Connect with us

Opinions

Walking among HIV’s dead at Congressional Cemetery

Look closely at the tombstones for a World AIDS Day history lesson

Published

on

Congressional Cemetery, gay news, Washington Blade
Congressional Cemetery, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C.’s historic Congressional Cemetery is the final resting place for many single men who died between the early-‘80s and mid-’90s, between the ages of 25 and 55. (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

By NATHAN A. PAXTON

I encounter the HIV epidemic in unexpected places, particularly when I take my dachshunds out for a walk.

I live near the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and one of the programs of the cemetery allows some of us to walk our dogs among graves of the well known and almost anonymous. The graves of J. Edgar Hoover, Elbridge Gerry (he of the “gerrymander”) and John Philip Sousa get most of the attention.

In quieter ways, I can read the toll of the killing years among gay men in Washington. Most often, the signs are demographic: single men, not buried in a family plot, who died between the early-‘80s and mid-’90s, between the ages of 25 and 55. Sometimes I’ll find these graves in clusters, as if friends and lovers wanted to share proximity in death as in life. Often, though, I will find these graves by themselves, and I wonder what story lies behind the solitariness.

Some graves proclaim their gayness loud and proud, like that of Leonard Matlovich, the first active duty member of the armed forces to challenge the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the military. Another mentions being a “proud gay educator.” Once you know what to look for, you see these men everywhere. As Walter and Russell sniff and bound jauntily among the headstones, the three of us walk among HIV’s dead, just as we walk among Union and Confederate dead.

I study the politics of epidemics, especially HIV, and it’s often said that one’s research manifests one’s own demons. My own years of research on the development of different countries’ HIV/AIDS policies stemmed, I came to see, from a personal recognition, as much as intellectual motivations.

But for the accident of the year in which I was born, it is quite probable that—as a gay man in America—I would not have been alive to do my work and live my life. HIV, first understood as AIDS, made its first recognized appearance in gay men, and it is often still thought of as a “gay disease,” here in the United States and in the developing countries I study.

Had I been born just a few years earlier, I would be smack in the midst of that generation that first showed the evidence of one of the worst plagues in human history. It is quite probable that I would now be dead.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’90s, it was hard not to notice that gay men between 40 and 60 were sometimes rare, even missing. Friends who had been living there less than 10 years earlier told stories: My friend Billy spoke of attending two memorials a weekend for months on end; Len remembered wearing full sterile garb to visit dying friends in the hospital in 1982; and people at my church, gay and straight, remembered constant care rotas for a changing and diminishing set of friends and lovers. Len, a retired professor, told me that caring for his ailing mother in the late 1970s kept him home and out of the bars: “That’s probably what kept me alive.”

As a social scientist, I think I have a pretty good understanding of the probabilities behind many everyday actions and circumstances. It is sobering to realize that only a matter of years may separate one from the near-certainty of the disease. Even now, I accept as normal that some of my friends have not escaped the laws of probabilities and plagues. Friends of mine speak of a time in their lives when they could count more friends and lovers who were dead than alive.

Each Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, and we generally don’t much mark the day here in the United States. For many folks, this titanic killer has become a “mere” chronic disease, thanks to the antiretroviral cocktail therapies available to us. As a result, gay men, for example, have been able to turn their social and political efforts toward a variety of other issues: marriage, employment protection, open military service.

We are hardly out of the woods, even in the United States. Recent CDC reports indicate that unprotected anal sex among gay men in America has increased 20 percent since 2005. The same trend has occurred in several other Western countries. While amazing progress has occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV infections and AIDS deaths are on the rise in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Even while MSM are the most-affected group in the United States and other developed countries, the most common type of HIV-infected person in the world today is a young woman of African descent. The epidemic varies greatly and remains consistent in its pervasive burrowing into those at the margins of our cultures: sexual minorities, drug users, women, sex workers and black people.

