New research finds that traditionally gay neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly “straight” places, and could be at risk of losing their distinct cultural identity. Fewer same-sex couples reside in historically gay neighbourhoods compared to 10 years ago, according to one of the largest studies of sexuality in the U.S. Led by University of British Columbia sociologist Amin Ghaziani, the study found the number of gay men who live in gay enclaves has declined eight per cent while the number of lesbians has dropped 13 per cent. Ghaziani’s research, which is collected in his new book There Goes the Gayborhood, suggests that San Francisco’s Castro district, New York’s Chelsea, Chicago’s Boystown and other “gayborhoods” are changing as growing numbers of heterosexual households join or replace gays and lesbians. He offers several reasons for the shift, including gentrification, changing attitudes among gays and lesbians, and growing acceptance of same-sex couples.
This season in Provincetown has been very striking. It’s nearly a decade since I wrote The End Of Gay Culture for TNR, but only now that the small drip-drip-drip of change seems to have reached a tipping point. The Ptown I came to in the late 1980s is gone forever. Back then, the crowds that thronged here – far larger than today – were dominated by gay men of all ages. On big holiday weekends, there were long lines outside several bars and the entire street was a virtual club. The crowd at Spiritus Pizza at 1 am would stretch for blocks and last for a couple hours. Cruising was everywhere – on the streets, the beaches and the docks – all amid the somewhat dilapidated houses and sea-shacks where groups of gays would crash for night after night. It felt like an alternative reality – an oasis at the end of the world, a place where some of us had come to die but so many more had come to live for the first time.
It’s utterly different today. The gay male crowds are much smaller; the straight influx far larger. Children are everywhere – of gay and straight parents. The super-wealthy have moved in – and real estate prices have all but prevented most regular gays from being able to live or rent here. Instead of legions of young homos working as busboys and waiters – exiled from their homes, or seeking a new life, or just killing time in a beautiful spot – we now have hundreds of young Bulgarian work-study exchange students brought in every summer and housed collectively. And many of the gay men here are like me – older now, and married, and spending more time in the garden than in the bars.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still an unabashedly gay-friendly town. You wouldn’t mistake its vivid tableau of street life or its scootering drag queens for, say, Chatham. But when dozens of bachelorette parties invade the gay bars, when children are building sand-castles where gay men used to cruise, it has a very different vibe.
You begin to see the depth of the social transformation that the debates over the military ban and marriage have wrought.
He’s not an obscure blogger for the Times of Israel. He is a luminary of the Likud – a man who got 23 percent of the vote in a contest for the Likud Party leadership. He was appointed to his current high position by Benjamin Netanyahu. And this is his proposal for Gaza:
a) The IDF [Israeli army] shall designate certain open areas on the Sinai border, adjacent to the sea, in which the civilian population will be concentrated, far from the built-up areas that are used for launches and tunneling. In these areas, tent encampments will be established, until relevant emigration destinations are determined. The supply of electricity and water to the formerly populated areas will be disconnected.
b) The formerly populated areas will be shelled with maximum fire power. The entire civilian and military infrastructure of Hamas, its means of communication and of logistics, will be destroyed entirely, down to their foundations.
c) The IDF will divide the Gaza Strip laterally and crosswise, significantly expand the corridors, occupy commanding positions, and exterminate nests of resistance, in the event that any should remain.
You read that right. There will be temporary “camps” where the Gaza population will be “concentrated”; they will be expelled with subsidies; basic supplies of water and electricity will be cut off for those who remain. The war-time ethics he recommends are: “Woe to the evildoer, and woe to his neighbor.” He backs the “annihiliation” of Hamas and all their supporters. His strategic goal is to “turn Gaza into Jaffa, a flourishing Israeli city with a minimum number of hostile civilians.” (Modern Jaffa, of course, was built on the ethnic cleansing of most of its Palestinian inhabitants in 1948.)
The usual response to this kind of thing among the lockstep pro-Israel community is that it is a tiny fringe opinion. And I can only hope they’re right. But what concerns me is that this racist, genocidal bigot was appointed deputy speaker of the Knesset by the current prime minister. What concerns me are the statements of Ayelet Shaked, the telegenic young protege of Naftali Bennett, who is touted as a future prime minister. This is from a Facebook post she wrote the day before the gruesome lynching of an Arab teen who was forced to drink gasoline and then burned to death by Jewish extremists. Note that her call for war came before any Hamas rocket was fired:
Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.
