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November 26, 2004

The gay community has abandoned AIDS

Adapted from remarks delivered to the board of trustees of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland at their September 20 meeting.

The gay community has abandoned AIDS as its defining issue. In doing so it has lost its moral and political soul. It has proven its harshest critics right.

The African-American community, which is most at risk for HIV/AIDS, is obsessed with men on the down-low and denies what every gay man knows--some black men have sex with other men. Its religious leaders ignore AIDS in favor of preaching the horrors of gay marriage.

What neither community seems to grasp is this: the pox is already upon their house.

All of this came forcefully to mind at the Cleveland AIDS Walk on the third Sunday in September. This year, like so many years before, it was a clear, crisp day. The first sense of fall is in the air, blowing down from Canada, across Lake Erie and into Edgewater Park. It is a perfect day for runners, walkers and people of all ages, races and religions to come together for a common cause.

But look at the people who are mingling on the park grounds, warming up for a run, or gathering their teams for a walk. The majority--no, the vast majority--are white and straight. The number of African-Americans is, by and large, limited to those few employed by the various agencies or representing one or more of the vendor booths. Except for the presence of a single rainbow flag, there are few, if any, gay participants other than those associated with those same groups.

Even the organizations that have set up booths don�t get it. Yes, they are all there--the Cleveland Lesbian-Gay Center, the Human Rights Campaign, Stonewall Democrats, Pilgrim Church, every GLBT organization in town--but no one cares. No one cares because none of the runners or walkers is gay. All the gay folks are at brunch, sleeping in, or stumbling home from an after-hours party. Tupperware has a better chance of getting members at the AIDS Walk than HRC.

If you don�t know by now, people most at risk for contracting HIV are African-American or gay, or both. That neither the African-American or gay communities were present in any significant numbers at the walk suggests that the one community does not believe it as at risk and the other no longer cares.

Some may say that this shift in the demographics of the walk is a positive thing. Look, they will say, we have carried our message forth and now straight, white people are supporting us. But if the people who are most at risk and the people who receive the services of AIDS agencies don�t care, how long will it be before those who are neither recipients of services or at risk stop caring?

Before there was a breast cancer walk, a diabetes walk, a name your own disease walk, there was an AIDS Walk. But the people who should be walking are home sleeping and shame on us and them.

The 1969 Stonewall uprising marks the birth of the modern gay rights movement in America. But if Stonewall was its birth, AIDS was its infancy, childhood, youth and adulthood. AIDS made gay Americans visible, forced them out of the closet and taught them how to organize, mobilize and become political. As thousands of otherwise healthy, closeted white men suddenly became specters moving across the landscape of America, there was no closet in which to hide. Stripped of its contents, its doors ripped off their hinges, the only thing left of the closet was the shroud they wore as AIDS ravaged entire communities.

This is not to diminish the importance of Stonewall. June 28, 1969, the date of Stonewall, has powerful symbolic significance to the gay rights movement. But by abandoning AIDS, the gay community has decided to commemorate only its birthday, and the Pride celebrations around the country are that birthday party. Forget Christmas, forget your anniversary. Only the birthday matters. But when you blow out the candles on the cake next June you may just find yourself in the dark.

In abandoning AIDS, the gay community has abandoned its political soul. There was a time when the most potent symbol of gay rights was the triangle and the legend �Silence = Death.� Over the years the community ceased to be silent and in the cacophony of the movement�s struggles for gays in the military, domestic partner benefits, employment non-discrimination, domestic partner registries and now marriage, it forgot that �death� was a part of its reality.

As its symbol the gay community dropped both the �Silence� and the �Death.� The �=� became the blue and yellow symbol of the Human Rights Campaign. But what does �equal� equal if we forget from whence it came? How �equal� is �equal� if as AIDS became an issue impacting women and blacks, the gay community walked away?

The present administration recognizes the politics of AIDS. They don�t like gay marriage but they like gay sex less. What they do like is to use AIDS to further their political agenda. Want a compassionate conservative? Let George Bush announce billions to fight AIDS in Africa. Forget if Africa receives all or even a part of the money.

President Bush likes to give speeches about AIDS. In Philadelphia on June 23 he said, �We can learn from the experiences of other countries when it comes to a good program to prevent the spread of AIDS, like the nation of Uganda. They�ve started what they call the ABC approach to prevention of this deadly disease. That stands for Abstain, Be faithful in marriage, and, when appropriate, use Condoms.�

But George Orwell wrote the script. What the administration says and what the administration does are never the same. Only a week before this same speech, on June 16, the Centers for Disease Control published mandatory guidelines for all AIDS organizations that receive federal money for HIV prevention.

Far from trying to �learn� from Uganda, the CDC requires that any sex-ed �content� include information on the �lack of effectiveness of condom use.� At the same time, the CDC mandates the teaching of the failed policy of abstinence until (heterosexual) marriage.

As Barney Frank told The Nation, �One has to reach back to Stalin and Lysenko to find an ideological distortion of science this complete.�

AIDS service organizations nationally are under tremendous political pressure. If they receive any federal funds at all they will no longer be able to do prevention education to at-risk communities, and for �at risk,� read �gay.� Under the present administration there has been a sustained and barely concealed attack on any AIDS organization that does not follow a narrow political path.

More and more federal and state funds are diverted to so-called �faith-based� organizations. These same organizations delivered the votes this election as they promised to do. What better way to reward them than to heap AIDS money on their �faith-based,� abstinence only programs?

AIDS = money, as every gay community center in the country will tell you. No one knows this better than Bush. In that same speech in Philadelphia when he praised the experience of Uganda, the president also announced that he wants the executive branch (i.e., him) to assume greater power to decide where Ryan White CARE Act funds are distributed and how they are spent. In other words, the administration will control the distribution and dissemination of the majority of federal funds for AIDS. Not since Medea told Jason that she would take care of the kids has any child faced such tragic care.

Watch Angels in America and maybe you can appreciate the nostalgia for Reagan. You�ll long for the days when a president said nothing about AIDS.

As is often done at the AIDS Walk, a number of those walking in Cleveland this year wore shirts with the picture of a son who had died silk-screened on the front. I spent some time with a couple who were walking in memory of their son who had died. They wore sweatshirts with their son�s picture. What strikes you most these days is how old and dated these pictures have become. They are your yearbook picture. Remember mustaches? But the parents wearing these shirts are now in their seventies. How long will it be before they are gone, too?

AIDS service organizations increasingly serve a client base that doesn�t care and a donor base that is aging. I will not speak about the African-American community�s response to AIDS. But I am frustrated and angry about the gay community�s response.

Writing in the New York Times book review recently about the Jewish experience in the twentieth century in America, Phillip Roth wrote:

�Jews were deliberately and systematically excluded from partaking of certain advantages and making certain affiliations and entering important portals at every level of American society, and exclusion is a primary form of humiliation, and humiliation is crippling--it does terrible injury to people, it twists them, it deforms them, as every American minority can attest and as the best American minority writers make clear in their work (all too clear for the comfort of the minority boosters who babble on about �pride�).�

Reread that quote and substitute �gays� for �Jews� and if you are gay and have a memory it will chill you. A deliberate and systematic form of exclusion is the modus operandi of the current government and its goal is the humiliation and inevitable marginalization of the HIV/AIDS community, and by extension the gay rights movement.

As for the �minority boosters who babble about �pride,� � this year�s Cleveland Pride had several thousand attendees. By comparison, the AIDS Walk had a fraction of that many attendees and few of those were from the gay community.

Last year the gay community in greater Cleveland and its straight allies raised $80,000 for Heights Families for Equality in order to get a domestic partner registry in the city of Cleveland Heights. In November the citizens of the state of Ohio made that codified bridal registry a constitutional impossibility.

Meanwhile, the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland is taking in on average one new case a day and of those new cases 65% are gay men and most are between the ages of 25 and 39. Rome burns and the boys fiddle.

For twenty years the biggest fundraiser for AIDS in Cleveland was Dancin� in the Streets. What started out as a small street festival gradually grew into a larger and larger street party and a circuit party surrounding the events of the weekend. But in the last four years attendance at Dancin� and the accompanying events was down every year. What had been the signature event for the gay community became replaced by Pride and the gay community stayed away in droves.

Every year there was a reason for the declining attendance. It rained. The economy was bad. The venue was unpopular. It cost too much. But the real reason is that the community just doesn�t care about the issue anymore. It doesn�t matter that 65% of those daily new cases in Cleveland are gay men. They are invisible gay men.

And, by and large, they are invisible black men. The seamier side to all of this is the ineluctable conclusion that has to be drawn. As AIDS became a women�s problem, a black problem, a problem of poverty, gay men turned their back on it. As long as gay white men could get AZT and the cocktail, AIDS was a manageable disease.

We began to believe the sham of the pharmaceutical companies� advertising that tells us that we can have buff bodies, run on the beach and enjoy a long and happy life living with HIV. AIDS = diabetes. But when the cocktail stops working (as it does) and you no longer respond to drugs, and your liver fails, and your heart fails, you can take comfort in the fact that your community just doesn�t really care about you any more either, and you�re alone and you�re dying. But don�t worry, Will & Grace is in syndication and for thirty minutes you can believe in assimilation.

AIDS = black. And gay white men don�t socialize with gay black men. Sure, they don�t say that--or at least the educated ones don�t. Check out the scene in any of the gay bars in town or around the country. With the exception of the handful of men in peripheral organizations, there is virtually no contact between the races.

AIDS was the opportunity for the gay and black communities to join together. Instead, we have traditionally conservative black churches preaching the apocalypse of gay marriage, fighting domestic partner registries and ignoring the rising infection rates in the men and women in their pews. The administration doesn�t have to divide and conquer. We do it to ourselves.

AIDS = poor. And if race wasn�t the issue, then poverty surely was. Nobody believes the myth of gay economic clout more than gay men. They�ve grown up being told that they are better educated and better off than most of Americans. (It�s a lie, by the way.) But the belief by gay men in their own gay affluence is narcissistic. It only wants to gaze upon itself. As AIDS became associated with poverty, gay men crossed to the other side of the street.

All of this spells catastrophe. We have lost our natural allies in the African-American community. We have lost the focus and center of our cause. We have lost our leadership and moral right to demand equality. When the gay community abandoned AIDS, it abandoned its legitimacy to all the other issues about which it cared.

Gay leaders didn�t just die from AIDS. AIDS created them. And, I fear, without commitment to AIDS we will slowly and surely witness a return to the days before Stonewall. We will return to the closet but never be able to hang up the shroud.

Silence still = death.

David Posteraro is the president of the board of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.



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