Hope and History

BY Michael Joseph Gross

April 26 2010 2:00 PM ET

“Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are at the White House wondering, If we actually file a bill to end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,” is the gay movement willing to work, to do what environmental reform advocates are willing to do, to get its legislation passed?” says Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Gill Action Fund. “The question is, Are you ready to own your responsibility to the movement?”

History offers an uncomfortable answer. At the start of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton had a vision for America and we were part of it, gay people were intoxicated with excitement and a sense of opportunity. By decade’s end, the president had signed DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “The movement was not honest enough with itself about our own failures,” Guerriero says. “The president caved to Congress because we didn’t show up and provide the air cover he needed with smart, strategic, robust activism.”

That’s because, on the federal level, “we don’t have an organization that fights for us with sufficient teeth in their arsenal,” says novelist, playwright, and gay rights pioneer Larry Kramer. “I’m sick of saying it, and everyone thinks I’m nothing but a curmudgeon. But I am approaching closer and closer to death, to my death, without being able to marry my lover, without being able to leave my estate to my lover without it being taxed into oblivion.”

Kramer’s tone isn’t curmudgeonly. It’s weary, almost shell-shocked. Gay activists in Washington are feckless, he argues, because they are enchanted by a false idea of power. “We are not here to make friends,” he says. “We are here to get our rights. And these two statements do not join together to blend into one happy halo.”

The national gay rights movement is trapped between activism and politics, between anger and ambition. We are trapped between wanting equal rights and wanting to get invited to parties at the White House. Even Joe Solmonese, the president of HRC, who according to Kramer represents the movement at its most complacent, suggests that to become real players we are going to have to start acting a little more like heroes: “One of the things our movement does not give enough appreciation and reverence to is ACT UP. Their rage. Their anger. But always with an endgame, always with a strategic center,” he says.

Kramer, who founded ACT UP in 1987 to address the AIDS crisis, says the group worked on very simple principles. “We all, hundreds of us, got ourselves in a room, and we planned very specific points of attack, and we divided the various plans into segments, each of which was taken over by one or another of our committees and put into operation. You go after the things that you want. Marriage, inheritance, adoption, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ repeal of DOMA. And then you start doing public demonstrations about each of them. Passing out detailed literature explaining the action. Naming names of the people who are preventing progress on these actions. You are merciless in confronting [those people], day after day. Consistency is so important. You have to be an activist every day, seven days a week, until you reach your goal. It’s not rocket science, any of this. You want something that somebody won’t give you? You find out how to get it.”

The gay movement today, he contends, lacks leaders with the level of commitment that animated ACT UP -- people who are willing to employ the shaming techniques that ACT UP used, and people who are willing to identify as gay first and foremost.

Kramer’s right on both points. Yet the problem is intractable. Shy of another dozen equally well-publicized Matthew Shepards or a new plague, it’s hard to see how a critical mass of gay people might be moved to experience themselves as “gay first and foremost,” how we might be moved to choose the radically separatist identity that has been, in our own history, our best weapon. Is it possible that the enemy has changed? If so, is it possible that different techniques are called for?

“I do not see a different enemy,” Kramer says. “The enemy is the enemy. We are hated too much by too many. And we are afraid to acknowledge this and to look it in its face for what it really is, hate, and to stare it down and fight it back. And become, as we did in ACT UP, our own heroes.”

There is in these remarks a huge amount of truth. There is also, I believe, a toxic measure of self-pity and sentimentality that ignores the progress we have made.

Our progress is measured by the generation gaps that fracture the movement. There is a gap between the ACT UP cohort and the daughters and sons of Will & Grace (who, having escaped the worst of the plague, don’t share their elders’ righteous anger except when they try) -- and another between the Will & Grace generation and the Facebook generation (most of whom don’t know a single person who has died of AIDS).

These gaps aggravate the mutual resentment of elders who see younger gays as lazy and entitled, and younger gays who see older ones as peevish and irascible. The gaps also create confusion about what our goals should be, because younger people want access to the very social institutions from which older people struggled to liberate themselves. The Stonewall generation and the ACT UP generation were defined by separateness. It was their salvation, the only way that they could live. It also defined their suffering, and it continues to define our suffering today.

To be, as Kramer and many of the ACT UP generation wish us to be, “gay first and foremost” is to make a fetish of our separateness. To win equal rights, we must not only reclaim the strongest parts of our collective history but also look beyond it.























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