Did AIDS go away?
The young man standing in front of me at this year’s Capital Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. was overjoyed, taking every necklace of beads, piece of candy, and plastic ball that the parade participants were handing out. At one point, he grabbed at something thrown from a passing car. He grasped the tossed condom, then let it drop to the ground. His attention quickly focused on the next set of beads and rainbow flags.
It was in stark contrast to my first Pride event in Kansas City around 1990. The event was in a park and the minute you walked into the event, you were greeted with a sea of red ribbons. The event was defined by AIDS. Every other booth seemed to be sponsored by an AIDS organization or pharmaceutical company.
Gay Pride was inextricably linked to the AIDS crisis. The money being raised was for AIDS services. Men in wheelchairs and walkers suffering from the disease intermixed with the crazy assortment of people who show up at a gay event in Middle America in 1990.
At this year’s Pride Parade, there were almost no red ribbons. The largest AIDS clinic in the region promoted its comprehensive health services. The largest provider of AIDS services to the Latino community may have had the best costumes, but no mention of HIV/AIDS. Only Planned Parenthood featured a red ribbon, and the applause they received probably had more to do with being a culture warrior than its role in HIV/AIDS prevention.
But is that so bad? One can lament the question, “Where have all the red ribbons gone,” but there is something both startling and reassuring that LGBT Pride is no longer linked to HIV/AIDS. We’ve moved on, I suppose, to marching high school kids and Mormons for Marriage Equality. The gay movement has grown up with AIDS and decided maybe its time to focus on something else.
For all of my adult life, being gay has been linked to HIV/AIDS. Gay literature, gay movies, and gay theatre all existed within the context of HIV/AIDS. You couldn’t open up a gay magazine or newspaper without being bombarded with obituaries and advertisements and red ribbons.
Attending a gay pride event was to be immersed in AIDS. Men who were obviously sick, organizations committed to providing AIDS services, companies that were part of AIDS Inc.: looking to sell you a insurance plan or the prescription that make you well enough to go mountain climbing.
In the late 1990s, I helped run a legal clinic for poor people with HIV/AIDS. My clients were mostly men and mostly drug addicts, but there were plenty of gay men and lesbians running the organizations created for the gay community that had now expanded their reach. Some of my clients were gay, of course, many of them baffled by how they suddenly found themselves among the poor.
On the heels of the creation of drug cocktails and protease inhibitors, legal services shifted from writing wills and preparing for death to helping clients prepare for a lifetime of poverty and a lifetime of expensive health care needs. I was part of that “industry” that linked being gay to AIDS.
But now it’s 2012. Gay identity is no longer linked to AIDS. The president of the United States gives interviews on television to explain he supports same-sex marriage. Four sailors, in uniform, stand for pictures at the Pride Parade basking in the attention created by the death of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The parade now features lots of teenagers, queer and their allies, marching with other teens. People riding on the floats—both gay and straight—are there with their kids, all of them tossing out beads to the crowd. There are contingents of Asians and Latinos, singing groups and marching bands, politicians and cops, and lots and lots of church people.
The crowd is younger and more racially mixed. Lots of straight people there with their gay and lesbian friends. They cheer the dancing boys and drag queens, but the PFLAG parents and marching Mormons get the loudest and most sustained applause.
AIDS is now in the background. It was the issue that defined us—and arguably turned the gay community into a political force—but now it seems largely irrelevant. AIDS still exists, but it is just one of a number of issues that the community defines itself around. Gay men still get AIDS, and still die from AIDS. But being gay is no longer about AIDS, as it was for a generation. My generation.
I wonder if one of the reasons the red ribbons have largely disappeared is that gay pride needed the energy of successes, not just struggles. While AIDS represented a turning point for gay power and pride, it was often a symbol of continuing resistance and few victories. While same-sex marriage is a political struggle, it is also one that has had some fairly significant successes in the past few years.
In contrast, HIV/AIDS has become one of those issues that just never seems to have many successes. While people are living much longer, there is no “cure.” There is no vaccine. The Center for Disease Control’s most recent data show that between 2006 and 2009, the number of new infections that occur each year increased among young men who have sex with men—driven by a 48 percent increase among young, African American men who have sex with men (MSM) 13 to 29 years old
It’s possible that this is a big city, “post-gay” phenomenon. But Washington, D.C. has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country, so it is not as though AIDS has gone away and gay men in this city don’t realize that AIDS is still an issue. The city and surrounding areas are still very much in the grips of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the gay community really shouldn’t be complacent.
But for younger gay men and lesbians, AIDS is no longer what defines identity and “pride.” They know people living with HIV/AIDS, but they don’t remember the dark days when everyone associated gay with AIDS.
It’s a much happier time—more hopeful and powerful. While we can’t completely forget the red ribbons, maybe it’s time for pride to be about our successes and not our challenges. Bring on the marching teens and the Mormons for Marriage Equality. Welcome to Pride 2012.
—Photo credit: krossbow/Flickr