UNAIDS will tout good news this Dec. 1. The rate of annual new infections has decreased all over the world, falling by a third over the last decade. New infections and deaths are down in many regions and countries, including many of those most affected, in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. Treatment access has increased dramatically in this last decade. ARVs have transformed from global luxury to what scholars Joshua Busby and Ethan Kapstein have called “merit goods” — goods whose consumers assert they have a basic moral right to have, like lifesaving drugs once priced too high to consider providing on a mass basis throughout the developing world.

There will also be bad news. Men who have sex with men are 13 times more likely to be living with the disease. In east Asia and the Middle East, the number of infections is on the rise. Sexual behavior has become more risky in many places, with increasing numbers of partners and less consistent condom use. There are still more than 35 million people — roughly the population of California — infected with the virus.

Most of the people who have died or will die from AIDS have not been and will not be obvious to those of us who walk in cemeteries, with or without canine companions. The statistics of their deaths won’t reveal the manner of that death so easily. We will not be able to tell who the African-American men and women who bear some of the highest burdens in this country were. There will be little evidence in their cemeteries of the widespread injection drug use in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that spreads the disease there. The same will be true of sex workers, transgender people, closeted men who have sex with men and poor women throughout the world. We will forget them more easily, in death as in life.

Just as HIV has proven amazingly adept and complex in the hiding places it finds in our human bodies, it has proven equally adept at hiding in the bodies of our societies. HIV survives and thrives in our biological and social bodies, adapting itself to work quietly and slowly, doing its work at the edges until it is powerful enough to harm those bodies. The complexity of HIV’s biological place pales before the social complexity in which it is enmeshed. If there is an evil in any disease, it lies not in the vector itself but in what we humans do or do not do for the people living with it, that is, by the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.

It is easy to miss the first casualties of the HIV epidemic, and most of my human cemetery friends have never noticed the plethora of these dead until I point the matter out. In another world, some of these dead would be alive and walking their dogs among the grass and granite, chapel and colombarium where they are now buried. The HIV-infected and -affected of the future will be much harder to find, more invisible than the men that Russell, Walter and I have become familiar with on our walks.

Nathan Paxton lives in Capitol Hill and teaches political science.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Keith E Wilson

    December 1, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    As "World AIDS Day" is marked today, December 1st, this column recently appeared online at washingtonblade.com provides a personal glimpse from it's author on the impact of HIV/AIDS on the past, present & future. I long for the day when there is a cure but will never forgot what has been lost over the last 30 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Opinions

The future of lesbian bars

Resolve to support our queer spaces in 2022

Published

on

lockdown zone, gay news, Washington Blade

This New Year, I hope you wish for more lesbian bars across the country. The story of lesbian bars in the U.S. has been slightly tragic of late: as of January 2021, there were only 15 clubs or bars dedicated to queer women across the country. 

That’s right—only 15. Across all 50 states. 

In Washington, D.C., my hometown, A League of Her Own stands out as the only lesbian bar in the city, dedicated to queer women. Located in Adams Morgan, A League of Her Own, also known as ALOHO, is a small mecca for queer ladies to pass through, socialize, and flirt. ALOHO is a chic gathering point for all queer folk, with posters of softball players dotting the walls and gender neutral signs lying about. 

Several years ago, another lesbian bar called Phase 1 existed in Southeast, where queer women could slam eight balls in pool games and engage in raunchy yet ever-so-hot jello wrestling competitions. 

Unfortunately, Phase 1 shut its doors in 2016. 

So what explains the closure of so many lesbian bars, while bars for gay men continue to flourish? Perhaps many queer women view gay bars as a space for their own as well, whereas gay men view lesbian bars as less of a place for them to socialize. 

Either way, we need to give support to lesbian bars now more than ever. Tokens of support can take many forms. 

