Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What We've Forgotten About AIDS

As the world focuses attention this week on the 25th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses, there will undoubtedly be a lot made of the fact that, as Nicholas Kristof writes in today's New York Times, "In the early years of AIDS, the virus didn't get attention because the victims were marginalized people: gays, Haitians and hemophiliacs. Then when AIDS did threaten mainstream America, it finally evoked empathy and research dollars."

This typical account of the early years of AIDS is true only to a point. Kristof makes it sound as though the "early populations" (leaving out IV drug users) affected by AIDS were not only distinct from "mainstream America" but that they were tragically overlooked because of their status as "marginalized people." This common reading denies the fact that it was well known early on among scientists and experts that AIDS was already in Africa and was clearly being spread by heterosexual contact in addition to homosexual. Furthermore, it denies the unique way in which AIDS was socially constructed as a gay disease, not just because of a general misunderstanding but because of deliberate efforts by right-wingers to use the disease in a fashion that Simon Watney compared to that of the public spectacle in his essay "The Spectacle of AIDS" to revive Victorian-era conceptions of homosexuals as sick by their very nature.

When we talk about the culture wars in America, the common image is angry people screaming at each other about their beliefs. We rarely think of those wars as having serious casualties. Yet the efforts of leading right-wing culture war figures like Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Fred Phelps and Jesse Helms to frame AIDS as "nature's revenge against homosexuality" - a perverse illness to match a perverse lifestyle - led to the deaths of many thousands of Americans of AIDS. These people had no reservations about what the government should do to people with AIDS - for since they were all gay to them, their response was basically, "Let the fuckers suffer, die, and burn in hell."

Their actions - helped along by an almost totally silent President Reagan and by other supposedly reasonable and remarkable right-wing luminaries - such as William F. Buckley, who in a 1986 op-ed in the New York Times called for HIV+ gay men to be forcibly branded on the buttocks and talked of a possible need for concentration camps - exposed the right wing's culture war for exactly what it is: an effort to render dead or silent all those whose actions, identities, values and politics do not conform to traditional hierarchies of power.

AIDS very deliberately became a gay disease, and it cost the gay community dearly not only in terms of lives but also in terms of political and cultural power. To understand how deeply negatively associated AIDS was with homosexuality, how deeply and widely it was framed and understood as a "diagnostic sign" of homosexuality, is not easy today, particularly for those of my generation, who (speaking for myself, at least) were raised in an era when the AIDS locus had shifted to sub-Saharan Africa. But I would also argue that we have collectively and subconsciously, as a culture, chosen to forget how in the midst of a plague, most Americans were conducting their "business as usual," leaving nearly an entire generation of gay men to die.

In 1987, Congress approved an amendment, sponsored by Jesse Helms, that banned federal spending being used for HIV prevention efforts targeted at gay men - claiming that it would constitute government support and encouragement of homosexuality. This move essentially denied federal money to programs that were among the only hope of slowing the spread of this disease in the queer community, which was at the time the most ravaged by AIDS. The US only began to put major money into treatment and prevention efforts in the face of massive direct action and public pressure by AIDS activists - and even then, it was only when the name of Ryan White, the child who became a spokesman against discrimination against HIV+ children, was attached to the legislation that it succeeded because children like White were perceived of as "innocent victims" of AIDS rather than deaths worth having.

Yet as our planet deals with the fact that AIDS continues to be a global threat to peace and justice, we can see all around America and American government the signs of a culture that has chosen to forget its complicity (because silence truly did equal death) in the right wing's use of AIDS as a genocidal weapon against homosexuals here at home. Perhaps no clearer symbol of this is the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, recently renamed the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. That's right - the site where Rock Hudson very publicly died of AIDS is now named after a man who ignored what was arguably the worst public health crisis of the past century. A man who, the same year Hudson died, ignored much evidence and years of recommendations that casual contact did not cause AIDS and instead publicly declared his uncertainty about the issue, claiming that scientists were "just not sure." In doing this, Reagan missed a crucial moment to dispel a panic that was costing people their lives - not only to AIDS, but to discriminatory landlords, employers, and schools who feared catching the disease from HIV+ (or often, just gay) tenants, employees, students and teachers - and also helped to perpetuate it.

And guess who recommended Reagan lie to America? None other than our very own Chief Justice, John G. Roberts. Only one senator, Russ Feingold, questioned Roberts about those actions during his confirmation hearing, and Roberts still has never apologized. Nor, for that matter, did Ronald Reagan ever apologize for his deliberate silence, or for his misinformation the few times he did speak about AIDS. Yet nowhere in his front-page New York Times obituary did the word AIDS appear.

