act up protest 2
act up protest 2

For LGBTs, ‘Silence = Death’ Is a Warning That Still Rings True Today

Growing up, my mother had a friend named Anthony. He was a big, beefy, Italian man, in his late 20s. Anthony used to babysit me. He would tell me fantastic stories of parties on Fire Island and orgies and sex dates he had at the Everard Baths. He would get me so excited with these stories that I would spend hours locked in the bathroom jerking off. When I told my mother that I thought I was falling in love with Anthony, she gave me a copy of Larry Kramer’s Faggots and told me that everything I would ever need to know was in that book.   

Anthony also told me stories of his friends who were getting sick with what, at the time, he called “the gay cancer.” He told me how scared he was. How scared his friends were. No one knew what was happening. The news wouldn’t talk about it. He said that his doctor told him he should make a will, because “gay men were dropping like flies.”

I imagined men as big as Anthony dropping suddenly to the ground, lying there, dying. I had terrible nightmares, scared that I too would catch the gay cancer. Because I knew, even back then, that I was just like Anthony. Maybe the cancer was genetic, something that came with being gay. I had no idea how to process any of it, or what it meant.

I remember when the first posters began to show up on walls and street corners: Silence = Death.

Gay men wore buttons with a pink triangle on it. Anthony gave me one of these. I remember the day clearly. He had just learned that he was sick, like all the others. That he was dying. When he gave me the button he said to me, “It won’t always be like this. The world can only get better than it is now. There will come a day when we won’t have to hide.” I remember he pinned the button to my jacket. “We will only get stronger. There will come a time when they won’t be able to ignore us.”

silence = death act up protest

Back in the 1970s, gay activists in the United States began using the pink triangle as a pro-gay symbol. It was a reference to World War II, when gays were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges to identify themselves, in the same way Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. Homosexuals were considered to be the lowest in the camp social structure, treated to harsh and violent conditions.

When in the ’70s the gay movement appropriated the pink triangle, turning it right side up, it was seen as heroic and symbolic, a way of taking the horror of the camps and the degradation that gays were subjected to and making it ours. It was a sign of strength, of a community that would no longer stand by and be treated like second-class citizens.

It was 1987 when a half-dozen gay New York City activists created the Silence = Death project. They used the pink triangle on a black background, with those words, plastering the image all over the city. They drew clear parallels between Nazi Germany and the AIDS crisis. In their manifesto, they went so far as to say, “Silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.”

These six men, who would later join with ACT UP, decided that no matter what the cost, they could no longer be silent. That in the end, the cost of silence was death.

The LGBTQ community is facing new crises. Donald Trump and the Republican Party — and Fascists around the world — see us as easy targets. They see us as pawns who can be used to manipulate their racist and homophobic base: by humiliating us, by taking away our rights, by subjugating us with countless abuses, by treating us like second-class citizens. And worse, they try to appease the hatred that fuels their campaigns.  

Our silence has direct consequences. Our silence will equal our death in the literal since, just like it did in Nazi Germany and during those beginning years of the AIDS crisis.

silence = death trump executive order

This past week, Donald Trump signed the Religious Liberty Executive Order. In effect, the order is more symbolic than an actual change. Many feared it would allow people to discriminate against the LGBTQ community based on religious affiliations and beliefs. Instead the order allows religious institutions to participate in political activities, as long as they do not actively endorse a candidate. It also allows for religious organizations to opt out of key provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), like providing coverage for contraception.

It was not the direct attack the LGBTQ community thought it would be, and that is a positive thing. But the order is still empowering to groups that openly discriminate against our community. It allows these people to feel they have a friend in the Trump administration. A sympathetic ear. An ear that our community does not have.

Also last week, Congress approved changes to the ACA that would have drastic effects for those lower-income members of the LGBTQ community, especially those living with HIV. Under Obamacare, insurance companies could not discriminate — raise rates — against those living with “pre-existing conditions” such as HIV. The ACA also removed lifetime caps, which were often capped at $2 million over a lifetime, an amount easily reached when providing HIV care and coverage. These are just a few of the things that the Republican-controlled Congress rolled back. They promised safety nets for those with pre-existing conditions. They promised that people would have better coverage under their new plan. But that is a lie.

The battle for health coverage is far from over. It is now in the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle, but the point is there was a calculated and cruel attempt to rob those on the fringes of our community their right to basic health coverage — those who struggle, those of us who are not wealthy and privileged, those who need our help.

Along with these changes to the ACA, the Trump administration has also proposed cuts in HIV and AIDS research.

In North Carolina, a brutal political battle is being fought over transgender students’ right to use the bathroom of their self-identified gender. House Bill 2 (HB2) restricted which bathrooms trans students could use, forcing them to use those based on their birth gender and not the gender they identify with. Since passing this law, North Carolina has suffered economic boycotts, job losses and public criticism. Sports teams relocated games, businesses stopped expansion, tourism suffered.

