Like many others, I recently saw the unlikely awards contender Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of rock star and queer icon Freddie Mercury. The movie is a tried-and-tested crowd pleaser, funny and moving in equal parts.
Rami Malek subverts our expectations of the man, revealing a deep alienation beneath Mercury’s grandiosity and bravado. Beyond the adoring crowds, he finds himself manipulated, rejected and confused by the world around him. Everybody loves him, yet nobody likes him. In this regard, the transcendence of Queen’s music is an escape: an escape from homophobia, xenophobia, loneliness, and ultimately his tragic AIDS diagnosis.
My problem with the film is that it fails to explore Mercury’s diagnosis in a meaningful manner. The film deliberately sidesteps the issue when Mercury tells his bandmates that he will not be defined by his illness, but rather by his stunning showmanship and music.
That’s all well and good, but there was a missed opportunity to interrogate the harmful mythology surrounding AIDS: that AIDS was an incurable and inevitable death sentence, that once you had it you were a goner. Those poor gay men, unable to resist their sinful lifestyles, now destroyed by their vice.
However, AIDS did not have to be a death sentence, as proven by the millions of HIV+ people living perfectly normal lives today. The problem with the AIDS crisis was not that society could not find a cure, but that we did not care enough about gay men to even try.
It was not only AIDS that needed “fighting”, and it was not only AIDS that killed Freddie Mercury. It was homophobia. It was the hatred, the shaming, the institutional neglect. It was the non-queer lawmakers who either wanted to see those “filthy fags” die for their perverted lifestyles or were simply too terrified of the electoral consequences of helping them. It was President Reagan going on record as “unalterably and irrevocably opposed to anything that might be construed as an endorsement of homosexuality”. It was insurance companies and welfare departments refusing to finance AIDS treatment. It was the media silence, wherein “for the first nineteen months of the epidemic, the New York Times wrote about [AIDS] a total of seven times” (Larry Kramer, 1983). It was the US National Institute of Health providing a paltry $8 million in research funding, eighteen months after the same institute declared AIDS an epidemic. This contrasts with the $10 million spent in the first week of the much smaller (and much straighter) “Tylenol Crisis” of 1982, affecting only six people. The beginning of the AIDS protest movement began in America, and the utter disregard which the US government expressed became a model for other Western states, the United Kingdom included.
Members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, with branches in New York, Paris, and Mercury’s own London, begged Western governments and pharmaceutical companies for the appropriate funding to develop and mass-produce drugs, drugs which would much later prove successful in minimising HIV-related deaths.
However, the response of Western governments in this era was typified by President Reagan’s Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, who, when finally asked about the crisis by a member of the Press Gallery in 1982, laughed off the topic and questioned the journalist’s sexuality.
It was only when heterosexual people were afflicted that many American and European governments finally started to care, by which point it was far too late to contain.
I do not mean to suggest the film is a failure for not fully addressing the AIDS Crisis. It is, after all, a film about Freddie Mercury, and not the virus that nearly wiped out the gay community (to learn more, see “How to Survive a Plague” by David France).
Nevertheless, the dominant historical narrative on the AIDS Crisis remains one which absolves Western governments of their fatal negligence. It is a narrative which paints the crisis in broad, general strokes, for a closer examination would reveal the complicity of civil society in permitting these deaths. It is an inaccurate narrative which ignores the work of activists and community organisations in demanding appropriate funding for AIDS-related research and development, activists who were simply fighting for recognition. cure. Above all, it is a narrative which prevents us from learning, and thereby ensuring it never happens again.
Indeed, we see a new epidemic today: the widespread bullying, murder and suicides of queer people, particularly transgender people. Australia is not immune from this festering disease of homophobia and transphobia. Just as with the AIDS Crisis, we see a mocking indifference, even hostility, in many areas of society. We are told that transgender people “brought it upon themselves” through their deviant behaviour. If they do not want to be abused, they should not wear women’s clothing, should not enter women’s bathrooms, should not make advances on men as if they were actually women (and vice-versa).
Too many so-called leftists are willing to betray transgender people. The humanity of transgender people is to them “divisive identity politics” distracting from the “real” leftist causes.
As Mark Twain wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”, and it is impossible not to see echoes of the same negligence in our current treatment of queer people.
Just as it is a fundamental responsibility of a government to treat its citizens when they are sick, so too is it a fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When politicians call homosexuality a choice, when they defend the ‘rights’ of schools to expel gay students and teachers, when they repeal funding for LGBT anti-bullying programs, we must demand better.
To acknowledge the humanity in Freddie Mercury – as Malek’s inspired, full-bodied performance does – is to acknowledge the humanity denied to the queer community, a community deemed undeserving of medical treatment and dignity because of who they slept with.
It is clear that the film seeks to honour Mercury’s life, and it does capture the exuberance of his music and showmanship. However, to truly honour someone like Freddie Mercury we must acknowledge the profound injustice of his death.
Freddie Mercury’s generation was senselessly taken from us by a disease, one which we have still not found a cure for. The disease is bigotry, and it punished thousands of beautiful, talented, and brilliant people, all for the sin of wanting human connection.
And if the film should have taught us one thing, it is that if we do not change our ways now, we will lose the next generation as well.
‘1,112 and Counting’ by Larry Kramer, First published in The New York Native, Issue 59, March 14-27, 1983.
Kramer, Larry. The Normal Heart. Nick Hern Books, 2014.
Lopez, German. “The Reagan Administration’s Unbelievable Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 1 Dec. 2016, www.vox.com/2015/12/1/9828348/ronald-reagan-hiv-aids.
FRANCE, DAVID. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: the Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed Aids. PICADOR, 2017.