The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

As you probably know, the World Health Organisation is the agency of the United Nations charged with improving international public health. It has its fair share of critics and has been involved in a few controversies (allegations that it greatly exaggerated the ‘swine flu’ epidemic being the most prominent, recent, example) but it can claim quite significant victories too (it led the eradication of smallpox, for example). The Organisation lists its responsibilities as:

…providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

That ‘evidence-based policy’ bit is pretty crucial – it’s not just a bunch of UN politicians pushing whatever pet obsession they may have but doctors, scientists, researchers and more looking at what’s happening and how best to address it. Again, I’m sure there are legitimate criticisms to be made here but that’s for another time.

It’s for another time because last week the WHO released their updated guidelines on the treatment, diagnosis and prevention of HIV. This document “brings together all existing guidance relevant to five key populations – men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, people in prisons and other closed settings, sex workers and transgender people – and updates selected guidance and recommendations.” The report itself states that this approach was necessary because the previous approach of issuing separate guidelines for these populations “has not adequately addressed issues common to all these key populations nor has it addressed countries’ needs for a coherent approach informed by situational analysis”. It includes a section devoted to explaining the methodology and process, wherein we’re told about the range of expertise and experience which fed into the guidelines “including appropriate geographical, gender and key population representation.” The report then explains how it reviewed and assessed current evidence and how this was fed into the resulting guidelines, which were then assessed by “73 peer reviewers from academia, policy and research.”

So how was this report of over 180 pages, covering the entire world and every group affected by HIV, reported in the press? Like this:

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Pretty much every report of the new guidelines fixated on one, new, guideline concerning pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). As explained in the WHO report, this guideline came from reviews of hundreds of research outputs and looked at the effectiveness of PrEP, the possible side-effects, the feasibility of it as a treatment, the cost-effectiveness and the openness of people to using it (amongst other things). They ended up with the guideline as follows:

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You may have already noticed that this guideline mentions ‘gay men’ absolutely nowhere. ‘Men who have sex with men’ is a term common to the research and treatment of sexually-transmitted infections and one of the main reasons for that, in short, is that it avoids all issues of identification. Gay, bi, queer, trans, straight-who-dabbles, you have no fucking idea, you don’t care – if you identify as male and you have sex with other men, you’re in. So already we can see how shit and how homophobic the reporting of this was – reporters skim a document, see ‘men who have sex with men’ and think ‘GAYS!’ because if a guy touches another guy ‘that way’ he’s gay and that’s all there is to it, right? It’s embarrassing.

The second big thing to notice – the recommendation that PrEP is available as part of a ‘comprehensive HIV prevention package’. This isn’t saying to stop everything else. It’s not saying PrEP should replace condoms. In fact, here’s the FIRST guideline:

UntitledPretty categorical, right? There are other guidelines, and whole sections of the report, devoted to HIV education, testing and counselling.

This brings us to the big thing to notice in the guideline: the use of ‘choice‘. To read that guideline and take away from it ‘WHO SAYS ALL GAY MEN MUST TAKE PREP’ is not only wrong, it’s wrong to the point of being deliberately distorting and downright dangerous. It’s sensationalising for the sake of a story and fuck the consequences.

Unfortunately, some of us in the gay community are so wedded to playing the victim that, rather than heading off to the report to find out what was going on, we had instant outrage based on these egregiously incorrect reports. Patrick McAleenan in The Telegraph knocked out a piece complaining that the WHO were ‘perpetuating gay stereotypes’. His piece is a litany of complaints which expose his complete ignorance as to what the WHO actually wrote: why don’t they recommend education instead? Why don’t they recommend condoms? Most appallingly, he complains that “The report will encourage straight people to believe that HIV is simply a gay problem”. Well, not really, since it a) hardly mentions the word ‘gay’ and b) devotes scores of pages to key populations other than msm. In fact, there are other guidelines explictly relating to PrEP:

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But it didn’t matter. The outrage was well out of the traps by now:

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As the sensationalist stories make their way around social media and various sites, each day has seen new people jumping on them and complaining about how homophobic the WHO are. Apparently no-one actually bothers to go have a look at the actual guidelines. As a community we kinda have form for not bothering to check stories when there’s a good sense of victimisation to be had.

