Stranger, July 27, 2002 By Gabriel Rotello
What do I know
today that I didn't know back in the late '80s and '90s, when I
was a gay journalist who railed against AIDS and injustice and
acted up and fought back and prayed for an end to the terror
that took the lives of half my friends?
Strange to say--and
I wouldn't have believed it then--but here it is: I didn't know
I'd miss fear so much.
career was founded on fear. Before AIDS, I had been a rock
musician, and I rarely thought about gay issues. I thought
gay-libbers spent a lot of time arguing, and they seemed
so--forgive me--uncool. But then hints of fear crept into my
life with whispers of a "gay cancer" in the early '80s, and
gnawed at me when acquaintances grew oddly thin. And then fear
exploded one night in 1986 when I got the call that my soul mate
Hap was in the hospital, diagnosed with AIDS, struggling on a
respirator, and possibly about to die.
that night that never happened before or since. Hanging up the
phone and sitting alone, I began to scream. Primally,
uncontrollably. After a minute or so I said, "Okay Gabriel,
you've screamed, now stop and do something." But I couldn't
stop. I just kept screaming, out loud, terrifying my cat, until
I made a desperate call to my friend Naomi, woke her and told
her I'm coming over because--you won't believe this, Naomi--I
can't stop screaming.
Hap lived, dying,
for two years, then was snuffed out in agony, and in a way, I
never stopped screaming. My years in ACT UP were a scream. Then
I founded and edited the gay magazine OutWeek, starting a new,
unexpected career as an activist/ journalist. No music now, no
jams. Journalism was my amp, and the outing controversy was one
result of my decision to jack it up to 10. Eventually I screamed
so well that a big city newspaper, New York Newsday, hired me as
a columnist and let me scream every week to a million readers.
Some people thought
all the screaming was about anger, and, yes, there was a lot of
anger. Grief, too. But mostly, really, it was fear. Fear that
all of my friends would die, that our world would end, and that
we would disappear. I remember walking into an East Village bar
one night, I guess around 1988, and running into my most
happy-go-lucky hipster friend. I asked him casually how he was,
and he looked at me with burning eyes and simply said, "I'm
terrified." He was fine then, but he died three years later.
I wanted the fear
to end. Desperately. I couldn't believe we could live with so
much fear. I couldn't believe how destructive it was. And then
in the late '90s protease inhibitors appeared and poof! Fear
And now I miss it.
Of course, I
wouldn't miss it if the end of fear meant the end of AIDS. But
it didn't. Protease inhibitors have extended the lives of many
friends, and for that I'm truly grateful. But the bigger
picture--the picture I strive to see--tells me that the end of
fear has actually made AIDS worse for future generations of gay
men. AIDS activism and prevention and most importantly safer sex
were, necessarily, based on fear. Fear drove us outward to the
streets, to fight and foment and distribute condoms and stick it
to the fuckers. And it drove us inward, to practice safer sex
and make sure we didn't stick it to ourselves when we fucked.
It is now a sad
commonplace that once protease inhibitors appeared, fear
evaporated. And once that happened, activism withered, unsafe
sex shot up, new HIV infections followed suit, the drugs slowly
began faltering, drug-resistant strains of HIV began multiplying
and spreading, and now the future looks like a prologue to my
primal scream of 1986. Or worse. Fear's premature death gave HIV
a new lease on life.
But I don't miss
fear just because of that, bad as it is. I also miss it because,
for better or worse, fear made gay life a brotherhood and
sisterhood of striving, and of love.
I think about the
demos, the meetings, the fiery oratory spouting unexpectedly
from stock analysts and lesbian theoreticians and hairdressers.
It seemed like every six months some article or book or play or
event or outrage would have us reinventing ourselves. I think of
the outing debate, or the debates over tactics, or over the
circuit, or over direction of HIV prevention, or the very
meaning of gay life. I think about how we screamed and yelled
over ideas, over Bruce Bawer's A Place at the Table, or Mike
Signorile's Queer in America, or Tony Kushner's Angels in
America, or even my own book, Sexual Ecology, in which I tried
to put into perspective the reasons why AIDS happened to gay
men. These were all works that practically everybody read, or at
least yelled about. And then, still screaming, we threw our arms
around brothers and sisters and trudged to dinner and screamed
more, striving to find meaning in our lives and our early
tell you that the fear behind all this intellectual ferment and
brother/sisterhood was debilitating and dangerous and
unsustainable, and I can testify to that. But it was also
stimulating and provocative and turned gym bunnies and disco
queens into philosophers who thought deeply and read voraciously
and debated and grew.
Flash forward to
this Gay Pride week, and ask yourself, when was the last time
you heard about a gay controversy or book or article or play or
anything that everybody was reading and arguing about? I took an
unscientific poll, and people rattled off issues and titles and
controversies from the late '80s through the late '90s--maybe
something by the late sex radical Scott O'Hara, or lesbian
provocateur Sarah Schulman, or Larry Kramer, or Signorile, or
whomever--and then protease inhibitors, and then nothing. The
gay press is celebrity puff. The gay bookstores are half empty,
or stocked with soft-core porn, or closed. If they survived, the
former debaters are pumping at the gym. If they breathe, the
former thinkers are breathlessly cruising the Internet.
All this would be
fine if AIDS were over. Death-inspired fear is way too high a
price for stimulation, or even a deep sense of solidarity at a
demo. But AIDS isn't over. It's now a massive, sprawling
metastases. And it has spread, in large part, because we're no
longer afraid. So now we have the worst of both worlds. The
horror of AIDS, and the complacency of disco dummies.
Now for a
confession, or as they say in the papers, full disclosure.
Having helped spark controversies like outing and the sex wars
and the Sexual Ecology debate, what, you might ask, am I doing
to shake things up? Well, in 1998 I left journalism and fled New
York for Hollywood, where I now write and produce TV
documentaries. Occasionally something edgy for HBO, like the new
one about whether Hitler was a homo. But mostly fun stuff.
Fashion. Music. I drive a neato car and go to the beach and work
out at Gold's and choose my wines carefully and hardly ever
think about AIDS.
I guess you could
say that, like everybody else, I'm fearless. And that's a
fearsome confession, and it makes me very afraid.