Sunday, November 08, 2009

Echoes of a past life: Will the Gay Movement Survive AIDS?

I wrote this article a long long time ago. With so much water under the bridge I have been remembering this piece off and on and dragged it out of a dusty file. The newsprint it's printed on is brittle; the pseudonym I used amusing. Many of its ideas seem quaint and without context; many of its reference points are lost to time. I'm fascinated by its mix of pessimism and optimism. I'm struck by how I anticipated the rise of the era of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, even as I remember that my own personal journey took me away from these new forms of gay activism I espoused. But let's bring this slice of twentieth-century radicalism into our new millennium. Any errors in the re-typing will be mine; and all italics are in the original. I won't edit or abridge this.

In modern blogs I've read many younger gays revile this forgotten past. There's no such thing as "gay culture" they say. The older generation brought death on itself through its rampant promiscuity they say, neatly forgetting that it was a deadly virus not a sexual lifestyle that erased the generation that by its very existence built the foundation of whatever the gay community is today.

(The following article is reprinted from the long-defunct "Torch/La Antorcha," newspaper of the Revolutionary Socialist League, June 15-July 14, 1985 "Lesbian and Gay Pride Day" edition.)

Reflections on a Troubled Community:
Will the Gay Movement Survive AIDS?
by Ian Daniels

In 1983, four gay men with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) came to New York's Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee (CSLDC), which plans the city's annual lesbian and gay pride march and rally, with a request: a person with AIDS should speak at the rally. They pleaded that a message about AIDS would be important for the crowd to hear, adding that this gay pride rally might be their last. After a heated discussion, their request was voted down, though eventually an AIDS speaker was included in the final program. It is now summer, 1985. Three of the four men are dead.
In the fall of 1983 a coalition of gay organizations organized a boycott of a new gay bar that was refusing entry to people on the basis of race, age and size. The campaign was successful; the owner was forced to put a sign in the front window stating "We do not discriminate." A friend and I went to the bar shortly after the victory. The place was practically empty. A man was dancing with fans, by himself, to the loud music. Despite being alone, he looked happy and content. The three of us talked.

Spring 1985. My friend called me and asked if I remembered that night at the Union Club. The man we had met was on a panel at an AIDS conference, speaking as a person with AIDS.

Summer. A week ago I got another call from my friend. The man was dead.

Some statistics from the June 3 issue of The New York Native, New York's main gay paper: the Centers for Disease Control reports 10,400 AIDS cases in the U.S.; 49% of those who have contracted the disease are now dead; 74% of the people with AIDS are gay men.

Because the disease remains largely mysterious, the course of the disease is unclear and subject to debate and speculation. Some researchers believe the incubation period is five years. Thus far, the AIDS caseload has doubled eveyry nine months. Accepting these projections, simple math suggests that as many as one million people already have the disease--with symptoms not to show up for up to five years. Perhaps 74% of these people are gay men too. Those exposed to the AIDS-related virus, LAV or HTLV III, may count in the multi millions. The U.S. medical establishment has yet to find either a prevention or a cure.

An international conference on AIDS was held in Atlanta in April. The remarks of one government official provoked an angry statement by the lesbians and gays present at the conference:
"On April 15, Secretary Margaret Heckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made a distinction between those classified as being at risk for AIDS and the 'general public.' We point out that gay men, hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, Haitians and people with AIDS are also among the general public, and failure to Acknowledge this is a denial of our basic humanity.

"Secretary Heckler has stated on many occasions, as she did again on April 15, that AIDS is the nation's number one health priority; yet her department has requested fewer financial resources to deal with a growing and indeed overwhelming problem. In fact, the Reagan Administration is proposing to spend $11.9 million less on AIDS in fiscal year 1986 in the face of an expected doubling of AIDS cases...."

I wake up in the morning hearing "Smalltown Boy" play on the radio. The song, by the group Bronski Beat, tells of a guy who has to leave the repressive atmosphere of a small town. Bronski Beat is one of a tiny handful of gay musical groups who have hit the "big time," and their songs are about being gay. The DJ comes on the radio and says, "You know what that song's about, right?" He sneers. "Yeah, FAN dancers." I think of the man who is dead.

I wait for the subway. Scribbled on a billboard behind me is "faggot." At work, where I typeset a respectable, if pornographic, gay magazine (straight-owned), I work on an article about a gay bank in California. The article discusses how far gay people have come; look, it says, we even have a bank. After work I meet a friend in the ever-so-trendy East Village for dinner. On parting, we kiss casually. We hear a voice. "Come on guys. Can't you take that somewhere else?"

