For years I have lived behind a wall. The wall is real, a boundary of my own making, but my conception of it changed drastically in the past few days. Until recently, the rules of my wall have been simple. It acts as a filter in spaces that are not “Gay” or “Queer-friendly.” It is an active workplace buffer that ensures that my social life is not too exposed. It exists to create safe spaces for the members of our community who need it. It empowers me to care for all gay men in need, the way I was taught in the latter days of AIDS, when my newfound community rallied around those living out their last days. While some of my peers planned actions, my friends and I stayed at bedsides and joined the rallies when they happened. The values of care, generosity and acceptance best supported a life built around comforting the dying and the grieving. That community was the foundation of my wall. Recently, I have learned how the wall hurts me both inside and out.
The other morning (10/9/17) a gay man assaulted me in my own home. He arrived for a late night Internet booty-call, obviously tweaked (using meth). His condition had not surfaced in our previous chats, in spite of my well-tuned radar. Despite his disturbing level of intoxication, he seemed sweet. The public transport he used to get to me was no longer running, so instead of kicking him to the curb, or driving forty minutes (each way) to where he stayed, I let him sleep over. I got up early to give him a ride home. He refused to leave and got violent when I insisted. He was arrested. I have bite marks on my bicep and a course of antibiotics as a souvenir.
After twenty-five years of hooking up online and living by the rules of my wall, I have my first personal cautionary tale. I wish the moral of this tale were simply: Don’t let a meth-head sleep it off in your apartment. But it’s not. Now, what I am feeling is a lot of anger toward those who have long been assumed to be my core allies. I am enraged that “gay” became a physical threat to me, and that threat was possible because I have tried to pass on the compassion I was taught in Chelsea and the Village in a time when those neighborhoods felt like our safe spaces. The moral is: My own wall of protection fucked me.
As the world around me has changed, my wall no longer protects me, or my community, the way it once did.
Inside, it puts me in harm’s way, because the meth epidemic is not at all like the HIV epidemic. Meth is reported to create a false sense if invulnerability, while AIDS only proved the inescapable depth of our mortality. These differences cannot be addressed with the same tools.
On the outside, the wall subdivides me (and us) from possible coalitions with other special interests that, if we worked together, could move America forward by leaps and bounds. This is a limitation of the wall I have struggled with for years. For instance, though the differences are vast, prior to Stonewall, LGBT people had life restrictions that were similar to ways Jim Crow restricted other Americans. These kinds of similarities can be found in the political causes of women, immigrants, labor, addicts, and others. I am not the first to suggest that our collective inability to build meaningful bridges across such similarities empowers the alt-right, but I know that my wall has empowered those divides.
Ironically, events like Charlottesville’s standoff feel stolen out of an ACT UP “how-to” manual. Perhaps this is why it feels harder to build both personal and political relationships than in the nineties, when AIDS activists pit our survival against the world’s indifference. Today, the rules are different; those that would oppress us are no longer simply indifferent. They are increasingly intolerant and violent. But then, our marginalized collective is too. My wall does not align with these realities.
When AIDS was taking people from us, we hit the bars in mass to spread the word. We clogged the streets as often as we could. This is not different than Black Lives Matter. Such groups are our neighbors and our natural allies. Yet I struggle to find ways to help causes like Black Lives Matter beyond posts on my Facebook wall. In spite of the fact that both meth and politics are undermining the strength of our communities, we remain unable to see each other as allies.
Perhaps our internal divisions make us unable to be helpful to our neighbors. I hate the idea that more inclusivity has created more divisiveness, but I see it everywhere I turn. According to Wikipedia at least eighteen different flags have been created to identify the various sub-groups of our Queer community. And so many Queer people want to give me labels that don’t fit. The acronym LGBTQI+ tells smart conservative strategists that we are at least six separate groups easily turned on each other. From inside my wall, it sometimes seems we are willing to let them do just that.
Instead of focusing on ending all oppression, many seem focused on which of us is oppressed more. It is clear that some of my LGBTQI+ community would label me a symbol of white HIV privilege, and would rather not fight alongside me. In this, we might just be trading freedom and peace of mind for the right to be EXACTLY who we are in a micro-measure of difference. And all the while, a rising threat to oppressed groups systematically rolls back the advances we have made in the past two decades. In this time I have taken no real action to invite my neighbors from outside the Queer community inside my wall. I let them fend for themselves. And while members of my community seem not to want my help, my neighbors seem to need it. At almost thirty years positive, I am just getting used to having a future, so I have no intention of giving that future up to bigotry and hate, theirs or ours. I refuse to let the valiant work of those that came before be minimized by the current shift in political power or by a generation of men smoking a pipe. I also refuse to lose that future because changing my views and approaches feels too hard or too inconvenient.
Our fight has returned to the basics even if we have not. It is time to find the ways to politically connect oppressed peoples, to make attempts to unite our voices. We must set aside the battle over the nuances of our difference. We must fight for the right to be different and equal in the most simple of terms. We must accept that, if we choose to leave the ghetto behind, we are not yet free enough to be simple suburban neighbors. We must actively participate in the whole of our new communities, and we must share what we know. Not doing this only makes us all more vulnerable to further attack. No matter what we want for ourselves as individuals, we will not see progress toward those goals until we unite communities and collectively turn the political tide. That requires actively creating unified liberal/progressive approaches to the realities for our communities and our neighbors. It requires finding a way to bond across causes to a message of freedom for all. It requires a new American revolution. It requires not another multi-colored flag, but a multi-colored resistance. It requires that we embrace and support the entire spectrum of difference.
Today, all of us need to be in the fight, not just Queer, but everyone who has lived handicapped in a world ruled by the forces that have shaped an oppressive world. We have so readily embraced gender and sexuality spectrums, yet we seem to want to stop there. We are a part of a human spectrum, one that is even more complex than the ones we have chosen to accept. But spectrums have no walls; they transition easily into gradations that are never purely one thing. Further, each part of a spectrum emerges from a single prism.
We must strive to live across the entire spectrum of life, empowering every human to be as different as they are or wish to be, as long as that difference does not infringe on the well being of another. If we can manage to present that to the world, a vision of a harmonious spectrum encompassing all the difference that make us human, that might be a cultural shift empowering enough to keep all our young men off the meth pipe. And it can start, not with a riot, but by inviting our neighbors to coffee with an offer to help. Our survival, and theirs, depends on it.
Leslie L. Smith is the author of Sally Field Can Play The Transexual and is currently working on a PhD at Arizona State University’s School of Art, Media and Engineering.