On June 5, 1981 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This was 4 days before my 9th birthday. Over the next 18 months, other cases were discovered in cities throughout the country. This disease was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRIDS). By August of 1982 it had been renamed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By May of 1986, the virus that causes AIDS had been isolated and was named HIV. I was almost 14.
Spending the first years of the AIDS epidemic in a fundamentalist Christian setting strongly colored my initial impressions and understanding of this disease. So many in the Christian community saw this as a gay disease that was God’s wrath for living a homosexual “lifestyle.” It was almost inevitable that my own beliefs would mirror those of the community around me. I am ashamed to say that for many years I felt little remorse or sympathy for the thousands of people, primarily gay men, who died horrific deaths from AIDS. So many of us stood by and did nothing to help, believing that those who died deserved their fate. Many prominent Christian leaders would justify their inaction by blaming the victims, quoting Romans 1:27 “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV 1984 edition)
These years were also the beginning of my own understanding and exploration of sex and sexuality. I discovered I was gay during the same years gay men were dying in record numbers. AIDS was in the news a lot then, and those around me used it to demonize gay men and their “perverted lifestyles,” saying that those who were afflicted were under God’s wrath. AIDS became just one more punishment I had to try to avoid, just one more reason I had to find any way I could to stop being gay. While trying to run away from my own sexuality, I also turned my back on thousands of people who, I was convinced, deserved their own deaths. It wasn’t until years later, when I left Christianity, that I realized just how terribly wrong I had been.
I can never make up for my early beliefs about AIDS and those who contracted the disease. I can never apologize to those who died while I believed their deaths were somehow just. I was part of the problem that allowed thousands to die needlessly. My community stood by in approval merely because those who were dying were part of a marginalized minority. A minority I now belong to.
I’ve grown a lot since AIDS was first discovered. I have broken free of the early programming that the disease is somehow God’s wrath. However, I am still ignorant of the full personal impact of what it means to live with HIV or have loved ones who have been lost to AIDS. This epidemic has had an incalculable effect on the gay community and on gay culture, but my only part in this history is one of which I am deeply ashamed.
We will never be able to fully deal with the AIDS epidemic until we end the stigmatization of those who are touched by the disease. Standing now as a member of the community that has born the brunt of the devastation from HIV/AIDS, I can work towards cultivating greater empathy and understanding, not only in myself but in the world around me.
People often question why the trans community is included with the LGB community since gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. While the two are separate, going through my own transition has shown me that they may be more interrelated than I previously believed — but that is for another post. Many people believe, erroneously, that the trans community was lumped in with the LGB community, almost as an afterthought because the T community did not have anywhere else to go. But it was actually the LGB community that came out of the trans community, both of which originally came out of the intersex community.
At one point in history it was believed that all people who did not conform to societal gender norms were intersex. It was known that there were people who were physically intersex so it was just assumed that people who went outside of social or sexual gender roles were mentally intersex. If a woman wanted to have sex with other women it was assumed she wanted to be a man and if a man wanted to have sex with other men it was assumed he wanted to be a woman. We still see this type of thinking in some heterosexual people towards effeminate men and masculine women. Of course this does not explain masculine gay men or femme lesbians, but it is this type of thinking that causes those who are not gay or trans to view us as all the same. It was because of how we were perceived by the cisgender heteronormative world that originally made us natural allies.
As sexual orientation became understood as something distinct from gender identity, the different factions of the LGBT community started to emerge. When we were all marginalized equally it was easier for the community to bond together against our shared oppression. But as some parts of the community began to gain acceptance in society, it became harder to keep community cohesion and unity. Each segment of the LGBT community started to identify their specific needs and only wanted to fight for those things that would further their own goals. Granted, there have been some voices in the community that have spoken to the necessity of keeping some kind of alliance even while we push for different goals. But often there has been a lot of conflict around what direction the LGBT movement should take as a whole, as if we can only do one thing at a time. Those in the marriage equality movement get frustrated with those pushing other agendas like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) saying that marriage equality will gain us more acceptance from mainstream society. Those in the DADT repeal movement argue that gaining the federal acceptance of open military service will gain us more acceptance. Those fighting for the ENDA complain that marriage equality or open military service doesn’t mean much to someone who can’t find job to support themselves. Within our community we find a myriad of things that threaten to fracture a cohesive movement towards equality, from socioeconomic disparities, to disagreements on effective strategy, to outright bigotry and prejudice.
While the LGB community and the T community often have different political agendas, it has not generally been the political differences that threaten to split the community in two. It is rather the need to create and reinforce a distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some in the LGB community fear that associating themselves with the T community reinforces the fallacy that gay people who do not follow societal gender norms are really trans and want to be the opposite sex. Some in the T community fear that even though they identify as straight, staying in the LGB community reinforces the fallacy that they are really just gay people who couldn’t handle being gay. Both of these fears, while not uncommon, seem to be rooted in internal bigotry and prejudice. As one group’s acceptance in society increases, they try to distance their association with others in the community whom they see as a hindrance to full acceptance. They don’t want to be associated with the more fringe elements in the community and will do whatever they can to show how they are not like “those people.” Unfortunately those of us in the trans community see this within our own ranks. It saddens me that the LGBT community not only has to fight bigotry and oppression from mainstream society, but we have to fight it among ourselves as well. It seems as though our desperation to be seen as legitimate or acceptable to others causes us to be willing to throw overboard the most marginalized among us.
But we should not be struggling for acceptance. That should not be the goal of any segment of the LGBT community or any other marginalized community. We do not need acceptance in order to have equality under the law. Acceptance would be nice, but acceptance and equality are not synonymous and we should never make the mistake of believing that they are. Bayard Rustin once said “The job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That’s our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.” And the way to create that kind of society is to fight for the right of every person to live the life that is best for them, as long as they are not harming anyone else. No one should be prevented from expressing their true self in whatever manner they wish. This applies to everyone equally. Respecting another person’s right to live whatever kind of life they see fit to live does not mean I have to like the person or approve of what they do. But as long as they are not harming anyone else, they have the right to their life every bit as much as I have the right to my own.
We have to fight bigotry wherever we encounter it, whether it is in mainstream society or in our own communities. We cannot allow our own prejudices to rip apart our alliances. We have to stop focusing our energies on fighting each other and start focusing on creating an equal society that respects every person’s right to live as they so choose, no matter what anyone else thinks of their choices — even we ourselves.