From Anger to Inspiration?

I spent last weekend at the National Conference on Social Work & HIV/AIDS, a nicely organized event that seems to attract the kind of people around whom I want to be—smart, dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic about their work, and self-reflective. The audience is part academic, part professional; in other words, a good place to test out the concepts behind my dissertation research. It was gratifying to see echoes of my topic—organizational change in community-based AIDS organizations—throughout the presentations. I was also pleased to find others who share my own interest in history, both in the development of these services and in their origins within the gay and lesbian community of the 1980s and earlier. (I say “gay and lesbian” here knowing that our current nomenclature—GLBTQIA—recognizes a much broader spectrum of identities.)

The conference also afforded me the chance to see How to Survive a Plague, a documentary using original film footage of ACT-UP, the grassroots movement led by HIV-positive activists, which radically altered the trajectory of America’s response to the AIDS epidemic. I have to confess, I’d avoided seeing the movie before this, even though plenty of friends had recommended it to me. My response to it was as emotional as I’d expected. It was probably a mistake to watch it right before my own presentation, but on the other hand, it grounded me back in the reality of my research question: How do services founded by and for the grassroots HIV movement experience change in the age of ACA?

Anyway, I digress. The film mostly focused on the years 1989 to 1995, from the first Bush presidency up to the introduction of combination anti-retroviral therapies, which seemed almost immediately to bring patients back from near death. Much of the film depicts the push and pull of grassroots politics at the time—people screaming to be heard, to have their fears and outrage acknowledged not just in the hearts and minds of bystanders, but in the policies and practices of government, medical research, and the pharmaceutical industry of the time. As Randy Shilts noted in And the Band Played On, the usually deliberate pace of clinical trials, testing, and approval for market use were not going to cut it when the world faced a pandemic of this scale. It took bold confrontation, impassioned actions, and dedication from those facing almost certain death to move the status quo to change. The fact that some of the original ACT-UP activists—including the legendary Larry Kramer, among others—today have survived speaks loudly to their accomplishment. Medical science today is winning the battle against HIV in controlled lab settings, but a social movement that connected these institutions to this deeply affecting human narrative was absolutely necessary to prod our civic leaders to move faster, with any urgency that no one would have believed necessary in previous decades.

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Finding Randy, Part 3

There is so much to say about my time in California last month, and I’ve had so little time and energy to say it. I meant to get to this post sooner, perhaps even while I was out in San Francisco, getting intimately familiar with boxes and boxes of Randy Shilts’ personal papers. Sometimes life doesn’t work that way though, and a return to Minnesota has meant for me a return to dissertation, research, and teaching (not to mention cold weather and snow, up until the end of last week).

I thought about writing about some of the juicy tidbits I found, and there were a number of them. But, right now the more meaningful experience comes from trying to understand how it feels to get to know a person I will never meet. Reading a person’s diaries and correspondences in his own handwriting is an incredibly intimate experience. The moments of loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration from his college years and early adulthood are plentiful. While it’s perhaps easy to write it off as the anxieties so many of us feel in our youth, here too I found moments of insight and poignancy that resonated across the years of his too-brief life.

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Finding Randy, Part 2

I’m not intending this discovery process to become the sole focus of the blog, but when I’m writing about things that interest me (and are interesting in my life), well, right now this is at the top of my list (dissertation notwithstanding).  San Francisco and Randy’s papers are less than a week away, but in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to catalog his early work in The Advocate. There are so many details to pore over that I’m just skimming the surface as I take pictures and make notes for later study. But, here are a few interesting things I have found so far:

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Places Like This Do Exist

To get myself back in the habit of writing, I’m using the next few entries to write about some meaningful moments of the last few months. I find that it’s easy to lose track over time of the events and encounters that make a season memorable. They tend to blend in easily with past years, with autumns that came and went, and with other seasons that start to look alike over time. I don’t want that to be the case, so, appropriately, the first recollection I am writing takes me back to Labor Day weekend, when it started to feel like the seasons really were about to turn. Keep in mind, these are brief reflections– not too deep, not too long. 

