blu sunne: Blog by Lester Strong: AIDS and the Course of Gay Rights

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Photo by Sean Black

Here’s an invite: Is anyone interested in learning more about the views and achievements of former House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), the openly gay Congressman who did so much to push legislation relating to AIDS and gay rights before his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013? If so, read my cover article in this month’s (October 2017) issue of A&U magazine, titled “Let’s Be Frank.” No access to the magazine’s print version? Then visit the story by clicking here.

You’ll find an amazing story there, as well as insightful suggestions about how to succeed in influencing a current regime in the nation’s capitol so clearly hostile to meeting the legitimate needs of the population it is supposed to be serving.

However, there were a few insights Frank offered in the interview I carried out earlier this year on which the article was based that didn’t make it into the piece, partly to meet a word count limit and partly because they were tangential to the article as a whole. One of those had to do with the effect AIDS had on the course of the gay rights struggle in this country.

Conventional wisdom has it that AIDS, as well as being a health disaster for the gay male community, was political disaster for the LGBT movement as a whole. Certainly the right-wing rhetoric at the time made it seem like a political debacle. There were the calls by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helm to quarantine those living with HIV because, in his own words, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” There was the comment by Jerry Falwell: “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” Many such quotations by right-wing political and religious bigots could be added to these, but suffice it to say that the negative attitudes toward LGBT people they were intended to foster seemed to be mighty damaging at the time, and certainly in relation to the possibility of gay rights legislation.

But listen to Barney Frank: “AIDS was a terrible curse,” he said during the interview. “None of us wish it had happened. But, counterintuitively, gay rights benefited from AIDS. It was one of the few positive side effects to come out of that terrible disease. Let me explain.

“When I first began lobbying for gay rights [as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives] in 1972, I couldn’t get even liberal members who weren’t themselves prejudiced against gay men and lesbians to vote for the bill I was sponsoring because to do so was perceived as too great a political risk. I think that’s because they didn’t know any gay people, or at any rate didn’t think they knew any gay people. All they had were the negative stereotypes: gay people as troubled psychologically, as child molesters, and so forth. They didn’t realize that many of the people they knew, respected, admired, and did business with were gay.

“Coming out is a crucial part of dispelling the negative stereotypes. That process had started well before the 1980s, following the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in the summer of 1969 and the blossoming of the gay liberation movement in the years after. But AIDS really forced a lot of people to come out—to their families, to their work colleagues, to their communities, to the world at large. Just think of Rock Hudson. If it weren’t for AIDS, no one would have known he was gay.

“But that was only one aspect of how the AIDS crisis helped us politically. A second was how the broader LGBT community behaved so responsibly in the face of the epidemic. Studies showed that there were very few cases in American history where people exhibited more bravery and compassion toward others than the gay and lesbian community did toward those stricken with AIDS—and at a time when no one knew how contagious the disease was or how it was transmitted. Many lesbians especially were even willing to put aside their own legislative agenda to help minister physically to their gay male friends who had the disease, to join anti-AIDS pressure groups, to help raise money when needed. That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.

“A third aspect to note is that the first votes we won in Congress on gay issues came through antidiscrimination laws that were passed relating to AIDS. The AIDS phobia in the country was so great that those of us dealing in Congress with the effects of the epidemic were able to convince many of our colleagues to add AIDS to the medical conditions that one could not be discriminated against in housing, public accommodations, and so forth. Ironically, then, there was a period in American history during the 1980s where gay people couldn’t be discriminated against if they had AIDS, but had no such protections if they were gay or lesbian but didn’t have AIDS. There was also what we called the ‘No Promo Homo’ strategy of the anti-gay bigots in Congress, where amendments were added to AIDS funding bills specifying that none of the money in them could be used to ‘promote’ homosexuality. That is, they were aimed at frightening doctors, nurses, or social workers away from showing any friendly attitudes toward their gay patients. We managed to find ways to defang those rules, And you know what? Our Congressional colleagues who voted to protect AIDS patients from discrimination and helped us defang the No Promo Homo amendments went home, ran for re-election, and actually were re-elected. Those politicians then felt free to vote with us on other issues.”

As Barney Frank noted, “AIDS was a terrible curse.” No one—certainly not Barney Frank—wanted it to happen, no matter what the positive side effects it may have generated. But it seems to me there is a lesson to be learned here: Even under dire circumstances, there just may be ways to seize the moment to achieve important goals. So, in terms of AIDS and other healthcare needs, this begs the question: In these dark days, with a Republican majority in Congress and a sitting President squarely aimed at gutting the current healthcare system that serves the medical needs of so many millions of Americans, where is the person who can devise a successful strategy to defeat that threat? This is a discussion we should all be having. Our lives may very well depend on the implementation of such a strategy.


Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.