An interview with
"Through countless interviews with what appears to be everyone remotely connected to the AIDS crisis from the 1970s until yesterday, Washington-based journalist Andriote captures the overwhelming grief and boundless love encountered within the gay community during its long fight against the viral terror.…The most important AIDS chronicle since Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On."—Kirkus Reviews
"Andriote…offers a comprehensive survey of the many ways AIDS has transfigured gay social and political life.…A well-researched and nuanced portrait of the many levels on which this grave disease has wrought both destruction and transformation."—Publishers Weekly
"Andriote combines broad strokes and telling details in this engaging history of the complicated war against both disease and bigotry."—Library Journal
This interview was published in 1999. Copyright
Andriote: The phrase "victory deferred" is from a Walt Whitman poem. In the poem, the poet is challenged by a "phantom…the genius of poets of old lands" to defend his choice of subject matter. The only theme for "ever-enduring bards," says the phantom, "is the theme of War, the fortune of battles, the making of perfect soldiers." So, the poet explains that his subject also is war, "waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering."
The metaphors of warfare are powerful and they are appropriate in this case. AIDS is first of all an assault against life, an assault against humanity itself by death, which St. Paul called "the last enemy that shall be destroyed." In the AIDS epidemic the faceless enemy is HIV, a microbe that lives only to perpetuate its own existence even if it kills its unfortunate host. The enemy whose face we can see is of a different kind. Since AIDS has been so strongly associated with gay men—its first and still primary victims in the U.S. and Western Europe—those who believe in a vengeful god have seen it as a kind of biological retribution for what they deemed gay men's unnatural behavior. Their hatred of gay people, coupled with the invasion by HIV, has made for a war with multiple fronts.
We will ultimately triumph over HIV when medical science puts together all the pieces of the viral puzzle it has accumulated over the last eighteen years, and finally understands how to stop its course of destruction. We're not there yet, despite the exciting results some have had with the new drug combinations in the last three years. Too many are failing on the drugs, and too many more don't have access to them. Ultimately the struggle of gay people in this country for equal rights will also prevail because, as the black civil rights movement made so clear, as long as any American is treated as less than a full human being and citizen, we have failed to measure up to the standards our nation's founders set for us. But until we have conquered HIV, and until gay people are finally accorded equal treatment in every aspect of life and citizenship, our ultimate (and I believe inevitable) victory will remain deferred.
Question: Suppose there had never been an AIDS epidemic, how different do you think the gay community would look today?
Andriote: Before AIDS was identified in 1981, most gay people were not aware of (or interested in) the political implications of their personal lives. In the seventies, the immediate interests of gay people were in coming out, finally feeling free to be themselves, and establishing social and sexual connections with others. Only a handful of political activists at the time were trying to galvanize what was then a very disjointed community. AIDS affected all gay people, rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural. AIDS was a far more concrete concern to many more than, say, sexual freedom. The personal finally became political for a lot of white, middle-class gay men when the disease personally affected them themselves, or their lovers or friends.
As the numbers of gay men killed by AIDS grew to an alarming level, and as the gay community saw early on that AIDS was being neglected because of the hatred of homophobic politicians, they recognized that gay pride and liberation were about more than the right to have sex with whomever they chose. Politics became very personal indeed when lives were on the line. That's how AIDS changed gay life in America, and it's all we really know with certainty. What if AIDS hadn't happened? The hypothetical doesn't really interest me. The fact is that AIDS happened and it profoundly altered the gay civil rights movement as well as the lives of individual gay (and non-gay) people. Period.
Question: Did AIDS make it easier for the civil rights of gay people to advance, or did it make it more difficult? On the face of it, it seems that AIDS made it more difficult—that the majority would be less willing to accept a community that is associated with a dreadful disease.
Andriote: The civil rights of gay people have advanced in many states and at the federal level in large part because gay people have stood up and demanded equal rights. Prior to the 1969 Stonewall uprising—when gay people refused to yield to the gratuitous harassment of New York City police during a "routine" raid of the Greenwich Village gay bar—gay people were mainly going about the business of their lives, discretely out to friends and trusted others. Gay political organizing was polite and deferential to authority figures—for instance, to psychiatrists who said homosexuality was a mental illness. (They changed their mind in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality.) After Stonewall, many gay people became bolder and stepped forward, without apology, to say, "Yes, I too am gay." AIDS accelerated the coming out of gay people as tens of thousands likewise stepped forward because they were angry, frightened, and determined not to let the hatred of homophobes and the devastation of a deadly microbe dictate the course of their lives.
Gay people pulled together locally and nationally in the AIDS epidemic to insist that attention be paid to a disease that moralizing politicians would have preferred to ignore. Having successfully challenged the medical establishment to view homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality, and not a mental illness, gay people boldly insisted that the nation's medical and drug research institutions pay attention to AIDS. With lives truly at stake, and with a shared sense of purpose, gay people were not going to accept the shame that society told them was their lot in life—nor would they be silenced because society attached such stigma to the new and fatal sexually transmitted disease. They demonstrated humanity, strength, courage, and ingenuity in creating AIDS services and prevention programs and waking up an apathetic public to what was happening. By refusing to accept second-class citizenship, gay people made tremendous strides toward achieving equality.
As awful as it was that AIDS was disproportionately afflicting an unpopular minority, the fact is that this particular minority was determined to speak out and refuse anything less than equal treatment. As African-Americans did in the black civil rights movement, gay people shamed the majority into making changes by pointing out its genocidal neglect and the great gap between its rhetoric about equality and the facts of life for gay people and for people with AIDS.