In 2013, I made my first-ever trip north for Duluth – Superior GLBT Pride. I’d heard good things for years from others: a strong sense of community and togetherness, spirited but not massive crowds, beautiful sights, and generally speaking, a combination of “small city” and “queer” that maybe gets lost in the glitzy overproduction of so many major metropolitan Pride festivals these days. I had been curious for years, and I finally had the opportunity to make the trip with some friends.

All of what I’d expected was there, but the striking memory for me is still one event: the Friday night bonfire on Lake Superior. I grew up in a Great Lakes state, not far from one of the major bodies of water. Earlier this summer I even had a chance to revisit some of those places, which evoked a mixture of memories on which I still chew six months later. I remember scenes like this from my youth—dark nights where suddenly a hot, fiery glow rises up from the woods and dunes, illuminating a glassy background where cool waves slosh against the beach; a sizeable but not huge crowd gathered around the flames, some on towels and others huddled in beach blankets, with coolers packed with beer scattered across the sand; easy conversation between friends; and the occasional chitchat offered up to strangers like me, a city dweller who remembers these scenes vividly from twenty-some years ago, but who never quite felt like there was a place for me in small town settings.

But here, the fact that it was a Pride event, populated with boyfriends, girlfriends, old, young, partnered, and single, made that life seem so easygoing for at least one night. A young, twinkish type stripped down to his yellow bikini briefs and, after insisting he was going to swim, put his bravado out for all to see and showed he meant it. He shivered as he warmed himself afterward in front of the fire, his proportions nicely featured by the bikini now soaked to the skin. He took his time, and clearly no one minded. It was a dark and clear night, not too cool but not the heat of summer anymore. It was an easy visit, a moment I found myself pondering all weekend as I took in the celebrations of a town where I do not live.

Photo by Nick Vasquez

Photo by Nick Vasquez

Beyond Same-Sex Marriage?

Following the victory parties of May and the Pride parties of June, in Minnesota the wedding parties begin this week on August 1. Jaxon and I won’t be doing ours for at least a few years, but the sight of so many people celebrating, many who have been in relationships for decades, was incredibly moving. For me it was especially worthwhile to see the work started by activists in decades past—Jack Baker here in Minnesota, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon even before that—come to some fruition. Amid all the celebrations though, reflecting on this historic achievement has me fearing that for some, the achievement of marriage equality (both here and across the nation) represents the high point or ultimate goal of all those years of work. I fear that other important issues brought to light by GLBT organizers and advocates may be overshadowed, when history tells us something very different about the “homosexual agenda” in total.

A year ago, I did some historical research on the efforts of gay and lesbian activists to establish their own community centers and social services between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. I looked at news articles between 1969, when Stonewall occurred, and 1976, by which point it’s presumed that HIV had entered the U.S. and was spreading rapidly among gay men. Almost everyone who advised me on the project said, “I don’t think you’ll find much information.” Their assumption was that in the era of militant activism, bathhouses, and bars, far less attention was paid to the community’s health and social service needs. The article is due out in a journal this fall, so I won’t say much more about what I found. But—needless to say, I came across plenty of material. Almost from the moment Stonewall occurred, the impulse to build community spread across the nation, fueled in part by coverage in The Advocate and a small handful of other national publications as the time. The focus on human rights undoubtedly led the way, but it felt essential for many gay men and lesbians at the time to build space—community centers, gay-identified treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, sexual health clinics, and more.

What does that history tell us about today? I think it signifies that gaining acceptance in mainstream society is not enough. Queer communities still need spaces imagined, built, and opened for queer-identified people across a spectrum of ages, identities, and experiences. I had a respectful disagreement earlier this winter with a gay service provider, about ten years older than me, who said that among today’s youth, “It just won’t matter, everyone will be accepted. They don’t care if their friends are gay!” The limited information I’ve seen from queer youth studies—especially transgender youth—says something very different. School-based supports were helpful, but in at least one study, Asakura (2010) found a persistent desire among youth to have their own, dedicated queer-identified youth spaces. A recent report on the experiences of older LGBT adults in long-term care facilities details some of the difficulties our elders face as they experience declining health combined with the struggle to be “out” in the world of senior care services. There are still numerous unmet needs out there, and plenty of people who don’t have the support of a middle-class income, an affirming community, or family who welcome their GLBT identities. Marriage equality without a doubt helps many, but not all of us.

