When I came out as a lesbian in 1988, I was fresh off the turnip truck. As a 21 year old and newly budding "baby dyke", I certainly had no clue about the history of gays and lesbians in the US. Like most Americans, I was completely unaware of the brutality inflicted upon gay people preceding Stonewall Riots, and after. From post-WWII until the late 70's, there was literally an institutionalized form of a gay Auschwitz. Back then gays were lobotomized, castrated, sterilized, subjected to electro-shock 'therapy', given pharmaceutical drugs which simulated drowning like waterboarding, or just 'put away' in mental institutions and forgotten about. Additionally, many other untold atrocities occurred.
Yeah, this really happened in America less than 40 years ago. This was a history lesson from which the gay community should have learned. Before my time in 1969, the Stonewall Riots happened in NYC. For three days, gays and lesbians said to no and fought back against the police harassment of gay establishments and its patrons. To have been caught and arrested in one of these raids meant the end of your career and the destruction of your character, or worse. Much worse. Being a homosexual was still listed as a mental disease by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973. For brevity, PBS has a remarkable documentary about this riot entitled Stonewall Uprising with footage and photos even I had never seen. The interviews are heart-wrenching. It's certainly worthwhile to see this film. Ironically, in the early days, it was called the Gay Liberation movement, not the "gay rights" movement. And let it be known that the first 'Gay Pride' was an actual riot.
I was fortunate to have come out of the closet in a metropolitan area, but living in the Bible-belt South, specifically the Land of Jesse Helms, it was still highly taboo to be an "out and proud" queer. Very "hush-hush". I didn't tell my family I was gay until the age of 26. Nonetheless, I found myself fascinated by this whole underground gay world of which I would soon become an integral part. From here on out, my entire existence took place in exclusively gay communities, employment, and social circles for the next two decades. I was now part of the gay ghetto.
I was a quick study and got up to speed with the help of my new co-workers. I took a job as head chef of a fine dining gay restaurant which had a small, but very popular upstairs bar with wrap-around porches overlooking the panorama of the city skyline, all neatly tucked away in an old and tastefully appointed Victorian house in the historic district. In fact, if you didn't know where this fabulous little spot was, you might not find it. At that time, we liked it that way. The violence from random gay bashings was no joke. If you were an out queer, you stood a good chance of being verbally accosted or even physically attacked. Homophobia was still quite prevalent and in cases, life-threatening. Setting ablaze a gay and lesbian bookstore just next door to my job was one way the local fag bashers showed their love. Boy, do I have stories. I knew people who were attacked and left for dead.
It was the height of the AIDS epidemic. Reagan had just left office and GHW Bush now had the reigns. Luckily, my gay history education was put on the fast track as one of my waiters began to tell me of his experiences in NYC with the activist group ACT-UP; the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. It had only been two years since Reagan first uttered the word "AIDS"; a mere 7 years into his tenure. Even then, Reagan admonished us and made it into a morality issue. Basically, it boiled down to "you gays get what you deserve because of your immoral behavior". AIDS was, at the time, known as the 'gay disease' even though by this point thousands of straights, blacks, hispanics, whites, children, hemophiliacs, iv drug users, in addition to gay men had succumbed to it's deadly grip. The HIV/AIDS drug AZT was only in it's infancy and a prescription cost more than $10,000 annually, as if the people too sick to work could ever afford that. For those with insurance, AIDS patients had riders placed on their policies which limited coverage. A diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence.
As we delve into this tragic history, it will shape my argument as to why there aren't more gays and lesbians who are libertarians. At this time, the activist group ACT-UP had arisen out of the anguish of helplessly watching our friends and acquaintances contract full-blown AIDS and in many cases dying within weeks or a few months of developing pneumonia. Some wasted away longer term. Not everyone affected could afford AZT. AIDS testing was still primitive and, in many cases, not anonymous. In my immediate circle, I knew eight co-workers and five of their significant others who had HIV or full blown AIDS. I cannot even begin to count the number of our clientele in my new gay world who got sick or died in that 4 year period. 200? 250? 300? It's almost impossible to know. I do remember how devastatingly horrible it was. Looking back, I feel like I experienced a war and the utter despair a war brings; a history, my history, that not too many people know about. It affected me greatly. Here today, gone tomorrow. I remember sobbing over the death of a friend as I prepped trays to be sent to his home. You just had to work through it.
In the fight to cure or at least alleviate AIDS, gays quickly learned that the government wasn't going to help us, mainly for the fact that they simply didn't acknowledge our existence as human beings. In fact, the federal government, the CDC, the NIH, the FDA and the drug company Burroughs Wellcome were the biggest roadblocks. The government and it's agencies fostered an environment which allowed the drug company to have a monopoly not only on the drug AZT, but they also excluded gay men from the experimental drug testing. Gay men were shunned even though they were the number one group categorically who were affected. ACT-UP protestors in '88 surrounded and shut down the FDA for a day. Even now, this was the largest US protest since the Vietnam war. In 1989, ACT-UP also targeted Burroughs Wellcome on Wall St over their price gouging for AZT. Chained to the second floor balcony, the activists hurled themselves over the railing, unfurling a banner that read: SELL WELLCOME! Within the next few days, the company dropped the price by $3600.00/year. This small victory against a government-backed drug monopoly (among many other protests), was my introduction to direct, non-violent, civil disobedience. I learned that it worked.
From '90-'93, Act Up raged on in the big cities, but in the fairly-sequestered gay community down South I was preparing numerous banquets, caterings, and dinners for fundraisers or funerals. I watched helplessly at the bedsides of dying friends in hospitals and at their substandard treatment by supposed 'medical professionals'. Ignorance about this horrid disease,
My work as a chef, being an aspect of fundraising, was my introduction to government-free mutual aid. If the government wasn't going to help us, we had to help ourselves. So we did. Government-free, mutual aid groups flourished and still do to this day. This was another lesson from which we should have taken a cue.
1991-92. Enter Bill Clinton. It is at this juncture where I feel the gay community's momentum was derailed.
This blog will continue in Part II, shortly……