AIDS, Identity And Legacy In Contemporary Gay History

April 8, 2010

By Tod Roulette

In 1986, I was a fledging openly gay black man on an overwhelmingly white college campus in the Midwest.

And I was happy. I had begun volunteering at the Gay and Lesbian Services of Kansas center at the University of Kansas.

Who Wants To Live Forever Lyrics

Written by Brian May.   Sung by Brian May, Freddie Mercury

There’s no time for us

There’s no place for us

What is this thing that builds our dreams

Yet slips away from us?

Who wants to live forever?

Who wants to live forever?

There’s no chance for us,

It’s all decided for us,

This world has only one sweet moment

Set aside for us

Who wants to live forever?

Who wants to live forever?

Now touch my tears with your lips

Touch my world with your fingertips

And we can have forever

And we can love forever

Forever is our today

Who wants to live forever?

Who wants to live forever?

Who waits forever anyway?

Coming from a strict fundamentalist Christian upbringing, in high school I had struggled with Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s levels of Despair; finite, infinite and one’s finding freedom between the two through religious faith. Connecting, acknowledging, and attempting to bridge the here and now, exploring the abstract identity of who one is, and the  pursuing the eternal goal of connecting with God, all relate to the individual condition. This search extends to disenfranchised persons in a political context as well.

The rock group, Queen was a popular musical choice of my stepbrother despite my stepfather forbidding him to play it.  One song in particular, “Who Wants to Live Forever,” was his favorite. The song features the vocals of lead singer Freddy Mercury, a closeted gay pop icon of much intensity and over the top showmanship. Mercury’s followers were mostly teen and young adult males, both and gay and straight. The song serves as a cultural marker in 1986 when it was number 14 on the Pop charts in the U.S. and number 26 on the English charts in 1986.

Gay men as a collective had experienced their first taste of revolution within the newly emerging identity and cultural wars as African Americans and feminists had before them. Their nexus rallied around the clash between Stone Wall bar patrons- mostly drag queens and the New York City police on June 27th, 1969. The finite curbing of their rights and agency by a political system, was resisted by a bloody physical and political test of asserting their self-concept.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death presents the human condition as dualistic, with a tendency to create hero-systems.  I contend that this can be examined not only in the individual condition but also in the contemporary gay movement. Just as gay males fought against the annihilation, by AIDS, of their newly emerging identity, the modern gay community seeks to create its own heroism project and legacy. As Becker posits there is a natural outlet; gay men sublimate their fear of death by creating cultural relics, for example-gay porn. The speed at which death took hold of gay men in a community barely beginning to understand and articulate a sense of self had far reaching affects for the LGBT community and the social systems of politics, militarism, religion, familial, educational and artistic community.

As a nineteen-year-old man involved in campus politics, a writer, a black man, and recovering Pentecostal Christian, the heated AIDS debate, predominately centered in major cities such as San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York, seemed distant.

During what seemed like a cataclysmic change in the cultural landscape in 2000, I met my first life partner, Chuck Allen, III who was 13 years my senior. His favorite rock group was Queen and he played it a lot. He joked that when he grew old and died he didn’t want a funeral. He simply wanted some friends and me to play “Who Wants to Live Forever” by Queen, and dump his ashes at his favorite boyhood summer camp.  It struck me as odd that he spoke of such a thing, and even more the morbid title of the song. But, as we grew to understand each other and our perspectives as gay black men living a generation apart, I heard about the identity of gay men during the 70’s and early ‘80’s in which Chuck lived. He was not openly gay, and as an accountant and politician and black man, couldn’t afford in any sense to risk the social standing he had achieved as a ‘double-binded’ man.

But, he talked about how many men he saw die around him and spoke candidly about the ‘survivor guilt’ he felt. For years he continued to live a relatively strong healthy life and prosper professionally while so many other men had died or risked coming out. He did not participate in the larger group dynamic or engage in the gay collective state of Kierkegaard’s infinite level of Despair: ‘Who Am I?” as explained in The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard writes, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss- an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.- is sure to be noticed.” (Kierkegaard, 32).

