarly abrasive and outspoken nature, soon escalating to the same level of passionate self-interest that Roy displays. Moreover, Joe, a devoutly religious, married, and seemingly mild-mannered “chief clerk for Justice Theodore Wilson of the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit” (Kushner 3), also eventually reveals subtle symptoms of an intense selfishness. Interestingly, all three men have direct ties to the Reagan-era political system which, like money, proves to be the root of all evil and corruption smeared throughout the play. Their alignment and dealings with this particular structure of government undoubtedly had lingering effects on them. More specifically, Reaganism, an ultra-conservative political ideology, fostered this noticeable trend toward zealous individualistic pursuits, cutthroat survival of the fittest mentalities and emergence of far-right religious-based homophobic intolerance.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States of America after a “conservative landslide” (Shilts 44). In Angels In America, the character of Martin Heller, “a Reagan Administration Justice Department flackman” (Kushner 4), praises this win as a “revolution in Washington… we’ll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defense, Central America, family values… The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Reagan” (Kushner 63). However, according to Randy Shilts in his best-selling exposé about the AIDS crisis and government negligence, entitled And the Band Played On,long-time gay rights activist Cleve Jones recognized that, “With its religious-right alliances, this would not be an administration friendly to homosexuals” (Shilts 45). Governmental agents in power during the 1980’s targeted homosexuals, who were subsequently markedly impacted by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, as scapegoats to advance their agenda and ascent into political power, stoking people’s fears of the unknown by unjustly branding homosexuals as an undesirable and threatening part of society. This agitation of homophobic propaganda at the onset of the Reagan years, that Shilts prominently describes as “Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority… [who] rarely let a speech go by without some dark reference to… his pro-family, and anti-gay, legislative agenda,” (Shilts 44) was pre-existing and only turned up a notch from the previous decade “when the enemy was Anita Bryant [and John Briggs, militant anti-gay activists]” (Shilts 493).

This ferocious marginalization of homosexuals was widely perpetuated and played an instrumental role in the government’s refusal to thoroughly confront the broadening AIDS outbreak. Shilts asserts that “The United States, the one nation with the knowledge, the resources, and the institutions to respond to the epidemic, had failed. And it had failed because of ignorance and fear, prejudice and rejection” (601). Moreover, the fact that homosexuals were initially perceived to be the sole victims of AIDS, which was at first dubbed “GRID” (or “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency”) (Shilts 121), fueled the government’s flagrant disregard of the AIDS crisis, which proved to be “a story of bigotry and what it could do to a nation” (Shilts 601). The gruesome wave of condemnatory rhetoric and vitriolic sentiment about the gay community, escalated in wake of the AIDS epidemic and early surfacing of Reaganism, had far-reaching, damaging impacts on the lives of millions of Americans, gay and straight.   

            Joe’s obliviousness to the harm being caused by the Reagan regime is uncovered in a scene between him and his wife Harper, when he states that, “America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations…. The truth restored. Law restored. That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He says ‘Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.’ And the country responds to him. We become better. More good…” (Kushner 26). The notable irony of this line is twofold. First off, Reagan’s supposed adherence to the “truth” that Joe mellifluously touts was nothing more than a glib political sermon, comprised of deceptive declarations that gave the impression of transparency and facts. Reagan and his administration systematically avoided addressing the truth about the AIDS epidemic, as Shilts details in his book, “Outbursts of concern at the failure of the federal government to fight the problem aggressively were coming from every more prestigious sources…” (Shilts 608). Shilts also explains how “saving lives had never been a priority of the Reagan administration. Reagan’s speech was not meant to serve the public health; it was a political solution to a political problem” (595). Second, Joe’s hypocritical fervor regarding the concept of truth is even more baffling given the fact that he consciously represses the truth about his sexual orientation. Clearly, Regan’s spewing of sugarcoated and intoxicating misinformation has sunk Joe into a deepened state of not only blind obedience, but a painstaking renunciation of the truth, a reality that was already all too familiar for him.

Joe’s homosexuality is brought to light during a scene between the characters of Prior and Harper, more specifically – an interwoven dream sequence. Prior is part of Harper’s dream as the symbolic manifestation of her husband, Joe. Initially, when Harper learns that Prior is homosexual, she states, “the mind which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with, that didn’t enter it from experience…” (Kushner 32). Thus, Prior represents an element of Harper’s “real world”, her association with her homosexual husband, Joe, that she has buried deep in her subconscious. Joe’s homosexuality is part of the “recycle[d] bits and pieces from the world [that Harper has] reassemble[d] into visions” (Kushner 32).