Why do all of these right wing figures - not just Reagan or Roberts, but the whole cast of religious bigots that still dominate the Republican party - continue to be taken seriously? Why is it that we seem incapable of considering the AIDS crisis as one of the most important events of the 1980s? Is America really so deeply homophobic that we really don't care how the right wing demonized gay men during AIDS? Or did they just succeed so thoroughly in reviving homophobia and reviving old conceptions of homosexuals as diseased that we still believe that AIDS was, in some way, divine retribution not just for homosexuality, but for too much sex (as the gay right today seems to believe)? Or are we simply so ashamed of this past that we've subconsciously chosen to forget it?

These questions urgently need to be answered, for AIDS has shaped our world in profound and powerful ways that we still haven't truly collectively examined. It's high time that, as we look to continue the fight against a global pandemic, we not only remember but truly grapple with its rotten legacy in America.Equally as important is that we recognize that AIDS is still wreaking havoc here at home, among America's black community especially, and that we examine the ways in which these people's class and race lead white America to deliberately ignore them and conduct business as usual today, as straight America did in the 80s.

It really is true that a long memory is the most subversive idea in America.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Time to fight the ex-gay madness

To me, this photo of Alan Chambers, President of leading ex-gay group Exodus International, and his wife, which accompanied yesterday's Los Angeles Times story on the new push for "equal time" for ex-gay viewpoints in schools, says it all:

This is the desire for normalcy at its worst. And this is the face of a movement that truly threatens to turn back gains made in schools over the years. This bullshit needs to be taken on in every school board across America. These programs are so psychologically unsound and so unsafe that they cannot possibly be considered healthy.

It's high time a new push was made to get queer issues addressed in middle and high schools across the nation. Where they're not addressed, we need to work hard to get them included in health/safe-sex curricula as well as highlight, as California may soon do, the contributions of gays and lesbians in history (expect this to be the subject of another post). Where queer issues are addressed, we need to pre-emptively defend them against ex-gay challenges. The 3,000 Gay-Straight Alliances around the country seem perfectly positioned to lead this fight. We have to recognize that it's not enough just to have a support group in a school, and that it's not enough to have a day of SILENCE once a year. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) should organize students in GSAs to start organizing parents and each other, and become true forces for change in their communities.

We should not be timid or afraid of appearing to push too strongly a "gay agenda" - for unless we do, the ex-gay agenda will destroy much of the already incredible progress we've made in schools, which would be a disaster for the LGBT movement.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The LGBT Movement Can't Go It Alone

I'd like to respond to this comment left on my last post and this post over at The Malcontent and Robbie.

To put it bluntly: we are fools if we really think we can win the fight for equality all by ourselves. No major movement in the past century that has achieved real, measurable progress has ever done that, and let's face it - our numbers and our political/economic leverage are not so great that we can be the sole champions for our cause. If we are dumb enough to think that we can do the nearly impossible - create a major shift in American culture that not only wins us equal rights and privileges but also makes us true cultural equals viewed as people with dignity who like all people deserve to be free of degradation and violence - all by ourselves, then we will reap no less than we have sown.

But this isn't just about having enough numbers to win. It's about challenging a system and a culture that makes difference - be it racial, ethnic, religious, class, sexual, or gender difference - a cause for fear, hate and violence; a system that devalues not just queer lives, but the lives of all who are othered. It's not enough for us to try to gain power for queers - rather, we must work to challenge the very idea that any group or groups in our society or world should have power over the others. It's that idea that ultimatley binds our cause to other movements for social justice.

It is not enough to merely demand civil rights and a "place at the table," but rather, as black gay activist Keith Boykin put it at the Millenium March, we must "demand a whole new table arrangement that welcomes all those who have been excluded." We must fight, in Boykin's words, "not to gain privilege but to challenge the whole concept of privilege itself." That fight is not won that will be won easily, and certainly not alone.

Yet building coalitions and joining our struggles to others' struggles does not meant that we need, as The Malcontent post suggests has already happened, abandon our specific issues at all. Rather, exactly the opposite is true. We should be vocal and we shouldn't be afraid to speak truth to power, and at the same time we should use our ability to speak out on a wide range of issues to get others to be as vocal and as vociferous in the pursuit of queer rights and equality as we are. Only when we invest communities other than our own in our causes - and yes, that means we should become invested in others' causes - will we really start to see some progress on LGBT issues.