The urgency and mystery in the deaths of thousands of gay men, must be underscored and retold to a new generation of Americans, both gay and straight, so that today’s America can fully appreciate how the scourge of AIDS fueled the contemporary speed and articulation of Western gay rights. In 1981 the first reports emerged of strange cases of disease thats seemed to affect only gay men. Author Gabriel Rotello states in Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, contrary to what is widely believed, the first case was not documented by the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) June 5, 1981 published by the Centers for Disease Control. It was, in fact, a gay newspaper, the “New York Native”. As the number of cases became hundreds and thousands reaching from New York, to D.C. to San Francisco, mounting between ’81 to 1986, gay men became identified with illness and disease in the wider press and the popular imagination.  Rotello writes, “Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan spoke for many when he wrote: “The poor homosexuals-they have declared war on Nature, and now Nature is exacting an awful retribution” (Rotello 92).  Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor  (1978) and later AIDS and Its Metaphors discussed the vilifying effects and lack of personhood of this blanket categorization.  She writes, “Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance”(Sontag, ch.8) and, “For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obsene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied” (Sontag, ch.7).

Gay men were under attack by a plague with death rates that had not seen since epidemic of influenza in the United States in 1918, but it was only amongst a stigmatized sexual minority, and quickly religious and political conservatives made distinct stratified lines between AIDS sufferers. Once heterosexual persons and children were known to have contracted it, they were set aside as the ‘general population’ and ‘innocent victims’ as columnist and contemporary historian Sarah Schulman reminds us in My American History Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years. In a presentation made by Schulman at the First National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference in San Francisco in 1990, Schulman delivered a paper entitled “AIDS and the Responsibility of the Writer,” she writes, “ It also had to reject words. Words that were being used to distort. Words that were lies. Words like innocent victim. Words like general population.” (Schulman,195).

Gay men were under attack by a plague with death rates that had not seen since epidemic of influenza in the United States in 1918, but it was only amongst a stigmatized sexual minority, and quickly religious and political conservatives made distinct stratified lines between AIDS sufferers. Once heterosexual persons and children were known to have contracted it, they were set aside as the ‘general population’ and ‘innocent victims’ as columnist and contemporary historian Sarah Schulman reminds us in My American History Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years. In a presentation made by Schulman at the First National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference in San Francisco in 1990, Schulman delivered a paper entitled “AIDS and the Responsibility of the Writer,” she writes, “ It also had to reject words. Words that were being used to distort. Words that were lies. Words like innocent victim. Words like general population.” (Schulman,195).

In 1986, Bowers vs Hardwick went before the Supreme Court to determine if sodomy was in fact constitutional and if consenting adults could in fact be prosecuted for practicing sodomy.  In Why Marriage?, George Chauncey writes this about the case,  “Three thousand protestors filled the streets of New York the day Bowers was announced, and the following year a national march in Washington for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender rights drew half a million. A new generation of militant activism was launched the same year with the founding of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grassroots organization that orchestrated highly theatrical and media- savvy attacks on the institutions and individuals they held responsible for the status quo: political officials who pretended the disease did not affect their constituents, public health agencies that acted as if AIDS was not a threat to “public” health, and drug companies that thought they could gouge a stigmatized and defenseless group of people with unconscionably high prices. ACT UP shut down Wall Street, unfurled huge AIDS banners at Yankee Stadium, invaded the campus of the National Institutes of Health, and plastered streets with posters warning that Silence=Death. A new generation took that message to heart” (Chauncey, 44).

The stage was set to accost the invisibility or anomie of gay people in the church and synagogue, military (as mandatory testing for HIV became a major battle) and in the schools as ACT UP members fought to include sex education in the curriculum and employment discrimination.

Gay men began to find their voice and power regarding their familial and legal standing through the ultimate vulnerability of the AIDS emergency. Placed at the mercy of hospital staffs, funeral homes and families of their loved ones, gay men were often not acknowledged as long time lovers and domestic partners of the suffering and dying and dead. Many found themselves at odds with family members of lovers, landlords, and doctors and visiting centers.

As George Chauncey states in Why Marriage?, two simultaneous events led to a push for a legal defining of same sex partnerships: the rise of lesbian women, creating an unseen before child-raising baby boom, and gay men, facing not only a semantic void for their intimate relationships, but no legal recourse which could protect them. “AIDS raised the emotionally charged question of who counted as family in the most profound ways. The biological family of an estranged son with AIDS was often content to let someone else take care of him. Conflicts were more likely to erupt over funeral arrangements and the estate. No matter how much a hospital might have cooperated with the partner during a man’s illness, it usually felt it had no choice but to follow the wishes of the biological family when it came to the funeral, even when the family’s plans went against the expressed wishes of the deceased” (Chauncey, 99).  Gay men and lesbians realized marriage as the palpable legal remedy in the terrain of identity politics. As the ace card, and not merely a symbolic carrot of equality.  Marriage remedies social dislocation by preventing evictions of a shared apartment, allowing one to share in health costs, deciding in burying a loved one, and avoiding taxation at a double rate. But, in the 1980’s activists went for domestic partnership rights in the context of AIDS.

