aids

Songs Left Unsung

Thirty-five years ago an invisible monster started stalking the streets of New York and the hills of San Francisco. The first mention of it in the media was ‘the Gay Cancer’ story in the New York Times in the summer of 1981. AIDS would go on to kill nearly 40 million people worldwide, with a death toll that still exceeds one million people each year. This disease decimated several generations of gay men in the United States. It also ignited an historic and powerful community response among gay people and our straight allies which changed the course of the disease – and of civil rights in America. This cataclysm is one of the defining global events of the late 20th century, reflected in our politics, literature, music, film and art… but it played out on a much more personal scale. One person, one life, one death at a time. Countless hearts have broken, oceans of tears shed… with amazing courage and dignity shown in the face of disaster.

One of the first blogs I followed was Gay Dinosaur Tales by a fellow WordPresser named Matthew. Our paths have overlapped a bit, both geographically and experientially, though he had about a ten-year headstart on me. It’s been a bit like finding a big brother I didn’t know I had. I love the way he writes about coming to NYC after graduating from Kent State and the decade he spent coming of age as a gay man in Gotham in the 70s and early 80s.

Matthew recently announced that he was taking a break from publishing his blog. I hated the idea, and told him so. But I resigned myself to not seeing any posts from him for awhile. Then, unexpectedly, there was a new post from Gay Dinosaur Tales! It’s very much in keeping with his reminiscences of life in NYC – but this one was something else. It’s a part of his story that he hadn’t yet fully shared, and he needed to now. (click on the link below)

Like all the most involving stories of life and love and loss, its power comes from the truth and the details of the people in his life, his relationships with them, in that time, in that place. Matthew’s story stands on its own by bearing witness to this chapter in his life and remembering those who went before him. But it also reminds us of the dangers of superstition trumping science in our own time, when there is still no vaccine for fear and ignorance.

“I’ve often said, if I could go back to any one job in my life it would be here–this time–this place–that me. That is, until the world collapsed from underneath our feet.”

GayDinosaurTales.com: Celebrate Good Times

 

[045] Continuum

= Throwback Thursday =

In 1922, science fiction writer Ray Cummings put it this way: “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” Makes sense. You drop an egg. A half-second ticks by. The egg smashes on the kitchen floor. Time separates the egg from its demise. And us from ours. But then… some wisecrackers came along and challenged our notion of time as nonsense. They plunked down this idea at the intersection of physics and philosophy: the past, the present and the future are all happening, together, all at once. The fabric of spacetime folds back onto itself and the point of contact – the now – is also the past and the future. It gets even more bizarre, but let’s leave it at everything-happens-at-once. And here’s a joke, because it never was/is/will be more relevant to any post I ever did/do/will do:

The past, the present and the future walked into a bar.

It was tense.

I cannot explain how the past, present and future can coexist. But… when I look at this photograph, I sort of get it. It’s not just that I remember exactly where this was taken or why we were there… it’s not that I remember the excitement of the moment… it’s not that I remember being there with Eileen… it’s not even that I remember thinking I can’t believe I’m wearing a t-shirt that says Homos For Hillary (it was a gift from my sister). It’s that this doesn’t feel like a memory at all. That 31-year-old me is peering out from this photo and connecting with himself, which is to say, with myself – the 51-year-old me. Him. Well, you know. The photo is just an artifact, but that moment is somehow contemporaneous with this moment.

My friend Eileen sent me that snapshot in a “happy Throwback Thursday” email today. It’s one of our favorite pictures of us together, and for so many reasons. First of all, we’re so young this is practically a sonogram. It was 1993. Eileen lived in Boston, I was in San Francisco. We met in Washington DC with entourages of old and new friends in tow. And we were there for two reasons.

This:
MOW93paradebanner

And these two:
mario.jim.dc1993

Our pals Mario and Jim tied the knot (for the first time) waaaaaaaay back in 1993. Before it was legal. Or fashionable. Or even a thing. They married again in Connecticut in 2009. And their federal government finally got around to recognizing their legal marriage less than a year ago, when the Supreme Court tossed DOMA on the trash heap of bigoted legal history. So… the photo Eileen shared with me today triggers a cascade of memories and emotions and connections. That weekend in Washington was one of those times in my life where the personal and the public got tossed in a blender and puréed.

Americans gather in stadiums for sports. We gather on the Fourth of July for parades and fireworks. We gather at beaches and parks over Labor Day weekend. But I think it’s fair to say that most Americans have never marched in the streets – for any reason. And even fewer have traveled to the nation’s capital to join hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens to say, We’re here. We matter. And this is what we want. It is powerful stuff, putting yourself out there, using your body, your voice, your self… to try to change the world. Standing up, being counted. It is part of our birthright as Americans, explicitly protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
.

