“One day AIDS came along. It happened fast. Almost every man I was friendly with died. Eric still talks about his first boyfriend, 180 pounds, 28 years old, former college athlete, who became a 119 pound bag of bones covered in purple splotches in months. Many of us will always have memories like this that we can never escape. Out of this came ACT UP. We grew to have chapters and affinity groups and spin-offs and affiliations all over the world. Hundreds of men and women once met weekly in New York City alone. Every single treatment against HIV is out there because of activists who forced these drugs out of the system, out of the labs, out of the pharmaceutical companies, out of the government, into the world. It is an achievement unlike any other in the history of the world. All gay men and women must let ourselves feel colossally proud of such an achievement. Hundreds of millions of people will be healthier because of us. Would that they could be grateful to us for saving their lives. So many people have forgotten, or never knew what it was like. We must never let anyone forget that no one, and I mean no one, wanted to help dying faggots. Sen. Edward Kennedy described it in 2006 as ‘the appalling indifference to the suffering of so many.’ Ronald Reagan had made it very clear that he was ‘irrevocably opposed’ to anything to do with homosexuality. It would be seven years into his reign before he even said the word “AIDS” out loud, by which time almost every gay man in the entire world who’d had sex with another man had been exposed to the virus. During this entire time his government issued not one single health warning, not one single word of caution. Who cares if a faggot dies?” ~Larry Kramer, WE ARE NOT CRUMBS; WE MUST NOT ACCEPT CRUMBS (Remarks on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of ACT UP, NY Lesbian and Gay Community Center,
March 13, 2007)
When looking back at the history of United States presidents–their legacies, their libraries, their personality quirks, their fireside chats–it isn’t very often that the name Lyndon Baines Johnson sparks joy in people’s hearts. To the contrary, President Johnson was by all accounts a temperamental, difficult man, and despite having signed the iconic Civil Rights Act in 1964, he is most often remembered for escalating the Vietnam War to the point of no return. However, there was one incident for which those who actually remember it shower President Johnson with praise: Hurricane Betsy. Hurricane Betsy, nicknamed “Billion-Dollar Betsy” due to the massive cost of the damage, slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States in September of 1965 as a Category 4, much like Hurricane Katrina would do in the exact same area forty years later–and breached the levees in New Orleans. There were, of course, many differences between these two incidents due to the fact that there were many differences between the America of 1965 and that of 2005. However, the primary reason that anyone invokes Betsy these days (and most of my Generation XYZ probably doesn’t even know it happened) is to take a potshot at President George W. Bush, because President Johnson had something during Hurricane Betsy that President Bush did not have during Hurricane Katrina: a bullhorn moment.
Those in this country who are old enough to remember Hurricane Betsy have an iconic image of President Johnson in their minds because he showed up in the Ninth Ward within 24 hours of the storm having made landfall, at George Washington Elementary School on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter. As in Hurricane Katrina, most of those who suffered the worst ramifications of the storm were African-American and were living below the poverty line, or close to it. Many of them reportedly didn’t believe it was the President of the United States at first, as he arrived by flashlight in near total darkness. “This is your President!” came his announcement. “I’m here to help you!” It’s worth pointing out here that 1965 was relatively near the beginning of the television age; both media and politics changed dramatically. Due to the intersection of the birth of a new era of media, the birth of a new era of politics (the Vietnam-era anti-war movement and the resulting generation gap) and what should have been a defining moment of a presidency, President Johnson’s bullhorn moment during Hurricane Betsy is a remarkable moment in American history that is all but forgotten due to the bitterness with which he left office–but that’s a story for another day.
In fairness to President Bush, he not only had a bullhorn moment during his presidency, it was his that coined the phrase. No matter how many missteps he made in the months and years following (and he made many), President Bush was note perfect on September 14th, 2001, when he stood–with a bullhorn, naturally–alongside firefighter Bob Beckwith, three days after 9/11, amongst the rubble at Ground Zero: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people–and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” Those gathered at Ground Zero–and, if only symbolically, the American people–responded to those words with a mighty roar, and it’s almost impossible to verbalize what we all felt in that moment. As a kid who would turn fifteen years old the next day–a kid who honestly wasn’t a huge fan of that president, and still isn’t–I felt powerful. I felt like Americans were the most powerful people on Earth. How dare they screw with us, and how dare I, even for an instant, believe our nation wouldn’t thrive, wouldn’t win? Of course we would come back from the worst terrorist attack to ever occur on our soil, and the sound of our fortitude would reverberate throughout the world.
