Where Have We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going? Thoughts on LGBT Activism

Where Have We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going? Thoughts on LGBT Activism

Remarks, Deep Dish Presentation, Institute for LGBT Studies

  16 February 2017   University of Arizona

Let’s observe a moment of silence for Frederick Douglass, and all those who sacrificed their careers and lives so that we might be here today.  Let’s gather them together in this room.

A brief history of what I saw in California, and my great good fortune to live with bookends to my experience, at one end the centuries of the closet and at the other our emergence into the light.

Let us pause for a moment in gratefulness to San Francisco, city of St. Francis, the cool gray city of love, which—New York notwithstanding—has always paved the way.  Oscar Wilde:  “It’s an odd  thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”

A high-speed history of events (mostly) in San Francisco 1977-96, by way of underscoring how far the LGBT community has come and how fast:

  • 1977 Word is Out, the seminal LGBT documentary, groundbreaking in so many ways, produced by the Mariposa Film Group led by Peter Adair, whose members included Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and Janet Cole; my best friend as Peter’s business partner in their documentary production business Adair/Armstrong; Peter Adair on his deathbed, where I interviewed him so that I might write his obituary:  “In making Word Is Out,” he told me,  “I set out to create the consciousness of a community.” 
  • The daily dose of Armistead Maupin and, yes, Herb Caen, in the pages of the San  Francisco Chronicle; The San Francisco Chronicle, which reported on the LGBT community long before other newspapers;
  • The defeat in Miami/Dade County in 1977, and the argument, voiced by many, that we were better off in the closet;
  • The Briggs Initiative in California in 1978, which would have banned any mention of homosexuality in schools and required the immediate firing of anyone who self-identified as LGBT; registering voters outside the gay bars of San Jose 1978, where we had bricks thrown at us; debating fundamentalist ministers in West Valley Community College in 1978, where I was spat upon; the astounding turnaround, the landmark defeat of the Briggs Initiative in the November 1978 election;
  • Retaliation in the form of the Milk/Moscone murders three weeks later; the candlelight march; the May, 1979 conviction of the assassin Dan White of involuntary manslaughter; the night of rioting that followed;  
  • the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the first gay pride march in Iowa, in Des Moines, July 4, 1981, where we had bricks thrown at us;
  • back to San Francisco,  to encounter the onslaught of AIDS in 1982; AIDS as the purple stripe on everyone’s forehead that we had so wished for the late 1970s, be careful what you pray for;
  • Service on the first board of directors of Frameline, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, all men; working to diversify the board; the controversy over the application of a trans applicant as director;
  • the Mariposa Film Group members receiving the Academy Award for Best Documentary for The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984;
  • screening Dark Habits, the first Almodovar film to show at an American film festival, in 1985; meeting Almodovar; the long lines at the Castro Theater; the Castro Theater;
  • The rise of lesbian documentarians, Loni Ding, Emiko Omori, Lourdes Portillo, who stabilized her career with a Rockefeller  Foundation grant which I wrote in a weekend through the expedient of telling my immigrant story but substituting her name;
  • Gail Silva and Julie Mackaman and Film Arts  Foundation, which I stumbled into and had the great good fortune of editing their magazine for two years;
  • Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied, 1989;
  • The sit-in at the AIDS conference in San Francisco, the blocking of the Golden Gate Bridge;
  • the world premiere of Angels in America at the  Eureka Theater in June 1991;
  • Our community response to AIDS—the maturation of the hospice movement; the death of a generation of leadership and talent in all those fields where we excel:  Arts, humanities, community service, teaching, hairdressing, couture, carpentry, architecture, politics, everything. 
  • Lesbians stepping into that void;
  • The neocons stepping into that void. It’s not clear to me that space would have been made for lesbians otherwise, so that’s the good news, but marriage?
  • New York Times publisher Abe Rosenthal’s refusal to cover AIDS or allow the word “gay” to be used even in direct quotation.  The founding of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and our targeting Rosenthal.  My column “The Limitless Heart” breaking the Times barrier in June 1991.  Rosenthal being deposed by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., six months later. 
  • The discovery of antivirals in the early 1990s, and the many people who died because we didn’t know how to administer them.
  • Scissors,  Paper, Rock (1993) and the first explicit presentation of openly gay men in rural life in mainstream publishing, though I was following  paths blazed by Carson McCullers in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • The publication, within 3 months in spring 1996, of three memoirs by HIV- survivors:  Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, my Geography of the Heart, and Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum. And that brings us back to June 1996, and Peter Adair’s death, and my move to New York one month later, and the dazed and traumatized community trying to figure out how to reconfigure itself around its sorrow and its losses.

