AIDS Rethinking can hardly ignore questions about homosexuality, because the alternative explanation to a viral cause of AIDS is lifestyle. The AIDS era began among gay men, and correspondingly the “new” disease was initially called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). Inevitably one asks whether the causative lifestyle had something to do with being gay.
However, the GRID designation and diagnosis rested on an invalid statistical categorization. As John Lauritsen (1) pointed out at the very beginning of the AIDS era, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) had incorrectly identified the first AIDS sufferers as homosexuals (some of whom happened to abuse drugs) instead of as drug abusers, many of whom happened to be homosexual.
That drug abuse can bring on the symptoms of early-1980s AIDS was pointed out by, for example, Gordon Stewart (2). That the early years of gay liberation saw a proportion of gay men overindulging in unhealthy drug-abusing lifestyles has been remarked by, among others, Larry Kramer (3), Michael Callen (4), and Josef Sonnabend (5). Altman (1982, below, p. 80) remarked on the ubiquitous smell of amyl [nitrite, poppers] in gay venues.
I found it easy to accept that exuberant feelings of new-found freedom after lifelong oppression could lead some people to such health-damaging actions, but without any real feel for just what the oppression of homosexuality entailed and entails. I tried to imagine it as essentially analogous to racist or anti-Semitic oppression. But two recently read books make that analogy less appropriate. They have been eye-openers for me on several levels, and I recommend them unreservedly. Both are by Dennis Altman:
HOMOSEXUAL: Oppression and Liberation,
Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971 (ISBN 0-87690-039-2); and
The Homosexualization of America, the Americanization of the Homosexual,
St. Martin’s Press, 1982 (ISBN 0-312-38888-8)
One point of high interest is the changes in society — and in the author’s experience — in the decade between the writing of those books. In the 1982 book he doubted that he would live to see change in established churches, so he’s been pleasantly surprised, and no doubt about gay people in military service as well. Altman deplored the German government’s refusal to compensate homosexual men who had been in concentration camps (1982: 112); but that changed after 1985 (6).
Further of general interest is that the second book was written just before AIDS appeared (there is no mention of GRID, AIDS, HIV). Thereby the discussion is not biased by interpretations based on later events.
Perhaps above all, Altman offers a comprehensive, uninhibited discussion of what it has meant to be homosexual, primarily in Western society and with the United States as exemplar; what it meant to live through so-called gay liberation; and what actual and perhaps final liberation might look like.
Though I had not questioned that nominal liberation could lead to irrational exuberance, I did have qualms or reservations about the enormity of the apparently AIDS-inducing behavior. Altman’s insights have helped me to bury those qualms by gaining some feel for the nature and intensity of the oppression that needed to be lifted (and in some ways still needs to be).
It should be recognized, too, that the lifestyle being blamed would not have typically produced seriously debilitating manifest illness rapidly. Contrary to the oft-cited shibboleth that AIDS was first seen in young, previously healthy gay men, in point of fact their average age was mid-to-late thirties and they had histories of health issues (7).
Growing up homosexual in a society that forces homosexuals to closet themselves has a number of damaging consequences:
→ One mis-learns that the world is nothing but heterosexual
→ Thereby one is hindered from acknowledging or accepting one’s own identity
→ Thus society’s influence works like a self-fulfilling prophecy,
tending to mold homosexuals into society’s stereotypes of them,
even into accepting that there’s something wrong with being homosexual (1982: 112-3)
→ Homosexuals tend to be conflicted and to feel guilty about their own feelings
which conduces to counterproductive behavior including drug abuse;
some are likely to harbor self-hatred, usually unconscious,
and may over-react to behave in violently homophobic ways
The strength of societal oppression of homosexuals was manifested not only by perpetual brutal police harassment but by such signs as “the Tiffany’s notice — ‘We do not, nor will we in future, carry earrings for men’” (1971: 69).
→ Altman does not address the long history of homosexual oppression or acceptance over the millennia in various societies. One source for that is David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (8).
→ Western 19th-century designation of homosexuality as illness, maladjustment, perversion reflects and is owing to the development of medicine as both science & ideology.
→ Sociological designation of homosexuality as “deviance” was just as stigmatizing as the medical designation. It was pejorative not descriptive; it doesn’t just mean different: nuns aren’t called deviant.