For one, make sure to socialize in spaces dedicated to queer ladies. There are three lesbian bars in New York City: Cubbyhole (281 W. 12th St.), Gingers in Brooklyn (363 5th Ave.), and Henrietta Hudson (438 Hudson St.). Next time you visit the Big Apple, make sure to give these three spots some love. Maybe drag your experimenting bi friend to these locations. Or your pansexual roommate. 

Back in D.C., you can buy unisex shirts in A League of Her Own’s merchandise store, available online. 

Proceeds will go toward funding the bar, and making sure it stays afloat, especially during this COVID economy. 

Most of all, I hope you encourage your queer lady friends to keep on frequenting queer lady destinations. After all, there is only one thing that will keep lesbian bars afloat—and that is attendance. 

I, for one, will be frequenting many lesbian destinations this new year.  

Isaac Amend is a Yale graduate and participated in National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ documentary. He also is a member of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia, and contributes regularly to the Blade. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @isaacamend.

Continue Reading

Opinions

Breaking barriers as an out trans ‘Jeopardy’ champion

Amy Schneider’s run inspires us all

Published

on

Amy Schneider (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Television)

“When was the last time anybody said ‘wow!’” a friend asked me.

I couldn’t remember the last time anyone I know (including me) had any “Wow!” moments. Until I heard about trans woman and software engineering manager Amy Schneider’s 29-game winning streak on “Jeopardy.”

You wouldn’t think anything could dispel our COVID exhaustion and political divisiveness. Yet, news about a champion on “Jeopardy,” a quiz show that has been on TV since 1964, has broken through our gloom.

In our culture, there are few things that everyone loves. But, “Jeopardy” is beloved by many, from theater geeks to 80-year-old sports nuts. A progressive friend was over the moon when his brother was a “Jeopardy” contestant. A buddy, a hetero (non-Trump) Republican, is a “Jeopardy” fanatic and a gay librarian pal is a “Jeopardy” freak.

Many of us daydream about being on “Jeopardy.” But we know that we wouldn’t have a chance on this legendary quiz show with its deceptively simple format: You give the answer to the (often incredibly hard) clues in the form of a question. You have to have a strategic military commander’s and a world-class athlete’s coordination: so you can press the buzzer to answer the clue.

The game’s categories run the gamut from opera to mountain ranges. Most of us, mere mortals, would be lucky to know even one category in the first round of the game. Let alone in the “Double Jeopardy” round or the “Final Jeopardy” clue. I might jump on clues about Katharine Hepburn movies or M&Ms. But that would be it for me.

It’s exciting to watch a “Jeopardy” contestant become a long-running champion. You marvel at the player’s intelligence, endurance, and nerve. It’s thrilling when the contestant on a winning-streak is part of your community.

Many of us LGBTQ “Jeopardy” fans are thrilled by Schneider’s record-setting winning streak. As I write this, Schneider has won more than $1 million in 29 games of “Jeopardy.” She is the fifth millionaire in “Jeopardy” history, and only the fourth player to reach this milestone in the regular season. She has won more than any other female “Jeopardy” contestant.

Schneider, like so many of us, doesn’t want to be defined by her gender identity or sexuality. Schneider’s life is multi-faceted; she has many interests. Schneider lives with her girlfriend Genevieve. They have a cat named Meep.

Yet, Schneider doesn’t want to hide that she’s trans. On “Jeopardy,” Schneider brilliantly dealt with this dilemma. She didn’t make a big deal about being out. She just wore the trans Pride flag pin.

“It was something that I wanted to get out there and to show my pride in while not making it the focus of what I was doing there,” Schneider told the New York Times. “Because I was just there to answer trivia questions and win money.”

As a cisgender lesbian, I can’t speak to how Schneider’s record-setting “Jeopardy” streak feels to transgender people.

But, as a trans ally, I’m cheering for Schneider. Kudos for her bravery! At a time when many states are passing anti-trans laws, it takes guts to be out on TV and the Internet.

