The AIDS Closet

AIDS is not like other deadly illnesses for which there is no cure It is not a socially acceptable disease, automatically eliciting sympathy in the way most cancers do. Implicit with a diagnosis of AIDS, in the minds of many people, including some gays, is the attitude that those infected with the virus have it coming, the just reward for an excessive or sinful lifestyle. That much of society views AIDS in this manner is probably inevitable, the result of a complicated weave of religious superstition, an intrinsic, natural fear of death and disease and a culturally learned hatred and fear of gay people.

We are at an interesting time of paradox in the AIDS nightmare. As long as it was perceived as a disease of faggots and junkies it was ignored and our deaths by the thousands tolerated by society. Straight society now, however, is realizing that viral particles aren’t particular; they infect anyone in the right place at the right time. American society now seems appropriately frightened of AIDS. That the response to this fear will be appropriate remains to be seen.

The epidemiology (it is not casually contagious) and the essential disinterest of much of straight America has prevented any successful, organized scapegoating of gay men. This may be about to come to an end. The epidemiology hasn’t changed, but the perception of who is at risk and who isn’t has! The nearly mindless chant falling out of the mouths of gay spokespeople these days is “education.” Though I do think education is absolutely necessary to bring the epidemic under control, AIDS education, no matter how thorough and intensive, will do little to prevent a nasty political and social backlash, particularly against gay men.

In a recent study done at the University College London by their Department of Psy­chology it was noted that “Attitudes to AIDS and its treatment among a group of pre-clinical (medical) students did not correlate with knowledge about the condition, but instead were related to attitudes in general concerning homosexuality. The absence of a relation of attitudes to specific knowledge is not an uncommon finding in social psychology. The implication for health education is clear if we wish to reduce the prejudice about AIDS that still abounds, and to increase public awareness of the problems of patients with AIDS, there should be increased emphasis on general education about homosexuality rather than on the specific factual details of the disease.” (British MedicalJournal, 6 Nov. 1986).

The AIDS crisis will only be dealt with successfully and we survive and thrive as a people when it is totally out of its closet and understood for what it is, i.e. the result of infection with an opportunistic little piece of genetic material that has no preference whatsoever in whom it infects. The first and most indispensable step in this battle, is for gay men to come out of their closets, the most potent form of education. The most important people to come out to first are also usually the safest, your biological family. One of the most tragic scenarios being played out daily in this country today is the person coming out to his biological family with a diagnosis of AIDS.

AIDS isn’t just hitting “them,” ifs affecting every family in the country and only we have the power to bring that message home. We must realize where our real power lies and it is not in the hand that pulls’ the voting machine lever, but rather our mouths:” Mom, Dad, I’m gay.” In the 80’s, coming out cannot be viewed as privilege, but necessity. It is not safe or risk free to come out now, but it never has been; check it out with someone who came out in the fifties!

Coming out, though, must be done from a position of power and should not be attempted until the person at least begins to realize that being gay is not bad, but rather a vital variation of human potential. We must ourselves realize that AIDS is not a gay disease, viral particles do not choose to infect people on the basis of sexuality! AIDS has killed thousands of gay men and there may very well be thousands more to follow. The physical and psychological devastation we are experiencing around this tragedy is compounded for many of us because our initial, limited coming out occurred in the womb of urban ghettos, where we forged fragile gay identities in the mists of a steam room. We believed that the essence of being gay was homosexual acts.

We need to understand the fact that AIDS, and its devastating effects on the gay male community in this country, is an historical accident The coincidental appearance of this virus and the explosion of gay sexual liberation in the 70s was not divinely orchestrated. Many facets of the gay male sexual lifestyle that flourished in the 70s facilitated the sharing of lots of different organisms not good for our health. Couple these lifestyle behaviors with the burgeoning of gay ghettos and a very mobile population and the stage was set for tragedy. Certain of the sexual practices we chose to eroticize (rimming, fisting, and getting fucked by the hordes) were not healthy. AIDS, however, is not an indictment of gayness, but rather a message that it isn’t a good idea to stick your tongue in someone else’s asshole or to lay on your stomach all night in a bathhouse.

AIDS hit us in the infancy of our realization that we are a people with much more in common with each other than just whom we choose to go to bed with. Avenues of gay male(lesbians have been ahead of us on this for some time) spirituality and consciousess were just beginning to be re-explored when AIDS came crashing down. I believe that historically the 70s gay male liberation movement with its over emphasis on the “macho,” consumption oriented lifestyle of the ghetto will be seen as an adolescent growth phase. The underlying philosophy of the time, i.e. “the only difference between us-and them is where we put our dicks,” will be understood for what it was—an overly zealous attempt to deal with our own internalized homophobia. We really believed that it wasn’t all right to be a sissy. We quit satirizing the most obnoxious attributes of straight mates and began imitating them.

This phase of hyper-masculinity was already on the wane somewhat when AIDS came along. AIDS has become a multifaceted metaphor in our culture. For many it is the personification of sin and excess. I would offer another possible metaphor for thought and consideration: Is AIDS, in part, the overwhelming nightmare it is for us because it is a reflection of a time when we measured each others worth in terms of butchness, cock length, youth, and unlimited sexual conquests?

In order not to view gay as bad but rather, vital and indispensable, we’ve got to expand on where we were ten years ago. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined in straight male terms or we’ll never figure out who we are, we’ll never feel good about being gay. Our coming out will not be powerful and change creating.

Some of the most significant work done to date, in my opinion, exploring who we are and where we’ve come from is Judy Grahn’s magnificent Another Mother Tongue.

Because gay people often go first, taking the risks, breaking through the veils and walls that lie in the frontier zone of ideas and ways of being, we fulfill a particular social role, and sometimes it is a dangerous and despised one. Easily enough, gay people often feel (and are) evicted, punished, cruelly treated when we are displaced from our positions as originators, founders, and tradition breakers. It is easy at those times to feel like a loser, to believe that the stereotypes of our gay culture are shameful and aberrant rather than necessary functions that help the institutions of societies to change, to view themselves from another perspective, and to remain flexible. I believe we need to learn to honor ourselves and each other for our gay traditions and give real credit to the risk takers and guides who lead social forces through the maze of human experience.


AIDS Index