NEW YORK TIMES, December 12, 1997

Opinion: Gay Culture, Redefined

by Larry Kramer

The facts: enough gay men are once again having enough unsafe sex that the rates of H.I.V. infection, gonorrhea and syphilis are returning to frightening heights.

The facts: a small and vocal gay group that calls itself Sex Panic has taken it upon itself to demand "sexual freedom," which its members define as allowing gay men to have sex when and where and how they want to. In other words, this group is an advocate of unsafe sex, if this is what is wanted, and of public sex, if this is what is wanted. It advocates unconditional, unlimited promiscuity.

The facts: public sex means sex in parks, in public restrooms, in bathhouses, in the back rooms of bars and discos, at weekend parties, on beaches -- anywhere men can gather.

The facts: this is the very same debate that occurred in 1981 when the first signs of the AIDS plague were appearing. Few wished to pay attention to the dangers then, preferring to demand the right to have sex in exactly the same ways that Sex Panic is demanding be legitimized again.

The facts: once again, this has become a battle over civil rights rather than an issue of public health.

(A question: why is public sex a civil right? I do not want to see straight people copulating in the park or in public restrooms. And I do not believe that heterosexuals view such acts as theirs by right.)

The facts: shamefully, not one AIDS organization or national gay and lesbian group has been willing to speak out and condemn or even criticize what Sex Panic is saying. There are only a few gay men willing to take on the group -- and we have been vilified by the pro-promiscuity forces for our views.

The truth is, most gay men live calm, orderly lives, often as couples, and they are embarrassed by what Sex Panic espouses. They are ashamed this issue has surfaced again. Many feel that to speak up against Sex Panic only validates its existence, and that if they keep their mouths shut the group will go away. And, as with smoking, they feel that enough information about safe sex is out there -- if people choose to ignore it, that's their business.

Criticism from lesbians, the other half of our movement, is desperately needed as well. Promiscuous gay men must hear the message, "Enough already! Haven't you learned anything from the last 17 years?" Yet lesbian activists, who alongside gay men have fought against AIDS, crawl into shells rather than confront the idiocy of what Sex Panic is demanding. Why are they refusing to speak out, particularly when so many of them have confided that they agree with me?

After all, AIDS has usurped the entire gay movement's agenda, at great cost to lesbian issues. Just when it looked as if there was some breathing space to pay more attention to these issues, AIDS resurges. The message Sex Panic and its supporters are giving to women is tantamount to: we'll come back to your issues some other time.

I cannot understand why lesbians are not furious with their gay male friends.

Without a strong, vocal opposition, Sex Panic is on its way to convincing much of America that all gay men are back to pre-AIDS self-destructive behavior that will wind up costing the taxpayer a lot of extra money. Indeed, what Sex Panic is demanding could easily allow our enemies, as well as many of our straight friends, to deny all gay people what rights we've won or are still fighting for.

Those who do speak out in protest are automatically accused of assimilationist views: we want to be like straights; we want marriage and monogamy and white picket fenced-in homes.

It is particularly moronic that Sex Panic considers these desires so sweepingly offensive. But even gay people who don't want to be like straights, don't want to be assimilated and don't even want to marry or have a relationship still want to live their lives as social equals and responsible citizens.

Fortunately, more and more gay people are beginning to realize that it's time to redefine what it means to be gay. Allowing sex-centrism to remain the sole definition of homosexuality is now coming to be seen as the greatest act of self-destruction. There is a growing understanding that we created a culture that in effect murdered us, and that if we are to remain alive it's time to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals. But this redefinition will require nothing less than remaking our culture.

Sex Panic was formed in fury to defeat this call to change. But how will gay men have any future if they continue to die from playing by old rules instead of living by new ones?

# # #

 

A response from a fierce Lesbian AIDS activist:

I'm one of tens of thousands of dykes who have long been subjected to Kramer's wholesale dismissal and snarling contempt for our AIDS and queer activism, for our caring for gay men and others with HIV, and for having the nerve to be visible in a domain in which he said we had no right to speak or act. I've also lost so many men--and women--to this epidemic.