Again, she and Feiglin dispense with the distinction between civilians and militants in Gaza. So too did the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, David-Seth Kirshner, at a recent 10,000 strong rally for Israel in New York. Kirshner’s precise words?
When you are part of an election process that asks for a terrorist organization which proclaims in word and in deed that their primary objective is to destroy their neighboring country and not to build schools or commerce or jobs, you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.
Even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.
I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.
But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects. And that’s the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.
And my hope is, is that this report reminds us once again that the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard. And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be — that needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.
What to make of this?
I don’t think it’s that big a deal that he used the English language to describe what was done, in any fair-minded person’s judgment. He’s said that before now. And his general position hasn’t changed. Let me paraphrase: We tortured. It was wrong. Never mind. So he tells the most basic version of the truth – that the US government authorized and conducted war crimes – and hedges it with an important caveat: We must understand the terribly fearful circumstances in which this evil was authorized. But equally, he argues that the caveat does not excuse the crime: “the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.”
This latter point is integral to the laws against torture – but completely guts his first point. As I noted with the UN Convention, the prohibition is absolute:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Cheney, Bush, Tenet, and Rumsfeld all knew this from the get-go. That’s why they got their supine OLC to provide specious justifications for the legally prohibited. That’s why they won’t use the word “torture,” instead inventing an Orwellian euphemism. And, of course, the president’s excuse for them – that “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” we did wrong things – is deeply misleading. This went on for yearsacross every theater of combat. What about what Abu Ghraib revealed about the scope of torture in the battlefield much later on? What about 2005 when they secretly re-booted the torture program? This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law. It cannot be legally or morally excused by any contingency. It cannot be treated as if all we require is an apology they will never provide.
Yet that’s what the president’s acts – as opposed to his words – imply. And that’s what unsettles me. It is not as if the entire country has come to the conclusion that these war crimes must never happen again. The GOP ran a pro-torture candidate in 2012; they may well run a pro-torture candidate in 2016. This evil – which destroys the truth as surely as it destroys the human soul – is still with us. And all Obama recommends for trying to prevent it happening again is a wistful aspiration: “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” Hopefully?
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the rule of law.
I offer you a simple set of facts: under the Bush administration, the CIA set up a program that indisputably contained torture techniques; in due course, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the program in order to get some clarity as to its intent, its techniques, its authorization and its results; as the Committee was doing its work, the CIA hacked its computers in order to craft its own defense and suss out what the Committee had discovered. When Senator Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of this grotesque interference in its affairs, and assault on the constitutional separation of powers, the CIA chief, John Brennan said:
As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s—that’s just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.
At the time I wrote: “Either Brennan or Feinstein isn’t telling the truth. ” We now know it was Brennan who wasn’t telling the truth, as the CIA itself has now acknowledged in its own internal report that it did exactly that – something “beyond the scope of reason”. Indeed it is beyond the scope of reason. It was also beyond the scope of reason that the CIA would import the torture and brain-washing techniques of Communist China in order to glean intelligence from captured enemy combatants. And yet they did that as well. But the attempt to obstruct justice by hacking into the Senate’s computers adds something else to the original crime. Let’s recall what DiFi said back in March:
Here’s her conclusion:
I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function. … The CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as Executive Order 120003, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.
This is not a minor matter – it is a hugely important matter in terms of the constitution and the rule of law. We’re talking here about crimes and deception. How are we supposed to believe another word that comes out of Brennan’s mouth? And how desperate must the CIA have been to cover up its crimes that it took this extraordinary step of spying on the Senate that oversees it?
I submit that either Brennan knew nothing of what was going on and had no grip on his own agency; or he knew full well and was brazenly lying in public. In either case, under his watch, the CIA tried to subvert a critical Congressional report on its own criminal history.
Brennan owes the nation an explanation for his own actions. Why did he put out a false cover story? Was he bamboozled by his own squad? Was he trying to stonewall?
The CIA conducts much of its business in secrecy; and most of Congress’ vetting of the CIA likewise occurs out of public view. Effective oversight requires trust and cooperation between the two—and there must be that trust and cooperation for the public to have confidence that the oversight system works. But there also has to be public trust in those who lead the CIA. Brennan’s initial public statements about this scandal severely undermine his credibility. He owes the public a full accounting. If he remains in the job, President Barack Obama will owe the public an explanation for why he retained an intelligence chief who misled the public about CIA misconduct.