Question: What about the role of lesbians in the fight against AIDS and for civil rights? How has AIDS impacted specifically on the advance of lesbian civil rights? Did AIDS help or hinder gay/lesbian alliances?
Andriote: AIDS expanded the gay civil rights movement generally and created a level of solidarity between gay men and lesbians that didn't exist before. From the earliest days of the epidemic, lesbians stood by their gay brothers—whether as care providers for the sick or lobbying in Washington for just policies. When gay men in the early eighties were banned from donating blood because they were all suspected of carrying whatever was causing AIDS, lesbians in groups like San Diego's "Blood Sisters" stepped in and donated their own blood to help make up the shortages in blood supplies. Lesbians understood the political aspects of medicine from dealing as women with a system dominated by heterosexual male doctors. Too often struggling in underpaid jobs, many lesbians also understood the class prejudices built into the system. Before gay men figured it out, lesbians understood that gay liberation was about more than sexual freedom.
Although some gay men constructed their lives to exclude women, the friendships that did exist between gay men and lesbians meant that those women were involved from the first. Some lesbians criticized others for their involvement, arguing that gay men wouldn't help them out on an issue like breast cancer. But as Sandi Feinblum, the first deputy director of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC, the world's first AIDS service organization), told me, "What did it have to do with the fact that all my friends were dying?"
Question: What do you think about how AIDS is portrayed these days in popular culture? For instance, the highest-rated TV show has a character who is HIV-positive, but she's a heterosexual woman. A lot seems to have changed since 1993 when Philadelphia was popular. Is AIDS no longer a gay disease? And what does that mean for the community?
Andriote: I think it shows remarkable and necessary progress that HIV/AIDS has become part of mainstream (i.e., white heterosexual) people's awareness—rather than just being seen as a disease of so-called outcasts. To the extent that AIDS has made Americans more willing to discuss sexuality and drug use factually and frankly, it has spurred healthy progress.
AIDS has never really been a "gay disease," although it has afflicted many gay men in this country and in other Western countries. Since early in the epidemic, when AIDS was reported in the developing world, it has been overwhelmingly a disease afflicting heterosexuals. The reality is that HIV/AIDS afflicts anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, who practices certain behaviors—primarily receptive unprotected intercourse or the sharing of needles. To call it a gay disease implies that a microbe could somehow have a sexual orientation, which takes anthropomorphism to a truly extraordinary level.
Even though AIDS isn't a gay disease per se, it's important to recognize that the neglect and hostility that has characterized the response to AIDS has had everything to do with the perception of AIDS as a gay disease. As Jews have done with the Holocaust, it is essential for us to preserve the memory of the particular ways we have suffered and struggled so that we can say, like the Jews, "Never again!"
Question: What would you like to see the government doing? What has Clinton done that has worked? Or not worked?
Andriote: I would like to see the federal government finally act as though it is the government of all Americans without consideration of their individual identities, including sexual orientation. I'd like to see political leaders finally act like political leaders—rather than like moralizing puppets controlled by those advancing their agendas by creating division and hatred among the American people.
AIDS has highlighted the flaws in the nation's health care and social welfare systems by showing the absurdity of tying health insurance coverage to employment and ability to pay—we've seen what happens when people are too sick to work or can't afford to pay. I would like to see the government finally take action to ensure that no American ever has to choose between having food to eat and getting the health care they need.
President Clinton has been a mixed bag, really. On one hand, he has done a good deal to help advance gay people's efforts to win equal rights. He has included a number of openly gay and lesbian people in his administration. He issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in federal employment based on sexual orientation. He has supported legislation to track and crack down on hate crimes, including those against gay people. He has consistently supported funding increases for AIDS research and services. And he supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect gay people against discrimination in the workplace. Perhaps the best thing he's done for gay people was unintentional, stemming as it did from his own breathtakingly indiscrete behavior: He demonstrated that a person's private sexual behavior should have no bearing on his qualifications for employment.
On the other hand, Clinton has regularly capitulated to conservative Republicans on issues of great concern to gay people. He gave us the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military that allows gay people to serve so long as they are able to hide who they are from military officials who are now—perversely, given the third "don't" of the Clinton policy: "Don't pursue"— discharging more gay people than ever. He signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, a kick in the groin to all lesbians and gay men who would like their domestic relationships accorded the same legal rights and protections as those of heterosexual Americans. And afraid of being perceived as "soft on drugs," Clinton refused to allow federal funding to be used for needle exchange programs—defying his own secretary of health and the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that needle exchange programs do in fact reduce the sharing of needles by injection drug users and thereby reduce the spread of HIV in that hard-hit population. As Ronald Reagan did before him, Clinton showed that politics trumps public health in this country if there is a risk of upsetting the outspoken bigots of the "Christian" right.
Question: What does it mean to be gay in the 1990s? What will it mean in the new millennium?
Andriote: One important difference between being gay today and into the new millennium and being gay at, say, the time of the Stonewall uprising thirty years ago, is gay people now have the extraordinary heritage of the multitude of ways that "our people" rose to the challenge of AIDS. As I point out in the final chapter of Victory Deferred, we are a true community now, national in scope with as it were thousands of local "chapters," because we share both memory and hope—the memory of our losses and of our ability to do what needed doing to care for the sick, prevent further infection, and to bring about change in the nation's medical and political systems that continues to benefit many, and the hope that at last we will share equal rights and status with our fellow Americans—and that HIV will finally be conquered.
Copyright notice: ©1999 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.
For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Victory Deferred.