That's why to lump the Human Rights Campaign and National Gay & Lesbian Task Force together as one entity, as The Malcontent's post does, is just ridiculous. The Task Force wants to work with other movements and wants to agressively pursue and advance gay issues - and they recognize it's going to be a long term struggle, and not a set of court decisions and overnight victories. HRC, on the other hand, desires to be a single-issue group that doesn't even really push hard on its single issue.

There are many recent examples that attest to this. On Monday, the New York Blade ran this story which describes a recent meeting of LGBT leaders and elected officials convened by NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (the most powerful LGBT elected official in America, arguably) to discuss strategy for the upcoming marriage debate in the Senate. One of their noteworthy moves at this meeting was a decision to essentially throw out the HRC's talking points, which avoid real discussion of gay marriage or LGBT dignity, and write new ones which actually address the issue at hand. This move was very much supported by Foreman, who points out that this is not just a problem with HRC talking points, but with Democratic Party messaging as well.

Overall, what I'm trying to say is this: if we want to be a self-centered single-group single-issue movement, we're going to have to fight a lot harder than groups like HRC that wish to do that are fighting. Yet something tells me we'll end up looking an awful lot like the US does in Iraq right now - struggling to survive while bereft of our friends and utterly surrounded and overwhelmed by our enemies. In fact, in the wake of numerous recent setbacks, this image already seems to be an accurate depiction of the state of our movement today. Yet through the power of community organizing and coalition building, we can - and, I firmly believe, will - change that.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Queers + Immigrant Rights + Standing up for Hotel Workers = Justice

Two things happened this week that could potentially be very important long-term in getting the queer community more engaged on issues of economic justice and the labor and immigrant rights communities more engaged on queer issues.

On Wednesday Matt Foreman, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, issued this incredible statement on the need for the queer community to support the immigrant rights movement - both because it is the right thing to do and because it will tremendously strengthen the political power of both movements in the long term. The whole statement is worth reading, but this part in particular struck a chord with me:

We need to recognize that the leaders of the forces of political and religious intolerance are not driven primarily by anti-gay animus, even though it often feels that way. Instead, under their frame, anti-choice, anti-environment, anti-welfare, anti-sex, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT philosophies not only fit together but are all intertwined...Those of us on the other side, however, lack this overarching and elastic frame. We're all desperately fighting defensive battles to protect our own very narrow slices of an ever-diminishing pie. By ignoring Ben Franklin's advice to all hang together, we are most assuredly in imminent danger of hanging separately, each in our own silos.

This is a stark reality for our own community. At between 4-6 percent of the population, we are simply too small to win equality by ourselves. That means we must build alliances and relationships of trust with other communities and causes. Building these kinds of alliances requires more than words, it requires reciprocal work.

Let's hope Foreman and the Task Force follow up these words by doing LGBT-targeted turnout at immigrant rights demonstrations and by getting its members to bombard Congress with phone calls and emails that begin, "As an LGBT-identified American..." so that our elected officials know this is an issue with truly broad-based support. It's especially important that this happen quickly and visibly now, as the latest round of Senate votes suggest that this debate is truly coming down to the wire.

Meanwhile, in an even more exciting move, UNITE HERE, the national union which represents workers in the hotel, restaurant, textile and apparel industries, on Thursday announced an LGBT-targeted organizing initiative called "Sleep with the Right People" as part of its already incredible Hotel Workers Rising campaign. Hotel Workers Rising is a campaign initiatied by UNITE HERE and the Change to Win federation to lift both union and non-union hotel workers out of poverty and into the middle class, using the threat of multi-city labor actions - particularly hotel boycotts - to force fundamental changes in the way the hotel industry treats its workers. Sleep with the Right People is an attempt to use the LGBT community's leverage as a booming market in the travel industry (now worth nearly $60 billion) to support this effort.

Sleep with the Right People was conceived of with the help of Cleve Jones, founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and I am hopeful that other national LGBT movement figures will be on board soon. It’s a great initiative in that it recognizes both the economic power and the political power of standing with the LGBT community. If the queer community stands with hotel workers, it will not only have a powerful economic impact as far as the boycott goes, but it will also send a political message loud and clear: that we are all in the fight for economic and social justice together. And I have no doubt that if the LGBT community steps up, we will see reciprocal action in the form of UNITE HERE and the other Change to Win unions supporting marriage equality and (perhaps more importantly) a ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

The Service Employees International Union and the United Farm Workers, both in Change to Win, have already come out as supporters of marriage equality. The United Farm Workers move was a direct result of the California LGBT community working against anti-immigrant ballot measures there - so I have no doubt that similar moves could come about if the LGBT community comes out firmly behind the current immigrant rights push and Sleep with the Right People.

