How AIDS Changed Us All

I know the author Fran Lebowitz mostly because she is so quotable. In a recent article she nailed what I have felt for a long time — that much of the progress we have made as a gay community is because of AIDS. That most massive of dark clouds had an astonishing silver lining. It forced us out of the closet.

As Lebowitz said in a recent interview in The Awl:

The idea—and not just the idea, the actual life of homosexuals—changed immeasurably because of the acceptance of homosexuality. And that was because of AIDS. No one ever says that. Or how AIDS caused gay marriage. I mean, it would never have existed. You could pretend to your family that you were straight, but you couldn’t pretend you weren’t dying.

As AIDS forced our entire community out of hiding, it also pressured my generation into pretending we were normal. Even if we had HIV, even if we were dying, most of us did not want to be associated with this disease the culture so deeply feared. As Lebowitz tartly puts it:

And after AIDS, I think that [homosexual] people were afraid of a kind of official response to AIDS, like they would be arrested, or put in jail, all these kind of things, which are not unlikely things, by the way, and so they made up a lie. ‘We’re just like you. We are just like you, we’re exactly like you.’ But of course, they were not exactly like straight people. They were nothing like straight people.

Only now, after being outed by AIDS and overcoming the stigma of being gay and possibly diseased, are we coming into our own as people. That is the current gay politics: to be accepted as people, unique in our own rights and equal as citizens.

Channeling Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury in 1984 (photo by Thomas Steffan)

I remember the day I first heard Bohemian Rhapsody. I imagine it was 1975 when the album came out, and my friend Jeff had just bought the LP. A couple of us sat on his bed and listened as the ballad rock opera unfolded in our ears and my head exploded. I’ve loved Queen ever since.

I also have a hard time forgiving Freddie Mercury for coming out so late. He was famously gay in underground London, yet he only came out as gay 24 hours before his death. When he died on November 24, 1991, the announcement read: “Freddie Mercury died peacefully this evening at his home at 1 Logan Place, Kensington, London. His death was the result of pneumonia brought on by AIDS.” He could have helped change a lot of people’s understanding of AIDS and homosexuality if he had owned it a little earlier.

Then compassion reminds me that Mercury was born born Farrokh Bulsara to a Parsi (Zoroastrian-Indian) family in Zanzibar, growing in Tanzania and India. To go from that background to become one of the world’s biggest rockstars must have been a trip. And then to front the band Queen. Oh my.

This cascade of reminiscences was triggered by this charming cover of Somebody to Love by singer Marc Martel. Love the dirty ‘stache.

RIP, Freddie. We still love you.

[Update: August 2012]

Freddie Mercury rose again to rock the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics. It is stunning to see a gay man, long dead from AIDS, rousting a stadium full of people into singing out loud in joy. Powerful stuff.

Life After AIDS, The Next Generation

Maybe the most beautiful essay on being gay I’ve read this year is from Canada’s Walrus magazine on how life looks to the younger gay generation “post-AIDS.” Author Michael Harris shares how his world looks:

For my friends and me, “post-AIDS” refers to more than a disease. It means post-protests, post-outrage, post-victimization. It touches our entire lives and leaves us with a deep-seated and cruel distaste for the sissy boys who have dominated our representation in films and TV (after all, wasn’t it the bottoms who got AIDS?). It means vainly attempting to make up new ways of talking, walking, and loving, because the old ones carry the stain of disaster. We are the first generation of gay men to grow up free of overwhelming oppression and imminent crisis. Growing up after AIDS means profiting from the civil rights battles it occasioned.

But in some ways we are still hopelessly lost. A generation of men who could have been our mentors was decimated.

It is a must read for Harris’s perceptive insights into what the next generation faces:

Like my dad, whose own father was an orphan during the Depression, my friends and I know what it’s like to inherit a wrecked history and build on rubble, to flail around while trying to create our own culture in the wake of events we cannot overcome.

I am thrilled to announce that a new generation of young gay men is arising whose lives were not defined by AIDS. What an incredible blessing for all of us.