In an attempt to appease those economic powers as well as those who wanted tougher laws limiting transgender rights, on March 30, North Carolina voted to “repeal” HB2. This repeal called for a three-year ban on local governments’ ability to enact nondiscrimination ordinances, and it included a measure that stripped local governments of the power to enact or amend ordinances regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations. Local school boards and governments were also stripped of their power to regulate public bathrooms, showers and changing facilities, leaving that up to the state’s Republican-controlled government.

In effect this repeal still allows the denial of trans students the right to use the bathroom of their true gender. It strips the LGBTQ community of the nondiscrimination protections we had gained in the workplace and in our private lives. This was seen as a “compromise” despite the fact it is hiding the battle, tabling it for three years to await federal litigation on the issue.     

In 2015, at least 21 transgender people were violently murdered. The majority of these individuals were minorities. It was the highest number ever recorded. In 2016, that number rose to at least 22 violent murders. In 2017, at least eight American trans people have been murdered already

Meanwhile, Caitlyn Jenner gets on TV and into magazines — a wealthy, white woman, supposedly representing the trans community — and she defends the policies of the Trump administration and Republicans. Polices that will directly harm her community.

silence = death russia chechnya

Recently there have been numerous reports of gay men being rounded up in Chechnya, and rumors of concentration camps — of gay men disappearing, being tortured, detained, of gay men being murdered. Not by random extremist groups but by the police, by the government.

Taken by itself, it is easy to believe that what is happening in Chechnya doesn’t have anything to do with me. It is removed from my life, too far away for it to matter. It is easy to believe there is nothing that I, an American gay man living in Los Angeles, can do.

It’s a conversation my friends and I have a lot. It is easy to feel disempowered and overwhelmed. They want us to feel that way. They want us to feel so removed, so powerless, that we end up spending our days watching Netflix, going to circuit parties, turning away from what is happening around us. Turning away from what is happening to us.

When my mother’s friend Anthony died, I didn’t want to go to his funeral. I was tired of going to the funerals of gay men. I was tired of thinking about what all that death meant. My mother made me go with her.

I remember standing in a circle with those men, holding my mother’s hand, while we all cried. I remember the way my heart broke. Anthony had once been a 240-pound man. He died weighing less than 120 pounds. His body, his world and his government had abandoned him.

After the funeral, we went to Washington Square Park. Someone took out their tape deck, and we danced. An elegantly dressed drag queen, full of color and laughter, bought me an ice cream cone and taught me the words to each of the songs. She held my hands as we danced. I remember looking into her eyes. It was dusk, the lights of the city flickering in that magical New York City way, and seeing tears. All around me, men danced and cried, singing the songs that played.

Most of those men are dead now. Forgotten. Forever gone.

I don’t know what we can do. I don’t know what the solution is to these current political crises. I have lots of friends who just want to hide, and I understand that. Hiding would be easy.

I live in L.A. now. It’s probably the world’s largest gay bubble, liberal and protective. I am shielded from much of the pain that gay men around the country and the world are experiencing. But I can’t help but wonder if that means I should be louder. Gayer.

When I brought home the first boy I ever loved, I was 15. Anthony took me in his arms and told me how lucky we were. “Being gay is a gift,” he said to me. “Even if they try to tell you it is a disease, a curse, a punishment, don’t ever forget, this is a gift.” Anthony gave me condoms and lube and told me to be safe. And to have fun. “Because that’s the point, isn’t it?” he said to me. “To have fun. To be happy. To live life huge.”

Anthony was so beautiful, it was stunning. So full of life and hope and wonder.

The next morning, the boy still in bed, Anthony and I walked down the street to get coffee and pastries. He held my hand. It was summer in New York.

“Did he kiss you?” he asked me.

“Of course he kissed me,” I said.

“Good. Never trust a man who doesn’t kiss you. Never trust a man who doesn’t kiss you and hold you when it’s over. These two things, they are supremely important. To be kissed and held.”

Everyone I know is afraid. These are scary times. Times when the actions we choose will have consequences for generations after us. I keep remembering Anthony, and his promise of a better world. Something he believed was inevitable. And I think he is right. It is inevitable. We have the opportunity to change the world, right now, just by being who we are. By being the gayest, tranniest, lesbianest, queerest fucking people possible. By refusing to back down. By refusing to be quiet.

By refusing to play by their rules.

I grew up in a time when all my mother’s friends died, because no one believed they deserved the same basic rights, the care and love, the basic protections of society. So I will be as loud as possible, and I will refuse to be anything other than who I am: a gay, HIV-positive man. Fuck anybody who tries to tell me to be quiet.

We can change the world. We can make it a safer, better, more beautiful place. I truly believe this. But we have to do it together.

They don’t get to win. Unless we let them.

 

Jeff Leavell is a writer living between Los Angeles and Berlin. He specializes in queer social commentary, relationships, sexuality, art and Nightlife. His novel Accidental Warlocks will be released by Lethe Press in May 2018. You can find him at his website or on Instagram.

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