One thing these moments prove is that morale can make or break a people, and that visible, audible leadership is essential to morale. On a national scale at least, nobody really reminisced about President Johnson’s leadership during Hurricane Betsy until Hurricane Katrina. Due to the transient nature of American politics, it was all but forgotten–until we felt it when it wasn’t there. No matter how much I grew to dislike President Bush over the years, I will always be grateful to him for that bullhorn moment, and I remember exactly what it felt like because, as someone born and raised in the tristate area who lost a family friend on September 11th, I got one.
The LGBT community never has. As the great Larry Kramer said, President Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word “AIDS” in public until his second term, well after the illness became an historic, vicious nightmare, well after the American people needed their leader. His glaring silence in the face of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s is a blight on this country’s history that is deeply shameful, and that bullhorn moment that never came, when the wrong class of people developed lesions and went blind, and lost control of their bowels, and did other undignified things like dropping dead–they felt it when it wasn’t there. And they still do. As a straight woman, it’s personal for me not just because there are gay people in my life whom I love and adore, but because I love and adore this country, and this is a civil rights issue. It’s personal for me because this is a moment in my nation’s history when there was a colossal failure of leadership in the face of terror and death. Those bullhorn moments mean something to me. My American brothers and sisters were ignored and made to suffer in silence; funeral homes wouldn’t take them because they were too afraid. They were the Untouchables. This shames me just as much as slavery and Japanese-American internment, and the fact that my Italian-American relatives were defined as “enemy aliens” under Title 50 of the United States Code during the Second World War–if not more so, just because of how recent this was.
There’s a celebration going on as I write this, being aired on “The Rachel Maddow Show” by satellite, because the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally went into effect today. It’s a thrilling development, even though it took such a ridiculously long time, and I was in a very happy mood this morning as I got ready to go to an early morning staff meeting and read the delighted tweets. It is truly a happy day in this regard, a victory a long time coming. We also got good news about the potential for an AIDS vaccine today. It should be a celebration.
That celebration is tempered, however, because we got news of another suicide due to anti-gay bullying today. His name was Jamey Rodemeyer, he was only 14 years old, and he had a baby face. He died on Sunday, of an apparent suicide. On September 9th, he wrote on his blog, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” In May, reportedly in a good mood after coming out to some friends, he made a video for the Dan Savage-inspired “It Gets Better” campaign:
This child is gone now. Media outlets are trying to cover bullying, but schools are putting in place idiotic neutrality policies preventing faculty and staff from actually addressing the topic of the insults when the bullying is related to sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. In other words, more silence. Glaring, deafening silence. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) launched The Day of Silence in 1996 as an in-school protest against anti-LGBT bias and discrimination, and they called it that for a reason. It’s a day of silence for a reason–it represents the missing piece, the bullhorn moment that never came. The pandemic of silence that has existed for so long. Just as Presidents Johnson and Bush put something in motion with their bullhorn moments, President Reagan put something in motion through his refusal to give it, and the gaping chasm where it should have been. A distinct group of American citizens still feel like they’re on their own, even as children. Their storm, their panic, their deaths didn’t count.
AIDS is a pandemic, but so is the cruel indifference that allowed it to become what it was, and to ravage the gay community the way it did–as a taboo, no less. Genuine human loss that was inappropriate for dinner table conversation. That same pandemic of indifference continues, and people are still dying. Children are dying. As Dan Savage wisely implies, it does get better, and it is getting better. Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” President Obama made an “It Gets Better” video, as did several in his administration. However, Jamey Rodemeyer still lived in a world where the insults hurled at him were considered at least somewhat acceptable, where there are actually official policies in schools that prevent faculty and staff with dealing with them. Jamey Rodemeyer was an American citizen, but he was a member of a community that never got their bullhorn moment when they deserved one, and the effects are still being felt.
For thirty years, we’ve been dealing with this pandemic of dead air, of apathy. Arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If I sound pathetic, crying over a kid I didn’t know and bitching about a president from decades ago, the reason is obvious. I’m just one more in a long line of pathetic people who don’t know how to fight this war. This war is too damn slow for me; it’s too long. I’m devastated by it. And, to paraphrase President Johnson, I don’t know how to get out.
I know how to start. CNN, Cartoon Network and Facebook are teaming up to give it a shot, so I would like my readers to please try to help them out. You can watch the CNN town hall on bullying on Sunday, October 9th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, which will be hosted by Anderson Cooper (who has been one of the stand-out members of the mainstream media when it comes to standing up to bullying and anti-LGBT bias), and please go to the Stop Bullying: Speak Up Facebook page for more information, and take the pledge.
In his video, Jamey Rodemeyer revealed that he knew that there were people out there who didn’t want him to die. Those people ultimately couldn’t save him, but we can do our utmost to make sure he didn’t die in vain.
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