Ukraine ProtestThese are not abstract notions. Look at the horror unfolding this week in the streets of Kiev. Ukrainians have turned out en masse to protest the games being played with their lives by Russia and the EU. And the government has viciously attacked its own people, firing on them, killing dozens or hundreds, escalating the violence. It is a war zone, and the Ukraine is on fire. The US certainly has its problems – but Americans can march on their capital to demand change, criticize our leaders and their decisions… without worrying about being murdered by the police or the military. This is precisely why it is so important to fight for your rights when they are being denied.

So, there we were in 1993, coming from every corner of the country to demand equal justice under the law. Equal rights, not special rights. There was another component of this March on Washington: AIDS. Only a decade into the epidemic at that point. The dead already numbered in the tens of thousands. The gay community and its AIDSQuiltImg5allies had rallied magnificently to take care of our own. But the FDA was plodding along in the face of an ongoing disaster, taking entirely too long to approve new drugs and treatment regimens. ACT-UP was taking the fight to the government, and this March on Washington delivered a powerful dose of urgency to the Clinton Administration – then only three months old. Part of our presence in Washington that weekend was a massive display of the Quilt – the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt – on the Mall. I have never experienced more raw emotional power than the times I’ve stood in the midst of the Quilt. It is overwhelming, in every way: the crushing weight of the loss, the fierce love in every stitch. Tens of thousands of 3′ x 6′ panels; the dimensions of a grave. Handmade with heartbreaking intimacy, awash in tears. Each panel commemorates a person, a man, a woman, a child, a life… lost to AIDS, lost to a decade of murderous disregard and unforgivable inaction by our own government. The Quilt acted as a lens, gathering all of our grief and anger and loss and sorrow and focusing it like a laser beam of resolve: to be relentless in our demands to take care of the sick and to stop this disease from wiping out an entire generation, or more. To be recognized as human beings, to say We’re here. We matter. This is what we need.

Still, it would take another four years of constant pressure before the new class of anti-retroviral drugs was made available to combat HIV infection and the progression of AIDS. That was a huge victory, both medical and moral. But those were also the years when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were passed by Congress – and signed, shamefully, in the middle of the night by Bill Clinton. Those were dark days for me, for mine, for this country. Little did we know it would only get worse with the cataclysm of the coming Bush years.

But the arc of history does bend toward justice… slowly… slowly. It’s messy. It’s a knife fight. It’s two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. But you keep going. Because it’s your life you’re fighting for, and for the lives of those around you. And also for the country you believe in, even when it seems to have abandoned you. As Gandhi is said to have said:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – and then you win.

The general perception these days is that the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender Americans is just cruising along at presto-chango speed! But I’ve lived now through enough of that arc of history to know that the successes of the last few years could never have happened without the blood, sweat and tears of all the generations past, to the beginnings of the last century. We stand on the shoulders of giants: Larry Kramer, Cleve Jones, Harvey Milk, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Barney Frank, Annise Parker, Harry burstdownthoseclosetdoors.milkHay, Frank Kameny, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, Troy Perry, Bayard Rustin, Tammy Baldwin, Dan Savage, Urvashi Vaid, Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, Ellen DeGeneres, Billie Jean King, Armistead Maupin, Eugene Robinson… hundreds of trailblazers… thousands of unsung heroes… millions of people living their lives in quiet dignity, waiting for the day when that dignity could speak with a louder voice. Many never saw that day. And that is why we never gave up, will never give up. If you’re a kid who feels different today, a wide path has been cleared for you – but you still might need to hear that “It Gets Better”. Because it does. Because we all came together, so many times, in so many places, across so many years, to make it better. We gay folk, the LGBT you hear so much about, have been ignored. We’ve been laughed at. We’ve been fought at every turn. And now, we’re winning.

It’s about time. And I wonder if this continuum of past, present and future means that an older me is on the future end of this party line. Are we like those hideous Russian nesting dolls? Wherever we are in our lives now, we contain all of our younger selves; we are, likewise, contained within all of our older selves. We just haven’t met them yet. It’s like temporal schizophrenia. Only better. Because there’s something comforting in the notion of the past and the future having a party.

Day 045 #100happydays

Act Up! Fight Back!

It would be difficult impossible to overstate the peril faced by gay folks as the 80s dawned in America. Harvey Milk had been assassinated just two years earlier. Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Gay men in New York and California were suddenly getting rare cancers and dying, no one knew why. And it is fair to say that no one much cared. Jerry Falwell and his Christianist hatemongers called the epidemic “God’s wrath”. Reagan would not even say the word “AIDS” until seven years into his presidency – while tens of thousands of Americans died. There was talk of quarantining – or even tattooing – people with AIDS.

Sorry for the gloom, but it’s important to set the context for what happened next. (After all, this is ancient history for some who will read this.)

I referenced “gay folks” above; not the “gay community” or the now-ubiquitous (necessary and dreadful) “LGBT”. That’s because we hadn’t yet coalesced into a single community; and the all-purpose acronym was still years away. The Ls and the Gs were off doing their own things in their own zip codes. The Bs were busy doing, well, everyone. The Ts had Renée Richards going for them, but not much else. Though much had changed in the decade since Stonewall, queer life was still Balkanized.

So, when gay men started getting terrible infections, diseases, cancers and dying in rapidly increasing numbers… When governments and gods showed themselves to be untroubled by our immense human suffering and the horrifying death toll… a community was born.

WeWereHere film posterWe Were Here is a powerful, heartbreaking, uplifting testament to the response of the nascent gay community (and its allies) to the public health crisis of AIDS in San Francisco. The history is told through on-camera interviews with five people who recall the love, the loss, the victories – and the irresistible force of a community that is fighting for its life. This film is available via Netflix and Amazon. Click on this image to link to the We Were Here website where you can stream a rental for $3.99.

Who should see this film (which was released in 2011)? Everyone. But especially all the good people who want to stop the gun insanity death toll in this country. All those “Moms” and “Mayors” who give tv interviews… who fill our inboxes with petitions to sign and emails asking for money so they can do… more petitions? There have been 30+ school shootings since Newtown. Another 10,000+ gun homicides. Do you think you’re working hard enough? You haven’t even started.

If that makes you angry, good! You should be angry. You can’t even send your kids off to school in the morning, or to the mall in the afternoon, or to a movie in the evening, without wondering if they’ll be next. So get angry! And channel that anger into real, direct action. You say “there are 80 million Moms in America!” Really? I don’t think I’ve seen 80 women (or men) gathered anywhere, doing anything, since Newtown. Have you?

1.lighting candles

Begin…

As the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre came and went, I heard a tv discussion about our failure to achieve gun control in this country. Someone suggested that if you want gun control, then look at how the gays fought for marriage equality and equal rights. It’s not a bad idea.

Gun control is (still) way more popular than gay rights. But we have marched in the streets, raised money, campaigned for like-minded politicians and relentlessly lobbied lawmakers, filed lawsuits, rallied voters, discussed it in polite (and not so polite) company.  We have done this for years, without losing our nerve or our hope. We have kept up the pressure, we have fought ignorance with intellect, cowardice with courage. And we are finally turning the tide. It’s been some time since we lost a battle, and we’re well on our way to winning the war.

2.candlelight march

Fan the flame…

I don’t mean to single out the Moms Against Guns. Every liberal/ progressive political goal would be more quickly achieved if leaders stopped the absurd flood of online petitions and solicitations… and challenged their millions of supporters to take direct action. Sometimes, I wonder if the Koch brothers aren’t secretly funding Credo and Move On – to sap any real initiative by giving people a false sense of having done something every time they click the “Sign the Petition” button. That is not participatory democracy. Make some noise! Hit the streets! Act up! Fight back! Not in dribs and drabs, but by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions.

If I received an email from the “Moms” asking me to join a gun control march in my city next weekend, I’d drop everything to be there.  But more than a year after Newtown, I still haven’t got that email. And that’s my point.

3.candlelight march

Ignite a movement…

Whether you want to raise the minimum wage, or guarantee voting rights, or protect a woman’s right to control her own body, or reform immigration, or tax the rich and the corporations, etc… Nothing succeeds like excess. Remember ACT-UP? When FDA was taking forever to approve new AIDS drugs, these creative and in-your-face protests drew lavish media attention and focused political pressure like a laser beam. They weren’t afraid to be angry. People were dying. The “die-ins” stopped traffic. The barricade crashing made people uncomfortable. But new drugs and treatments went from a trickle to a fire silencedeathbuttonhose, and many lives were saved.

We gays had to fight for our lives in this country. And as a community of activists, we won. But 650,000 people have lost their lives to AIDS in America since 1980. That is eerily similar to the number of gun deaths during that time. And always, always:  silence = death.

After you’ve had to fight for survival, it’s relatively easy to move on to battle bigotry and ignorance (DADT, DOMA, ENDA, the GOP, the teabaggers and the faith-hurling wackos)… You just have to be alive to do it.

Here we are in 2014, an election year. The entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs. Plus many governorships and legislatures and ballot measures. The media will declare the elections ‘over’ before they even begin. Gerrymandering! Voter apathy! The parties are all the same! Voter suppression! Oh look – it’s Justin Bieber!

4.candlelight march sf

Set the world on fire!

It doesn’t have to be that way. Get yourself registered and then help someone else register. (Click on Blog the Vote below.) Think of it as multiplying your vote. Volunteer to GOTV (Get Out The Vote) during early voting and on Election Day in November. Drive someone to the polls. Or offer to babysit. Have a mail-in ballot party. Because the fact is, without an enormous and sustained effort, less than half of the eligible voters in this “great democracy” will bother to cast a vote in November. But that sad fact presents an opportunity. We flip 20 House seats, we take back control of Congress and… a lot of life-saving laws and policies get done in Obama’s last two years in office. If not, we keep fighting like hell. Until we win.

Unless there is something more important you have to do?

BLOG THE VOTE 2