Gay Sexuality and AIDS in An Early Frost

Curator's Note

An Early Frost is a 1985 made-for-TV movie that deals with a young lawyer coming out to this family as both gay and as someone recently diagnosed with AIDS. Like other mainstream media representations, the film privileges white gay male perspectives and reaffirms the traditional origin story of AIDS, i.e. that gay men were the first to be infected. More unusual is the film's address of structural issues related to health care and its message that HIV is not confined to “risk groups.”

The film tries to elicit sympathy for gay couples like protagonists Michael and Peter through an emphasis on their monogamous partnership. In an Advocate interview, writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman explain their intent of sending a message about the negative impact of “promiscuity.” Both the mainstream media and some gay publications cited promiscuity, defined as casual anonymous sex in bars and bathhouses, as primary cause of the spread of HIV. In contrast, “Michael and Peter are the kind of portrayals that gay people can be proud of,” says Cowen.

In the clip, Peter confesses that he cheated on Michael by going to gay bars and bathhouses. Michael reacts with outrage to Peter’s revelation and contrasts their relationship as safe and protected space with communal gay spaces of danger. From this point of view, the cause of AIDS is not a virus, but casual sex, and the best protection is a committed relationship—at least as long as both partners are faithful.

An Early Frost's overt address of the sexual aspects of gay culture is noteworthy, even if it is dismissive of them. Later films about AIDS, including the much-celebrated Philadelphia (1993), shun any sort of intimacy amon gay men. Indeed, the disarticulation of gay sexuality and gay identity becomes the precondition for the so-called explosion of gay media visibility during the 1990s. While Philadelphia is remembered as a breakthrough moment in Hollywood's engagement with gay culture, I argue that An Early Frost is more multi-faceted and daring, even if it is “only” a made-for-TV movie.

Block, Adam. “An Early Frost: The Story Behind NBC's AIDS Drama.” The Advocate, November 26, 1985, 43-47.


Melanie, thanks for such an excellent entry. I was curious if you knew any of the show's programming context: what aired around it and which advertisers supported it. A cursory Google revealed that although the film was a critical darling and blew away the other networks in ratings the night it aired, it still managed to lose money in ad revenue. I'd also be keen on hearing any (if any) audience anecdotes you may have encountered in your research.

I haven't researched either of those aspects, but you've made me curious! Finding audience testimonials from that time is difficult, but there might be some letters to the editor. I've mostly focused on the film as part of a larger discursive struggle around AIDS and gay sexuality, a topic that was very much in flux in the 80s.

Great work, Melanie. I find the comments from writers Lipman and Cowman particularly intriguing, especially considering that they went on to develop the US version of Queer As Folk for Showtime. I wonder if the multiple HIV related storylines in the QAF series were intended to offer a sort of amendment or corrective to An Early Frost's moralist point of view.

Thank you! I also find it intriguing that they went on to make Queer as Folk. I wonder if there is an interview out there in which they discuss the HIV/AIDS storylines because I'm rather curious myself whether or not they had a change of heart regarding that topic and how to represent it on TV.

Melanie - I really enjoyed your piece, especially the interview with the writers. I actually saw this film when it first aired on TV and remembered it years later. I had a chance to rewatch it recently and was struck by some of the points you make about how striking the film's discussions of sex/sexuality are for its time. I think its easy to dismiss the film as a "disease of the week" film or as another example of the trouble gayness causes for straight people, but on my recent viewing I was struck by the end. Unlike so many of the later mainstream AIDS film, like Philadelphia, Michael doesn't die at the end. In fact, he doesn't even stay with his biological family, but returns home with Peter.

The entire interview is well worth reading because it is so dismissive of gay sexual culture as it had emerged post-Stonewall. Completely agree regarding the ending--it really diverges from so many other films about AIDS in which the protagonist dies! The ending is particularly interesting considering that when An Early Frost was made, being diagnosed with HIV was still very much seen as a death sentence whereas at the time Philadephia came out, that attitude had already begun to change.

Melanie -- thanks so much for this really insightful post! It's fascinating to trace how TV in the 1980s engaged with the AIDS crisis and, as you put so elegantly, worked simultaneously to toe a thin line, one between respecting gay "lifestyles" but also quite vehemently disarticulating gay identity from any notion of pleasurable sexuality and/or sexual practice. Films like AN EARLY FROST strike me as prophetic in anticipating texts like Randy Shilts' AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, particularly in their pathologizing, whether tacit or explicit, of any sexual activity that took place outside the bounds of a monogamous relationship. As that telling quotation you cite concludes, queer folks like Michael and Peter are supposed symbols of gay pride precisely because they represent a healthy, hermetically sealed alternative to the quick, bathhouse cavorting that was blamed for so much of HIV/AIDS' spread. Also interesting then to think of this film in conjunction with the work of someone like Douglas Crimp or Tim Dean, both of whom defamiliarize typical notions of health in relation to HIV/AIDS and argue in different ways that promiscuity simultaneously saved a lot of gay men in the 80s through the transference of safer sex knowledge/practices.

Thank you! Yes, exactly. I have a whole chapter in my book about how the disarticulation of identity and sexuality happened during 80s and early 90s to usher in the proliferation of openly gay characters in TV. Douglas Crimp is one of my favorite writers on the AIDS crisis and his book Melancholia and Moralism has certainly shaped my thinking. If you look at gay publications from the 80s, it's interesting to see how many of them jumped on the moralizing bandwagon pretty quickly and wrote off the "sex-crazed" 70s as youthful digression in comparison to the new maturity that emerges in response to the AIDS crisis.

Thanks for a great post to kick off the week. I really enjoyed the clip you selected to accompany your essay, as I had forgotten some of the details of this scene. The conclusion of the segment, where coming out of the closet and moving away from gay shame is represented as imperative to combatting AIDS, is fascinating. For all of the critiques we have of the "coming out" narrative, it's easy to forget how critical this act was to fighting institutions that were slow to respond to the emergence of AIDS. It reminds me of Robyn Wiegman's discussion of same-sex marriage, where she details the ways in which the AIDS crisis and the active marginalization of partners from hospital rooms, influenced present-day politics. Your argument that this text might be more complicated than it is often given credit for is intriguing and really has me thinking. Thanks!

I'm glad you enjoyed my post and that it made you think about the film in a different light! I didn't have a chance to comment on the coming out aspect of the argument because of the word limit, but I also find it fascinating. There is a lot going on in their fight regarding public vs. private spaces and identities. It's stunning that the scene implies that if Michael were more open about his gay identity, Peter wouldn't have gone to the baths.

Melanie, Thanks for introducing me to a film I have never seen. I wonder if you have seen HBO's The Normal Heart, and how you might consider "An Early Frost" in light of that film's continued preoccupation with promiscuity, gay identity, and culpability. To what extent does monogamy--as an unquestioned ideal of relationships--continue to shape the narrative in media focused on gay sexuality?

If you have the chance, do watch all of An Early Frost because it's rather fascinating. I have seen The Normal Heart and found it very moving, but the equation of sex and culpability bothered me, especially because we don't really have a counter-discourse to it in the sense that when the play premiered, multiple competing interpretations of gay sexuality and AIDS were circulating, but as retrospective look, The Normal Heart really only endorses one message/one vision of this history. In much contemporary TV, you'll find gay characters in committed relationships, which relates back to the negotiations that happened in the 80s and 90s in response to the AIDS crisis. When I watched The Normal Heart, I was sure that the scene in which Ned and Felix get married was added as a nod to contemporary LGBT concerns. As it turns out, it is in the original play as well. That was the most surprising element of watching the film for me.

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