One thing about all of this troubles me, however: while both Foreman's immigration statement and the launch of Sleep with the Right People were highlighted in their organization's weekly e-mail bulletin, they are near-impossible to locate on their organization's main web pages. The Hotel Workers Rising web site has a link that says Sleep with the Right People, but does not make any mention or notice of its LGBT-specific focus. In addition, neither of these moves seems to have attracted any real press attention. These are not moves that the Task Force or UNITE HERE should be so quiet about; instead, they should be trumpeted as the incredibly important steps they are. Sleep with the Right People should especially be promoted as a pioneering move to organize the LGBT community on the part of organized labor.

In any event, let’s hope that Sleep with the Right people finds its way onto the agenda of next Wednesday’s National Policy Roundtable of LGBT movement leaders. Send Matt Foreman, who organizes the forum, an email encouraging him to make that happen, and to make Sleep with the Right People a real priority for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the national LGBT movement.

5/20/06 Update - Checking the UNITE HERE website today, the front page now prominently highlights Sleep with the Right People. Way to go, UNITE HERE!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

NOW Takes a Terrific Risk on Lamont; HRC, true to form, backs Lieberman

AP reports that the National Organization for Women's PAC has backed Ned Lamont in his challenge to Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for Senate. Citing Lamont's strong support of "the full range of feminist issues" including full access to emergency contraception for rape victims, equal marriage, and a swift end to the war (rightly including that as a feminist issue!) as opposed to Lieberman's bizarre support for Catholic hospitals that fail to administer EC on "moral grounds", as well as his failure to join the filibuster against Alito and his membership in the "Gang of 14" who oppose filibustering judges except in "extraordinary circumstances," NOW writes, in words that truly inspire:

The stacking of the courts has emboldened those who wish to turn back all progress in the area of civil rights, privacy rights, and of course reproductive rights. The attack on Roe in South Dakota was predictable and a direct consequence of the confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The strategy to pack the courts with right-wing judges who are committed to overturning Roe is no secret. Yet, Senator Lieberman is one of seven Democrats who have promised not to filibuster any of President Bush's judicial nominees, except under "extraordinary circumstances." Well if packing the Supreme Court with abortion opponents like John Roberts and Samuel Alito is not an extraordinary circumstance, then we don't know what is.

These are precarious times for women. We cannot be satisfied with a senator who votes for women much of the time, or even most of the time. We need courageous leaders who will protect and advance all of our rights all of the time. The winner of this election will have profound influence on national policy which directly affects women and girls in Connecticut, in the nation and throughout the world. We are confident that we have found principled leadership in Ned Lamont and are proud to endorse his candidacy for U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign's PAC has predictably endorsed Joe Lieberman.

"Sen. Lieberman's strong support of fairness for all Americans -- gay or straight -- dates back three decades to a time when few of his peers were standing by his side," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

While I understand the fear by HRC and many groups (such as most of organized labor) in endorsing an untested challenger like Lamont, I especially question why HRC would make this endorsement. Joe Lieberman has consistently failed to support marriage equality. Voting against the Federal Marriage Amendment is not good enough and should not be good enough in a race and a state where support of equal marriage is possible and where a candidate can win with that position. It's also especially troubling after Joe Solomnese's strong statement a few days ago for Howard Dean and the DNC to be "clear and unequivocal" in their support of LGBT equality. But how can the LGBT community hold the Democratic Party to account when it continues to support candidates who vote against their interests?

Full disclosure: Lieberman has been a supporter of the LGBT community, no doubt - co-sponsoring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, for one, which in my view is definitely a more important piece of legislation as far as it concerns the rights of all LGBT Americans and not merely those who are priviliged enough to have employment and other benefits that they can give to a spouse. His position on trans rights is less clear, from what I can discern. But when you have an opportunity to help elect a senator who will "protect and support all of our rights all of the time," why would you settle?

It's a revealing endorsement but not an unpredictable one. Ultimately, what HRC values is access to power, and its money certainly does provide it with access. Consistent support of an incumbent like Lieberman, especially when he is facing a tough race, is certainly a way, if he is elected, to help maintain that access. But HRC is never going to lose its access or influence by not supporting people like Lieberman. It would only stand to gain by withholding support in the race, or by coming out strongly for Lamont. HRC already has access, but what good has it been, when the situation of LGBT Americans has for the past decade remained little changed?

The only way the LGBT community is going to win equality is if we build up not our access, but our real political power. If we are unwilling to demand that candidates take the best stands on our issues - especially when it is completely politically possible, as it is in Connecticut - then how will we ever build a pro-marriage, pro-equality majority in either house of Congress?

I'm not even saying that the HRC had to endorse Lamont (though that would have certainly been nice). But in such a high-profile contest, on the same day that NOW is willing to take a stand not only for women but for queers too (because they, unlike HRC, understand that the feminist and queer struggles are inextricably bound up with one another), why does HRC feel the need to use its (unearned) position as the leading LGBT advocacy group to undercut them that same day? There was no need for HRC to endorse in this race, and in doing so they continue to undermine the fight for LGBT equality in this country both by acting against their interests and by alienating key progressive allies gay and straight.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bayard Rustin & the Birth of Creative Trouble!

As one might imagine I've been, as a relatively nascent blogger, wrestling with titles for this site all week. There was a time when it was going to be called Queerly Political; I'd even claimed the link and started setting stuff up. But I quickly ditched the site and the name. Several friends whom I deeply trust thought it would 'pin' me and my writings too decidedly.

Hearing that from others confirmed a feeling I had already had, yet one I resisted. As I've struggled with how much to let my queer identity define me and my life/life's work, I've often felt a very real need to assert my perspective as a queer one, to defy the silencing of queer voices by asserting my own voice as a queer one. Yet I knew that putting 'queer' in a blog title would automatically consign it to the category of queer blog. And, as bogus as that sort of labeling is, I felt that on some level I have to avoid it if I want to be effective.

Isn't that ridiculous? The content of this blog is certainly going to be queer. Believe me, you'll be hearing that word, its meanings, its complexities, its possibilities examined a lot. As I think more about it, I'm not really sure if it makes a huge difference if the title contains 'queer.' Maybe from first impressions. The fact that the wider world that might stumble upon this amalgamation of leftist ideas and opinions wouldn't automatically know I'm queer might make a difference in whether or not they choose to read it. But does that change the second they find the phrase "as a queer ______" ? I think it probably does. I don't shy away from being a known queer, but I refuse to deny, unlike someone like Andrew Sullivan, that it has bearing on who I am and how I am perceived - as do my other identites, as male, as gay, as Jewish, as atheist, as activist, as lover of literature, as feminist, and so on. Yet these identities all operate and intersect in different ways and have different degrees of bearing on myself and the world in which I inhabit.

So as I kept searching for meaningful quotes or other ways to cleverly and effectively title my blog, I found myself arriving at the figure of Bayard Rustin. The principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the man who convinced MLK that non-violence was the answer, Bayard Rustin was also an openly gay black man, a socialist and a Quaker. He was someone who profoundly understood the cultural, political and economic meaning of difference.

As an openly gay man back when homosexuality was truly taboo, he struggled to find a safe space within the civil rights and labor movements he occupied, and constantly faced questions, both from people outside the movement and within it, about his sexuality (as well as his former Communist affilliations). Difference meant something very profound for him both personally and in his social and political interactions with others. Yet for all of the struggle and hardship his difference caused him, Rustin never shied away from being who he was, and never shied away from pursuing justice, understanding (as I do) that our oppressions are multiple and interconnected; that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And all this, despite the fact that his difference meant that he has received little historical or cultural credit for his huge contributions to the civil rights movement - both then and now.

Rustin's story is an incredible one - and one that I frankly do not even know enough about - yet it is one that few Americans have ever or will ever know. His life and his legacy are profoundly important and significant. So why do I use his words to title my blog? I don't want to be perceived as somehow claiming his legacy as my own, or somehow seeing myself as an heir to him. I do think, however, that I am someone who lives, in many ways, on the edge of multiple identities and allegiances in the way that he did; and who, becuase of a real committment to truth and integrity, questions and struggles with the role of those identities in shaping my life, my beliefs, my actions and my politics. And I guess that, in this blog world where everyone struggles to find a niche and everyone is making a claim as to having unique things to say, is where I come into all of this.

Ultimately, in the course of examining and questioning events and narratives in American and international politics, and in my own life as an organizer, I hope to contribute something to a growing conversation in America about identity, politics and culture. Through my experiences as a queer man in the labor movement, a labor activist in the queer movement, a student organizer in a relatively disfunctional student political movement, and so on, I hope to elucidate some feelings and insights that can help move that conversation, currently being dominated by cultural conservatives and Ivory Tower academics, in a more - useful? - direction.

And, at the very least, I want to create a little more of an understanding of what exactly Bayard Rustin was talking about when, many years ago, he professed a belief in "social dislocation and creative trouble."