It’s all so fucking depressing. And what’s most depressing it how inevitable it feels. The WHO report found that “epidemics of HIV in men who have sex with men continue to expand in most countries” and that “in major urban areas HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is on average 13 times greater than in the general population”. I can see no moral judgement of this fact in the report, and in fact it states:

Discriminatory legislation, stigma (including by health workers) and homophobic violence in many countries pose major barriers to providing HIV services for men who have sex with men and limit their use of what services do exist. Many countries criminalize sex with the same gender (either male–male only or both male–male and female–female). As of December 2011 same-sex practices were criminalized in 38 of 53 countries in Africa (9). In the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 83 countries have laws that make sex between men illegal (10). The range of legal sanctions and the extent to which criminal law is enforced differs among countries.

This sounds pretty sympathetic to me. If anything, it’s the responses which have been screeching ‘BUT NOT ALL GAY MEN ARE UNSAFE/PROMISCUOUS’ that are problematic, as they cannot help but imply that the men who do engage in that behaviour almost deserve their fate. The safe ones, though, the ones who don’t sleep around – those nice guys don’t deserve to be treated like this by the nasty WHO! Zero self-reflection, zero sense of agency and responsibility – just instant, facile outrage and a rush to assert victimhood. It’s ironic to say the least that last year several UK HIV charities, including GMFA and the Terrence Higgins Trust, issued a statement supportive of PrEP “so that more gay men are able to reduce their HIV risk.” Presumably they are vile homophobes too?

It’s embarrassing. It helps no-one. It’s downright dangerous. Grow the fuck up.

18-07-2014 edit:

This morning I saw this in my Twitter feed:

Sure enough, this is in the report:

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It continues:

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Calling for the decriminalisation of drug use, of sex work, of same-sex behaviours and also calling for revision of age of consent laws are pretty big stories: much bigger than the non-story which the media led with. It’s also explicitly opposing homophobia. Unfortunately it would have meant actually bothering to properly look at the report before rushing to knock off a dramatic-sounding story.

The Next Four

 “The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”

It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.

The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.

You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.

As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.

This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.

Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.

There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:

There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.

But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.

The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.

You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.

There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.

So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.

That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.

Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).

The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism.  It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.

AIDS ribbons and poppy-watching

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This image did the rounds on social media yesterday. At first I paid little attention to it but by the fourth or fifth posting I was curious as to what it was about. I read and re-read the two captions about the Work Programme, assuming that there was some glaring misrepresentation of the figures tailored to each leader. Unable to see any, I felt a little dumb. Then someone shared it explicitly pointing out what we were supposed to be looking at – the AIDS ribbons.

The ribbons are, of course, a way of both raising awareness and of remembering those affected. Reading some of the comments, however, it is pretty clear that the ribbon has become an expected accessory around this time of year – much like the poppy in late October/early November. I did buy a poppy this year but it fell off within ten minutes and (having made my donation) I didn’t feel the need to replace it. I understand that many have a problem with the poppy as a political symbol; I also understand that it simply doesn’t cross the mind of many to buy one. I have zero problem with these positions (and zero problem with the teenager who posted a burning poppy on his Facebook) – it’s what freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are about. Yet ‘poppy-watching’ has become a feature of the period, with twitter accounts and countless topics of forums devoted to discussing who is and (more frequently) who isn’t wearing one. Presumably the proponents of this believe that they are ensuring due respect is paid to those who ‘died that we might live’ – I think that while such respect is important in human terms, it shouldn’t be reified. It’s something we should personally reflect on – why did these people fight, why did they die, what was at stake? This reflection undoubtedly leads to innumerable different conclusions and many of them do not fit nicely with the mystification of the armed forces which is such a core tenet of poppy-watching. It’s easy to stick a poppy on because you’re supposed to; it’s far more difficult to separate respect for human life and human sacrifice from a sceptical approach to authority and war. For me, part of my respect for men like Harry Patch is to attempt in my own small way to understand the function played by the armed forces in modern society and to question (and oppose, if necessary) it. This includes opposing the uncritical, unengaged stance which the ‘respect’ is supposed to take for many. So while I understand and appreciate the importance of the poppy for many, I am wary of the symbol becoming the object of discussion rather than what it is supposed to symbolise.