(Photo: Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan takes questions from the audience after addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in in Washington, DC on March 11, 2014. Brennan denied accusations by U.S. senators who claim the CIA conducted unauthorized searches of computers used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff members in an effort to learn how the committee gained access to the agency’s own 2009 internal review of its detention and interrogation program, undermining Congress oversight of the spy agency. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)
If you ever read Gawker, you know who Rich Juzwiak is. Yesterday he came out with a new piece revealing how he’s not just taking Truvada again; he thinks almost every gay man should be on it too:
In my first piece on Truvada, I said that I thought most sexually active gay men should at least consider going on it. That was not strong enough: All sexually active gay men who are negative should go on it, at least those who are in the highly populated gray area that I find myself in—guys who either have casual condomless sex from time to time or who are “always safe” but still burdened by the fear of HIV.
If you know that you don’t need Truvada, I trust your judgment. If there’s a shred of uncertainty, just take the fucking pill.
I try to be as nonjudgmental as possible when it comes to the behavior of other gay men (though I cannot refrain from judging those who judge). We are all in different places in life; we all enjoy different things. That variety is, in fact, what makes gay culture so vibrant. The choices at the disposal of those who are privileged enough to live in areas where gay is OK and where same-sex marriage is legal—these are part what make being gay so wonderful. But if you cannot deal with taking a single pill every day, you need to get a grip and reevaluate your life. After you do that, then just take the fucking pill.
Rich and I sat down a little while ago to talk about sex and love and gay men’s lives today. The resulting podcast can be a little racy and provocative at times. Hey, it was a real conversation. We actually talk about the sexual adventurism of gay men – a subculture where no women restrain sexual desire – as an often wonderful thing, regardless of the judgment that so many, including gay men, have made about it. There may be a measure of mutual respect, friendship, democracy and brotherhood in a sexually liberated gay male world – that is perhaps unavailable to heterosexuals:
The whole conversation is up on Deep Dish now for subscribers only. Check it out. If you haven’t subscribed yet, do so here – you only need to spend $1.99 to download the whole thing. And you’ll also get access to my unfiltered conversations with Dan Savage and Hitchens, among many others.
It’s a very long piece – or, rather, a speech annotated with qualifications – an interesting way to put your thoughts down on a screen. And it’s well worth your while. The gist of it is that because Hamas is an almost text-book example of nihilist theocracy and Israel isn’t, Israel is on the right side of the defining struggle of our times – and so not a country Harris will criticize. A related, central point is that the use of human shields by Hamas puts them in an utterly different moral universe than the IDF, in whose interests it is not to kill Palestinian civilians.
This is a crude summary – for there are qualifications on so many points that the piece is almost an explosion of nuance. So, for example, in Sam’s view, Israel cannot be absolved from war crimes either; and should not even exist as a Jewish state. That last point is a pretty huge one – and it comes at the very start of the piece. But if Israel should not exist as a Jewish state, it should not exist at all. This is its core justification – and one of the issues the Israeli government has put at the center of any possible two-state solution. Get rid of the Jewishness of Israel … and you will soon have a Middle Eastern state pretty evenly divided between Jew and Arab and in which future immigration would easily tip the demographic balance toward Islam. And this is where, I’d argue, Sam’s argument begins to unravel almost as soon as it begins: because it is overwhelmingly an abstract statement of abstract principles which fails to account for history in all its particular twists and turns. So he ends up refusing to criticize a state he really doesn’t believe should exist and yet then goes on to criticize it quite potently. You can call that original if you want. But you might also call it incoherent.
Still, Sam is unquestionably right about the theocratic extremism and despicable anti-Semitism of Hamas and its allies. It is much more extreme and central to Hamas than theocracy and anti-Arab racism is to Israel. He’s right that Hamas’ preference for building underground tunnels for war rather than underground bomb shelters for civilians makes them complicit (though far from solely responsible) in the horrifying carnage of the last few weeks. He’s also right about the difference between what Israelis would do if they had all the power and what Hamas would do in the same boat. Israel, with overwhelming power, gives many Arab citizens political rights even as it has penned a huge number into segregated bantustans, curtailed their travel, blockaded them (in Gaza), and surrounded them with theocratic Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Hamas would, in contrast, just kill every Jew it could find as soon as it could. That is an important difference.