Few things are as mainstream as “Jeopardy.” I bet that many “Jeopardy” viewers who are frightened at the idea of trans people, will become more comfortable with transgender people after watching Schneider on the popular quiz show. Because folks on TV come into our living and bedrooms and we feel as if we know them after watching them for a while.

“Amy looks like everybody else,” my neighbor said when I told her Schneider was trans. “She doesn’t act odd. She’s not strange.”

Transgender people encounter violence and discrimination in everything from housing to health care to employment.

I know Schneider’s “Jeopardy” triumph won’t end transphobia. But her winning streak will go a long way toward jumpstarting a change in hearts and minds.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

Continue Reading

Opinions

SCARY: Tucker Carlson now the conscience of GOP

Cruz bows down, kisses ring of Fox host

Published

on

Tucker Carlson (Screen capture via Fox on YouTube)

The Republican Party has sunk to a new low, hard to do, when a sleazebag like Tucker Carlson is now their conscience. Seeing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) groveling before him is laughable, disgusting, and frightening all at the same time. 

As reported in Rolling Stone, Cruz said, “We are approaching a solemn anniversary this week. It is an anniversary of a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol where we saw the men and women of law enforcement demonstrate incredible courage, incredible bravery, risk their lives to defend the men and women who serve in this Capitol.” Then “Cruz was lambasted by Tucker Carlson that night, prompting him to hop on Carlson’s show Thursday and beg for forgiveness. “The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy and it was frankly dumb,” Cruz said before Carlson cut him off and said he didn’t believe him. Cruz took it up a notch, stammering through an absurd bit about how he wasn’t talking about the “patriots across the country supporting President Trump,” only those who assaulted police officers, and that he’s always described anyone who assaults a cop as a terrorist.

Carlson has made a career of being a pompous commentator. Interestingly he worked at CNN, PBS, and MSNBC, before finally landing at Fox in 2009. According to his Wikipedia page he went to Trinity College where he earned a bachelor’s degree and Carlson’s Trinity yearbook describes him as a member of the “Dan White Society,” an apparent reference to the American political assassin who murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. After college, Carlson tried to join the CIA, but his application was denied, after which he decided to pursue a career in journalism with the encouragement of his father, who advised him that “they’ll take anybody.” Reading this clearly raised my opinion of the CIA and based on what we see in some media today I agree with Carlson’s father on his view of journalism. 

When you have a moment of silence in the House of Representatives to honor those who lost their lives on Jan. 6 and only two Republicans show up, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and her father Dick Cheney, the former vice president, one understands the influence Carlson has on the GOP. The rest were afraid of being criticized on-air by him or lambasted by Trump. 

Dick Cheney remarked on the GOP, “It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years.” He spoke to ABC News saying, “I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution.” 

There is a leadership void in the Republican Party today. Their so-called leaders are afraid to say what they think if it differs in any way from Trumpism or Carlson’s view of the world, which requires total fealty to Trump. He found a home on Fox where he can lie with impunity and have millions believe his lies. 

President Biden said, in what many think was the best speech of his presidency so far, these people are “holding a dagger to the neck of democracy.” He went on to say, “For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol.” 

Tucker Carlson and his ilk have never bothered to answer a question the president threw at them, which is how they can accept all their down ballot victories, governors, and members of Congress, which occurred on the same ballots, cast by the same people, on the same day, as those for president. Of course, Carlson has no need to make sense, tell the truth, or speak rationally because of his platform on Fox, which doesn’t require that.

My question is whether Carlson is as dumb as he makes himself sound or is he brilliant and this is all a big act? Either way the acolytes that follow Trump don’t seem to care and are bowing down to Carlson’s big audience. It’s as if he can tell any Republican senator or congressperson, or Republican candidate for those jobs, to just ‘bend over and take it’ and they do. All we can do is mourn for the GOP of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Non-Trumpers will have to work hard and speak out if they ever want to resurrect a GOP that can be respected.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular