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Claiming our power in the HIV-AIDS epidemic

‘It is my experience that our community is heroic’

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Larry Kramer, gay news, Washington Blade
Larry Kramer (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

“Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die,” wrote Larry Kramer in the New York Native in March 1983. Before Kramer’s article “1,112 and Counting,” gay people were doing what they could to care for the sick and mourn their dead with quiet dignity. 

After the article appeared in gay papers across the country, gay people grew increasingly unwilling to be quiet about the deaths of gay men and the preternatural silence about the epidemic from elected officials.

In San Francisco, the momentum generated by a July 1984 political march spiraled into support for an independent gay AIDS activist group in San Francisco. Gay community leaders tapped Paul Boneberg, then 31 and president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, to head the new group.

Mobilization Against AIDS came into existence in the fall of 1984 with the express goal of organizing street demonstrations, a goal it accomplished by staging monthly protests. Besides its street demos, Mobilization, beginning in 1985, took on the task of organizing the annual AIDS candlelight vigil that the San Francisco People with AIDS Coalition had started in 1983. 

As the 1980s wore on, and tens of thousands of gay men died with still no effective treatment for AIDS, Larry Kramer’s nerves were shot. 

In a March 10, 1987, speech Kramer gave at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, today known as the LGBT Center of New York, he laid into the gay community as only Larry Kramer could. “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble,” he told the group. 

By then, 32,000 AIDS cases had been reported across the country—nearly a third of them in New York. President Reagan still hadn’t spoken about AIDS to frightened Americans. 

“If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth,” said Kramer. “How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” The crux of the speech was Kramer’s simple question: “Do we want to start a new organization devoted solely to political action?”

The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Two days later, about 300 people again showed up at the center where they formed ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The group’s first demonstration—a protest on Wall Street against the exorbitant price of just-approved AZT, the most expensive drug ever to that point—introduced what became the group’s distinctive brand of street theater. ACT UP took the camp humor and theatricality of the Gay Liberation Front “zaps” to a whole new level.

As Kramer told me in our interview for “Victory Deferred,” “The fact that everybody responded to ACT UP, I think was more just a question of time, and moment, and frustration. It was the right time for it to happen.”

As in every catastrophe humans have faced throughout history, there were only two options for gay men when the viral cluster bomb erupted in the community: fight or flight. 

“AIDS made us choose,” said Paul Boneberg, in our interview in San Francisco for “Stonewall Strong.” “Most chose to stay and fight.” In his characteristically understated manner, Boneberg added, “It is my experience that our community is heroic.”

Larry Kramer put it a little differently in our 1995 interview. We talked in the living room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, the setting for some of gay America’s most historic moments, including the world’s first AIDS fundraiser in 1981 and, in 1982, the formation of GMHC, the world’s first AIDS service organization. Reflecting in particular on ACT UP, Kramer said, “Singlehandedly, we changed the image of gay people from limp-wristed fairies to guerrilla warriors.”

John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV-AIDS as a journalist since 1986. His most recent book, which he calls a bookend for acclaimed debut book ‘Victory Deferred’, is ‘Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.’ The research materials and recorded interviews for Victory Deferred comprise a special collection curated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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As Israel readies for new elections, the LGBTQ community is at risk

U.S.-based groups attacking transgender Israelis

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Elisha Alexander in April 2022 (Photo courtesy of Ethan Felson)

Israel’s government has collapsed — and the county is headed to new elections for the fifth time in three years. In this renewed period of uncertainty, Israel’s LGBTQ community has cause for particular concern. Any new coalition would likely welcome parties that oppose LGBTQ inclusion back into government, posing a clear and imminent threat to their human rights.

But amidst this trepidation, there is still much to celebrate: 30 LGBTQ leaders from the U.S. met with their counterparts in Israel this month. The backdrop was Tel Aviv Pride, one of the largest in the world. The leaders were there for more than celebrations. They came to learn. As with past A Wider Bridge trips, North Americans travelling to Israel and Israelis travelling to North America shared strategies for building LGBTQ inclusion, fighting conversion therapy, protecting young people needing shelter, and building vibrant pride centers. Pride celebrations got their start in the U.S. and will take place in more than 60 Israeli cities this month. Over the years, both of our countries have imported many successful approaches from one another. But one American import to Israel is less than welcome: Political transphobia. Let’s not let it become something that unites our nations.

As leaders of groups in Israel and the U.S., we’ve watched with sadness as trans kids in America have been put in harm’s way through legislation making their medical care less available and prohibiting their teachers and school counselors from providing the lifesaving support they need. And it turns out that the same retrograde forces fighting trans inclusion in the U.S. are backing similar efforts in Israel. There have always been opposition to LGBTQ rights, including trans inclusion in both countries and around the globe. What’s new is a vastly well-funded campaign — with plenty of American backing — directed at attacking the Israeli trans community. While the fight for LGBTQ equality in Israel hasn’t been easy, historically the community hasn’t been used as a political cudgel. That’s changing, and we’re ringing the alarm bell.

Groups like the Kohelet Forum, which is largely American-funded, are trying to take their American brand of anti-trans hate to Israel. While think tanks and policy shops aren’t a new phenomenon in Israel, Kohelet has adopted the broader American model of political change-making. They’ve launched a constellation of organizations working informally together to usher in transformational policy change. With the support of Kohelet and others, the anti-trans movement has exploded in Israel.

Their orchestrated effort comes at a very unfortunate moment. Ma’avarim, Israel’s most prominent trans organization, and the entire Israeli trans community have worked tirelessly for years, building careful relationships, educating important allies — and is making tremendous advances due to an Israeli government that was willing to embrace many key goals. There are historic opportunities to implement new life-saving policies including access to healthcare, legal recognition of gender identity, and diversity in the education system. All of this is now in jeopardy. Just as these successes are coming to fruition, the anti-trans movement is using social media and other tactics to spread disinformation and false accusations such as “men in dresses raping women in bathrooms.” These fabrications are felt by many in the trans community to be like anti-Semitic blood libels — made-up stories that lead to fear, hatred, and even violence. They help fuel anti-trans advocacy and lobbying to advance exclusionary policies and legislation to deny Israeli transgender persons their dignity and rights.

The new anti-trans movement has several distinctive features that require new responses. Firstly, unlike the traditional opposition for LGBTQ rights that springs from religious and social conservatives, anti-trans advocacy is now often fronted by self-styled “progressive” women. They bring with them established connections within liberal circles. Secondly, the central arena of the “progressive” anti-trans campaign is both traditional and social media — drawing on existing networks with hundreds of thousands of followers, while trans community organizations have minimal presence in social media beyond the trans community. Thirdly, the funding being poured into anti-trans campaigns eclipses the budgets of LGBTQ organizations. In Israel alone, the groups waging battle against the trans community have budgets in the tens of millions with hundreds of paid staff, many of whom work on anti-trans campaigns. 

None of us should sit idly by while these attacks on the trans community take place. As in other countries, this anti-trans hate movement poses an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of transgender and gender non-conforming persons. We cannot allow them to have their very existence denied.

But it doesn’t stop there. While transgender persons are the immediate targets of hate and violence, anti-trans campaigns have far-reaching political aims: dividing the liberal bloc of women’s, LGBTQ and minority rights, instilling hate, and turning liberal democratic societies against a newly created enemy from within. Anti-trans propaganda has proved instrumental in spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories that further undermine democratic values in society.

The eyes of the world often look to Israel on LGBTQ rights. Dana International, a trans woman from Tel Aviv, won the Eurovision music contest, became an international hero, and played a role in ushering greater acceptance of the trans community.

The world will be watching after Israel’s new elections: Will they continue to make progress in affording rights and protections to LGBTQ people? Or will they turn back the clock? Now more than ever, fighting the anti-trans movement must be a top priority not only for the transgender community but for LGBTQ people, feminists, and the wider progressive community in Israel- and in the United States.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that fights for LGBTQ inclusion, counters anti-Semitism, and strengthens relationships between the LGBTQ community in Israel and North America. Elisha Alexander is the founding director of Ma’avarim, Israel’s leading NGO advocating for the transgender community.

