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Cripping Safe Sex

Life Goes On’s Queer/Disabled Alliances

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Life Goes On (1989–1993) was the first television series in U.S. history not only to introduce a recurring teenaged HIV-positive character but also to feature an actor with Down syndrome in a leading role. Drawing new connections among disability studies, queer theory, and bioethics, I argue that Life responded to American disability rights activism and the AIDS epidemic of the early 1990s by depicting sex education as disability activism. By portraying fulfilling sexual relationships for its disabled protagonists, Life challenged heteronormative and ableist underpinnings of marriage, sexuality, reproduction, and sex education and imagined transgressive queer/disabled alliances that often surpassed those of activists of its cultural moment. By representing homophobia, AIDS-phobia, and ableism as intertwined oppressions, the series conjured an expansive vision of sexual justice and pleasure, one that included and united teenagers, intellectually disabled people, and seropositive people—populations whose sexualities have generally been regarded as pathological or nonexistent.

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  1. In 2005, the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles and the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) successfully petitioned Warner Brothers Home Video to release the first season in a DVD box set, which features a seal denoting NDSS’s approval.

  2. Additionally, actor Richard Frank, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1995, played Chester, a gay man with AIDS who is the quintessential “bad patient”—resisting hospitalization, smoking in the ward, and theatrically contradicting the doctors’ euphemistic and jargon-filled characterizations to Jesse of side effects from drug treatments.

  3. Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, also attempted to add an additional component to the ADA that would prohibit people with AIDS from employment requiring food handling, although the Senate ultimately voted against its inclusion.

  4. This episode’s title likely derives from multiple Oscar-award-winning The Lost Weekend (1945), the tale of an alcoholic in denial and unable to stop himself from drinking in spite of its effects on his friends, family, and his personal life. The choice of title, however, reflects the show’s perception of sex: Just as Birnam must learn that he is incapable of social drinking, Life Goes On asserts that Jesse cannot have “a little” without giving in to his desire to “go all the way.”

  5. This was the titular phrase of a pamphlet that is generally regarded as the first sex-positive safe-sex pamphlet.

  6. Chad Lowe once commented in Entertainment Weekly, “I mean, if Jesse wants to just kiss Becca, [the ABC network executives] have to have a meeting about it” (“Face to Watch,” September 11, 1992). Co-executive producers Michael Braverman and Michael Nankin complained about the limitations imposed by ABC’s reticence toward addressing sexuality: “They want us to do ‘Becca Gets a Zit’ every week. … The meeting over the script was three hours of network hell. … [T]he people who review our show also review standards for The Smurfs” (Carter 1993, ¶5).

  7. Although experts knew in the epidemic’s early years that female-to-male transmission was a difficult and relatively minor route of infection, it continued to be asserted as a significant source of danger to men during heterosexual intercourse (Patton 1996, 152). Life also casts Jesse as a more sympathetic victim than Allison when Becca yells, “She didn’t love you, not like I do, and in one night, she took everything from us” (“Triangles,” episode 310).

  8. McRuer notes that, as AIDS is figured as a crisis for the family within AIDS narratives, an “unruly disability/queerness” works to “disrupt the family and unsettle the identities of others,” and it is usually domesticated or eliminated in order to secure the family through “a heterosexual and able-bodied epiphany for the other characters (and for the audience—which is clearly not imagined as actually using wheelchairs or living with AIDS)” (McRuer 2002, 235–236).

  9. After viewers expressed anxiety over the possibility that Becca’s son could be Jesse’s, the show’s producers commented in Entertainment Weekly that Jesse McKenna did not father the boy.

  10. This politics of respectability presages some of the later arguments for gay marriage employed by its advocates. As McRuer notes (2006, 85): “The stigmaphobic distancing from more stigmatized members of the community that advocates for gay marriage engage in is inescapably a distancing from disability … [as] commentators … on domesticity and marriage offer marriage (for gay men, at least) as an antidote to AIDS.”

  11. Corky breaks down while on his honeymoon because he had never been away from home overnight before. Amanda comforts him, but Corky returns to his own bed in the middle of the night. Thus it can be argued that Life also resisted a universalizing or homogenizing understanding of “independent living” in offering the semi-private loft as a “reasonable accommodation” for Corky.


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Episodes Cited

  • Life Goes On. 1991a. Life after death. Directed by L. Shaw, episode 306. ABC, November 3.

  • Life Goes On. 1991b. Triangles. Directed by K. Friedman, episode 310. ABC, December 1.

  • Life Goes On. 1992a. Bec to the future. Directed by M. Nankin, episode 410. ABC, September 20.

  • Life Goes On. 1992b. Windows. Directed by M. Nankin, episode 406. ABC, November 22.

  • Life Goes On. 1993a. Five to midnight. Directed by M. Nankin, episode 414. ABC, February 21.

  • Life Goes On. 1993b. Lost weekend. Directed by L. DeStefano, episode 412. ABC, January 24.

  • Life Goes On. 1993c. Visions. Directed by M. Lange, episode 413. ABC, February 14.

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The author thanks Toral Gajarawala, Maggie Gray, Laura Cook Kenna, Melani McAlister, Robert McRuer, Krishnendu Ray, Thuy Linh Tu, Stephanie Schulte, Laurel Clark Shire, Abby Wilkerson, and the two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback on this piece.

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Correspondence to Julie Passanante Elman.

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Elman, J.P. Cripping Safe Sex. Bioethical Inquiry 9, 317–326 (2012).

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