The social polemics debate, which would fire up the White House and major religious denominations under the George H. Bush Presidency, was foreshadowed on a campy, excessive, ‘80’s television mini-series when the AIDS scourge had not yet combusted. President Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet said the words ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’ or even ‘Gay Cancer’-and did not until February 1986.  Identity politics and characters at odds within a family over the right to self define were already planted. Several years before gay legal groups and couples began a concerted battle to gain domestic partnership rights the wealthy WASP character on Dynasty typifying what Nye calls the hero father, lords over and berates his newly found out gay son for being a faggot and then abruptly excuses himself to the garden for his wedding.

“I understand about sublimation. I understand how you could try to hide sexual dysfunction behind hostility toward a father. I uh, I am even prepared to say that I could find a little homosexual experimentation acceptable just as long as you didn’t bring it home. Don’t you see son I am offering you a chance to straighten yourself out.” Says Blake.

“Straighten myself out? I’m not sure I know what that means. I’m not sure I could if I wanted to and I’m not sure I want to,” says Steven Carrington.

Getting up disgusted, Blake Carrington from the leather sofa says,

“Of course, I forgot the American Psychiatric Association has decided it’s no longer a disease. That’s too bad I could have endowed a foundation: The Steven Carrington Institute for the Treatment and Study of Faggotry. Well, if you’ll excuse me I have to go get married.” (DYNASTY Episode 1 Part 1, Jan. 1981).

The same scapegoating which kindled the fire of resistance in the days of Joan of Arc and Galileo burned; gay men and the LGBT community had to fight back against institutional attacks that came on all fronts: attacks upon their identity as abnormal and synonymous with disease. In states that there was a need to chip away at the abnormality, pervasiveness of years of inculcation doubled, with paranoia taking root in the 1980’s.

Sarah Schulman says there was an urgency to pushback this erroneous and demonizing definition of gay men.  Schulman says of a protest at Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral over the demonizing of gay men and the AIDS epidemic, “…there had been a real life demonstration of seven thousand angry men and women confronting the Cathedral” (Schulman, 194-5). This struggle was pushing back against forces in place for centuries. In order to construct the view of self in Kierkegaard, gay people must work against the construction of abnormality established in the 17 century and Age of Reason.

“In Insult and the Making of the Gay Self (20004) Eribon insists on the importance of Madness as part of Foucault’s thinking about the production of nonnormative sexualities. In his chapter, “Homosexuality and Unreason,” Eribon asks: “Would it be possible to read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization as a history of homosexuality that dared not speak its name?” (Huffer, 48).

The ‘denial of death’ spoken about by Becker can be seen in not only the gay community by the participation in the various stages of what Kierkegaard says are the levels of Despair or sublimation the awareness of art through money, art, sex etc. but also the larger ‘general society’ (heterosexuals) who through the its various institutions and popular culture attempted to deny that AIDS was a disease that could affect ‘normal’ or ‘good’ heterosexuals, it could only affect drug addicts (lower class heterosexuals at that) and abnormal sexual deviants. Rap stars sang songs advocating killing gay men, as I interviewed cultural theorist and filmmaker Isaac Julien; “I think what we are witnessing here is a response to the visibility of black queer culture,” he says. By capturing both sides – the homos and the haters – on film, he hopes “to make black popular culture more complicated and complex for people to read, so we don’t make these assumptions that all black culture is homophobic” (OUT magazine Feb. 1995, pg. 42). In the interview, he states that the vocal assertiveness of gay men articulating themselves and AIDS hysteria at the time brought about this angry violent ‘denial’. Religious, anti-gay groups, such as the Moral Majority, were the other continuum of intolerance exhibited toward gays, and they projected their fears of an ugly death onto a small vulnerable minority.

