Michel Simonin: Breaking the Silence about AIDS in 1980s France
Michel Simonin’s personal and political struggle to speak publicly about his experience of living with AIDS helped to break the silence imposed on PWAs (people with AIDS) in France in the mid-1980s. Compared with the situation in the US and the UK, the gay community in France at this time was more reluctant to assume a collective identity and to take action as a group; as a consequence, instead of the collective cultural responses to the AIDS crisis that appeared in the US (such as theatrical performances or the AIDS Memorial Quilt), there were more individual responses in the form of personal testimony. Simonin himself wrote letters prolifically to newspapers and magazines, appeared on television, and most importantly published his autobiographical work Danger de vie in 1986. Following Simonin’s death in 1987 his testimony was almost forgotten, but it can still help us to understand the impact of HIV/AIDS in the gay community, the social (as well as medical) progress that has been made since then, and the challenges that remain all too familiar.
The difficulty that Simonin faced in speaking out was essentially one of intersectionality. He found himself marginalised three times over owing to his HIV/AIDS status, his homosexuality, and his poverty. These factors all exacerbated one another: he repeatedly lost jobs because of prejudice about his sexuality and his condition, and he was afraid to speak out without the protection of anonymity in case this would make it even harder for him to find work. It was also difficult to speak about his experience without reproducing the dominant discourse which presented AIDS as a ‘just punishment’ for supposedly ‘immoral behaviour’.
The turning point for Simonin was a six-week residence in a hospital in the French Alps, a rare period of calm and material security in his life. While there he devoted much of his time to writing. He noted the mundane details of his stay in a diary, which itself contains a substantial work of autobiography. This writing project was initially a way for Simonin to make sense of his past and to assume his identity. It recounts his troubled early family life, his difficulty in assuming his homosexuality, repeated attempts at finding stable employment, periods of homelessness, drug addiction and depression, and eventually his diagnosis as HIV-positive in early 1985. Throughout this period his greatest asset and source of happiness was his tendency to establish deep friendships with those around him. This text was later incorporated in Danger de vie, where it serves as a testimony, confronting the stereotypes of PWAs with the complex reality of an individual’s experience.
An irony of Simonin’s life is that the risk of death from HIV/AIDS, and the political struggle that it demanded, gave him the strength to live as he never had before. The opening of Danger de vie bleakly summarises his pre-HIV existence as follows:
For a long time the snow fell, piled up, weighed down on the earth, covered it in a greyish layer.
For more than thirty years, I tried to break through this shroud into the daylight, half-heartedly spreading my first branches towards this light of life. And then, no sooner had I sensed the slightest glimmer, I would shrivel and dry up, falling back to my roots. And more snow would fall, never white, never pure…
After his transformative experience in the Alps, he imagines himself finally breaking through into the light:
As I write, I think of myself as an edelweiss, […] because it forces its way through that icy layer in the Alpine peaks; a flower that grows at great height and in hostile conditions, unique and magnificent, white and soft, at once strong and fragile. And also because of the time I spent in the hospital there, in the Alps, where I prepared myself for this first spring, the first one that really counts for me, the spring of my rebirth.
Back in Paris after his convalescence, Simonin devoted himself to campaigning with extraordinary energy. His testimony is still worth reading, not least for its fascinating portrait of the gay community of the Marais, its account of everyday acts of cruelty and kindness, and its keen analysis of the public discourse around AIDS. But most of all Simonin should be remembered for his attempt to reach out to the general public:
I have watched it each day, this society that does not want to know, in order not to feel guilty. […] It ignored the virus, now it is running away from it, whatever it might be. That is why, since my return to Paris, I am bearing witness and will continue to bear witness as much as I am able, because it concerns everyone.