But that’s why I absolutely do not support Hamas, and never have. Nor is there any excuse for their war crimes. But the issue here is not one of a choice between Israel and Hamas; it’s between the possibility of a two-state solution and the Israeli government’s refusal to take any of the off-ramps toward it if they would curtail the bid to settle and annex the West Bank. Much of Sam’s argument would hold water if the Israelis had been in earnest about peace, and in earnest in supporting moderate Palestinian forces on the West Bank, and in earnest about taking Obama’s proposals seriously this past decade. But they haven’t been. Settlements are much more important to them than peace. And the settlements are motivated by exactly the kind of theocratic zeal that Sam normally opposes.
But the settlements – themselves a standing war crime under Geneva – do not figure prominently in Sam’s account. And when they do, he offers an unconvincing defense:
Tom Ricks penned a mini-manifesto of sorts yesterday on why he finds himself moving to the left. He’s always thought of himself as a centrist, but now finds himself drifting further away from American conservatism and Republicanism. Money quote:
I am puzzled by this late-middle-age politicization. During the time I was a newspaper reporter, I didn’t participate in elections, because I didn’t want to vote for, or against, the people I covered. Mentally, I was a detached centrist. Today I remain oriented to the free market and in favor of a strong national defense, so I have hardly become a radical socialist.
But since leaving newspapers, I have again and again found myself shifting to the left in major areas such as foreign policy and domestic economic policy. I wonder whether others of my generation are similarly pausing, poking up their heads from their workplaces and wondering just what happened to this country over the last 15 years, and what do to about it.
Good question, Tom. Like Ricks, I don’t believe my general inclinations politically have changed that much over the years. I prefer smaller government in general; I too believe in a robust defense; I have few issues with the free market; I think marriage and family are critical social institutions; I’m still a believing Christian; I have deep qualms about abortion and abhor affirmative action; I’m a fiscal conservative; want radical tax reform, cuts in unfunded entitlements, and culturally, I’m a libertarian, with a traditionalist streak alongside radical tendencies (so, for example, I both love the Latin Mass and intend to go to Burning Man next month). I haven’t renounced my precocious devotion to Thatcher and Reagan, even as I have out-grown them, as the world has as well.
But I am now regarded as a leftist by much of the right and to some extent, they’re right. In today’s polarized political climate, I have few qualms in backing president Obama over almost anyone in the opposition, and am genuinely insulted these days when some people call me a Republican. Tom laid out several critical issues which have now placed him on the left rather than the right in today’s environment. They’re well worth reading through. Here are my critical reasons, as of now, for wanting the Republicans defeated in any forthcoming elections.
The defense of torture. As disturbing as the deployment of torture by the Bush-Cheney administration was, the continuing refusal of anyone on the right to cop to it and make amends for it is a clear and present danger to our core decency. Calling it something else doesn’t cut it. Violating the sacred honor of the United States and a founding principle of Western civilization because of one man’s panic and extremism cannot be put aside. Today’s conservatism – in stark contrast to Reagan and Eisenhower and every civilized nation on earth – is now intertwined with barbarism. Until they revoke this and become fully accountable for it, I cannot in good conscience be a member of the “right.”
Political brinksmanship. The conduct of the GOP during the Obama administration has been a nihilist disgrace. In 2009, Obama inherited crises on every front: an economy in terrifying free-fall, a bankrupted Treasury, an even more morally bankrupt foreign policy, and two failed wars. He deserved some measure of cooperation in that hour of extreme national peril and need. He got none. From the get-go, they were clearly prepared to destroy the country if it also meant they could destroy him.
I’ve tried to avoid the Clinton book tour bullshit this past month or so. Not good for my blood pressure. When I checked in occasionally, it was to discover that nothing much has changed. The Clintons are still self-pitying money-grubbers – $12 million in speaking fees since she left the State Department? – and now their offspring, exploiting her nepotistic advantage with all the scrupulous ethics of her parents, is continuing the grift. If you ask of Clinton what she’s fighting for, what she believes in, if you want to get her to disagree with you on something, good luck. Any actual politics right now would tarnish the inevitability of a resume-led coronation. That the resume has little of any substance in her four years as secretary of state does not concern her. She was making “hard choices”, and if we cannot appreciate that, tant pis.
I’d like to find a reason to believe she’s a political force who stands for something in an era when there is a real appetite for serious change. She could, after all, decide to campaign vociferously in favor of the ACA this summer and fall (universal healthcare is, after all, one of her positions), but that might siphon money away from her foundation and candidacy. She could get out there and start framing a foreign policy vision. But, again, too risky. I see nothing that suggests a real passion for getting on with the fight – just the usual presumptions of a super-elite, super-rich and super-cocooned politician of the gilded age.
