There seems to be something universal about people's experiences of the early years of the AIDS crisis. As Larry Kramer wrote in The Normal Heart, "They are going to persecute us! Cancel our health insurance. Test our blood to see if we're pure. Lock us up. Stone us in the streets." Crossing the street, clearing the room, quarantine and hostility -- these were familiar responses to the impenetrability of fear that HIV/AIDS engendered.
On Monday, Dec. 2, the first episode of a Swedish drama based on the novels of Jonas Gardell, Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, aired in the UK and will be available simultaneously on DVD and BBC I Player. When this moving tale of life, love and loss among Stockholm's 1980s gay community was shown in Sweden in 2012, remarkably for a drama about the lives of gay men, nearly a third of the adult viewing population watched. Audiences were in tears, and Gardell has received mountains of correspondence thanking him for "breaking the silence"; the author, who also wrote the screenplay for the series, thinks that for so many years people couldn't or wouldn't allow themselves to grieve, so a sort of communal catharsis broke over the nation, and his drama was the catalyst for this. (It will be interesting to see if anything remotely similar occurs in the UK.) Coming to Britain at the same time as David France's How to Survive a Plague, it may represent a moment in our culture when sufficient time has elapsed for reflection and reconciliation, and also, I think, a renewal of anger. But perhaps what really occurred was that ordinary Swedes realized how callous they had become with the shock of AIDS 25 years ago, how fundamentally cruel fear had made them.
Joakim Berlin, an HIV/AIDS activist from Stockholm, has his own theory. "The AIDS epidemic was so shocking for Swedish society," he said in an interview last year, "because we were a fabulous country that fixed everything and could save the world -- that was the general opinion about Sweden, in Sweden." Perhaps that's why Swedish society and the Swedish authorities back in the 1980s and '90s reacted so poorly to the arrival of the epidemic: Perfection doesn't weaken and thin. It isn't covered in sores and lesions. It doesn't drown in its own fluids. Perfection doesn't die.
The stories from Sweden, distilled through Gardell's books and drama, are stories that have been repeated across the world and are still being repeated. Families close ranks; lovers and partners are excluded. In one case a mother wouldn't even tell her dead son's friends where he was buried because, for her, he no longer existed. And those in the medical profession simply didn't know how to cope, virtually sealing off AIDS wards and issuing guidance like the advice that forms the title of the drama. Medical treatments could be delivered with a contempt that would make the bravest of us think twice about seeking them. So much of this was the result of ignorance and was dispelled as soon as the true nature of the virus became known, but there are still those who will not be in the same room as a person with AIDS.
Why the Swedish response is so troubling is that it's true that Sweden always has been seen as a beacon of fairness and liberal values. Same-sex sexual conduct was decriminalized nearly 60 years ago, in 1944. The age of consent was equalized in 1972, and homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979, after a number of citizens infamously called in sick with a case of "being homosexual" in protest. So the visceral response of both authorities and ordinary people is puzzling and suggests a hardness at the core of society in spite of its much-vaunted liberalism.
What's also striking about Gardell's drama is that it reiterates what was current across the Western world at the time: It was young people who were left to cope, to organize, to defend both their communities and the wider community while so many of their elders wrung their hands or turned away. Young people, principally gay men and lesbians, were at the core of self-help groups and ad hoc NGOs pulled together to find solutions and offer advice and coordination or just a little kindness to the dying and abandoned.
And because of this, LGBT rights dramatically came of age during the first 10 years or so of the AIDS crisis. Arguably, we in the UK now have equal rights (where they exist) and gay marriage because of the dubious limelight of HIV/AIDS, which literally forced so many of us to come out of the closet and be counted. But was it worth it? Were the hundreds of thousands of young people who died a price worth paying for our marriage licenses? If it would bring back just a fraction of them, I might resign myself to a slower road to equality.
Action plans, medical facts and figures, the odd brave politician or celebrity prepared to speak out -- these all have their part to play, but I think that culture is of paramount importance in helping change attitudes. It seeps into us and alters our very souls in a way that no hard data can. Like The Normal Heart or Angels in America, the strength of Don't Ever Wipe Tears is its fundamental basis in truth, in what actually happened; yet truth is coupled to the intensity of a well-crafted script and beautifully acted roles, something the pure documentary approach lacks, something that allows the story to become universal, outside time and place. There's talk already of a U.S. remake, but while the stories from America are important stories, the stories from Stockholm are important too, as are those from Rio and Kampala and Mumbai. They remind us that at the heart of it all is the need for human dignity, for that's a universal story too and can bear repeating time and time again.