Safety in Numbers

Chapter 5

Gay men and de-gaying

An AIDS education resource published in 1992 includes a role-playing game in which various characters debate the setting up of an AIDS advice and counselling service. Various characters are given stereotypical briefs: a businessman opposed to his taxes being spent on HIV services; a local resident worried about damage to the character of the neighborhood; a mother who objects to children with HIV being allowed into schools, and so on. One of the thirteen characters runs a local gay rights society. Is he there to argue for the needs of gay men as those most affected by the epidemic, or perhaps to offer advice on the achievements of other gay men in establishing AIDS service organisations, or maybe even to speak out against homophobic bigotry? Not at all. By this stage, gay men were widely perceived as the prime movers in attempts to play down the impact of the epidemic upon their community, and this gay character's brief therefore states "It is a fact that the highest incidence of AIDS is amongst male homosexuals and drug misusers. How will you argue against this?" (emphasis added). (71)

One of the more painful truths about the de-gaying of AIDS is that many gay men involved in AIDS work actively participated in a process which seems with hindsight to have been immensely damaging to gay men's interests. Gay men came to be seen not as the pioneers of AIDS education and services, but as deceitful apologists arguing against clear facts. How did this extraordinary change come about?

As has been noted, by the mid-1980s gay community organisations in major cities such as London, New York, San Francisco and Sydney had extensive experience in providing AIDS-related education and services. For a limited period, this experience, and the evidence for the unprecedented success of grass roots safer sex campaigns among gay men, commanded considerable respect. In the UK in particular, a strong working relationship evolved between the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Department of Health. As substantial government funding for AIDS prevention and services became available, the voluntary sector evolved to take advantage of that funding.

In practice, this meant that community-based organisations in many cases became informal social services agencies, and in so doing, adopted many of the institutional norms of statutory bodies. Although there remained considerable disagreements over AIDS policies between government agencies and community-based organisations, "[t]he AIDS groups grew closer in sensibility to their partner government agencies, even while they fought over issues like mandatory testing, discrimination and control of research". (72) This transition did not take place without dissent; to Larry Kramer, one of the founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York, the changes in that organisation represented a shift in priorities away from protecting the living towards an unacceptable conservatism:


I cannot for the life of me understand how the organization I helped to form has become such a bastion of conservatism and such a bureaucratic mess. The bigger you get, the more cowardly you become; the more money you receive, the more self-satisfied you are... You and your huge assortment of caretakers perform miraculous tasks helping the dying to die... I think it must now come as a big surprise to you and your Board of Directors that Gay Men's Health Crisis was not founded to help those who are ill. It was founded to protect the living, to help the living go on living, to help those who are still healthy to stay healthy, to help gay men stay alive. Mercifully, there are still far more of us who are yet alive... Yes, GMHC was founded to fight, to spread information to gay men, and to fight for them. It was not founded, believe it or not, to provide Patient Services of any sort. This came later - and it has come to dominate you. It has provided you with the excuse to be cowards. It has provided you with a cover so that you can say, anytime something controversial requires attention: "We are too busy taking care of patients." (73)

Tony Whitehead has voiced related concerns about the "well-intentioned but perhaps misguided complicity between charity and the statutory sector" in the UK. Speaking in 1988, he argued that "Instead of simply behaving like so many good little Florence Nightingales, developing our own educational and support services within the gay community, we AIDS activists should have fought for such services within the statutory sector". (74) In practice, community-based AIDS organisations accepted the government's agenda as they accepted the government's money, and according to Cindy Patton, "...helped degay AIDS by asserting that their group served anyone with AIDS and were not "gay" political or social organizations". (75)

As AIDS organisations began to offer services to an increasingly diverse clientele, although still very much dominated by the disproportionate impact of the epidemic upon gay men, the pressure to play down any explicit commitment to the needs of gay men increased. But this has been the case not only in service organisations, but also in the case of AIDS activist groups such as ACT UP. Although ACT UP groups around the world describe themselves as "non-partisan" - in contrast to popular perceptions of them as the latest manifestation of radical gay liberation - one might reasonably expect them to respond to the epidemiological realities of the local epidemics. Instead, as Robin Hardy has bitterly argued:


ACT UP's failure to ground its politics in the identity of 98 per cent of its members has diverted it from goals which are critical to gay men. As ACT UP embraces the politics of inclusion, it cuts itself off from the community which has provided the core of its tactics, theory, membership and funding... Implicit in ACT UP's brand of coalition politics is an assumption that homosexuals must subordinate their gay/lesbian identity to attract other communities to the ranks of AIDS activism. No one has stopped to ask what attention to the political agendas of other minorities might be costing the gay community. Or if it's even working. (76)

In an extreme example of this myopia, a gay man speaking at a World AIDS Day rally in London in 1990 argued that gay men were responsible for the alleged lack of specialist services for women with HIV in Britain. In effect, he was arguing that the AIDS organisations originally formed to look after gay men's interests - at a time when it was clear that nobody else would - had not been de-gayed enough. Yet by 1990 the British voluntary sector had already been heterosexualised to the extent that not a single designated agency specialising in meeting the specific education or service needs of gay men existed anywhere in the country. It was almost as though some (especially leftist) gay men required the epidemic to conform to a pre-existing 'equal opportunities' politics which was unable to adjust to the reality in which supposedly privileged, white, middle-class gay men have formed the majority of those affected.

