Of Sexual Knowledge, Cultures, and Health Crises: How to Write a Transnational History of AIDS Activism in 1980s and 1990s West Europe

Kevin Niklas Breu, University of Bremen

In the history of the post-Stonewall LGBT movements, the late 20th century AIDS pandemic has predominantly been referred to as a “crisis” of the sexual cultures specifically, but not exclusively, of same-sex desiring men in the industrialised societies of the global North. Under the umbrella of Lesbian and Gay Studies, both long-term LGBT activists and scholars in the social sciences and humanities critically engaged with the heritage of gay liberationist thinking. Taking into account the French poststructuralist critique of sexual identities and collectivities, the resulting controversy over the essentialist vs. constructivist character of (homo)sexualities shed light on the conjunctures of sexual epistemes and their complex relationship to sexual politics. Simultaneously, it held crucial theoretical implications for a new “empowering” understanding of public health and practical ones for the agency of affected social groups in AIDS prevention. In my paper, I would like to outline the chances of a decidedly transnational perspective on West European AIDS activism which has so far been examined largely within national contexts. In so doing, I take into account the role of transnational gay male sexual networks in prompting learning processes on safer sex and how, in turn, these learning processes fed back into notions of sexuality and sociosexual norms. Using the examples of West German, British, and French activists, I specifically look at transnational intellectuals and media workers who, in their engagement with US sexual cultures and LGBT history, served as idea providers and trendsetters in AIDS activist discourses in West Europe from the early 1980s on. In conjunction with this, I also examine how these learning processes resonated with international debates on human rights and health promotion. Both discourses guided West European AIDS activists in appropriating their own “empowering” notion of sexual health in part inspired by the US model of community building.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 201. Interpreations of Sex and Gender