Hillary Clinton’s Mistake

Why Gay Men Can’t Simply Forgive and Forget

As you surely know by now, Hillary Clinton made a mistake yesterday. While speaking live on MSNBC, Hillary Clinton praised Nancy Reagan as a leader in creating a national conversation around AIDS. In a very measured, heartfelt tone, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for President stated, “It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted to do anything about it. And, you know, that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, hey, we have to do something about this too.”

Yesterday, I was very angry. In the time since she originally spoke, Hillary Clinton has issued one official statement, which some have labeled as an apology.

I woke up this morning and I’m still reeling about Hillary Clinton’s comments about the Reagans. My anger is still present, but it has mostly been replaced with a deep sadness. Today, rather than focusing on the entire MSNBC quote, I find myself focused on only one part of what Hillary Clinton said, live on air, in 2016. “It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s.”

Have We Forgotten Our Own History?

I am so blessed that I had older people who educated me when I was younger. I am aware that in my not so distant history, gay men found themselves facing the most horrifying situation imaginable and were not only ignored by the government, but were openly mocked, ridiculed and joked about during White House press conferences.

Let me be clear when I say that no politician started the conversation about AIDS. Activists did. Even as their friends died around them in numbers we can’t even begin to understand, they fought to be seen and heard. Forget that Hillary seems to be utterly ignorant of this history. While I definitely do take issue with that and urge that the gay community put pressure on her to address this, I find myself most saddened today by something else. This article will not be an attack on Hillary Clinton. There are plenty of those to be found.

Instead, this article is a direct plea to all gay men to pause for a moment and think beyond this sound bite and their gut response to either attack or defend Hillary Clinton. Yesterday, I saw gay men actively telling other gay men to “get over it and move on,” defending Hillary Clinton with a dismissive and flippant attitude. I can only imagine that these gay men, mostly young and mostly white, have no real idea about the AIDS crisis either. If a woman who claims to be our advocate and ally, a woman who lived through the AIDS Crisis as an adult, a woman who is the leading candidate in the Democratic chase to secure the Presidential nomination can have such an inaccurate memory of history—surely then that history could also be inaccurate in the minds of younger gay men.

Sharing Our History

We lost an entire generation. When I was younger, I assumed that there were virtually no gay men over 40 in the scene because they were closeted or because we went into hiding when we started to wrinkle. Eventually I found out the devastating impact of AIDS on the generation who came before me. When I was 18, I knew to fear AIDS, because that’s what the messaging was back then. I didn’t, however, know that a full generation of gay men simply disappeared. At most, we are two to three generations away from the Crisis. An 18 year old gay man today was born in 1998. An 18 year old man in 1981 would only be 53 today. Take a moment and think about the number of gay men you know today who are age 55 or older. Now, think about how many gay men will be 55 or older in 15–20 years from now. That simple exercise will show you how devastating the 80s and early 90s were on our community.

Still, it seems that we, as a community, are failing to pass along our history to the younger generation. There aren’t a lot of us around who were there, lived through it, survived it, and can manage to talk about it. I personally came of age right on the edge of Crisis and Treatment. I lost friends. I also saw friends improve and eventually stopped worrying that a friend getting a positive test result meant a funeral was around the corner.

I have sometimes argued that younger gay men not having that personal reference point to the AIDS Crisis is a good thing. It made them faster at adopting PrEP. It has made them much more sexually liberated and mostly free of the shame and stigma my generation carries with them. And while there is still definitely work to be done here, I also feel that having that shadow of death removed allows gay men to come out earlier and get more support from their friends and family. But today, I question whether or not more needs to be done to show younger gay men what the AIDS Crisis was truly like.

The name David Kirby instantly triggers a very specific image inside my mind. I wonder if the name David Kirby is even recognizable to most of the gay youth of today. I wonder what their response would be to seeing the photograph LIFE Magazine published near the end of 1990. If you turned 25 last year, this was the reality of AIDS when you were born. This is your history. In your relatively short lifetime, this is how much the world has changed and advanced. I am thrilled for you. I am thrilled that you will hopefully never have to see one of your friends waste away to this state— their health and vitality stolen. But your reality today does not emancipate you from a responsibility to learn and understand the world of those who came before you.

Bill Sherwood, Larry Kramer, Jonathan Larson, Paul Boneberg, Cleve Jones. Do those names trigger any response within you? If not, you very likely need to explore the history behind you. Those are just some of the more famous and easily recognizable names. Many of the heroes remain nameless, their stories unexplored, the people who knew them long ago buried.

What Can Be Done?

When it comes to sharing a history that we may or may not have lived through ourselves, most obvious are documentaries and films which are honest and brutal. Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, Philadelphia, Angels in America, Rent, The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club are a small sampling of films to explore. If documentaries are more your speed, check out Paris is Burning, How to Survive a Plague, or We Were Here.

There are lots of online resources that detail the timeline of the AIDS Crisis. Exploring those will provide you with a wealth of pivotal leaders, organizations and events to dive into more deeply, such as the connection and conflict between Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. You’ll begin to understand why some of those older gay men are so passionately against PrEP when you discover How to Have Sex in an Epidemic written by Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz in 1982. You will also learn about Ronald and Nancy Reagan and their response to the AIDS Crisis, which brings us full circle to that Hillary Clinton clip from March 2016.

Once you fully know the stories of your heroes—your gay ancestors who stood up and set in motion a movement that you’re still witnessing play out with events of today around LGBTQ rights, you will know for sure that they deserve more. They deserve more from Hillary Clinton than a Twitter statement. They deserve more from me than this article. They deserve more from you than simply reading this article. How you pay tribute to them and acknowledge their sacrifices is up to you— but I urge you to do whatever you can to make sure that their story is passed on and is not forgotten.

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