            Joe’s suppression of his homosexuality is revealed when he responds to Harper’s confrontations, “Are you a homo?” (Kushner 37), saying, “Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it” (Kushner 40). He goes on to reinforce this obvious confession of his repressed sexuality by adding a religious-driven reasoning behind it, stating, “As long as my behavior is what I know it has to be. Decent. Correct. That alone in the eyes of God” (Kushner 40). This “Utah talk, Mormon talk,” or religious dogma, that Joe pledges to remain loyal to, effectively disowning a part of his inherent identity, underscores how he is easily manipulated by outside forces of conservative, religiously-driven homophobia ablaze across the nation (Kushner 40). This dogmatic intolerance is also found in the tone and words of Hannah, Joe’s mother.

After Joe opens up to his mother about being gay, over the phone in a drunken stupor, directly stating, “Momma. I’m a homosexual, Momma” (Kushner 75), her denouncements reach a climax when she roars “Drinking is a sin! A sin! I raised you better than that” (Kushner 76). Her final explosive reaction can be decoded as an indirect way of expressing her blistering antipathy to Joe’s sexual orientation. Moreover, although Joe is referring to Harper’s valium addiction when he states, “I wanted to be one of the elect, one of the Blessed. You feel you ought to be, that the blemishes are yours by choice, which of course they aren’t,” this can also be interpreted as Joe’s subtle way of admitting that contrary to what others think about his own personal “blemish[es]” (his homosexuality), it (his sexuality) is not a choice (Kushner 54).

            Next, during a tense scene between Joe and Roy, the audience observes the striking depth of their relationship. Joe regurgitates how his life is dictated by his strict adherence to rigid church policies, by professing “I love you. Roy…but… There are laws I can’t break. It’s too ingrained. It’s not me (Kushner 107).” Also, his next line, “There’s enough damage I’ve already done,” can be translated as a reflection of the intense shame and guilt about his sexual orientation that has consumed him while under the sinister tutelage of the Mormon faith (Kushner 107). In the same breath Joe reflects, “Maybe you were right, maybe I’m dead”, evoking the empty and stagnant turmoil that he has to habitually grapple with, stemming from his closeted life (Kushner 107). It isn’t until Joe meets Louis that he begins to chip away at his external façade, contemplating self-emancipation, confessing that “I just wondered what a thing it would be… To shed your skin, every old skin, one by one and then walk away, unencumbered, into the morning… I need… a change” (Kushner 72-73). Joe ultimately acknowledges to Louis that, “I… want… to touch you. Can I please just touch you … I’m a pretty terrible person… I don’t think I deserve being loved,” to which Louis replies, “There? See? We already have a lot in common,” illustrating an emerging bond between two individuals who find solace in each other in the dark, bigoted and isolating world engulfing their lives (Kushner 117).

            Louis’ dialogue soon suggests that he is unable to tackle the disheartening obstacles he faces with his lover, Prior, who has AIDS. More specifically, having to witness the crushing brunt of Prior’s illness and poor condition shoves Louis closer to his breaking point, as when he stammers, “… oh God this is so crazy… Oh help. Oh help. Oh God oh God oh God help me I can’t I can’t I can’t” (Kushner 48). The stigma and horrors attached to AIDS evokes an immense dread within Louis, most visibly manifested when he begins to exhibit melt-downs and distance himself more and more from Prior. Similar to Joe and Roy, Louis’ impulsive actions of trying to disassociate himself from his terrifying situation derive from, and are symbolic of, the panic and torment permeating the nation. In his efforts to take his mind off of his emotionally draining role as Prior’s caretaker, Louis ventures off at one point to find himself in a provocative situation.

While in Central Park, after “eyeing each other… alternating interest and indifference” (Kushner 52), Louis and another man begin to have sex, reaching a culmination when the man says , “I think it broke. The rubber”, to which Louis replies, “Keep going. Infect me. I don’t care. I don’t care” (Kushner 56). Louis’ seemingly reckless deed of permitting the man to have unprotected sex with him can be translated as one of Louis’ final solutions to the anguish he experiences with Prior. Louis sees AIDS as the ultimate death sentence and a way out of his bleak world, revealed when he confesses to Joe, “I’m trying to commit suicide” (Kushner 70). Additionally perhaps Louis believes he can be closer to Prior, and have a greater capacity to empathize, if he was to deliberately place himself on his same level, by becoming a victim of AIDS himself; the ultimate act of love, and suicide. 

When Louis declares, “I’m leaving. I already have,” (Kushner 76), Prior lashes out, “I’m dying! You stupid fuck! Do you know what that is! Love! Do you know what love means? We lived together four-and-a-half-years, you animal, you idiot,” to which Louis simply replies, “I have to find some way to save myself” (Kushner 79). This chapter of the play begins to expose how Louis’ increasing concern for his own well-being outweighs his long-standing love for Prior, which is a toxic trace of how the widespread poison of “New Right” (Shilts 44) authoritative entities has infiltrated the lives of Americans, turning them into “Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan’s children” (Kushner 74). Essentially, no matter how much love that Louis possesses in his heart for Prior, outside pressures, coupled with his profound sense of hopelessness and anxiety, drove him to sever ties and disengage with the person he loved the most in the world. Moreover, Louis’ detachment from Prior can be attributed back to the influences that governmental messages, designed to demonize and ostracize homosexuals, had on him; the same messages that exacerbated the lives of this vulnerable and historically persecuted minority group, now stricken with a rapidly spreading illness.