So I did watch the Daily Show interview last week, and was not surprised. As in most of her softball media appearances, she was both unctuous and vapid. But even I was aghast at the sheer emptiness and datedness of her one attempt to articulate a future for American foreign policy. She actually said that our main problem is that we haven’t been celebrating America enough, that we “have not been telling our story very well” and that if we just “get back to telling” that story about how America stands for freedom and opportunity, we can rebuild our diminished international stature. One obvious retort: wasn’t she, as secretary of state, you know, responsible for telling that tale – so isn’t she actually criticizing herself?
Next up: could she say something more vacuous and anodyne? Or something more out of tune with a post-Iraq, post-torture, post- Afghanistan world? Peter Beinart had the same reaction: “As a vision for America’s relations with the world,” he wrote, “this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing”:
Both have been riding nationalist waves of xenophobia – and have done their best to inflame it some more; both believe that military force is the first resort when challenged; both have contempt for the United States under its current president; both regard Europeans as pathetic weaklings and moral squishes; both use a pliant mass media to instill the tropes of paranoia, wounded pride and revenge; both target “infiltrators” in their midst, whether it be African immigrants and Palestinians or gays and Westerners; and both have invaded and threatened their neighbors. Perhaps most important of all: both have lost control to the even more enraged extremists to their right.
Check out the thoughts of Gleb Pavlovsky as told to David Remnick:
The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” [Pavlovsky] said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks. “Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.
“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’ It’s a dangerous moment. Today, forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. But people are responding to this media machine. Putin needs to lower the temperature.”
Now consider the vigilantes who poured gasoline down the throat of a young Palestinian and burned him alive. Do you think they come out of a vacuum? Or the horrifying tweets of young Israelis proudly urging genocide of Arabs. Or the cheers from the hilltops outside Sderot as Israelis celebrate the slaughter of civilians in Gaza. Or the fact that Netanyahu’s endless provocations have led to a cabinet even more hawkish than he and a country ever further away from any reconciliation with the people whose land it took decades ago.
Both men have the supreme self-confidence of fools; and the political instincts of geopolitical arsonists. Our only hope in restraining them is to watch them slowly hoist by their own canards. The problem is that hundreds of civilians in an airplane and in the crowded streets of Gaza keep becoming the collateral victims of their posturing.
(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian president Vladimir Putin appear during the Security Council meeting in the Kremlin on November 20, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. Netanyahu was on a one-day visit to Russia. By Dmitri Azarov/Kommersant via Getty Images.)
I don’t care for the “right side of history” argument with respect to gay rights for a few reasons. It’s horribly condescending to people who have a sincere view against gay equality; it presupposes some sort of inevitability where there isn’t any; and it fails to understand the nature of history. History is never as dull as the concept of “progress” would have you believe. It is always, as Oscar Wilde once put it, crowded with incident.
In no case is this truer than for gay America. Our story, if presented as a Hollywood screenplay, would be dismissed as too outlandish, too melodramatic and implausible, to be taken seriously. And yet it happened, and remains with us – so close it is hard to see it, and with several sharp twists and turns.
From the extraordinary repression of the 1950s – the McCarthyite era when all gay people were threats to the republic – to the liberation of the 1960s and the frenzied libertinism of the 1970s, you had one powerful narrative. After centuries – no, millennia – of brutal sanctions against the love of one man for another, an unprecedented, ebullient flowering took place. In small enclaves, an openly gay culture began to thrive and express itself with all the understandable abandon of the suddenly free. It was still very much a subcurrent, among so many other social shifts in that era, and was surrounded by hostility and discrimination and stigma. But the sense of outsiderdom partly intensified the joy and the solidarity. The gay ghettoes of the 1970s and early 1980s did not much care about the world beyond them for a while. Freedom – even in one, small place – was exhilarating enough.
And then the plague. It is, quite simply, impossible to conceive of a more dramatic reversal. If gay men had finally struggled free from the internalized notion that they were sick, or enemies of God, or all but asking for divine retribution for their sins, that paradigm closed in with terrible, ironic ferocity. What else could explain a plague of that brutality and specificity but the wages of Satanic perversion? Jerry Falwell could not have dreamed of a more perfect scenario. Pat Buchanan, with his usual flair, intoned that the gays had declared war on nature and nature had therefore declared war on them. And in some dark way, many of us were tempted to believe it.
