Michael Bronski

The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the success of the battle for marriage equality have been, over the past thirty-five years, the two events that have most affected LGBT lives.

These two phenomena – first the spread of a deadly virus that has killed thirty-four million people worldwide and close to 660,000 in the United States, and second a prolonged, well-funded, culturally bitter fight to grant a basic right of legal contact to same-sex couples – are rarely  linked in the political or public imagination. Yet, numerous cultural and social interconnections, resonances, and ramifications link these events.

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Faycal Dow and Hunter Dow, with their daughter Myla Dow. Faycal and Hunter were legally married in France last year and had their first child Myla this year. (Getty)

HIV/AIDS was medically recognized in 1981, and its effect on gay men was noted in the now-famous July 3, 1981 New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” By 1987 there were close to 17,000 deaths, and many more sick, with no cure in sight. Although IV drug users, hemophiliacs, and heterosexual partners of infected men were also dying, the gay male community was publically identified – and blamed – as the cause of the epidemic. Meanwhile, after decades in which same-sex marriage was regarded as either a homophile pipe dream or a heterosexist capitulation, attitudes began to shift. By the late 1980s there were early strategies to legalize same-sex unions and in 1993, just a decade after the start of the epidemic, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled, in Baehr v. Lewin, that state law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional. In 2004, Massachusetts allowed same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, same-sex marriage was declared a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.

It is impossible to look at the twenty-two year long fight for marriage equality outside of the framework of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and equally impossible to look at today’s attitudes toward HIV/AIDS as unconnected to the cultural impact of the fight for marriage equality.

From the start of the AIDS epidemic, strong connections were made between “promiscuous” men with multiple sexual partners and the transmission of what would later be identified as HIV. This frequently translated into the overt homophobia of the newly rising religious and cultural right. Conservative political commentator and would-be presidential candidate Pat Buchanan infamously wrote in the February 4, 1983, issue of the New York Post that, “The poor homosexuals – they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

The 1980s was a culture caught between embracing and condemning the enormous social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Second-wave feminism, Gay Liberation, the sexual revolution, the hippie movement, and drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll, all promoted personal freedom and pleasure. For people with traditional social and religious views, who viewed homosexuality as a sin, the advent of AIDS was the direct result of excesses in social and sexual freedom.

Many Americans understood AIDS as a judgment on not only gay male sexual activity, but on a gay culture largely structured around this freedom. (These judgements ignored the medical fact that documented lesbian sexual transmission of HIV was extremely rare.) Gay men, already thought to be promiscuous and unable, according to neo-Freudian theory, to maintain relationships, were, literally, fucking themselves to death. The reality that many gay men – like many heterosexuals – maintained long-term open or monogamous relationships, engaged in serial monogamy, dated, slept around, and engaged in both traditionally sanctioned and (in many states) illegal sexual acts, did not impede the idea that gay male culture was a danger to the men involved and to society at large.

These prejudicial ideas were so entrenched that even many gay men voiced them. In 1998, a few years after antiretroviral therapy (HAART) drugs essentially made HIV a manageable condition, conservative gay journalist Andrew Sullivan linked sexual liberation with HIV in Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival: “The gay liberationists have plenty to answer for. For far too long they promoted the tragic lie that no avenue of sexuality was better or nobler than any other; that all demands for responsibility or fidelity or commitment or even healthier psychological integration were mere covers for ‘neoconservatism’ or worse ‘self-hatred’.” Sullivan’s sentiments echoed the ideas of Yale Law School gay legal scholar William Eskridge, who wrote two years earlier, in The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment, that, “It should not have required the AIDS epidemic to alert us to the problem of sexual promiscuity.” Later, he argues that, “sexual variety has not been liberating for gay men” and “[a] self-reflective gay community ought to embrace marriage for its potentially civilizing effect on young and old alike.”

For Sullivan and Eskridge, HIV/AIDS was not simply a virus but a social disease emanating directly from gay men’s refusal to embrace commitment, monogamy, fidelity, responsibility, and – ultimately – civilization. Eskridge was stating a commonly held, if less articulated, idea that same-sex marriage would “civilize” gay men. This was the shadow argument behind much of the legal rhetoric for marriage equality – a deeply conservative argument that preyed on fear and loathing both within and outside of the LGBT community. While many lesbian same-sex marriage activists, particularly those with children, saw marriage equality as a way to ensure the financial and social stability of their families, this valid argument also inadvertently bolstered the conservative “civilizing” argument.

During the height of the AIDS epidemic it was routine for gay men, lacking legal access to marriage, to be denied the ability to make medical decisions for their sick partners, to be denied hospital visitation rights if the biological family insisted, and to be denied inheritance rights – sometimes even with an existing will that was contested by the biological family. Many of the couples named in 2003’s Goodrich v. Department of Public Health that secured same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts, and 2008’s Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health in Connecticut, were in long term relationships and raising children. The 2013 Supreme Court lawsuit United States v. Windsor that invalidated the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act focused on Edith Windsor’s forty-four year long relationship with Thea Spyer.

