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April 2010 Email this to a friend
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The pendulum swings

By Michael Bronski

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Three decades can zip by as though they are a few years, even months. With this issue, Guide magazine begins its 30th year. Over the years, the magazine has provided commentary on culture, arts, politics and the endlessly serpentine peregrinations of the queer movement. In those three decades, there have been enormous -- even cataclysmic -- changes, while at the same time, an inclination to a deeply rooted stasis that betrays no movement at all.
Shulamith Firestone, in her brilliant 1971 polemic, The Dialectic of Sex, argues -- taking cues from Marx and Engels -- that we need to look at historical periods not as snapshots, but as a motion picture in which the action is always connected to both the past and the present. But looking at 1981 and looking at today, the difference in community concerns and political activism is starkly, and shockingly, disparate. This is not to say there is no political activism today -- there is plenty of it. People are working very hard to secure same-sex marriage rights, pass employment protections and end the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy. But what has changed profoundly is the vision of social justice that animates these concerns.
What can we say about the last three decades? To say that they started with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is true, but misses the social and political context of the time. AIDS -- or rather a report that some homosexuals were being diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare skin cancer usually found in older men of Mediterranean background -- was first reported in the New York Times on July 4, 1981. Within two years, that first report became a deluge of panic, illness, death and most importantly, incredible political organizing. Direct action groups such as ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers emerged, along with more mainstream local groups like New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis and Boston's AIDS Action Committee, which focused on the immediate needs of communities and individuals.
But the death-ridden tragedies of AIDS, and the triumphs of the highly effective political organizing that resulted, are not the beginning of this story, or even that particular story. While 1981 saw many changes, the two previous years were just as important. The AIDS epidemic -- and the response from both mainstream America and the queer community -- can be understood only in light of Anita Bryant's homophobic campaign, which began in 1978.
In an all-out move to repeal anti-discrimination laws in Florida's Dade County and elsewhere around the country, Bryant and her supporters crafted a national campaign that demonized homosexuals (especially gay men) as mentally ill child molesters. Bryant's success inspired California Senator John Briggs to propose banning all lesbians and gay men from teaching in the California school system. Gays won certain battles -- including defeating the Briggs initiative -- but the actual and symbolic battle lines had been drawn. Their message was clear: queers were sick and queers were dangerous to families.
There is little doubt that when AIDS first struck, the idea of a "sick homosexual" was redundant to many mainstream, heterosexual Americans. The terrible physical impact of AIDS on gay men's bodies was, for these people, not just medical justice, but metaphorically true: gay men were sick. The coupling of AIDS with the idea that queers were child molesters and, by nature, anti-family rang true to many people. This nonsensical joining of two profoundly homophobic myths would have ironic and dramatic repercussions nearly two decades later.
It would be almost 15 years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before there were drugs that were moderately effective in treating AIDS. To a large degree, these drugs exist because of the work of ACT UP and other groups that demanded the government and the medical establishment take the lives of people with AIDS seriously. This was a triumph of political organizing and action, and our communities and movement should be enormously and rightly proud of it.
But the shock and awe of the AIDS crisis had other effects as well. Without doubt, it brought out a very conservative element in the gay community. Hardly anyone in the community dared to say, as evangelical minister Jerry Falwell did, that if gay men slept around so much they deserved to get AIDS, but there was a great deal of talk about how mono-gamy was preferable to promiscuity, and coupling at home was safer than fucking everything in sight at a sex club. Such talk flew in the face of what we knew about HIV transmission --specific sexual acts transmit the virus, not location or numbers of partners. But that did not stop the new gay moralists from insisting that AIDS gave gay men a chance to grow up and move from their randy teen years into adulthood and committed relationships.
This psychological and epidemiological nonsense was, on some profound and unarticulated level, a response to Anita Bryant's charge that queers were dangerous to families. The emergence of the same-sex marriage movement, which began after a Hawaiian court ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutional in 1993, is the conservative gay response to Anita Bryant. While championing the simple civil rights of contract law for same-sex couples, it symbolically insists that gay people can have families, that gay people can be parents, that gay people are not naturally antagonistic to the joys of domesticity and child-rearing.
This was a curious response, because promoting domesticity was beside the point. Gay people already knew that they could be coupled, monogamous and raise kids. It had been happening ever since there was a gay community. But now that the battle against AIDS had been won (well, not really -- we just had better drugs), the community's efforts went into promoting domesticity over sexual freedom and monogamous state-sanctioned marriage over open relationships.
The same-sex marriage movement implicitly (and often explicitly) insists monogamy is better, married life is happier, and raising children is somehow superior to remaining childless -- and certainly to remaining single. The shift in the gay community's political sentiments from the embrace of personal and sexual freedom of the 1970s and '80s to family-centered rhetoric is nothing short of remarkable. It is a measure of how quickly things can change. It is also a marker of how political reactions to dire threats can move a progressive community to espouse socially conservative ideals.
There is nothing wrong with gay people wanting to get married and have kids, but it is a step in the wrong direction for a large chunk of the community's economic and emotional resources to be channeled into one issue, especially an issue that has proven so unpopular with the majority of Americans. It is also a mistake to view the fight for same-sex marriage outside of the context of the last 30 years. The reality is not that gay people have "grown up" and now want mature relationships. The gay movement -- partially in reaction to Anita Bryant's hateful lies, and partially in response to the enormous emotional trauma of the AIDS epidemic -- has not necessarily become conservative but has decided to protect itself from baseless and calumnious charges of abuse and immorality.
The shame of this is that such a defense will not work. People who hate queers will hate married queers; people who think queers hurt children will not want them to have children. The idea that this will make us safer, more liked, more included in the American mainstream is a fantasy, and on some level, a dangerous one.
Queer activism has not died out. Gay activists are fighting against discrimination and for the right to join the military, as well as for same-sex marriage -- but the basic rules of the game have changed, and now, rather than fighting for personal freedom, we are fighting for the illusion of community acceptance.
Looking at the last 30 years, it is clear there can be no "snapshot" that tells us what happened, that gives us a clear picture of what went on in that time. As the pendulum swings, and the motion picture unreels, let us hope that the ideals of personal liberty and autonomy return.

Author Profile:  Michael Bronski

Michael Bronski missed the Stonewall riots because he was uptown at a movie. He still goes to the movies to balance 40 years of activism and is now a professor at Dartmouth College.
Email: mabronski@aol.com

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