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To Biden: No Pride in detention of transgender, queer communities

Jennicet Gutiérrez declines to attend White House Pride event

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LGBTQ immigrant rights activists participate in the Queens Pride parade in Jackson Heights, N.Y., on June 5, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Emilio Vicente)

Editor’s note: This is the letter that Jennicet Gutiérrez sent to the White House in response to the invitation she received to attend its Pride Month celebration.

June 13, 2022

Dear President Biden and Dr. Biden,

I received your invitation to the White House Pride Celebration on June 15, 2022, and with a clear conscience I am letting you know that I will not be attending this event. There should be no White House celebration when trans and queer communities are suffering and being detained by your administration. There is no pride in detention. 

At the start of your administration you pledged to protect LGBTQ+ people worldwide, but it’s a commitment that you have failed to uphold at home. 

Almost a year ago, while you were holding a Pride reception, trans and queer immigrant leaders from across the nation marched to the White House, demanding the release of trans people, people living with HIV, and any medical condition, from detention centers across the country. We are still seeking justice for Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández, and Johana Medina, trans women who died because of the negligence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Our members across the country are marching and protesting this Pride Month with the same demand of ending the violence and killings of trans people. There have been over two million deportations since you took office, setting you up to be the next deporter-in-chief. Your administration has used Title 42 as an excuse to deport immigrants seeking a better future, most of them Black and brown people and including trans and queer immigrants, even as your administration is relaxing requirements for people traveling to the United States. More than 32 states have drafted bills that would criminalize trans youth and their families for providing life affirming healthcare. Transgender people and children are under attack by the same white supremacist forces that are plaguing our nation and we haven’t seen your administration’s response be enough in the face of these attacks.

The reality is that as this celebration is taking place, trans people currently in ICE custody will be in unsafe conditions. You could easily stop their suffering by instructing the Department of Homeland Security to implement a policy of liberating trans people, people living with HIV and other medical conditions, as well as other vulnerable people.

Ending trans detention and using your executive powers to protect LGBTQ people would have a greater impact on our community and would save many lives rather than hosting an event to deliver a well-crafted speech with broken promises.

Respectfully,

Jennicet Eva Gutiérrez

13 de julio del 2022

Estimados presidente Biden y Dr. Biden, 

Recibí su invitación a la Celebración del Orgullo de la Casa Blanca el 15 de junio de 2022 y con la conciencia clara les hago saber que no asistiré a este evento. No debería haber celebración de Orgullo en la Casa Blanca cuando las comunidades trans y queer están sufriendo y siendo detenidas por su misma administración. No hay orgullo en la detención. 

Al comienzo de su administración, se comprometió a proteger a las personas LGBTQ + en todo el mundo, pero es un compromiso que no ha podido mantener en casa. 

Hace casi un año, mientras celebraban una recepción de Orgullo, líderes inmigrantes trans y queer de todo el país marcharon a la Casa Blanca, exigiendo la liberación de las personas trans, las personas que viven con el VIH y cualquier condición médica, de los centros de detención de todo el país. Todavía estamos buscando justicia para Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández y Johana Medina, mujeres trans que murieron debido a la negligencia del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas (ICE).

Nuestros miembros en todo el país están marchando y protestando este mes del orgullo con la misma demanda de poner fin a la violencia y los asesinatos de personas trans. Ha habido más de dos millones de deportaciones desde que asumió el cargo, lo que lo prepara para ser el próximo jefe-de-deportaciones. Su administración ha utilizado el Título 42 como una excusa para deportar a los inmigrantes que buscan un futuro mejor, la mayoría de ellxs personas Negras y personas de color, e incluyendo a inmigrantes trans y queer, mientras su administración está relajando los requisitos para las personas que viajan a los Estados Unidos. Además, más de treinta y dos estados han redactado proyectos de ley que criminalizan a los jóvenes trans y sus familias por proporcionarles atención médica que afirma su género y salvan sus vidas. Las personas transgénero y los niños están siendo atacados por las mismas fuerzas supremacistas blancas que están plagando nuestra nación y no hemos visto que la respuesta de su administración es suficiente frente a estos ataques.

