It started as a thought experiment: “I’m black and I’m gay, so I’ve spent my whole life wondering what I would have done if I had been born during the civil rights movement, or what I would have done if I had been 10 or 15 years older at the height of the AIDS crisis,” Rasheed Newson, the co-showrunner of beautiful air, says Bustle. “If you took some of my personality traits and put them into a character [living in that time], what would that look like? ” In writing My government wants to kill mehe must find out.
Newson’s debut novel follows Trey, a young gay black man from Indianapolis. In the summer of 1985, Trey abandoned both his six-figure inheritance and his college plans to pursue a bohemian life in New York, where he joined “a hidden society of black sodomites” – namely, black homosexuals who congregate at Mount Morris Baths in Harlem. It’s there that Trey strikes up a friendship with Bayard Rustin — the real-life activist and organizer who introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to the concept of nonviolent protest — and finds himself propelled into activist circles.
The AIDS crisis serves as a backdrop to My government wants to kill me, but Newson isn’t interested in telling a story about the pain of the gay community; while the novel doesn’t shy away from harsh realities, it devotes more time to the joy Trey finds in New York. “I think a lot of times when we do artwork about the AIDS epidemic, you’d assume nobody laughed, you’d assume nobody found joy, nobody had sex steamy,” Newson says. “The truth is that these things continue no matter what we’re going through, and I don’t think they’re frivolous. I think they’re really beautiful. I think they’re signs of resilience. I think this are signs of rebellion.
Below, Newson discusses information overload, sex positivity in stories about the AIDS epidemic, and what he’s working on next.
To what extent do you consider this to be a plague novel?
I consider it a coming-of-age novel set during a plague. I wanted [the AIDS crisis] as a backdrop and a character who, while caught up in something very heavy, still found ways to feel alive and young and happy.
I also wanted to write a novel that was sex positive, to get rid of the idea that people who had sex – even during the AIDS crisis – were promiscuous or stupid or bad. I don’t care what’s going on in society. People have sex.
When I was in DC, in college, I volunteered at this drop-in center for children with HIV and AIDS. It’s called Grandma’s house. I would go there Friday night and do some volunteer work. I helped the paid babysitters, I helped the children with dinner, with their homework, I read them bedtime stories. And I’d leave there around 9:00, 9:30, and get on my bike and go to Club Chaos, Badlands or Fireplace, and party and drink all night. I would date guys and have sex.
There was nothing like being in a place where HIV and AIDS were on the mind and then later that same night maybe having unprotected sex. These things happen, especially when you’re young and feel invincible. I wanted to describe part of this dichotomy without attaching a negative judgment to it.
And for Trey, the bathhouse feels like an escape from the outside world, as if AIDS is something that exists outside of it.
Yeah, which probably isn’t technically true, but that’s how he feels. It is also his place of community. I think it can be nice. I think that’s very good. If you’ve been ostracized for most of your life, you’ll take the community wherever you can find it.
What do you think the AIDS crisis and the government’s failure to respond to it have taught us about our society and our institutions?
Unless an institution is there to take care of you, they probably won’t. If it’s not designed to see you, if it’s not designed to care about you, it won’t. We had to build our own institutions, our own healthcare establishments, our own space for information and services. That’s how you get things like the Gay Men’s Health Coalition.
It’s a lesson that stuck with us. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the gay rights movement, we’re not waiting for any government agency to tell us what to do. We will inform each other and help each other.
What surprised you the most while researching the book?
It’s fascinating how cranky bands can be, even when they want the same thing. Again, I think with time and history we iron out those differences. Now, usually people would say, “Yeah, we had to close the bathhouses because that’s where AIDS spreads, and that was the responsible thing to do.” At the time, it was a fierce battle. If you wanted to reach the population most likely to contract or spread AIDS, it would have been a good idea to meet them in the public baths, where you could have provided condoms, information and tests. But by shutting them down, you haven’t stopped men from having sex with other men. You just pushed him into places where we can’t follow him. You put them in the woods. You put them in parked cars.
I wanted to come back to some of these arguments, because I think they are healthy and more interesting than all the homosexuals against the Reagan administration.
Trey meets many real-life personalities in the novel, including Bayard Rustin, Larry Kramer, and Dorothy Cotton. What made you want to use real people, as opposed to fictional versions of them?
[Laughs.] I didn’t want to use so many real people, but the story led me to it.
With Bayard Rustin, I thought, ‘Am I really going to put this guy in a sex club or a bathhouse?’ I decided to do this for two reasons. First, I don’t think it tarnishes anyone’s reputation to say they’ve been to a public bath. Second, I came across the fact that Mr. Rustin had once been arrested for soliciting in Pasadena in the 1960s. .
Did you find it difficult or intimidating to literally put words in their mouths?
Yes! I mean, Larry Kramer was alive when I was writing this book. He was over 80 and I was scared like, ‘God, what if this comes out and he hates it and I get in trouble?’
But there is an incredible treasure trove of audio and video from these people. There is a part [in the novel] where Rustin explains his thoughts on being kicked out of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. I can’t imagine that. He granted this interview.
Do you have another book you are working on?
I do. I want my next book to be about a black, queer, gay man in Los Angeles in an earlier period. When you think of queer life in the 50s or 60s, you tend to think of small towns where it was that shameful secret, whereas in Hollywood it was an open secret. I won’t say it was all laughs and champagne, but [gay men living there] certainly had more freedoms than one would normally think.
I’m interested in people who live in this glass closet and are happy to play this game – “I’m going to take this female escort to the movie premiere and then have these pool parties with young men” – and I I have the impression that it is an excellent profession – at a standstill. [I want to] take that person and bring political consciousness into that bubble.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.