Another highly significant reason why some gay men helped to de-gay AIDS was to prevent an upsurge of homophobic discrimination and violence founded on the view that homosexuality was now not merely distasteful, but also the root cause of a deadly transmissible disease. In November 1986 it was reported that:


Cabinet ministers are alarmed that growing public awareness of the threat of Aids could provoke a backlash against homosexuals and widespread "queer-bashing". They also fear that if homosexuals are attacked and forced underground some bisexuals may resort to "revenge sex" in which they knowingly spread the disease. Ministers accept that they must do all they can to keep "gays" as part of the community and seek their co-operation. The backlash risk will rise as more Aids victims are reported and more people realise there is no cure. (77)

If Cabinet ministers were alarmed, so were gay men. As if to prove the point, two days after these concerns were published, the far-right pressure group the Conservative Family Campaign "called on the Government to isolate all Aids victims and to make homosexual acts between consenting adults a criminal offence". (78) Only one month later Lord Halsbury introduced a private member's bill into the House of Lords to "prohibit any council helping the promotion of homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship, including teaching such a view in maintained schools"; one of the justifications given for this measure, which was dropped but resurrected in the Commons the following year as the now infamous Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill, was that gay men acted as "reservoirs" for venereal disease. (79) In November 1985 a group of Conservative MPs claiming the support of "one or two very influential people" had lobbied the government to close down all Britain's gay pubs or clubs as a measure "to stop this killer disease Aids from spreading". (80) And meanwhile in California, activists were mobilising to defeat Lyndon Larouche's proposals to make AIDS a notifiable disease, registering all people with AIDS and excluding them from 'sensitive' jobs.

Gay men were thus justifiably alarmed by the effect of the epidemic on public attitudes to homosexuality; as Simon Watney has argued, the presence of AIDS among gay men, drug users and black communities "is generally perceived not as accidental but as a symbolic extension of some imagined inner being, manifesting itself as disease". (81) For over half of the 269 people interviewed by Antony Vass in mid-1985, AIDS was "punishment at its best... shades of that punishment [ranged] from exclusion and the occasional wish to inflict direct personal injury on those sufferers, to expecting sufferers to wear a label, a badge or bear some other visible mark which exposes their 'crime' of AIDS and warns 'normal' people to keep their distance".(82)

The government strategy of emphasising the universality of the threat posed by AIDS was therefore one which many gay men gladly embraced. Whether or not it succeeded in averting the discrimination and blame which many gay men feared is highly debateable; it is difficult to know whether an incident of violence or the latest rant from extremist religious or political groups is motivated and/or exacerbated by AIDS, or simply a manifestation of the prejudice against homosexuality which has existed for centuries, and which they would have possessed irrespective of the epidemic. Paradoxically, however, it is clear that in some instances the message that AIDS endangered everyone was seen as a positive incentive for clamping down on homosexuality. Thus in 1984 the American Family Association, seeking signatures for a petition to the Surgeon General, wrote to its supporters:


Dear Family Member,

Since AIDS is transmitted primarily by perverse homosexuals your name on my national petition to quarantine all homosexual establishments is crucial to your family's health and security... If you want your family's health and security protected, these AIDS-carrying homosexuals must be quarantined immediately... These disease-carrying deviants wander the streets unconcerned, possibly making you their next victims. What else can you expect from sex-crazed degenerates but selfishness? (83)

In this way, "the threat of a heterosexual epidemic is a double-edged sword". (84) As an American gay activist who believes that that threat is "nothing more than hype with absolutely no support from the medical and sociological data" argued:


In California, where I live, we've seen that the myth of heterosexual AIDS has an upside (it increased funding) but also a downside: We spent millions defeating two statewide propositions that would have established mandatory testing, quarantine and other draconian measures. (85)

From 1987 onwards, resistance to AIDS education for the whole population coalesced around two theories: the de-gaying of AIDS was either a connivance between a moralistic government and a misguided gay movement, or it was a 'homosexual conspiracy' by a powerful 'gay lobby' intent on hiding the truth about the disease. These views spanned a strikingly diverse political spectrum, from the Revolutionary Communist Party to far-right pressure groups such as Family and Youth Concern. Advocates of the re-gaying of AIDS, who wish to contest the harmful professionalisation and heterosexualisation of the epidemic, thus find themselves in the awkward position not only of seeming to criticise the actions taken largely in good faith by gay men, but also of appearing to side with those who number among the clearest opponents of lesbian and gay well-being. For this reason, Chapter 6 is devoted to a detailed examination of the areas in which the critique of the de-gaying of AIDS presented in this book differs from the views of those who consider 'heterosexual AIDS' to be a 'myth'.