It was no accident that the LGBT relationships that were held up as worthy of a wealth of legal protections were not the ones that were tainted with the stigma of HIV/AIDS and its implications of promiscuity, recklessness, and endangerment. In this framework AIDS is connected to sex and danger, marriage to domesticity and purity. While the LGBT legal establishment clearly argued for civil – not religious – marriage, the underlying psychic arguments here were essentially religious in their implications, particularly so, when contrasted to the implicitly religious condemnations of gay male sexuality.

All of these decisions make strategic legal sense. An eighty-four-year-old, white, wealthy, lesbian is likely to garner better, more sympathetic press than the partner of a man who died of AIDS. But the pattern of respectability politics obscures the deeper connections that marriage equality and HIV/AIDS have today.

Over the last seven years or so I have spoken to numerous gay male undergraduates who were in the process of coming out to their parents. The conversations were often the same – parents were often surprised or worried, but mothers especially were more accepting when sons introduced the idea that they would eventually meet the “right man,” get married, and adopt or father children. Many mothers were eager to hear whom their sons were dating and if they thought it would “work out.” One student told me that to please his mother he told her he had met and was dating – by which he meant “met on Grindr and hooked up with” – a fellow student, and she asked about the “relationship” over the next three phone calls. From then on he said he was “concentrating on his school work.”

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The CDC advises parents to reach out to their children and “start your conversation about HIV.” (CDC)

Of course, I hear from heterosexual students, particularly women, that they feel parental pressure to get married. But it became clear to me that for the gay men this was different. For many of their parents, who came of age in the 1980s at the height of the epidemic, the main fear was not that a beloved son might wind up single, but that he might wind up dead from AIDS. Many parents implicitly seemed to equate the idea of their son being sexually active with his being at high risk for HIV/AIDS. The simple solution, for them, was that their son should avoid the risk by selectively dating, being monogamous, and then marrying.

How reasonable are these fears? According to the CDC, “In 2010, young gay and bisexual men (aged 13-24 years) accounted for 72% of new HIV infections among all persons aged 13 to 24, and 30% of new infections among all gay and bisexual men. At the end of 2011, an estimated 500,022 (57%) persons living with an HIV diagnosis in the United States were gay and bisexual men.” Between 2005 to 2014, HIV diagnoses for black and Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 increased about 87%.  The diagnosis rate for white gay and bisexual men the same ages increased 56%. These transmission rates have stabilized over the past five years, but remain alarmingly high.

Of course, the most sensible response to fear of HIV/AIDS is to make sure your child knows about safe sex, uses condoms, and feels great enough about his sexuality to be open and honest with partners and to value his health and theirs. Obviously, “I’m so glad you met someone you like, do you think it will work out and you’ll get married?” is an emotionally easier and reassuring response than encouraging them to explore their sexual desires — which they are doing anyway — and to be as healthy as possible.

Some of my male students voice a desire to marry, usually in the future, and some have no interest at all. I suspect that, like many heterosexuals, those who do marry will marry more than once and, like many heterosexuals, have complicated emotional and sexual lives before, during, and after their marriages. None of this, however, has anything to do with HIV/AIDS.

As far as I can tell none of my students, individually, view marriage through the shadow argument of HIV/AIDS prevention. But they have grown up in a world in which this argument has, in many ways, propelled the marriage debate. The Obergefell decision has secured marriage equality for lesbians and gay men, but the cultural connections to AIDS are still with us. To disentangle them at this point in time, feels difficult if not impossible.

Bronski headshotMichael Bronski is Professor of Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. He has been involved with LGBT politics since 1969 as an activist, organizer, writer, publisher, editor, and independent scholar. He is the author of six books including A Queer History of the United States, awarded the Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award for best LGBT book of 2011 by the American Library Association, and Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics (co-authored with Kay Whitlock), nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2016.

It has been a year since the United States Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry nation-wide in its landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision last June. In the case, same-sex couples from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee challenged the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriage or refusals to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other jurisdictions. In a narrow 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to marry as a fundamental liberty; to deny that right to same-sex couples would deny their equal protection under the law.

How does Obergefell fit in to the longer history of sexuality in the United States? Obergefell’s anniversary will inevitably bring forth a crop of celebratory essays that treat the federal legalization of same-sex marriage as a historic milestone, perhaps even the summit, in the long campaign for LGBTQ rights. NOTCHES aims to complement such celebratory accounts by placing this decision in a critical and multifaceted historical context.

To this end, we invited historians of sexuality Michael Bronski, Jennifer D. Jones, and George Chauncey to reflect on the meaning of this decision. Their responses explore aspects of the battle for marriage equality unlikely to be discussed elsewhere: its relationship to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and efforts to contain gay men’s “dangerous” promiscuity, its connections to the Civil Rights Movement and the long struggle against white supremacy, the important role historians played in the marriage movement by serving as expert legal witnesses in discrimination cases over the past twenty years.



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