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Understanding why Gay Pride exists, and why everyone should celebrate
June is traditionally Gay Pride Month, ever since a drag queen threw the first punch in the summer of 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. That punch felt round the world gave birth to the modern gay movement. President Obama has officially proclaimed June as Gay Pride Month. But here in the South, many cities celebrate Pride in the cooler months of fall. Chattanooga’s is in October.
I recently watched the HBO movie “The Normal Heart”, based on Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning stage play. It depicts the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and follows the efforts of one man, while his friends are dying around him, to break through a conspiracy of silence, indifference and hostility from both the government and the gay community, and raise awareness about a disease that would ultimately change the lives of millions.
During the early ’80s, I was a young grad student in Los Angeles, and would become part of the small army of care providers continually blindsided with the shock, fear and grief that accompany the losing side of a war. Local resources were stretched to their breaking point, and volunteerism provided the vast majority of healthcare and mental healthcare to those who were infected and affected. “Emotional support” and “practical support” became catch phrases as one after another, people with HIV were losing their families from rejection, their friends to death, and their own health to this relentless, baffling virus. When 20- and 30-year-olds are dying in huge numbers, the world seems upside down. It feels, and is, devastating.
Looking back upon those years, I often think about the heroic acts—small and large—that, by necessity, accompanied those first waves of battle. I think about the doctors and nurses who did not wear the hazmat suits, bizarre headgear and other alienating apparel into homes, hospital rooms, and hospices when tending to ill patients, because they knew the virus isn’t caught through casual contact and that casual contact, a caring touch, a compassionate hug or even an encouraging pat on the shoulder, can be healing in itself.
I think of the founders of those early organizations: Gay Mens’ Health Crisis in New York, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Shanti Foundation in San Francisco and numerous others, who started with a rag-tag group of scared men in their living rooms. No budget, no societal support, just a lot of guts.
And I think of the lesbians, the population least infected by the virus, who were a large part of the first wave of volunteers. To increasing numbers of sufferers they, along with the gay men and straight allies, physicians and researchers who were dedicating their lives to fight the pandemic, were heroes.
As we all know, the fight continues. The CDC and World Health Organization estimate that as of four years ago in the U.S., 1.2 million persons aged 13 and older were living with HIV infection. About 34.2 million people were living with HIV around the world. Four years ago, the U.S. reported approximately two million deaths from AIDS; nearly 30 million deaths have occurred worldwide since the epidemic began.
In Andrew Solomon’s book, “Far from the Tree”, he reports: “Ten years ago a New Yorker poll asked parents whether they would prefer to see their child gay, happily partnered, fulfilled, and with children...or straight, single or unhappily partnered, and childless. One out of three chose the latter.” One third of parents would prefer unhappy straight kids over happy and fulfilled gay ones. Of the gay people you know (and everyone knows some), there are those with parents who would still actually prefer they were unhappy to being gay. That’s a lot to deal with.
So my wish for you this LGBT Pride season is that, whether you are gay or non-gay, you prioritize compassion and understanding over our differences. You tune into gratitude, forgiveness and kindness. You invite into your home and into your heart someone who has fought the dragons; who has been oppressed because of who they are; who has survived mind-numbing loss throughout three decades of the worst pandemic in history. And you open your mind to allow for the idea that we love who we love, and that no human has the right to take away another’s pride in surviving.
Until next time: “You are the love and joy beneath the pain.” — Eckhart Tolle