Gay men had no choice but face their mortality and their sublimation through the arts, and as a result creating hero projects (excellent) has had a lasting and profound affect on the development, documentation, historical account, and artistic legacy of gay men and the larger society. The immediate creative cultural relic of the AIDS epidemic was the creation of the AIDS quilt in 1987. In fact, the quilt is an ongoing project, and today comprises over 40,000 panels. This major collective project, envisioned in the height of the battle, served two purposes: production of an art work which would last and be seen as a teaching tool for generations, and creating ‘everyday’ heroes of the individual persons with their birth dates and deaths, the objects of their existence.

The fiery need to give voice and vocabulary to the experience happening to around gay men became a major shift in the contemporary art world as gay male artists developed work in all genres and began new movements in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The pressing need to be represented, and speak against the oppression, found a place in the gallery system and challenged the gay men=disease paranoia and denial of death at work in the larger society. Much of this new artwork did not speak of AIDS at all, but there was no doubt there was a sensibility to the flowering visibility.

My best friend Cary S. Leibowitz at the University of Kansas, a Connecticut Jew who was openly gay, became a part of the cult of rising gay men showing in the late ‘80’s. His first show was entitled, “Everyone WENT to the Candyass Carnival and all I got was this lousy T-shirt,” and such ‘challenge the collector’ art as “Fuck Me Raw” and “A Dick in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush”.  AIDS pushed gay men, and they burned the envelope.

Leibowitz boldly used the art moniker, Candy Ass just in case someone might miss the point that although his work was self-mocking, smeared racists, homophobes, clone gays and anyone else in his path, he was above all a proud gay man. David Wonjnaricz, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nayland Blake, to name a few, all created work which depicted homosexual penetration, male intimacy or a gay visual idiom.

This explosion in queer art grew out of the angry vocal confrontation of the AIDS era. ACT UP membership, which sprouted chapters in many parts of the country, was largely comprised of street & gallery system artists such as Ross Bleckner who went on to found Community Research Initiative on AIDS (CRIA). CRIA raises money in large part by artists donating their work at auctions.

In an extremely controversial and never attempted before effort to speak graphically about sex to the public, Surgeon General C. Everett Coop under the Reagan administration sent out a mass mailing to 107 million households in the U.S. detailing explicit sexual information about how AIDS could and could not be contracted.

Hysteria, quarantine, employment discrimination against gay men in education as well as activists attempting to safeguard the next generation against infection rates, pushed to have information about AIDS incorporated into the sex education curriculum at all ages and as an attempt to balance the gay as abnormal and disease ridden message pervasive at the time at a all new high, the LGBT community began to push against school boards across the nation.

In an article written for Womannews in 1986, Sarah Schulman notes, “The rights of employees in the public school system have been challenged. These witch hunts will be based on a test that has such a high rate of false results that the gay press nationally is recommending that no one take it.” (Schulman pp. 171)

The pushback element, and seeds planted in the midst of adversity by gay activists, can now be evidenced by the number of gay and lesbian alliances in existence.  There are over 4,000 Gay-Straight Alliance student clubs registered with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education network. (

This hysteria and efforts to demonize homosexual men, to create ‘innocent victims’ and a ‘general population’ whose distinctions cannot be described as anything more than a denial of the larger heterosexual society and institutions’ refusals to acknowledge their own immortality. As long as energy was expended to pinpoint areas where gay men and abnormal sexual acts might reside, the anxiety spoke of by Becker in his book could be eased if only superficially. Becker, in his chapter on Terror of Death, says, “For another thing, there is nothing like shocks in the real world to jar loose repressions…With adults we see this manifestation of anxiety in the face of impending catastrophe where it takes the form of panic” (Becker, 21).

The first direct confrontation with the military, which has lead to the current “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy instituted under the Bill Clinton Presidency and now to be repealed under the Barack Obama era, is a legacy of the attempt by the military to seek out HIV positive persons within its ranks. This is highlighted in Schulman’s 1986 Woman news article, “Testing is already going on in the military which has said it will discharge all homosexuals” (Schulman, 171). AIDS, and the annihilation and awareness of gay men, again fueled the finite level of Despair of needed in the temporal life, the second level of Despair “Who Am I?”, and also the ultimate level of Despair exposed by Kierkegaard, ‘connecting with the beyond”. 

ACT UP confronted the churches, from the Roman Catholic church in the form of ‘Die-Ins’ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue,  to Pentecostal and Baptist pastors with other protests.  No longer would the debates of homosexuality and religion be spoken to the ‘Amen corner’ (the already converted), but instead in the street, and mostly in yelling matches between parishioners, clergy and openly identifiable gay men. Paradoxically, Kierkegaard says the ultimate the transcendence is to choose the religious life, and gay men have to fight for this option in the Christian and Judeo traditions. In The Sickness Unto Death, he writes, “The lowest form of offense, the most innocent form, humanly speaking, is to leave the whole issue of Christ undecided…. The next form of offense is negative but in the form of being acted upon, of suffering. It definitely feels that it cannot ignore Christ, is not capable of leaving Christ in abeyance and then otherwise leading a busy life. But neither can it believe…. The last form of offense…the positive form…declares Christianity to be untrue, a lie; it denies Christ (that he has existed and that he is the one he said he was)…. This form of offense is sin against the Holy Spirit…. This offense is the highest intensification of sin, something that is usually overlooked because the opposites are not construed Christianly as being sin/faith” (Kierkegaard, 129ff).

Chuck and myself [I] were ourselves at the center of the theological storm of this debate within our own historical African American Episcopal church in 2003 when we requested a ‘holy union’ of our partnership. For an African American couple to request their congregation to bless their union in Harlem, in a Holy Communion service was ground breaking – the first time ever at an African American Episcopal church in the U.S.  This shows how the pushing of AIDS activism from the inception of ACT UP in 1986 led to the possibilities of these options. The national response to this one example of an African American couple-seeking acceptance within the African American church was well documented in the national and local media. (New Haven Advocate, p 12) After much debate, an executive church body vote, and intervention by the New York the Diocesan Bishop, the ceremony was allowed to proceed. “The timing of the ceremony follows another high-profile event for the Episcopal Church, which this summer stunned its own members and the religious world by confirming the Reverend V. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop. And observers say Allen and Roulette’s ceremony is further evidence of how the Episcopal Church is in some ways making itself over in favor of its and lesbian members.” (Quittner, 31-3)

Theology, and the place of compassion for the LGBT community, pried upon the door to the votes being taken about the role of ‘pastoral care’ and seminary requirements in not only Protestant churches, but the Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal church worldwide. The debate would also extend to United Methodists, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches’ debates over the past five years regarding the authorization of same-sex blessings in the U.S.

The most heroic ideal esteemed by cultures over time has been procreation; it has been idealized as the ultimate legacy of a man. And following the annihilation of gay men by the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the attempts to fill a semantic void of relationships, and the quest to shore up political and legal rights, along with the strides made in religious acceptance, the idea of two father’s raising children has become a rising trend.

Chuck and myself were part of this phenomenon in 2003 when we began attending the Wanna Be Parents classes for LGBT couples. The same year both of us became licensed foster parents with the intention of adopting. When Chuck was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer the following year, the desire to have a child became a burning drive for both of us before he expired; a legacy he could leave behind, a son with his last name. Every moment we spent with friends, I photographed feverishly for posterity, and for our child (whoever the child would be and whenever the child would arrive). To our surprise, in 2007, two boys came into our lives, and although we knew Chuck would not be alive for too many years, we felt we had accomplished our goal. The night we put the boys in bed for the first time, Chuck turned to me and said “Well, are you happy? We did it.” At 54 years old when Chuck succumbed to cancer, he had lived through a major global infectious disease emergency, publicly declared his own homosexuality to his family and on the front page of a newspaper, been on national television twice as a black gay politician, seen his own church embrace gay couples as parishioners and as seminarians, and had seen advertisements of world renown African model Iman and her husband in an HIV awareness campaign that reads, “We All Have AIDS”.  This was a long cry from 1986, when the denial of death lead the president to avoid the topic for 5 long years and avoid serious funding to educate and find a cure.

Freddie Mercury was the first rock star to die of AIDS and did not announce his infection until 24 hours before his death. He died November 24th, 1991. His foundation, the Mercury Phoenix Trust, has raised more than $16 million dollars for AIDS grants, and in 2008 I founded the Senator Chuck Allen, III Scholarship Fund in honor and memory of my late partner who died in February 2008. These two individual men’s contributions in and to the larger gay articulation of “Who Am I?”, the hero project, and the transcendence of themselves, have left building blocks for the next generation of society, both gay and straight.

Tod Roulette

Contributing writer Harlem World Magazine, Special Education Teacher at NYC Dept. of Education. New York, NY, and Fine Art professional, New York, NY.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

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