Also parallel to the lives of Joe and Roy, Louis’ visible feelings of inferiority, internalized hatred, lack of self-worth and unstable relationships are directly linked back to, “A prevailing morality that viewed homosexuals as promiscuous hedonists incapable of deep, sustaining relationships [which] ensured that it would be impossible for homosexuals to legitimize whatever relationship they could forge” (Shilts 206). This type of political and societal inequity, this institutionalized bigotry, delivered a discriminatory affirmation to the gay community: that they were considered second-class citizens, aggravating the already grisly manifestations of homophobia across the land. Shilts accurately notes that, “In December 1982, at a time when gay people more than ever needed to be encouraged into relationships, they were told their partnerships were valueless by institutions that later scratched their heads and wondered why gays didn’t settle into couples when it was so clear their lives were at stake” (Shilts 206).

            Shilts records that “…there was AIDS before Rock Hudson and AIDS after… There were other celebrity AIDS patients now… Lawyer Roy Cohn insisted he had liver cancer, even while he used his political connections to get on an experimental AIDS treatment protocol at the National Institutes of Health Hospital” (585-586). The character and rendition of Roy Cohn as portrayed in Angels In America takes on a similarly deceitful persona and exterior appearance. Roy’s deeply embedded trepidation of being openly homosexual is tragically displayed through how he strives to segregate himself from any direct association with homosexuality, something he equates with powerlessness and ineffectuality, stating, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get puissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout” (Kushner 45). These ardent convictions reveal both his ravenous desire to maintain a closeted existence and his underhanded attempts to circumvent being labeled a homosexual. Next, the audience catches another glimpse into Roy’s distorted rationale and warped refusal to accept his sexual orientation, when he states that, “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” (Kushner 46). Roy’s neurotic obsession with preventing the truth about his homosexuality and AIDS-status from being publicly disclosed, were all-too-common during this dark era, as “There were enough horror stories of discrimination against HIV carriers to discourage many people at risk for AIDS from testing; calls from rabid conservatives such as U.S. Senator Jesse Helms for possible quarantine of the HIV-infected weren’t doing much to promote such programs either” (Shilts 609-610). Roy’s character, reminiscent of Louis and Joe, epitomizes individual suppression and self-destruction caused by a widespread homophobic fever pervading their everyday lives.  

Towards the end of the play, while hunched over in fit of pain, Roy is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed as a communist-spy in the 1950’s. Their brief interaction where Rosenberg dials for medical assistance is steeped in irony. Roy confesses that “If it wasn’t for me” (Kushner 107), and his prominent role as “Assistant United States Attorney on the Rosenberg case” (Kushner 108), “Ethel Rosenberg would be alive today” (Kushner 107). In light of this, not only are Rosenberg’s life-saving 911 calls strangely ironic, but so is the fact that Roy is ultimately backstabbed by the same right-wing powerhouses he so staunchly defended earlier in life, the organized forces who are now denying him any care for a fatal illness.

Any ounce of moral decay that began corroding the foundation of American life during the 1980’s was not because of homosexuals, but because of an irresponsible Reagan administration and rise in religious, right-wing authority bent on imposing a draconian policy of governing, methodically overlooking the pervasive and lethal AIDS epidemic overwhelming a country in desperate need of extensive care, relief and answers. This avoidance of the AIDS crisis during Reagan’s era, driven by fanatical anti-gay bias and individualistic political and social ideologies, penetrated American psyches in a severely detrimental way: inducing a nightmarish landscape of vituperative hostility, fear and intolerance toward an already disfavored segment of the population, homosexuals. This American hotbed of right-wing fanaticism conjured up a climate of divisiveness, paranoia and hatred that tore apart families and loved ones, forced people to retreat into a suffocating closet of fear and lies, invaded the minds of the impressionable masses with the infectious stains of homophobia, and resulted in the organized deprivation of dire medical assistance for thousands of Americans stricken with AIDS, who would face a prolonged and excruciating death. Shilts concludes that, “The fact that AIDS had been perceived as a gay disease had everything to do with how it was dealt with by various institutions in the early years, but that phase was now effectively over,” and in the end, “people were coming to understand the value of a gay person’s life and the great injustice that had been committed against gay people in the course of the epidemic” (620-621). Shilts recalls that Cleve Jones, a prominent gay-rights activist and founder of the AIDS memorial quilt, “now truly believed that some good might ultimately come from all this suffering, even if he were not around to see it” (620).

Works Cited

“homophobia.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010.

Merriam-Webster Online. 26 April 2010

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. New

York: Penguin Group, 1987. Print.

Kushner, Tony. Angels In America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. New York:

Theater Communications Group, Inc., 1993. Print

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