La realidad es que a medida que se lleva a cabo esta celebración, personas trans actualmente bajo custodia de ICE estarán en condiciones inseguras y peligrosas. Usted podría parar fácilmente su sufrimiento instruyendo al Departamento de Seguridad Nacional para que implemente una política de liberación de personas trans, personas que viven con VIH y otras condiciones médicas, así como otras personas vulnerables. 

Poner fin a la detención trans y usar sus poderes ejecutivos para proteger a las personas LGBTQ tendría un mayor impacto en nuestra comunidad y salvaría muchas vidas en lugar de organizar una celebración de Orgullo para pronunciar un discurso bien elaborado con promesas incumplidas.

Respetuosamente, 

Jennicet Eva Gutiérrez

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Puerto Rico celebrates 32 years of Pride

San Juan parade took place on June 5

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The San Juan Pride parade took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 5, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Alberto J. Valentín)

We celebrated Pride in Puerto Rico on June 5. We marched to celebrate the years of hard work by advocates and organizations that today have enabled our LGBTQIA community to have safer and more inclusive spaces on the island.

Today we celebrate the pride of being part of this community, a pride that, despite progress, still costs us. It is difficult for us because we still carry the stigma of a society that insists on questioning us, limiting our freedom of expression, a culture that attacks us, invalidates us, and does not allow us to occupy the spaces that correspond to us. But even in the face of these adversities and obstacles, we have achieved more freedoms and rights. We have managed to move steadily towards a more equitable, fair, and inclusive jurisdiction of the U.S., an island that, despite the unfairness of our political condition, can embrace the diversity that represents us.

The first Puerto Rican Pride celebration took place in San Juan in 1990 as a celebration to honor those who had died during the AIDS epidemic and to express outrage against police persecution and regulations meant to silence the LGBTQIA community back then. Puerto Rico’s LGBT+ Pride has turned into a pillar of the island’s fight for equality, social justice and human rights. Puerto Rico Pride takes place in the island’s capital San Juan each year at the beginning of June. The parade starts at the Parque del Indio in Condado, and ends at the Parque del Tercer Milenio in Escambrón, a beachside park with a massive stage for entertainment. After two years of no celebration because of COVID-19, this year’s Pride was full of rainbow-colored floats, people on stilts and roller skates, go-go dancers, drag personalities, and more.

Boquerón Pride will take place this weekend in Cabo Rojo.

It is hard to believe, but Puerto Rico has the highest hate crimes rate in the U.S. Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported killed in the country in 2020 were in Puerto Rico. These deaths represent most of the murders of trans people in the U.S. that year. Therefore, every year thousands of Puerto Ricans continue to march for better health services on the island, the prohibition of conversion therapy and fight to stop hate crimes against their people, especially trans people.

Today we walk in favor of our identities. Today, we march in favor of our expressions, orientations and differences. Today we march firmly towards a more inclusive and just Puerto Rico, a Puerto Rico that opens its doors to love and understanding. It is a Puerto Rico that distances itself from hate crimes, machismo, misogyny, heteronormativity, indifference, homophobia and transphobia. Today we walk not only because we are proud of our identities but also because there is still a long way to go. We must mark remember the past because there is a future Puerto Rico that we need to forge: A Puerto Rico that understands that differences strengthen us and that in them lies the power of a society.

It has been decades of hard work and sacrifice, battles won and battles lost. But we will continue with our heads held high and occupying the spaces in our society to continue influencing decision-making that affects the quality of life of future generations. Today’s generations have more access and rights than past generations, but they still do not enjoy the full freedom of being themselves. We fight so that these future generations can express their love without fear and express their identity without feeling threatened by a society that insists on questioning their identities and expressions.

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