by: Ryne Poelker
The 80’s was a decade of genocide for the LGBT community. An epidemic had hit. The sexually marginalized were dropping dead and it went ignored by the government, went exploited by the business class and went celebrated by the far-right. Rev. Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority, preached, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Patrick Buchanan, Reagan’s Press Secretary, said AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” The Catholic hierarchy did everything it could in public affairs to prevent AIDS education and protection for victims to take place (sound familiar?).
A little unknown disk jockey at the time, by the name of Rush Limbaugh, even gained his career by listing the names of gay men who died of the disease on his radio show then would press an applause or laughing button to show his joy in their death.
Hate violence sky rocketed at gay bars and on human lives. Discrimination in employment, blood donations, housing, and everywhere else went rampant. President Ronald Reagan refused to even acknowledge the human suffering and death that had existed. 40,000 dead from the disease and he said not a single word on the spreading epidemic. That’s right, 40,000 dead before a single word was spoken from the conservative right’s most celebrated “leader.” Inaction and silence was his political platform on the misery of our community. 40,000 quickly multiplied and multiplied again. Millions killed from this bigoted negligence.
To the GOP base, it was asked why should “big government” spend taxpayer resources on “hand outs” to help those who brought this disease on themselves through irresponsible behavior. The followers of Christ began demonizing the lepers. Many even advocated quarantining AIDS victims into government camps and facilities.
Before we even witnessed one person that had died of the swine flu, massive panic went in the federal government. There was an immediate response in resources and care. The difference to the 80’s was that the lives of sexual deviants, effeminate fags, drug users and the impoverished weren’t a priority for the GOP or those of power. It wasn’t affecting respectable populations. Simply put- lives did not matter thus care went denied. Besides to Reagan and the “Christian” Right, society was better off without these degenerates. In essence, it was a biological holocaust.
Though this was a decade of onslaught, it quickly became a decade of fighting back. Resistance became survival. Our community was pushed into a corner of death and out of desperation we taught ourselves to fight again. With the mourning and pure outrage at an oppressive society, the group Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was given birth.
To these activists, deaths would not go down in vain or unrecognized. Representing themselves, they wore the pink triangle worn by homosexual men in the Nazi holocaust. Under it were the words “Silence = Death.”
With this radical activist formation, civil disobedience erupted all over the country. News stations were invaded. Government buildings were occupied. Republican conventions were disrupted. Fancy cocktail diners were invaded. Catholic leaders were confronted. 5,000 protesters even halted New York Cardinal, John O’Connor, from having a mass one Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They raised up signs that boldly read ”Cardinal O’Connor Loves Gay People . . . If They Are Dying of AIDS.”
The American Medical Association, The Center on Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration faced public protest. Drug companies that were exploiting victims became targets. Massive marches on Washington took place. Activists, in an act of dissent, even threw the ashes of dead victims of AIDS on the white house lawn. Demands for accessible medications, universal healthcare, marriage rights over inheritance and hospital visitation, more shelters, more clinics, job protection, anti-discrimination policies in health treatment, and sex education on AIDS prevention took hold. Rebellion was in the air and our community was quickly radicalizing to question corporate power, the holy sanction of profit and ultimately the system altogether.
One other target became clear in the 80’s: Wall Street. It was a capitalist mecca where the most powerful men in the world were concentrated together. Drug companies, health insurance corporations and medicine profiteers of different stripes all congregated together, deciding on how to make the most amount of profit out of the blood bath of our community.
The plutocrat parasites didn’t see what was coming. Thousands would descend to occupy Wall Street on several occasions. And time and time again, they would effectively wreak havoc on the business class. On one occasion, activists were even able to shut down the New York Stock Exchange. Let me repeat that: they were able to shut down the fucking New York Stock Exchange, arguably the most powerful business institution in the world. Activists would chain themselves to VIP balconies reserved for stockholders and CEOs. Banners would be unhurled everywhere. Megaphones and bullhorns drowned everything out. Activists got in the faces of businessmen in suits and ties. They kicked ass and took names. They effectively halted business as usual and stood up to he most dominant men on the globe.
The next day, medication prices dropped 20 to 50% for patients. Government leaders began to listen. We were earned our respect. People who were labeled all their lives as effeminate, weak, degenerate were finally feared. They discovered they had a power. A bunch of young thin sissies, bulky dykes and gender outlaws found themselves taking on the world.
