You Can’t Beat the Devil, But you Can Die Trying

In March 1983, Larry Kramer, American playwright and gay men’s health activist, published an article entitled, “1,112 and Counting,” which chronicled the number of AIDS cases so far. It was a call to action not just to the government and news media, but also to the gay community, who, except for a few activists in big cities, were mostly ignoring what they considered hype trumped up by alarmists. Larry Kramer, who was a long-time advocate for gay men not to be promiscuous and had made enemies in the community because of it, finally had their attention. However, one of the major points of contention, which had been bandied about for the last year or so when cases of the as yet unnamed “gay cancer” were first being diagnosed, had been the closing of the bathhouses. No one wanted to even talk about that, not the business owners, for obvious reasons, nor the patrons, who balked that such a measure spoke of inhibiting sexual freedom and body autonomy. Dr. Selma Dritz said to Gaetan Dugas (the man later erroneously referred to as “Patient Zero”) when Gaetan had made a similar claim, “It’s not your right to go out and give other people disease. Then you’re making decisions for their bodies, not yours.”

Current statistics for AIDS-related deaths are as follows: As of 2018, about 700,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, and nearly 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year. Or, more simply, around 35 people a day. Still.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here, which was another thing mentioned in the early days of the crisis. What I’m saying, and what medical professionals and advocates were saying then, was that common sense dictated certain actions to help prevent the spread of a disease they were still learning about. It cannot be understated that the Reagan administration, with their CDC budget cuts and their complete ignoring of the burgeoning epidemic, are largely to blame for these deaths. What I am saying, however, is that there was a contingent of the gay community who put pleasure ahead of safety. There are a lot of reasons for this, I know. Some of those stem from years of oppression, both at a government level, and from their own families. I know it’s easy for me to sit here, nearly 40 years later, and be angry at these people. Part of that anger comes from the fact that I have friends who have been diagnosed with HIV, most of us have by this point. One can only wonder how many less deaths there would have been if both government entities, as well as some members of the gay community who continued to have unprotected sex and fight for their right to do so, hadn’t acted sooner to take preventative measures.

It brings me to parallels with the current pandemic and those who refuse to wear a mask and/or get vaccinated. As Dr. Dritz so eloquently stated, “Then you’re making the decisions for their [unsuspecting victims] bodies and not yours.” We have already had 944,517 COVID related deaths in the US in just over two years. And yet, there are still people advocating for body autonomy, not caring that their body isn’t the only one affected. Maybe fear plays a part in it, the thought that they can beat the Devil if they have a strong enough attitude. I’m not sure how much is that fear and how much is stupid pride, but I honestly don’t care. It’s irresponsible, negligent homicide.

It Gets Better

Just finished watching the movie The Prom on Netflix. I’m a sucker for a Broadway musical. And a queer one with a fabulous score and cast? I’m in! But the story depicted in the movie was based on a real one and the movie borrowed greatly from the real thing. But I’m not mad at it. I honestly loved everything about this movie. Not only is it right up there on my list of favorite Broadway shows, it surpasses them. If you’re interested, the other two in my top three are Rent and A Chorus Line.

Underneath all the glitz of this movie was a soft, blueberry center of a heart about love and acceptance…and high school. The movie inspired me to think about my high school experiences as a small-town gay kid. No, there was no prom controversy, I wasn’t dating the daughter of the PTA president, and my parents never disowned me. I wasn’t even out of the closet yet.

 I was in high school in the late eighties/early nineties. The town I grew up in had only about 5,000 people in it. And the only lesbian I knew of in town was a little older than me and scared me a little. But she was kind of cute. I never even considered being out in high school. Hell, even though I’d known I liked girls since I was ten years old, I hadn’t put the name to it until I was 15. The one thing I did know was that I had to keep my feelings to myself. So, I avoided any conversation about who I might have a crush on or who I thought was hot by either turning the conversation back to the person trying to get me to talk or by making a joke. I think being a closeted queer helped develop my sense of humor. Deflect, deflect, deflect.

One reason I had no concept of what it would be like to be out of the closet was because it just wasn’t talked about. Being gay was something that, if it was mentioned it all, was only mentioned with fear and derision. As Melissa Etheridge would later sing about, it was “thinly veiled intolerance, bigotry and hate.” Who would want to come out to that? So, I spent my high school years hiding who I really was from everyone. I didn’t even let my eyes linger on any girl I liked for too long for fear of being found out. And I didn’t let anyone get too close because it was easier to keep up the ruse that way. But I also didn’t date guys either, opting instead for an asexual persona, even though I had yet to hear the term and definitely wasn’t that anyway.

            It wasn’t until college that I got the courage to come out. By then I had a group of friends who truly understood and accepted me. When I finally did get the courage to come out, at the age of 24, not one friend rejected me or said anything unkind. And I even lucked out with my family’s reaction too. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but they accepted me and that was enough. Today, I am fortunate to have many friends in my life, queer and otherwise, who love me for me and don’t mind my quirks.

            The movie also briefly touched on the idea of going back to your high school self and telling them that it gets better, repeating the campaign started by author and activist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller. The It Gets Better Project aims to stop queer suicide by letting queer teens know that life does indeed get better. If I could go back to my closeted teen self, I would tell her: just wait. You will meet so many wonderful people who will love you for you and accept all that you are. You will know love. Some of it romantic, most of it platonic, but so much more love than you ever expected. You will find joy and fulfillment in using your creativity to tell stories about what it’s like to be queer, and you will love every minute of it. It won’t always be easy, but it will be better. Because you will be you and you will let the world see you. And you will shine.