Last night we watched ‘We Were Here’, a documentary about the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco and the devastation it caused for the next 30 years. It’s impossible not to be moved by it. There is a real sense that the interviewees who lived through the epidemic are survivors of something unspeakable – the analogy of war is used several times throughout. I found myself thinking that these people were remarkable but was reminded of something I have often thought about in the past, namely about how events can conspire to force people into being ‘remarkable’. One of the interviewees notes that people were amazed that he could endure not only his own illness but the deaths of his partner and close friends in quick succession. As he observes, however, what else could he possibly do? He wanted to live. He had to. I suppose when more and more people you care about are disappearing each day the opportunities for self-pity are rare.
I was taken back to how I felt when I read Edmund White’s ‘The Farewell Symphony’, which covers the same ground. It’s the final book in a trilogy and a sense of dread slowly crept up on me as I progressed further into it. I knew AIDS was going to arrive and destroy the world of the characters I had loved for the previous few weeks. Even armed with this knowledge, however, its arrival knocked the breath from me. In a matter of pages, beloved characters have contracted a mystery illness and died and many of their friends have also fallen. There is a very real sense of a generation being wiped out. It was a hugely powerful novel that stayed with me for a long time. The cruelty of the disease was almost impossible to comprehend.
When I think about this period, I have a very strong sense of existing on a continuum of gay people. Being part of a ‘gay community’. I think we easily forget that this community was forged in adversity. It had to exist. Gay people were hated, they were attacked and then they were left to die. Closing ranks was about survival and it was the only possible response. As we now know, it led to great things. Events conspired to make many remarkable and, hell, some of them were probably remarkable already. To be a happy gay person today is to follow in the footsteps of many who fought bitter battles and to whom we should be forever thankful.
I think this response is a natural one for gay people to have when learning about this past. A correct one, even. What I’ve noticed, however, is that it can lead to a sense of nostalgia for the community that undoubtedly existed back then and a desire to re-affirm this in the present day. Around the time when ‘Milk’ was in cinemas, I saw many gay people expressing their desire to be more ‘politically involved’ (which meant gay activism) and this undoubtedly played a role in the attempts to formulate ‘gay’ responses to events in East London. Perhaps there is a sense that this is part of the continuum, part of the greater fight for equality. Undoubtedly there is a desire for belonging and to be a part of something noble, something greater than oneself.
The fact is, however, that the world has moved on. To be gay in 2012 bears absolutely no relation to what it meant in 1976. That isn’t to say that everything is fine for everybody (and clearly there are places where there is still a long way to go) but today the efforts to push a ‘gay response’ to anything which is seen to affect gay people are invariably counter-productive. We take the history and strip it of its context, leaving what tend to be overwhelmingly privileged white men claiming a sense of victimhood and seeking to exclude anyone who does not fit into/buy into this narrative. It’s about exclusion. I’ve written at length about the ‘homophobia’ controversies in East London but suffice to say that it was clear that agendas were being pushed and this historical notion of gay people under siege was exploited. There was no sense of any other politics, any other power relation, any other identity, other than a very specifically subordinate ‘gay’ one.
This extends into our responses to the wider world. I wrote previously about how a few positive words about homosexuality from Obama/Clinton served to completely obscure the human rights record of that administration and the grotesque National Defence Authorization Act. Wider political issues, ones that affect us as human beings and not as homosexuals, become (at best) of secondary importance. Everything must fit into the narrative that we are a community under siege.
Even amongst people who push this agenda, there seems to be little reflection anymore of what this ‘community’ actually means. At one point in ‘We Were Here’ one of the interviewees notes that he could see the gay community splintering into countless sub-cultures and he didn’t feel that he belonged to any of them. This was just before the arrival of AIDS, which pushed everyone back together. In the years since, these sub-cultures have been commodified and sold back to us and, again, they are now arguably as much about who doesn’t belong as anything else. There are specific gay identities, each with their own traits, uniforms and belief sets. They invariably involve two things: what you consume and who you sleep with. As such, the gay community is both hopelessly reduced and greatly splintered. The wars which forced everyone together have largely been won and this has afforded the ‘freedom’ to be gay in a myriad of different ways. It’s like an identity menu, and if you don’t like any of the choices then things are going to be that bit more difficult for you.
So, there is no over-arching ‘gay community’ these days in any meaningful sense. It exists as a marketing group, yes. It exists as concurrent pockets of people who use the term to refer to their own ‘groups’. It exists as a neo-liberal identity where individualism is all and consideration of our interacting and intersecting identities, and how these relate to the world, is obscured. This is what many interpret as following in the footsteps of the generation that fought for the right to be gay and was ravaged by AIDS. Yet these people by and large wanted to be treated equally and to be treated with respect. They were forced into ghettoisation, they didn’t actively seek it out. For me, honouring the previous fights means looking outward and taking a place in society as a human being. Actively claiming victimhood is a grave dishonour to those who came before. We respect them by being happily gay and acknowledging what this means (and what still needs to be done) but also by understanding that this is but one aspect of our being (and not necessarily the most interesting one). In 2012, ‘We Were Here’ should be a rallying cry for a recognition of our common humanity and the struggles that affect us all, not an inspiration to rush back to our boxes.