Sunday, January 10, 2010

Echoes of a past life: Gay Community Mobilizes Against AIDS

Someplace recently I read a strident condemnation of an earlier gay generation for bringing AIDS down on itself. It was in a blog discussion, and several (gay) commenters seemed to think that the hedonism of that earlier generation was to blame for the health tragedy. While it's true that the sexual openness of the gay community in the late 1970s and early 1980s acted as the perfect petrie dish for a sexually-communicable virus like HIV, it really needs to be repeated that the problem with the genesis of the health crisis was the virus not the sexuality. I think it's important, looking back, to be clear on this, and to be cautious about what is essentially puritanism in condemning that lost doomed gay generation for its own demise. It was years before AIDS was identified and understood; years when gay men were only doing what came naturally as the community itself coalesced in self awareness and self expression after the repression of the pre-Stonewall years.

One can discuss addictions like sex, drugs and alcohol; cultural standards like promiscuity or monogamy; the maturation of the gay identity; or even today's rebellious "barebacking" sexual culture all on their own merits or faults. To suggest these are all by definition links in their genesis between AIDS and gay male culture is to accept, I think, the kernel of homophobic judgment that we gay men are "doing something wrong" by living our lives as our true knowledge of our inner selves tells us to do.

The article appearing below is another of my writings from the old "Torch/La Antorcha," newspaper of the Revolutionary Socialist League. While it's drier than some of the other old writings I've chosen to present here, it does have a snapshot quality about what it felt like in 1983 to be faced with so much uncertainty; and I really like its focus on exposing the "blaming the victims" mentality that is still prevelant today. The small statistics it presents about the number of people with AIDS should be enough to make anyone who considers the reach of the disease today to weep with despair.

Again, note my quaint pseudonym, and there's that easy leftist conclusion to the piece about how fighting capitalism is the answer to all problems. It's hard to argue with, exactly, but it's sure a hell of a lot harder to come up with necessary solutions short of the mythic transformation of society. I was strongly against, at the time, shutting down of gay bathhouses, etc, mostly because I loved going to such places myself. It's useful to remember in those days before the concept of "safe sex" and today's medical understandings of the tranmission of the virus: it's harder to argue with such closings as an emergency health measure in retrospect. These was reprinted as a leaflet, I believe for passing out at Lesbian & Gay Pride in New York City in June 1983.

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Fighting Disease, Bigotry and Victimization:
Gay Community Mobilizes Against AIDS
by Ian Daniels
from the Torch, May 15-June 14, 1983, Vol. 10 No. 5


NEW YORK--On May 2nd more than 5,000 people, primarily gay men, marched in New york City to demand more federal fund for research into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), a highly fatal diseased recently declared "epidemic" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Over 10,000 people marched in a similar demonstration in San Francisco, and smaller events were held in several more major cities. According to Gay Community News, another action is scheduled for May 26 in Los Angeles.

The New York march, sponsored by the New York AIDS Network, was organized around the theme "Fighting for Our Lives." and was billed as a "candlelight vigil to honor the dead and support the living." Assembling at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, the marchers filled the streets in one of the larger recent political demonstrations in New York's lesbian and gay community. The protesters then marched to New York's Federal Building for a rally that included speakers from the National Gay Task Force and the rapidly-growing Gay Men's Health Crisis.

A mysterious and deadly disease
AIDS is a disease which breaks down the body's immune system, setting it up for ravaging attacks by rare diseases and opportunistic infections which otherwise could be fought off by internal body functions. Among these diseases are two previously rare and serious afflictions, Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer known primarily in the tropics, and Pneumocystiis cariniii pneumonia, a parasitic lung infection.

The peculiarity of AIDS is in who it affects: Of the nearly 1,400 reported victims of the disease, roughly 75 percent have been gay-identified men, 15 percent have been intravenous drug users, five percent Haitian immigrants, and the remainder hemophiliacs and small numbers of various seemingly unrelated groups.

The overall mortality rate for the disease is 37.6 percent, although no AIDS victim has "fully recovered" and fewer than 14 percent of AIDS victims have survived more than three years after diagnosis. Speculation that the incubation period for the disease may be as long as three years means that the afflicted communities may be sitting on a veritable time bomb. As of now, there are numerous theories -- but no hard answers as to the cause or cure of AIDS.

The first case of what came to be known as AIDS were recognized in 1981, though shortly thereafter the disease was linked to several mysteriously afflicted people dating back to 1978. AIDS first earned the name "Gay Cancer" or "Gay Plague," and concerns about the potential danger of the disease was limited primarily to the affected gay or Haitian communities. Financial response from government agencies was initially extremely poor and research and treatment for the disease has until recently been based largely on fund-raising efforts from the gay community.