Many of the men we dykes have cared for and buried are the men who helped me and other sex-positive women enter (respectfully) previously male sexual spaces, who turned their subterranean venues over to us for a night a month or a week, and who supported our struggles to expand the visibility and rights of sexually active and sex-positive lesbian, bisexual, transgender and SM women against the miserably prudish, loom-hugging, crib-death-welcoming stereotype of lesbian culture that Kramer suddenly celebrates. It wasn't where or with how many those boys fucked that got them infected, and in overwhelming numbers they learned how to remain sexually active without infecting others. Our history with them, not fear, and our continued affirmation of a diverse sexual world is why we joyously and furiously stand with Sex Panic! and oppose brutal, homophobic assaults on our sometimes shared/always complementary sexual cultures--assaults Kramer has the gall to evoke lesbians in condoning. Most of us are theoretically sophisticated enough to know that sexual liberation isn't the road to freedon, but we also know that sexual repression--as in police repression, not Freudian repression--is the right hand of fascism, and Kramer is its pinky ring.

Like so many other misogynists, Larry Kramer can't really conceive that women have autonoumous and complex sexual desires, that we could actually do dirty things with each other in the absence of men. That's why after years of spitting on us, he's now rehabilitating us as good role models for those bad boys at the Bijou. But lesbians are sexual, and like our brothers we need realistic education and strategies for preventing HIV transmission, not bullshit moralism from the likes of Kramer. Like men, we have an extraordinary range of desires and experiences; many fewer of us have had the opportunity the explore those desires or to feel unashamed about our experiences. Those of us who have--even those of us who now find ourselves in intensely committed (but still nasty) pairs--know that those desires and experiences are worth fighting for. Kramer can suck my dick.

 

And a response from a fierce queer-male AIDS activist:

I have been following this discussion with interest, anger, disgust, amusement, and occasionally extreme despair.

First, [the above] eloquent tirade thrilled me. Her description of Larry Kramer as the pinky ring on the right hand of fascism, while hyperbolic, had me laughing out loud.

Mark's [..pro-Kramer] protestations make me very sad. I believe he speaks from a deep love and concern for his fellow queers, and desires only that we be healthy and happy. Yet it seems he has become a pawn to people with a very different agenda of sexual oppression. Mark, you speak regularly of the need for queer men to reduce their number of partners as a way to reduce HIV transmission. But you speak far more eloquently of the absence of love and community you feel in the sex clubs and elsewhere. I think this is your real concern. Perhaps you should ask yourself why you feel this and what would change it. Why continue to go to the baths if this isn't fulfilling for you? (Not everyone feels this way.) Is it because you know the problem isn't with public sex, but something else? In other words, you can go to the baths, have sex and feel lonely, or, you can not go to the baths, not have sex, and still feel lonely. Or, you can get a lover, buy a cozy condo together and still feel lonely. Perhaps sex and even sexual relationships is not the problem here. Maybe it has to do with the growing commercialism of dominant gay culture. I know I feel very alienated by that. Maybe for you it's something else.

Now on to Larry Kramer's article:

First, the New York Times is not the place for us to discuss the pros and cons of queer culture. If Larry's goal is to convince queer people to change our behavior and public discourse (or "image"), there are far better venues. The national gay glossies spring to mind, though their readerships is limited by gender, class and race. The gay newspapers make sense. The Internet allows for the involved debate we see here. Printing Larry's article in the "newspaper of record" is really a way of talking to straight people, and especially to the straight power structure.