The campaign to gain marriage equality (and in Minnesota the preceding fight to oppose constitutional discrimination) served a valuable purpose in educating the larger public about the all-too-human challenges of living a queer-identified life in a heteronormative society. I think, however, there is more to learn. GLBT-identified support services gained their reputations in the community by emphasizing nonjudgmental, empathetic care delivered by people who could relate to the challenges their clients faced. Even in the age of Obamacare, reform of the health care system doesn’t guarantee that someone will find medical or social service support that is knowledgeable and affirming of a GLBT identity. If stigma and discriminatory attitudes among providers already play a role in determining whether queer people utilize the health care system (they do), then reforming the market system alone is not likely to diminish the numerous health disparities queer people still face. For me, the health and human service sector is the realm with the most immediate examples, but I know there must be others as well—social discrimination in the workplace, for example. But, I’ll save that for someone who is more knowledgeable in that arena.

So, beyond same-sex marriage, what is there for GLBT communities to do? Keep building, for starters. Despite the advances of social media, there is still a need for physical spaces, where our more vulnerable members can find safety and acceptance. There are organizations tackling a plethora of issues (HIV, sexual health, substance abuse, homelessness, etc.) that need volunteers, cold hard cash, and energy and imagination. Marriage equality has altered the course of history, in Minnesota and 11 other states at least. People of all ages have the opportunity to learn about the real ways we struggle and triumph in the context of non-traditional relationships. But, I humbly suggest we consider this to be a moment to celebrate before getting back to the long list of challenges still ahead.

The Mid-Summer Reboot

The last time I wrote an entry for the blog, we were in the middle of what seemed like an endless winter. I was writing the specialized paper that would eventually form a major chunk of my dissertation proposal. With the support of my chiropractor, new doctor, and partner, I was starting the hard work of losing what now stands at about 45 pounds of weight through dietary changes and building strength. I was balancing a number of teaching obligations with writing grant proposals on the side, and taking my final elective as a graduate student (ever!). In other words, things got busy.

It’s now mid-summer, and even though we had high heat last week, it already feels to me like August, with the warmth tempered by cooler breezes as I sit working on our porch. Regrettably, the heavy amounts of academic and professional writing have kept me from diving into the more reflective thinking I like to do when I blog. I passed my orals and defended my dissertation proposal in mid-May, finished teaching my summer course earlier this month, and took a rare weeklong vacation in northern Michigan that may inspire a few posts in the coming weeks. But—it took a while to recharge the batteries, and since I should be starting my data analysis soon for the dissertation, I’m not sure how often I will feel like doing my own reflective writing in the coming months.

Still, this space feels important to me, important enough to update now so that I can at least remind myself of the space provided here for conversation (even if it’s mainly with myself). I have a few topics I want to explore, hopefully in the weeks ahead:

– A queer agenda beyond same-sex marriage (and how there has always been one)

– Mentors, protégés, and Doctor Who

– Striking a balance between quality of life and the need to reinvent my career every 4 or 5 years

– Etc.

We’ll see how I do with keeping this up.

What I Meant to Write Last Week, Only Surlier

Before the tragedy in Connecticut last week, my intention was to write about our short mid-week trip to Iowa. I was also going to get a wee bit political. Let’s see if I still can.

Toward the end of November, I had a pleasantly surprising phone call from a very dear friend. I’ve known Tony for about 10-plus years, going back to when we both interned/worked on contract for a small AIDS organization in Michigan. Although about 25 years my senior, he and I easily bonded and in some ways over time our relationship evolved from mentorship to something more fraternal as we both moved, changed jobs, and had various ups and downs with our relationships.

He and his partner Joe now live in upper Michigan, not far from Lake Superior and not too removed from Minnesota. With my school commitments, we haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years, but Tony called to tell us that they were traveling to Iowa to officially get married. With the latest election results, he concluded, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is an inevitability and, the sooner they have official paperwork, the more likely that in the future, social security survivor benefits will have to recognize that official marriage date. Additionally—and this was the most touching piece—Tony and Joe asked if Jaxon and I would come down to Iowa and serve as their official witnesses. It seemed fitting, both for our relative proximity and the way our personal and professional lives have been woven together over the past decade. To say the least, Jaxon and I were humbled and moved. We said yes.

