Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Ripped Veneer Of Inhumanity


For Andrew Sullivan, AIDS explains why 1990 was the year American attitudes towards gays changed:

Remember: most of these deaths were of young men. If you think that the Vietnam war took around 60,000 young American lives randomly over a decade or more, then imagine the psychic and social impact of 300,000 young Americans dying in a few years. Imagine a Vietnam Memorial five times the size. The victims were from every state and city and town and village. They were part of millions and millions of families. Suddenly, gay men were visible in ways we had never been before. And our humanity - revealed by the awful, terrifying, gruesome deaths of those in the first years of the plague - ripped off the veneer of stereotype and demonization and made us seem as human as we are. More, actually: part of our families.

I think that horrifying period made the difference. It also galvanized gay men and lesbians into fighting more passionately than ever - because our very lives were at stake. There were different strategies - from Act-Up actions to Log Cabin conventions. But more and more of us learned self-respect and refused to tolerate the condescension, double standards, discrimination and violence so many still endured. We were deadly serious. And we fight on in part because of those we had lost. At least I know I do.
See also this appreciation of Bayard Rustin, who wrote "The New Niggers Are Gays" and "From Montgomery to Stonewall" in 1986:
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. [Rustin, as quoted by Rev. Sekou.]
When you think about Rustin -- who as an openly gay black civil rights activist, pacifist, and former Communist was about as vulnerable as you could get in the confluence of sexual, racial, and political paranoia of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s - and also Sullivan's account of the "homocons," I think there was a sense by the end of the 80s, with the decline of communism and the relative achievements of civil rights legislation, that a certain kind of culture war had run its course, and that the time for legal protection and activism for gays had finally come. AIDS gave it an existential urgency, but the shifting politics of "pink" had finally made it possible.

No comments: