Bil Browning

A Stark Pride Reminder

Filed By Bil Browning | June 01, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Media
Tags: gay cancer, HIV/AIDS, New York Times

In the comments section of Karen Ocamb's deeply moving post, "AIDS at 30: Birthdays & Dead Friends," Project Eric Payne directs our attention to this reprint of the first article published about AIDS. Thumbnail image for ACT UP AIDS protestThe New York Times article from 1981 sent shockwaves through the gay community and led the media to dub the disease "gay cancer."

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.

The sudden appearance of the cancer, called Kaposi's Sarcoma, has prompted a medical investigation that experts say could have as much scientific as public health importance because of what it may teach about determining the causes of more common types of cancer.

Kaposi's Sarcoma later became an almost scarlet letter among gay men, branding the skin with an easily recognizable mark of a person with AIDS. While we eventually rallied to save our own, I can't forget how many queers were too worried about saving themselves to realize they were drowning their friends in a desperate attempt to stay afloat in a flood of bodies.

This article precipitated a sea change in LGBT politics, community building, and organizing.

As we start Pride month this year, take a moment to reflect on just how fucking lucky you are to be here to see it. A lot of our elders and friends weren't so lucky and their deaths paved the way for today's civil rights advances.

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I give thanks for all those who preceded us and paved the way. If not for them, a lot more people would have died, and we wouldn't be where we are today in the movement.

Thanks for writing this. Man...

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 1:07 PM


Thanks for being so stark in your statement.

While, contemporaneously, we argue about "bravery" v. "responsibility," and while we contemplate "community," it all comes down to one thing:

We are fucking lucky to be here, at all. It was only a quarter century ago that actual fucking lawmakers were contemplating the logistics of a modern-day "leper colony" for gay men. Not for those infected with HIV, not for those who already had been diagnosed with AIDS, but for all gay men, to "protect" the general public.

It was less than 25 years ago that Delta Airlines, in paying the families of victims of an air crash, felt legally justified in giving the family of an out gay male flight attendant less than 1/10th the amount they were giving to other families, using as a justification: He was gay; he was going to die young, anyway.

It was less than 25 years ago "Dr." Paul Cameron was called as an "expert witness" in any and all gay rights lawsuits across the country; sure, he'd later be stripped of all his professional credentials, and permanently barred from being an expert witness (in Texas, anyway, surprisingly enough) because of his complete bias - but we still had to fight him.

It was less than 25 years ago children with HIV were barred by school districts for attending school.

Yesterday, I spoke with Kharma Stone at GMHC (I'm thinking about putting together my own "30 years later" essay), and unfortunately, discovered many things that haven't changed.

But we are fucking lucky to even be here.

It wasn't the single piece in the NYT that spurred on what is described as a sea change, and we're not here because we're lucky.

I understand the impulse to keep writing - or rewriting - history so that we can have seminal moments and turning points through which we trace a lineage. Given the ways in which we are still presented with AIDS as an arbitrary disease, it's easy to think of ourselves as lucky. But neither the NYT nor luck has much to do with it: resistance to the straightwashing of the mainstream and homophobic press, like the NYT, and collaborative information networks were already building up amongst queers.

As for luck: I think the historian Alan Berube puts it really well in the recently and posthumously published book, "My Desire for History,": "If we could strengthen our ability to live with unanswered questions...this could reduce the power of this disease by deflating its overblown meanings." This is from his previously published article, "Caught in the Storm: AIDS and the meaning of natural disaster."

Which is to say, luck has something to do with it, yes, but we can't leave it at that and not continue to relay the fact that the complexity and drive of queer organising and activism against the political structures in which AIDS has been wrapped has a lot to do with where we are today. And it's also worth remembering that women, aged 15 and up, are the highest number of people with HIV/AIDS in the world (15,500,000 in 2007).

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 2:05 PM

And Yasmin shows, clearly, Jillian how, no, we are not a harmonious, unified community, and never will be.

There will always be that one person, or one group, who will insist what others say is "wrong." Instead of merely offering their opinion/interpretation as another viewpoint, they have to insist other people/groups are incorrect in their beliefs.

My point was that the younger generations are lucky that their elders went through this horrific extermination and came through the other side with more empowerment and a focus on LGBT rights that has been handed down as a birthright now. The younger set has never had lawmakers threatening to quarantine them, stories like Ryan White aren't common now, and they're not attending several funerals every month.

No pissing contest here, but I'll just clarify (although phrases like "luck has something to do with it" should have been clear) and move on: the critical works of Berube, D'Emilio, Freedman et al tell us, over and over again, that a complicated nexus of forces bring about layered shifts and changes. The less complicated but more digestible and linear version of history is the "one moment that began it all" one. For example: Stonewall has its place, and it was a galvanising one, but recent historical research tells us it was part of a larger force around the country, including places like Chicago, where similar events were taking place at or even before the same time. That doesn't negate Stonewall, it adds to it (incidentally the same Stonewall that keeps getting gaywashed by the contemporary gay movement, enabled by liberal NYT writers like Frank Rich who pretend that only gay men were a part of that historical moment....and so on).

Perhaps it's also worth keeping in mind that positing our existence and history on notions like "luck," is problematic for a great many who worked to make for a more active and engaged interpretation of how "we" got here. Or that the "we" is always worth questioning as well.

And I'll end: Having just breathlessly finished this latest book, I hope folks will take a look at Berube's work, which is among the most layered and complicated analyses of gay, community, and labour history:

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 4:30 PM

Yes, Yasmin, in a closing statement, you did clearly say "luck has something to do with it."

Yet, in your opening statement, you say:

"It wasn't the single piece in the NYT that spurred on what is described as a sea change, and we're not here because we're lucky.

Bil and I had already stated the NYT was the first news nationwide "hard news" item that appeared concerning what would be known, eventually, as AIDS. It was from that one single, relatively short item from which all further reporting grew.

And, in your opening statement you say: "Nope. That's wrong. Because I say it's wrong."

If your opening statement attacks me and my viewpoint in that manner, do you really believe I'm going to continue re4ading your piece to the point where you, begrudgingly, concede other points?

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 4:40 PM

I've been seeing all the little errors in my postings; I definitely need a new keyboard.

I'm surprised that no other commenter has mentioned it, but not only was AIDS and/or Kaposi's characterized as the "gay cancer", it also wasn't long before the immune-collapse syndrome being seen by doctors got labeled GRID -- and that stood for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. In the early 80's it didn't take long for physicians to suspect that the new malady was caused by some type of infectious microbe (bacteria? virus? fungus?), but they were rather baffled that something about it continued to keep it contained within the gay male community.

The moniker "GRID" stuck for years, until scientists became highly certain about the infectious microbe theory, were right on the edge of identifying the specific virus, and finally the CDC decided it would be better to officially call the disease "Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome".

Remember this old joke? Isn't it hilarious?:

Q. What's one of the hardest things about having GRID?

A. Convincing your wife that you are Haitian.

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 7:31 PM

I did mention GRIDS, yesterday, in the posting to which Bil refers in his commentary, today.

Eric Payne | June 1, 2011 7:36 PM

Remember this old joke, isn't it hilarious?

Q. What does AIDS stand for?

A. Another infected dick sucker.

Yasmin, thank you very much for your critical comments. Some of us queers actually welcome commentary. It's how we grow. It's how we learn.