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LGBT youth meet their elders

Generations (Part 2 - HIV / AIDs & Stonewall)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Last week, the Blade invited five LGBT youth and five LGBT elders from the D.C. area to our offices for a roundtable discussion about issues facing the community.

With Stonewall’s 40th anniversary later this month and Pride celebrations this weekend, it seemed an apt time to explore some of the generational differences in the community.

Karen Taylor, director of advocacy and training at Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, moderated the discussion, which tackled a wide range of topics, including coming out, changing perceptions of HIV and violence. Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, also joined the discussion and offered insights into some of the challenges that LGBT youth face today. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion that unfolded over three hours.

Karen: Let’s talk a little about Stonewall. This is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and I am in a city where Stonewall does not exist and there are folks in this room who were not born when the Stonewall riots took place, but it is one of those mythic touch points in the timeline of our movement. But I want to ask, how many people have a sense of what happened at Stonewall? Tell me what little you know.

Parí: It was a hotel or something like that, I think. There were riots, the police raided, which started a lot of gay and lesbian riots, and they were fighting against the police … It’s like gay liberation. That’s what I know, that little bit.

Terra: My first time hearing about Stonewall was at SMYAL, we watched the Stonewall movie. It was like, “Wow,” just thinking about how that all went down … the coming to arms and being able to stand together and say you know what, “I’m tired. I’m physically tired and emotionally tired and I’m not going to deal with this anymore.”

Karen: How about folks who were alive and out or thinking about coming out around the time riots were taking place — how did you find out about them if you weren’t in New York and what did that mean? How did that feel?

Alan: One of the things we take for granted right now is the GLBT press. It didn’t really exist then. Whatever reporting there was came from the national press. If you read the New York Times … you probably saw something that was fairly prominently portrayed. If you were living in a lot of other places in the country, it did not get reported at all. It was not until the first Gay Pride in New York in 1970, which was a year after, that people were talking about this. It was how this Pride movement came into being, so for a lot of us, even though we may have been out to ourselves and maybe a few friends, if you were not reading the national press, it didn’t exist. It hadn’t happened.

Karen: The only paper that initially covered it was the New York [Daily News], and the headline, which was considered perfectly appropriate at the time, was “Queen Bees All Abuzz as Nest is Raided by Police.” You wouldn’t hear things like “Laurie said,” or “Alan stated”… all the descriptions in the paper are “she lisped,” “he fanned himself.” All the men were described as “she,” and always very, very effeminate. That was considered standard, completely appropriate reporting. This is a major daily newspaper, and that was how the Stonewall riot was initially covered.

Nick: I think Stonewall from the West Coast perspective was picked up more as a symbol of gay liberation than for the significance of the three days of rioting. By its first anniversary it became the thing which was the uniting symbol for the entire movement, but it wasn’t so much so at the very time that it happened.

Laurie: What it did was scare people. What it did was probably keep me from coming out for four or five years. Because in a very public way, what I saw was how we were treated and that it wasn’t OK to be who we were.

John: When you think about D.C., the Post carried it somewhat, because I remember looking at it in the monastery, it was my hometown, New York, thinking “I wish I was there, I missed a party.” The only thing you read about in D.C. for the gay community back then was when President Johnson’s assistant was arrested at the restroom at the Y. And that’s how closeted this town was, and then Frank Kameny, when we got our first delegate to Congress, Frank ran for Congress as an openly gay man and he got 6,000 votes, I said “Where do all these people come from?”


Karen: When the New York Times reported on a mysterious cancer that seemed to be affecting primarily gay men [in the 1980s] it was known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. And it’s now known as HIV. How has it had an impact on those of you who remember a time before HIV/AIDS, and how has that shifted in your lives today? And there’s a whole bunch of you at this table

who have grown up with HIV not only always present in your lives, but particularly in D.C. with an incredibly high rate of HIV infection here. What do you remember? What are some of those pieces that are painful, I know, for a lot of us, but what can you say about it?

John: Before GRID, it was called gay cancer, and people were taught that cancer is not contagious, so for a lack of a good medical definition, how many people became positive without realizing it? Just for the lack of terminology.

Nick: I’ll never forget the day, I was living in Houston at the time, in the summer of ’81, and a woman who worked at the office started talking about the fact that 14 men in New York City, who were all gay, had this Kaposi’s sarcoma, blotches on them, and you know, it just hit me like an electric shock to hear that. I followed the story all the time, and they would try to explain what it was. At first they were convinced the fatality rate was maybe 20 percent, then 35 percent, then — boom — it went to 100 percent. It was a terror, it was a true dark age not knowing whether you were infected or not.

Alan: You had the situation, too, of friends who died within six months. One of the things that is a real hole in our system right now, is that if you’re trying to collect histories, particularly in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., about what was going on in ’70s up to the early ’80s period, there’s a lot of people you can’t talk to. There are only a few people around who have any memories. That’s an entire part of the history that’s gone.

Laurie: I was a psychotherapist in D.C. and my practice was almost exclusively LGBT. And I remember going through hospital sessions as my clients lay dying. I remember attending funerals on a regular basis and I also remember working with people who were dealing with survival guilt, who were dealing with anger at whoever infected them, dealing with incredible loss.

Rainey: When we first heard about GRID, it was first introduced as for gay white men. That it was in California, then it was in New York, and I was kind of like, “Well, those are opposite sides of the country, what happened to the middle?” Many of our friends were getting sick, but it was cancer. They were dying from cancer, they were dying from pneumonia. No one would even say it. In ’88, I did 17 funerals in the month of November. And when I talk about that, it got hard because it was having to talk to the same people. It was all of you.

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