I'm watching Cagney and Lacy. Good triumphs over nasty criminals. One cop says to the other, "Yeah, lots of cops have drug problems. Some drink too much. And some put on makeup and a dress and go cruise the West Village." I call the TV station to complain. "Thanks you for your comments," I am told.

In 1981 New York's Gay Activist Alliance died a quiet death. The group had been around for over ten years, after the death of the Gay Liberation Front it was, along with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Righths, a viable and important community organization. Some say the left killed GAA, but in truth New York's lesbian and gay community was no longer able to sustain such an organization. But still, there were groups to carry on a movement. Though fraught with factionalism, groups like Lavender Left, Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists, Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, and even CLGR continued. And the left "parties" were also active. The Revolutionary Socialist League, Freedom Socialist Party, Workers World Party, International Socialist Organization, and the New Alliance Party were all involved.

By the time of last year's International March for Lesbian and Gay Freedom, Lavender Left, CLGMS, and DARE had disbanded. CLGR was a group still claiming to represent "over 50 gay and lesbian organizations," but in reality consisting of four people. And the organized left was mostly no longer there; FSP had other things to do, which apparently didn't include work in the gay movement. NAP had an election campaign to run, but since that time they haven't been back. WWP was busy elsewhere. The RSL was the only left organization involved on any real level. And since then, the gay community has offerred few areas where "politics" as we have known them are involved, where the ideas of a radical movement can be raised. The RSL is active in one of them, in the fledgling Lesbian and Gay Task Force of the Mobilization for Survival.

But even this arena is limited: for the first time inn recent national demonstrations, no unified lesbiand and gay contingent marched at the April 20 march for Peace, Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C.

One gay organization in New York City is growing. It's the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a social services organization that helps care for AIDS patients and their relatives, conducts education about AIDS, and raises money to fight AIDS.
Lesbian and gay pride day is June 30 in New York City. CSLDC is now a corporation, "Heritage of Pride, Inc." The march, now called a parade, will go from Central Park down to the West Village, where along with a rally, the Christopher Street Festival will take place, offereing the gay community the same Filipino noodles and Italian sausage sandwiches that are standard fare at New York's ethnic festivals all summer. A lavender strip will be painted on Fifth Avenue, just like the green stripe painted for St. Patrick's Day.
The New York Native recently published a series of articles on "sexual compulsion." This disputed theory is relatively new, a product of the AIDS generation. Its advocates argue that sexual compulsion is a disease, driving gay men to have sex against their better judgment, setting themselves up to catch AIDS. Its proponents talk about people who are constantly looking to have sex, or who masturbate to the point where their genitals become chafed and chapped. "Curing" sexual compulsion is the latest craze in gay psychotherapy.

The only read medical advice on preventing AIDS is the so-called "Safe Sex Guidelines," whereby sex should be altered to avoid exchange of bodily fluids (the probable transmission belt of the AIDS virus). It's hard advice, but probably sound advice (although as the caseload rises, the guidelines are coming to be called "Safer Sex Guidelines" rather than "Safe Sex Guidelines"). The choice is a personal one; but there is reason to believe that gay men, who, like all human beings, need sex, can have sex without jeoparizing their lives. The theory of sexual compulsion, however, in essence tells gay men that it is, indeed, their sexuality that is at fault for AUDS. "Gay men get AIDS because they can't control themselves."

How long agao it seems that gay militants argued, as they did in the landmark 1974 pamphlet With Downcast Gays, that gay people have nothing to apologize for:

"Puritanism lies at the heart of the distrust of promiscuity... Gay activists should stand up for the variety and freedom in sexuality that gay people can enjoy, and yet how often do we read articles in the gay press containing words to the effect that 'we shall never deserve our liberation until we stop being so promiscuous.' Such phrases expose two aspects of self-oppression. Not only are our moral standards being measured against those of our heterosexual oppressors, but liberation is accepted as something that must be worked for and deserved rather than a fundamental right of which we have been deprived. Itw ould be nearer the truth to say that we shall never deserve our liberation so long as we attempt to ingratiate ourselves into heterosexual favour by adopting the standards of the non-gay world."

During the 1984 presidential race, most gay organizations worked for a Democratic Party victory. This May the Democratic National Committee met and voted to abolish seven "special interest" caucuses in the party, including the lesbian and gay caucus. The move was part of the Democrats' desire to renounce their image of catering to "special interests" rather than mainstream "Middle America."