A word about the publishing Velvet Mafia, and how it has evolved and, in mainstream publishing, largely disappeared; though women still support women.  In 1977, it was not possible to have a professional career as an openly gay man or lesbian anywhere in the country except in San Francisco, and, in a very quiet way, in publishing, which is why it drew so many gay men and lesbians.  Women could achieve some power in the publishing business, though until well into the 1980s they stalled out at the level below senior management, and they were never hired into the big media conglomerates (Viacom, Bertelsmann, Hachette) who own mainstream publishing today.  But then AIDS, and all those noble souls dying from AIDS, opened up the publishing landscape.  People came out of the closet—they had no choice; silence equaled death.  And so we were hurtled, we hurtled ourselves forward, achieving in a decade what might otherwise have taken a century, if it had come to pass at all.


Where does our movement go from here, especially since the legalization of marriage has enabled the same insider/outsider, us/them binary thinking in our community that characterizes the straight world?

I pause for a deep bow of respect and appreciation of my many friends of every persuasion who have entered into the sacred contract of marriage and made it work.  But once I believed it was my destiny, the destiny of our community to graft that binary world onto our superior, inclusive root stock—specifically, to redefine family to be, not the nuclear household with a single male wage-earner, but the family of all creatures great and small.  The AIDS crisis defined my thirties, my prime years, and in those years I witnessed and participated as a community of men and women came together to help the sick and the dying.  Friendship, not marriage or blood, was our defining institution. Those who lived alone were cared for by friends more often than relatives or spouses; they were cared for out of love.  We understood ourselves as the scorned and humble root whose strength and character would save the tree of humanity from the rot of greed and selfishness on which capitalism is built.  Then came the rise of the neocons; then came Donald Trump.

When I was a kid I lived in utter solitude, growing up in a hill town of 800 people in rural Kentucky, with the nearest library 15 miles distant and no way to get there.  Then I moved to San Francisco and it gave me a self, a place, a community, a destiny, or so I thought, but like so many people on that beloved, benighted peninsula, I had to leave to make a living.  These days I feel as if coming out was a station along the path toward recognizing what ought to have been clear all along, which is that my destiny lies in solitude.  That led to a lifelong interest in monks and monasticism, and to my current book project, At the Center of All Beauty:  The Dignity and Challenge  of Solitude, which ojalla, will be published in late 2018 by W.W.  Norton.

We LGBT elders would be wise to recognize that even now, LGBT people bring to the human table an intimate knowledge of the ultimate solitude of each human being.  The scholar David Halperin pointed out to me that, prior to the 1970s, solitude was the price of the ticket of gender nonconformity.  For that very reason our community brings an understanding of the importance of celebrating how we are all creatures together on this beloved boat we call Earth, that solitude is the finally the very veil of maya, of  illusion, that we penetrate to reveal our ultimate and foundational unity, our collective  membership in an expansive definition of family founded and grounded in friendship, the queen of virtues.

Recently my undergraduate seminar discussed the lesbian novelist Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian.   How easily this young generation accepts the love between the 2nd century emperor Hadrian and his young squire Antinous!  How impossible to imagine this discussion taking place in a public university even twenty years ago! 

In the course of the discussion, I asked my class (13 seniors, honors students, 7 men, 6 women), “Which do you see as more important, friendship or marriage?”—feeling a bit awkward about the directness of the question but curious in the context of Yourcenar’s novel and, of course, my own solitary life.  I asked for a show of hands:  12 raised for friendship, 1 for marriage.  Unable to maintain my professorial poker-face, I said, “Really?”  Everyone kept her/his hand up.  So maybe that’s evidence, however slim, of a groundswell that will privilege relationships based not on closure and exclusion but on openness and embrace.

And to conclude with a word about Frederick Douglass.  Douglass was born into slavery, escaped it, saw the bloody civil war and the passage of the 13th amendment, which he must have seen as victory, only then to see the corrupt election of 1876 and the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.  At the time of his death in 1895, conditions for blacks in the rural South were arguably as bad as they were prior to the War.  And yet that does not diminish but instead highlights his achievement. Yes, we have Ferguson and Cleveland and Staten Island and Baltimore and even more disgracefully the massive prison industrial complex, intended, as we now know, to imprison and silence dissenters and nonconformists and people of color.  But you are here, and I am here, on this Frederick Douglass’s 199th birthday.  You see the grave and solemn responsibility we inherit.  Progress is possible, but only to the extent that we make it happen and then guard it diligently—religiously, you might say—against those ever ready to turn it back.  In her wisdom the Creator has left justice and virtue and the propagation of love in our hands.  Let us continue her work.

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