Blaming the victims
A variety of theories have been developed, and many discarded, about the causes of the disease. Most of these theories have been plagued by prejudice against the afflicted groups, generally blaming the victims for the disease. Some have blamed homosexual sex itself for the disease. Others have blamed Haitian "cultural practices." The Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad, commenting on this racist and anti-Third world slant, said in a press release, "The transmission of speculative information [about AIDS] has created a detriment to the Haitian community oevrseas and has caused nearly irreperable prejudice." (Translated from the French, La Nouvelle Haiti Tribune, February 2-9, 1983.)

It was not until AIDS began to spread away from such "unpopular" groups as gays, Haitians, and drug-users that concern from authorities began to take real form. Unfortunately, much of the response has retained the prejudice -- and in some cases, produced serious overreactions. After AIDS began to appear in some hemophiliacs, apparently as a result of blood transfusions, gay men and other "high risk" people were urged not to donate blood. In San Francisco, police officers are being given face masks and glove to wear when dealing with potential AIDS victims.

Now that AIDS has spread to a small number of children, non-Haitian, non-drug-using heterosexual men, other recipients of blood tranfusions and partners of "high risk" category peoplem concern about the disease is growing and prospects look better for federal funding on research. While articles about AIDS previously had been limited to the gay or Haitian press, the mainstream media is now picking up on the subject.

Dangerous side-effects
There have also been some unfortunate side effects of the AIDS crisis in both the Haitian and gay community. In the Haitian community, concern for the racist and anti-Haitian part of the press campaignh about AIDS has at times combined a positive opposition to being labeled as a dirty, poor and disease-ridden people with opposition to being linked with homosexuals. Anti-homosexual traditions have long been a part of Haitian culture, just as in many other countries, and the AIDS crisis has provided some political forces in the Haitian community with the oportunity to denounce not only AIDS, but gay people. For example, the left-wing New York-based paper, Democratie Nouvelle, wrote in an article about AIDS, "In Haiti, it is perfectly clear to us that homosexuality is a shameful defect." (Our translation from the French, March 1983.)

For its part, the largely middle class-based gay movement has taken a similarly disdainful attitude toward being linked with Haitian refugees and drug users. Moreover, a dangerous campaign is developing within the gay community for a more conservative and respectable gay lifestyle. This campaign has often taken on an hysterical character. Some gay spokespeople have called for the closing of gay bars, bookstores and bathhouses, where gay men have multiple sexual encounters, on the theory that either AIDS is caused by homosexual sex or at least that forcing the limitation of sex partners will lessen any potential contagious spread of the disease.

As much as the authorities have sought to blame the victims of AIDS for getting the disease, so gay people seem to be blaming themselves. Newsweek reported in its feature article on AIDS that "Many [gay people] have moved beyond shock and fear and anger to a feeling of relief that they finally have a medical reason to slow down their lives." Promiscuity is becoming a dirty word in a previously sexually open community. This issue has sparked a debate in the gay press (in this regard Toronto's Body Politic deserves commendation for its defense of gay sexuality against those who, in effect, seek to redefine homosexuality as "sick" -- this time, medically).

Unfortunately, none of the theories about AIDS has been accepted as generally correct, and making hasty conclusions based on any one of them can serve only to demoralize and victimize people who often are already under political attack. We need to stop throwing blame around and unite together to fight for real answers.

Capitalism has been systematically destroying the ecology and environment of Earth for years. In this context, it is not surprising that a new and mysterious fatal diease has developed. Nor, given the new ecological nightmares of acid rain, agent orange, Dioxin dumping, pesticides, chemical waste and radiation, should we expect this one to be the last. In the meantime, we need to unite the living to save our lives and what is left of the Earth's environment. Gay people, Haitians -- and all working and oppressed people -- have a mortal stake in not only fighting for the funding of human needs rather than military might, but in changing the world as we know it.

2 comments:

  1. It should go without saying that a person should be allowed to marry whomever they choose. Until the right-wing, religious fanatics in this country stop trying to control everybody else and force their “morals” down the throat of the country, there can be no real freedom in the United States. Civil rights cannot simply be "voted away," that is the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Religious activists should be left out of these decisions completely. I invite you to my web pages devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on our freedom: http://freethegods.blogspot.com/2009/06/san-franciscos-gay-pride-parade.html

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  2. Thanks for dropping by David. We share a middle name. Is yours a family name too?

    Anyway, it's ironic to me that marriage has come to be this cutting edge front of the fight for civil rights. Back in the day we all scoffed at marriage of any kind.

    I'm thinking that opposing the idea of voting on marriage rights might be more productive than losing electoral contest after electoral contest.

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