The ceremony was pretty straightforward. The judge was extremely kind and cordial, and the recitation of vows went smoothly. To summarize: Tony and Joe promised to enter into a publicly-affirmed, legally binding (in Iowa) declaration of their commitment to one another. They promised to care for each other through hardship. They affirmed their intentions to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They put their love for each other on paper, in a court of public law. To witness our friends make this commitment was a privilege.

Of course, a few days prior to this, one Supreme Court Justice, who will soon cast a vote determining whether or not the United States should recognize same-sex marriage, used the opportunity of a public confrontation (by a very brave gay college freshman) to re-affirm his view that the public has a right to label same-sex intimacy as morally reprehensible as murder. Now, I am not a Constitutional scholar, and without a doubt Antonin Scalia can argue me under the table when it comes to the Founders’ true intentions. Given the horrible nightmare Newtown, Connecticut, just endured, perhaps Justice Scalia simply needs a refresher in a couple key qualitative differences between same-sex coupling, and murder. Now I am aware that Scalia directed his comments toward “homosexual behavior,” but given how the arguments around homosexuality before the Court have coalesced around marriage equality, I am going to stick to that framework for my points below.

Difference #1: One involves consenting adults, agreeing to mutually support each other through life’s difficulties and highlights. The other involves taking human life, presumably without their consent.

Difference #2: Over time as people have gotten to know and grow familiar with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their own families and communities, support for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination measures have generally increased. Support for murdering other human beings (with the exception of our confounded tolerance of post-colonial warfare and the death penalty) has generally remained low over time, even when people have gotten to know the murderers in their communities.

Difference #3: There doesn’t need to be a Difference #3. But, apparently the distinction isn’t clear enough for others who share this man’s views. In the wake of Netwon, both James Dobson and Mike Huckabee boldly declared that society’s growing tolerance of gay people bore some of the blame for a twenty year-old, mentally ill loner taking several automatic weapons into an elementary school and hunting down its children, faculty, and staff. In their estimation, America (and we gay people specifically) have turned our backs on God.

I’m going to offer a slightly different interpretation: people who seek the right to marry a partner of the same gender (and frankly, people whose gender identities have changed since birth as well), and people who support these efforts may or may not recognize the God of Messrs. Scalia, Huckabee, and Dobson. But, increasingly I would say that Americans are turning away from huckster capitalists who use their increasingly outmoded platforms to try to bully and intimidate people into believing something that is contradicted by the evidence we collect in our own lives and experiences. Believe what you will about the Bible or any other sacred text. People have the ability to determine with their own eyes, ears, and feelings whether or not same-sex intimacy is morally reprehensible, and increasingly that evidence is making lay people question the unyielding authoritarian (yet increasingly desperate) huffing from evangelical radio and TV (or Rome for that matter). Where previously people could be bullied into believing warped depictions of individual misbehaviors or social outcasts, more and more they recognized their loved ones. Where people had previously viewed those who were different as somehow diseased and depraved, more now recognize and empathize with very human struggles and triumphs. Ultimately, in my opinion the depravity these men now rail against is in fact the continued withering irrelevance of their own overinflated control over a society that, while certainly flawed, is growing more keen to recognizing authentic struggles and basic unfairness. Those who are most threatened, I believe are those who have gained the most from systematically maintaining these inequalities.

I have no doubt how Antonin Scalia will vote in the arguments pertaining to same-sex marriage. His “originalist” perspective certainly affords him the opportunity to sit comfortably behind an orthodoxy that emphatically views the Founders’ words as final (even though they quite nakedly punted the moral issue of slavery down the field for future generations to resolve). But, the next time I see someone equate queer people to murder, I’ll remember last week. I’ll remember Tony and Joe, embracing before the judge and their two admiring friends, promising to love and honor each other for every day of their lives. I’ll remember the horror of Newtown that came too soon after. And, morally speaking. I am pretty confident that an increasingly abundant number of citizens will be able to recognize that the two events are not remotely equivalent.