But I suspect Larry picked the Times for different reasons, namely self- promotion. Have you noticed how he's made a career out of blame? Even before the AIDS epidemic Larry criticized gay male culture in much the same way in his novel "Faggots". I haven't read that book in some time, but as I recall, he criticized gay men for being promiscuous, shallow, and uninterested or unable to form lasting, loving relationships. Sometimes this sounded like a repetition of dominant psychiatric homophobia. Sometimes it sounded like an accurate critique of a culture that had internalized these homophobic beliefs. But mostly it sounded like the whinings of a lonely man who wanted desperately to be accepted as one of the "A Gays" hopping back and forth between Manhattan and Fire Island, even though he didn't really like them or find their culture fulfilling. It was if he was crying, "Love me! Love me! (Even though I don't like you at all.)" I couldn't understand why the hero didn't just chuck it and find some cute boy not involved in that scene, someone who wanted to settle down into domestic bliss. There's never been any shortage of them. Larry is like the boy who doesn't like how the other boys are playing, so he threatens to take his ball and go home. The problem is, it's not Larry's ball.

After blaming the "A Gays" for his unhappiness, Larry blamed Ronald Reagan and the apathetic queer community for AIDS in a fiery speech at New York City's queer community center. This was the apocryphal start of ACT UP. Later, in another fiery speech at a New York State AIDS conference, Larry blamed absolutely everyone in attendance for the continuing epidemic. It didn't matter if they were lazy bureaucrats or hard-working testing counselors, they were all to blame for the deaths of millions. For a while Larry blamed Tony Fauci. Then Larry decided he liked Tony.

Now Larry is blaming queers again, this time because some of us are fighting the right-wing crackdown on deviant forms of sexual expression, such as free public spaces where queers may be able to hang out and have sex without paying a cover or becoming alcoholics. The only person who is never to blame, the only person who has no responsibility for the current state of affairs, is Larry Kramer.

Now for my play-by-play response to points in Larry's article.

Larry refers to Sex Panic as a "small and vocal group". But they are a popular grass-roots movement, whereas is no one is arguing Larry's side but Larry and a few other critics with the kind of access to power to get a forum on the op-ed page of the New York Times. And it is ironic, to say the least, for Larry to criticize anyone for being "vocal".

Larry confuses "*allowing* gay men to have sex when and where and how they want to" (my emphasis) with advocating unsafe sex. Then he conflates unsafe sex with public sex. While there may (or may not) be a correlation between where sex occurs and how likely the participants are to be unsafe, it is not the same thing. There's a very high correlation between sex period and HIV transmission, but we don't advocate that people stop having sex completely. At least I don't. We make distinctions. "This is safer, this is less safe. Use this information to protect yourself."

Larry asks why public sex should be considered a civil right, saying "I do not want to see straight people copulating in the park or in public restrooms. And I do not believe that heterosexuals view such acts as theirs by right."

First, not all straight people have the same beliefs. I'm sure there are some who believe public sex is their civil right. And who cares what Larry does or doesn't want to see? It's interesting that he uses the word "see." Debates about public morality have so much to do with what is visible (and offensive) and so little to do with what is healthy and fulfilling. The goal of the sexual authoritarian is not so much to stop certain types of sex as to make that sex invisible. That is why the debate swirls around bathhouses, parks and pornography. Larry starts with the assumption that we *do not* have the right to do something unless we can prove we do. I start with the assumption that we *do* have the right to do as we wish until someone can prove that we do not. And *then,* I say, "OK. Maybe we do not the absolute right to do [X]. Who has the right to control this behavior? Who gave them this right? Are their interests in controlling this behavior the same as ours, or do they have a different agenda?"

Larry completely avoids the issue of who should not "allow" queer men to have public sex. If pressed, I suppose he would say "we" should not allow it. But if Larry confronted anyone in a public park and said, "Stop that! I do not allow it!" they would laugh in his face. For all practical purposes, in the United States in 1997, the "we" who actually have the power to not "allow" public sex is the police. And the police have this power because they can, and will, use violence to enforce what they will "allow". When the police do not use violence, they use its constant threat. They carry guns. So if you want a culture where queer men are prevented from having sex by the constant threat of violence, side with Larry. If you think the police and the state have only your best interests at heart, side with Larry. If you think a culture of violence and death is a good way to fight the spread of AIDS, side with Larry. And if you think the police will stop once they've cleared public spaces of those uncouth Sex Panic! types, read the following report from a friend of mine in Columbus Ohio:

Columbus had police raids on four gay bars recently, with the drug search excuse. They didn't find much of anything despite their militant and extreme behavior. All bars were hit at once, police wore ski masks and rubber gloves, forced patrons and empoyees to lie on the floor,called them fags...and at one bar even went to such an extent as to line up the people after they were searched - without any drugs or charges on them- and photograph them!

