The Politics of AIDS

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Peter Drucker

Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS.
By Cindy Patton
South End Press, $9.

AIDS in the Mind of America.
By Dennis Altman
Anchor Press/Doubleday, $16.95.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS now AIDS has been an overriding fact of life (and death) for gay men in the U.S., as well as for intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and many Haitians. It has also become the single most important issue for the lesbian/gay movement.

The epidemic has had a unifying and mobilizing effect in some ways. Existing lesbian/gay organizations have put aside differences, people have become active who never were before, and new institutions have arisen. All have joined together to fight for government action against the disease, to protect people with AIDS against social bigotry and isolation, and to help people with AIDS through the difficulties of continuing to live while they are still alive.

In other ways AIDS has been a conservatizing force. Many gay men have turned to celibacy or monogamy who a few years ago would have viewed these choices as antithetical to gay liberation. Many who thought they had overcome guilt have rediscovered it, as they discovered new dangers in old sexual habits. Many who had been proud to be different are now looking for ways to conform.

AIDS may have simply helped legitimate a rightward shift among gays that was to be expected anyway in Reagan’s America, but it has provided a strong additional incentive. In still other ways AIDS has been divisive: as the state has used the epidemic as a pretext for repressive measures against gay gathering places, the movement has been divided between those fighting back, those standing uncertainly aside, and those accepting or even initiating restrictions or shutdowns.

These have been the major short-term political consequences of AIDS. Its longrun impact on the lesbian/gay community and movement is still unknown.

Some people have announced that we will be living with AIDS, and watching people die of it, for the rest of our lives. Most are not so resolutely gloomy. But few imagine that the gay subculture of the 1970s will spring up in the same form again, even if a miraculous cure for AIDS is discovered tomorrow.

The moderate wing of the movement likes to imagine that lesbians and gays have acquired a lasting “maturity,” which will enable them to fit into the American mainstream as a respectable, tolerated minority, wedded to the Democratic {or even, for some gay right-wingers, Republican) party. Lesbian/gay people who are still attached to the original, radical impulse of lesbian/gay liberation are less sure of what new forms the movement will take.

Many books have come out about AIDS. Until this past year they were more or less technical: books on what AIDS is, where it came from, how to treat it, how it might be cured. Now two books have been published on the politics of the epidemic. Both are valuable reading for lesbian/gay activists as well as straight leftists who want to understand what’s happening.

Cindy Patton’s Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS and Dennis Altman’s AIDS in the Mind of America have roughly similar perspectives.

Both authors identify in some sense with the left, and both are sensitive to issues of class and race (an important concern, given the media’s amazing success in obscuring the disease’s disproportionate toll among Blacks and Latinos). Both authors also have long histories in the movement for lesbian/gay liberation, and have sided recently with the movement’s “sex-positive” wing. Both are therefore deeply concerned at the ways AIDS has helped to undermine the gay movement’s critique of traditional sexuality. (Altman’s book came out later than Patton’s; he quotes her writings approvingly several times.)

Both Patton and Altman are gay. Like most gay people in the U.S., they have come face to face with AIDS in direct and devastating ways. They have both seen friends die. They have both been afraid that they themselves might get the disease and die (though Patton, as a lesbian, is at extremely low risk).

Cindy Patton writes as a lesbian/gay activist who has become primarily an AIDS activist. She was an editor of Gay Community News in Boston, the main voice of the lesbian/gay left in this country and a major voice of the “sex radicals” within the movement. As a GCN editor, Patton joined in criticizing the anti-pornography movement and defending gay sub-minorities (like the SM community) under attack. Her book reflects this background as well as her recent involvement in nitty-gritty AIDS organizing for the Fenway Community Health Center.

She has a keen eye for the foot-dragging and infighting that have characterized the medical establishment’s and government’s response to AIDS, She is quick to spot homophobia, racism and class prejudice wherever they rear their heads. Her account of the pervasive ideologies of law and medicine as they have shaped public (mis)understanding of AIDS, and the especially threatening ideology of the New Right, are dear and convincing.

A Separate Repression?

The least valuable part of Sex and Germs for me was the theoretical chapter on “Erotophobia-Desire and Practice.” Like many lesbian/ gay radicals, Patton has reacted to the narrow sexual attitudes of some feminists and leftists with a strong critique of feminism and Marxism.

She argues that “it is essential to understand the pattern and history of sexual repression as a separate form of oppression, not as one merely adjunct to or supportive of capitalist or patriarchal relationships.” She seeks this understanding from Foucault and Lacan.

While I share Patton’s desire to defend sexual liberation, I found her theories often confusing and sometimes self-contradictory.*

Dennis Altman’s book reflects his great experience as a theorist and writer. His Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971) was an early classic that drew on feminist theory to analyze gay oppression. His Homosexualization of America (1982), written just before AIDS had a big impact on his thinking, stressed the role of gay people as sexual and cultural trailblazers.

AIDS in the Mind of America, which both leans on and questions Altman’s earlier work, is a scrupulously careful history of AIDS and a far-reaching account of the media’s, public’s, and lesbian/gay community’s reaction to it. More comprehensively researched than Sex and Germs, AIDS in the Mind of America strikes a carefully balanced tone where Patton’s book is more politically and conceptually sharp-edged.

Altman also explores some areas to which Patton, with her more sweeping analysis, devotes less attention. For example, he shows the enormous price paid by this country for our lack of national health insurance and our crazy-quilt patchwork of health authorities. He lays out the whole history of the controversy over closing San Francisco’s bathhouses. (In an example of even-handedness gone lopsided, he comes out against bathhouse closures only after arguing at length that in some circumstances closure might be a good idea.) The wealth of detail, argument and counter-argument he gives on each point can give all the more weight to his case for sexual freedom, as when he points out that “some of the most stigmatized forms of gay sexuality may well be among the safest sadomasochism, insofar as it involves ritualized non-genital contact; pederasty, which often amounts to no more than acts of mutual masturbation; and ‘public sex,’ for example in parks and on beaches, where again mutual masturbation is common.”

Patton has the advantage of drawing on her personal, local activism, while Altman (an Australian who has often lived in the U.S.) has a wider range of national and international sources. His last chapter points out things about the U.S. response to AIDS that are unique to this country: not only Americans’ moralism, but our unwillingness to rely on governments, our gift for voluntary association, and the kind of pluralism that even allows some room for lesbian/gay institutions and pressure groups.

The tendency of U.S. activists to stick to their particular issues and communities is often frustrating to leftists, who know that in not hanging together we will all surely hang separately. But we must acknowledge that gays working on their own turf have created one of the world’s strongest lesbian/gay movements and a strong activist response to AIDS-factors we will have to take into account in our reckoning.

*For example, I don’t see how one can use Foucault, who discounted the category of “sexuality” as a recent invention and sexual repression as a minor aspect of the construction of sexuality, to put together a theory in which sexual repression is central. For a critique of “Foucauldeanism,” see my article “Power and Sexuality” (ATC, Fall 1984).

January-Februry 1987, ATC 6

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