It would be absolutely understandable if gay men had simply collapsed under the weight of this paradigm. Some quietly did, their deaths hastened by shame and self-loathing and anger. “Tell my mother I hate her,” was one of my dying friend’s last wishes, as he languished alone in his hospital bed. My closest friend at the time both showed extraordinary courage in the face of his physical disintegration and yet also painted on his naked back the words “Diseased Faggot.” The horror of the disease was compounded a million times by stigma. But the plague was also simply terrifying and terrorizing. No one knew what medieval bacteria would suddenly destroy his brain or liver or digestive system. No one knew who would be next.
I remember the intensified Provincetown summers of the early 1990s, where I had come to learn how to die. Each year, the band of infected brothers would come together and talk medications, buyers’ clubs, and drug trials, and care for the sick and mourn the dying and go to countless memorial services for the steadily mounting dead. (I suspect I will never go to as many memorial services in my seventies, if I last that long, as I did in my early thirties.) Some of us were intermittently crippled by the huge doses of experimental drugs we were then taking to keep the terror at bay. But we got past the nausea and the night sweats and the diarrhea to try and live before we died. We had a ramshackle night club in an abandoned house on Shank Painter Road, which we called the “Love Shack.” And every time you danced there with someone, you lost yourself in the eternal present, acutely aware that they might not come back next year, or you might not. It gave everything an intensity, a vividness, and an astonishingly fearful mindfulness.
Yes, medical progress was there, if tantalizingly distant for more than a decade. But in a perverse twist, as the medical gains fitfully continued, the deaths mounted. The worst year for deaths from AIDS was 1995 in a plague that had begun fifteen years before. And then, just as it seemed it couldn’t get worse, came the bewildering news of the breakthrough in treatments, the joy of those suddenly become Lazarus, and the deeper grief we had put off until the emergency was over. I sank into a deep depression that I subsequently came to understand as survivor guilt. Others – given a new lease on life but utterly bewildered about what to do with it – turned to drugs and sex and oblivion. Someone once observed that the members of ACT-UP after 1996 had three fates: they were either dead, crystal meth addicts or professional AIDS activists. What we had experienced during our most formative years simply made living hard, terribly hard, in the wake of survival.
Walter Armstrong has a wonderfully perceptive piece about this phenomenon that I recommend highly. The sexual oblivion of meth had its greatest appeal and took its greatest toll on the survivors:
Crystal methamphetamine took hold in urban gay communities in the late 1990s, soon after the first effective HIV drugs converted many death sentences and restored our generation to so-called normal life. Caring for the sick, burying friends and lovers, mourning the loss of entire sexual and social networks, and protesting in the streets had consumed much of our youth. Investment in the future, career building, saving money and all the other rigmarole of a middle-class US life had been jettisoned. The end of the crisis also meant an end to the intense sense of purpose and solidarity. Normal life could not compete.
As with other populations struggling with PTSD, a minority was collectively committing suicide, after surviving a war.
All of this was understandable, even predictable, given the powerful pressures crashing in on gay life. What was entirely not predictable is that the survivors also did something astonishing. Using the institutions and self-knowledge and smarts that had somehow defeated the plague, gay men charted a future when nothing like this would happen again, when gay men would never be parted from their spouses on their death beds, when gay men’s physical and psychological health would never be treated as insignificant, when gay men would never suffer the indignity that so many endured in front of our eyes. And so we built the case for marriage equality and for open military service as a recognition of the self-worth our survival had given some of us, and to pay some kind of tribute to those who had fallen.
We went, in other words, from about the deepest hole you can imagine to a determination not just to get out of it, but to see the mountaintop in our lifetimes. I do not know exactly where this act of will came from. It was not inevitable. It was, in fact, highly improbable. A few generations of licking of wounds would have been understandable. So would a collective in-turning in grief and pain and memory. But it didn’t happen. And today, we look out at that mountaintop … and may be forgiven for feeling vertigo.
Within the next few years, it is perfectly possible to conceive of an America in which marriage equality exists in every state and in which HIV is on a fast track to disappearance. If I had told my best friend before he died that this would happen in twenty years, his eyes would have widened into saucers. And we talk so much about how this has changed America, that we don’t often examine how it has impacted gay men themselves – how it is possible psychologically and emotionally to have come from such depths to such heights in so short a period of time, and stay sane and balanced and happy.
The younger gay generations know nothing of it, of course.