Parts of the gay movement once knew something about liberals:
"Liberals are liberation's most insidious enemy. Their deep sense of heterosexual superiority remains untouched by their concern for the 'plight' of gay people. They appear to concede so much while in reality conceding nothing; leaving the underprivileged to struggle against--not genuinely expressed reaction and hatred, but 'sympthay' and 'understanding'....Talk of 'intolerance' being 'genuine' or 'complete' is meaningless. Tolerance is extended to something regrettable. Wy be grateful for it?" (Also from With Downcast Gays)

AIDS, which came at a time when the gay movement was already faltering, is proving to deliver teh last blows to the movement. But a real problem in this demise is that AIDS has left the radical gay movement without answers.

As an issue, AIDS is not being raised by the left. There s some attempt to combine issues, like the chant Workers Works Party originated, "Money for AIDS, Not for War; U.S. Out of El Salvador." But as the overall response of the gay community to AIDS is fear and sadness, not anger, the connection between radical political ideas and the felt needs of the community is breaking. The left, in turn, is losing out to those like "sexual compulsion" theorists, or to gay misleaders like those in San Francisco who petition city governments to close gay bathhouses. As survival itself becomes the need of the gay community, the left needs to find ways to address that community in a way that means something to it, and provides for continuing a gay liberationist perspective.
It's Gay Pride Day 1985. Death is in the air: most anyone marching in the "parades" this year now knows what it means to lose a friend, or a lover, or an acquaintance, to death by AIDS (or to beatings by queer-bashers, or to the incessant pressures of a hostile world). The gay movement is in trouble like never before; the gay community is haunted by real and consuming fear. We can blame ourselves. We can hate ourselves. We can isolate ourselves. We can "go with the flow" and let the movement fall down around us. We are understandably--and necessarily--consumed by the need to stay healthy, to live. But will we live in closets? Is the price of our lives a return to the days before Stonewall?

There is another choice. As we struggle to live, we can continue to fight to be free. The fight, the movement, must take new forms, new directions. It must cast off its old leaders who have berayed us again and again. It must learn how to combine our new priorities with the old ones. We can't let AIDS finish off what's left of the movement, what's left of a fighting, liberationist politics. We can't let the overwhelming system of heterosexism--bred and fostered by capitalism--dance at our funeral.


  1. Ish
    Been reading this from your music posts.To combine passions why not why not do a Bey article?Hey also do you have a copy of Wali and the Afro Caravan?I saw you comment on a post of it but that link is gone.Anyway "Ballads,Blues,and Bey" is one of the most poignant vocal recordings ever.I think he is a hero for sticking with jazz long after it was a commercial dead end.Then his coming out with HIV and being a gay man in the misogynistic and homophobic world of jazz was further courage.I hope I can see him in person one day.I also am waiting for one CD to become domestic though right now I am spacing title (I don't think it's "Chinatown".I have everything else)

  2. Fascinating read Ish. Contrary to your introduction, it hardly seems quaint, yet eminently sensible with it's questioning of the then-current state of affairs.

    Of course it's going to contain pessimism and optimism - I think we all easily forget how much we didn't KNOW at that time, how AIDS seemed as it could be this armageddon occuring amidst the banality of a society where it wasn't even mentioned by your government - the days when we'd come out of funerals and then marvel at the straight people laughing on the street, seemingly blissfully unaware of people dropping to the ground all around them.

    As you know, I'm from the other side of the planet, so we had a different timescale on this - but I remember very clearly an extended visit to NYC in 1986 - the frustration, the unknown, the shock of the death of friends. I didn't know you then, but I can somehow imaine you at the time of writing this - shellshocked, questioning on all sides at once, angry, looking for answers. As always, a great piece of writing.


  3. That's a great suggestion, chazz. I saw Bey sing once... he's great in person. I've always wanted to interview him...

    I'm gonna drop a note to the guy who ran the blog who shared Wali & the Afro Caravan; if I don't get a response I will re-up at Ile Oxumare. If I don't re-up I will give you a private link.

  4. Yeah, that's right, Simon.

    I actually dropped out of activist politics in the later half of the 1980s cuz I was so demoralized by it all...I went to one or two ACTUP events but AIDS activism just didn't become my coping mechanism to losing so many friends and having the world change so completely.

    Anyway, I'm gonna post some more of my old writing here... most of the political writing isn't this interesting but some of my spiritual writing is worth going back to. Stay tuned!