Later, I heard that phone calls alerted other bars as soon as it happened... and most closed for the evening, sparing others from being hit that night. Of course the local homophobic TV cameras were there filming (I wonder how THEY knew about it?). And our largely Republican gay community leaders here have responded with a mild, "Oh, we must sit down and discuss this with police and reach some agreement" attitude. You see, most bars hit were ones which seemed to attract less influential gay community members...the ones so often regarded as seedy or trashy with strippers etc. Got the picture now? Comments?

Larry says "Allowing sex-centrism to remain the sole definition of homosexuality is now coming to be seen as the greatest act of self- destruction." I am very, very confused here. What kind of definition of homosexuality could you possibly construct that is not based on sex? Isn't homosexuality sexual desire and behavior among people of the same sex?

Larry says he wants a gay culture that is not founded on sex. But if there is a single "gay culture" (something I doubt), it's because there's a group of people who desire and have sex with people of the same gender. Everything else, from gay literature to queercore bands, the Gay Games to chat rooms, is based on that. Actually there's no monolithic "gay" culture. Instead there's a myriad of interlocking subcultures. But I suspect Larry's really only interested in his little world of upper-middle and upper class gay men in major urban centers. Like any cultural imperialist, he thinks he's in the center of the universe and everything and everyone else, being peripheral, must accommodate Larry Kramer's subculture (which I suspect consists entirely of Larry Kramer) and its needs.

Since, by definition, there can't be a gay or queer culture which is not based on sex, and Larry says that a culture based on sex is bad, then perhaps Larry's saying that the idea of gay culture itself is a bad thing. If that's what he means I wish he'd just say so. But I think what Larry really means is that it's bad to have your personal *life* revolve entirely around sex. That's certainly a more reasonable argument. I'm guessing Larry's problem is that he doesn't want his own life to revolve around sex, but he wants the culture he surrounds himself with to be entirely gay. Well Larry, that just won't work.

Finally, it's amazing to me how little this debate really has to do with reducing HIV transmission and how much it has to do with public morality. This is made transparent by the similarity between Larry's critique of gay culture now, and in Faggots, before AIDS was even an issue.

And the way the discussion of queer men "slipping" into unsafe sex in public places focuses on the location, rather than the unsafe sex. Someone (I lost track of who) posted this:

>You're as offbase as the religious right - you're both living in fantasy lands - they think people can abstain and become monogamous (what a joke) and you think people can have hundreds of partners a year and be safe EVERY TIME. On what planet?

I've had an incredible number of sex partners in sex clubs recently (I'm going through a slutty phase) and yet don't have any trouble staying within my own boundaries of safety. Yet I know other men do. Rather than blaming them, or blaming public sex, I would ask, what combination of internal and external forces makes them "slip"? What allows me not to? One argument is that men have unsafe sex when they have low self esteem. Maybe they also have more public sex when they have low self esteem too, so the unsafe sex happens in public. I know when I feel bad about my body or myself it's easier to get a quick blowjob than engage in conversation with a date. That doesn't mean public sex is the problem, it means low self-esteem is. Improving queer men's self-esteem may reduce HIV transmission. And it might coincidentally actually *increase* the amount of public sex as all those self-respecting men decide they deserve to have more fun. Maybe crackdowns on public sex reduce queer men's self-esteem, and actually *increase* HIV transmission. Who knows? The point is to look for the actual causes of unsafe sex, and not at symptoms or coincidental events.