29 pages 58 minutes read

Susan Sontag

The Way We Live Now

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1986

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Historical Context: Stigmatization in the Early Days of the AIDS Epidemic

The history of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in the US is central to the story. First identified as a rare lung infection in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in June 1981, the virus that would become known as AIDS was marked by unusual infections, high fevers, and compromised immune systems. By August, the CDC began reporting on the demographics of confirmed cases of the same infection, stating that 94% of cases in which the patient’s sexuality was known—which is not the same as the total number of reported cases—occurred in people who identified as gay or bisexual men. While cases of infections in infants and transfusion patients were noted as early as 1981, gay and bisexual men were identified as the principal demographic at risk of AIDS. This led to the erroneous classification of AIDS as a “gay cancer” and to moralizing related to the disease (“A Timeline of HIV and AIDS.").

As Ellen says in the story, “everyone is at risk, everyone who has a sexual life, because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others, and now the great chain of being has become a chain of death as well” (Paragraph 8).