While this heroic struggle goes on ignored in history, we see a different Occupy Movement against Wall Street and corporate abuse today. Yet, see the same epidemics. AIDS did not go away. We still have the most inaccessible healthcare system in the industrialized world, ranked 37th overall. The vast majority of schools still don’t have protections for LGBT students. Michigan just recently legalized discrimination in its schools. The religious right continues to celebrate our death at funerals and in public. Cruel gay to straight conversion camps run by religious fundamentalists still exist all over this country. American conservative leaders like Steve Lively are still propping up campaigns to pass the death penalty for LGBT people in other countries like Uganda.
Moreover, in many ways, we have faced the brunt of this economic recession: 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, 28% of LGBT youth drop out of high school due to harassment and persecution. It is still legal to lose your job in 29 states for your sexual orientation and 37 for your gender expression. Marriage benefits for our partners are still denied in most states and at the federal level. 55% of LGBT youth experience alcoholism and substance abuse in their lifetimes, and LGBT youth are 6 times more likely to commit suicide, making it the number one cause of death for queer children.
In most places, housing discrimination for LGBT people is still legal. In most places, LGBT discrimination in health treatment is still legal. In most places, LGBT discrimination in public accommodation is still legal.
In a recent interview the founder of Act-Up, Larry Kramer, put it bluntly (as always): “We still are treated like shit, and we still aren’t equal. So, if you want to look at that as how far we’ve come, be my guest. I just won’t join you. The same things I’ve complained about since the beginning have not been rectified in any way.” Why have we as queer people become so complacent to a system that demeans our lives? And where is our organized presence in the occupy movements? This should matter to us, as much so then as now.
After Prop 8 and the National Equality March, our movement went from another period of brave action into a period of retreat. I see the inaction of my community today, but simultaneously, I see mass upheaval spreading in the streets. I ask: “Where are all the queers at? Why are you not here?” This is our time.
Many Occupy Movements have addressed issues of gender and racial inclusion. Many have created “Occupy the Hoods” all over the country to address racial inclusion. Others have put women at the fore front and center of leadership.
Activist, socialist, and friend Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote an incisive piece on building racial solidarity within the occupy movements. She suggests that it will take prioritizing specific demands at institutional levels that disproportionately affect people of color to get higher turn outs and victories. She recommends reforms such as stopping immigrant deportations, ending mass incarceration within the prison-industrial complex, abolishing the death penalty, protecting affirmative action and stopping evictions.
This is the time to link arms with the other struggles and put forth our demands alongside theirs. There is so much we could ask for: federal employment protection, stopping the budget cuts on suicide prevention and mental healthcare, inclusive safe schools, a federal LGBT civil rights bill that prohibits discrimination in housing and public accommodation, marriage equality for our partners, youth shelters, affordable accessible AIDS medications and so much more.
Moreover, the queer community faces the same problems that many other communities. Youth homelessness, mental healthcare, and AIDS treatment are just a few issues by which communities can build bridges, where intersectionalities can gain their voice.
Our struggle is more powerful and effective when outside a vacuum. During times of mass upheaval, the solidarity of the oppressed becomes inevitable. Our apathy today does a disservice not only to our queer forefathers and mothers but also to ourselves. We are still denied our rights. Our LGBT children are putting bullets to their heads. Our seniors go without healthcare. Our youth squalor in the streets. Our community is under constant attack. Meanwhile, a ruling class continues to prosper at our disenfranchisement.
The gay holocaust did not end in the 1940’s. It did not in end the 1980’s. And it has not ended in 2011. Silence = Death then, Silence = Death now.
Our persecution continues, but so to shall the spirit of our resistance. Lets give another chapter of history for queer children to take pride in. My family, stand up for yourselves. Out of the closets and into the revolution! Our revolution!
Ryne Poelker is an undergraduate student of History and Gender Women Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ryne has found himself at the forefront of many struggles from defending abortion clinics to getting arrested with OccupyChicago. Ryne is a socialist organizer who was worked with a queer rights front group called Join The impact, the Illinois Abortion Clinic Defense Team, Gender Just and the Campaign Against Police Sexual Assault. He aspires to someday write social justice history and queer novels.