Gay Liberation is widely associated with the Stonewall riot of 1969, but while that was certainly a landmark of progress, genuine liberation remains to be fully attained:
→ The considerable gains in tolerance experienced in the last several decades are not the same as the acceptance that true liberation would represent.
→ Oppressed minorities do not necessarily appreciate one another’s situation and form common cause. There are black homophobes and gay white racists, for example.
→ Just as there is homophobia among heterosexual people, there is heterophobia among homosexual people.
The 1982 title, The Homosexualization of America, refers to the manner in which widespread behavior has come to resemble what was long charged against homosexuals: young, educated, urban Americans frequent singles’ bars, wife-swapping was common at least for a time; casual & recreational sex is increasingly accepted [e.g. nowadays in college students’ “hooking up” and “booty calls” (9)]. The 1971 book cited Tiffany’s ban on selling earrings to men; for years now, quite a number of heterosexual men have been wearing earrings.
Genuine gay liberation has the huge task of creating ab initio guidelines and role models for all aspects of human interaction:
→ Homosexual behavior and homosexual identity are two distinct matters. In Moslem countries, for example, homosexual behavior is quite common but homosexual identity is strictly taboo. Homosexual identity is largely a Western urban 19th-century development, and with it the concept of a gay community or sub-culture.
→ “Gay community” is not a natural kind, it exists solely because of societal oppression, it’s a pseudo-community.
→ Altman and many others believe that polymorphous sexuality, most simply bisexuality, is universal. If so, creation of an homosexual identity requires also acknowledging possibly repressed heterosexual attractions.
Altman’s discussion is meaningful far beyond homosexuality, with insights pertinent to everyone:
→ As with all individuals and groups, there is an inevitable tension between expressing uniqueness and acknowledging human universality.
→ The liberation of gay men and lesbians is at the same time a liberation of humankind.
→ Sex is burdened with excessive and unrealistic expectations of self-fulfillment and personal actualization; and this is exploited commercially via massage parlors, sex shops, porno movie houses. [Add in recent years the salacious TV ads for Viagra, Cialis, and their ilk.]
Chapter 6 (1982) focuses on societal disapproval of sex for its own sake. It is dispassionate and logical and courageous in its discussion of matters rarely spoken of in public: the sexuality of children, including adult/child sex; sadomasochism; interplays of promiscuity and long-term commitments. I doubt that anyone could read this without learning something new or being reminded of something often forgotten, for example, that most child abuse is heterosexual; or that “most studies suggest that men involved in s-and-m are likely to be personally gentle, liberal, and of above-average education”; or that “rape by self-acknowledged homosexuals is very rare — though male rape by those who deny their homosexuality is, of course, widespread” (pp. 196-7).
These are among the chief points that I’ve gained from these books, but such a brief survey cannot do justice to Altman’s comprehensive and nuanced discussions. My hope is to stimulate others to read the books themselves. Little of consequence in them has been superseded after 40 and 30 years respectively, and the last sentence of the 1982 book needs no modification at all:
“In the long run
it would be nice to hope
that we can escape the limitations
on individual identity and diversity
that all categories impose”
In the meantime, Altman’s insights have fleshed out for me how long oppression and the iconic Stonewall presaged AIDS. The sense of freedom brought by Stonewall did not bring with it a viable conception of what normal, i.e. non-oppressed, homosexual life might be like. It is only since the fits and starts of gay marriages that everyone, gay people as much as others, have discovered that there have always been quietly closeted long-term gay partnerships and families. That’s the context in which many gay men mis-interpreted “liberation” to call for excessive indulgence in what had previously been forbidden. Ironically they foreshadowed “HIV’s” latent period: the 10-15 years between Stonewall and AIDS represent the average incubation period for the “side” effects of promiscuous drug abuse and irresponsible sex to result in destruction of the immune system.
(1) John Lauritsen, The AIDS war: propaganda, profiteering and genocide from the medical-industrial complex, ASKLEPIOS, 1993; ISBN 0–943742–08–0.
(2) Cited in Neville Hodgkinson, AIDS: The failure of contemporary science, Fourth Estate, 1996, p. 103.
(3) Larry Kramer, Faggots, Random House, 1978.
(4) Michael Callen, Surviving AIDS, HarperCollins, 1990.
(5) Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007, pp. 119-20
(6) Homocaust: The gay victims of the Holocaust.
(7) Michelle Cochrane, When AIDS began: San Francisco and the making of an epidemic, Routledge, 2004.
(8) David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 1988.