Much the same can be said of the AIDS ribbon. In this image, the implicit (but barely so) assumption we’re supposed to make is that the evil coalition don’t care about AIDS while noble Labour does. I’m not even sure of the ‘rules’ around AIDS ribbons myself – I’ve not worn one so far this year and I’ve barely seen anyone else doing so. This hasn’t stopped the point-scoring. Yet I would wonder how many people sharing it pay any attention to Government policies and funding regarding HIV and AIDS, not only here but around the world (it’s the third-biggest killer in low-income countries but not in the top ten in the so-called ‘First World’). Tackling HIV/AIDS involves political choices regarding austerity, taxation, developmental aid, poverty, culture and more. None of these are things which can be summed up by whacking on a ribbon for a week each year.

Now, one very interesting aspect of this was that it was overwhelmingly gay men who seemed to be sharing the image. Some of the responses I saw believed Labour’s mass adoption of the ribbon to be a cynical response to the Government’s reported plans to rush through legislation on gay marriage. This is how quickly identity politics gets absolutely absurd. At PMQs yesterday they ‘discussed’ (in the facile, braying manner typical of PMQs) the flooding hitting the country, the Leveson enquiry, unemployment, welfare, the rail system, tax avoidance, the Middle East and the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. As a gay man, however, I’m reduced in the eyes of many to being impressed by the coalition’s policy on gay marriage but liking Labour’s red ribbons. All of the other stuff, much of which has a far more tangible impact on my daily life, is unworthy of comment. It’s supremely facile and patronising. It also fails to understand the global reality of HIV/AIDS today, which is that it is far from being a ‘gay disease’ and disproportionately affects women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course the gay community has a unique, tragic history with HIV/AIDS but in viewing the red ribbon as an identification with ‘us’ we ultimately do the cause (and ourselves) a disservice. Indeed, many of the people sharing this image would undoubtedly be outraged if HIV/AIDS was referred to as a ‘gay disease’. Whatever the history, the disease is not ‘ours’ to be used as a weapon deployed to curry our favour. As a gay man in the UK you’re far more likely to die of circulatory disease, cancer and respiratory disease than of HIV/AIDS and just as the former three unite everyone to ‘stand up’ against them, we should hope for the same response to the latter, free of our own rush to offence.

We’ve come a long way when AIDS ribbons are seen as signifiers of being ‘good’ but what ultimately matters are actions and understanding. Going down the path of ‘ribbon-watching’ does nothing to help these things and if we find ourselves doing that we should pause and think about why. What does the ribbon mean to us? Why is it so important that we see people wearing it? What do we do in our own lives to further the aspects we value so much? This seems to me to be a far more thoughtful and respectful response to the symbol, which should never ever become the point of the discussion.

‘We Were Here’

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.

In this life

Last night I finished reading The Farewell Symphony, the final novel in Edmund White’s ‘gay trilogy’ which tells the (semi-autobiographical) life story of a gay man growing up in America. There is so much I could say about the trilogy – it was a hugely rewarding experience in many different ways – but for now the main thing on my mind is the ending. I had actually started reading the final chapter while lying in bed last week, and had to stop on the first page when it very quickly became clear that it was going to be overwhelmingly concerned with the arrival of AIDS (I wasn’t in the mindset for it). AIDS has had an ominous presence throughout the novel, hanging over the tales of lives without responsibility with a tragic sense of inevitability. The mentions of it are infrequent – the narrator occasionally breaks off from his tale to return to his present, where it is clear that his boyfriend has died from the disease – and they pierce the narrative like stones shattering holes in a window.

Sure enough, the final chapter was heavy going and profoundly moving. In the space of 30 or so pages we go from a man at his gym falling ill with a mystery illness to his group of friends being completely decimated by the disease, including most of his great loves. The speed of it is devastating and really hammers home how quickly everything changed. Can we even begin to comprehend what it must have been like back then (which seems so long ago in so many ways and yet was so recent)? I was in tears by the end and thought about my group of friends and how lucky we are to be living in an age where there is not an expectation/resignation that some of us will die before we hit 40.

It was a very hard-hitting aspect of one of the most fascinating threads of the trilogy: how much life has changed for gay people in the past 50 years. Despite the differences in geography and time, there was a real sense of a shared history and of so much owed to people who had bravely dared to be unapologetic about who and what they were. Alongside this was a sense that this community had always and would always be different in some ways – different, and not lesser – and that this was something worth celebrating.