The Elephant in the Room
BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | I was at this party the other day, when the people I’d sat down with decided I’d become inconvenient. They wanted to invite this other girl to go out with them, but not me, so what to do? Being awkward or just assholes, their solution was to suddenly ignore me. Pretend like I’d ceased to exist while they talked about dressing up as vampires or something and the reaction they got in bars.
I was tempted to wave my hand in front of their faces, and say, “Yoo hoo, still here.” But it was more interesting to stay motionless in my chair, watch their contortions, and see how long they could keep it up. Indefinitely, it turned out, even if their eyes were forced to glide past my own like I was a kind of repellant particle scientists aren’t able to detect except by the movement of others around it.
They reminded me of three-year-olds that can make other people come and go just by covering their own eyes. Or like politicians who have the amazing capacity to erase the elephant or dyke or whatever in the room.
We just had a whole election cycle where, unless I’m mistaken, poor people weren’t mentioned once, just the suffering middle class, though more and more people are dropping out of it and fewer climbing in. And in four years of having our first black president, racism has also fallen off the national agenda even as it grew. Don’t make eye contact, it will get bored.
You have to be an idiot not to know why young black queers in the US get HIV more than anybody else.
In 2008, it was the leaders of the LGBT community who managed to shut their eyes to Obama’s inconvenient relationships with bigots. He campaigned, for instance, with the same black, anti-gay preachers as Bush, and when he won, invited that Anglo pig Rick Warren to pronounce over his inauguration. Rick Warren equated gay marriage with polygamy and incest. Said abortion was genocide as much as the Holocaust was. Took his campaign — and gazillions of his white fundamentalist American dollars — to the African continent where he egged on anti-gay efforts in places like Uganda, telling the press there queers had no human rights. Preach on, brother man. The Ugandans embraced your message, considering every couple of months the death penalty for queers.
Nobody seemed to remember that giving hate the podium always means more violence, more shame. And like an opportunistic infection, more AIDS. You have to be an idiot not to know why young black queers in the US get HIV more than anybody else. For World AIDS Day, Reuters reported that in 2010, “72 percent of the estimated 12,000 new HIV infections in young people occurred in young men who have sex with men, and nearly half of new infections were among young, black males.” The article did a pretty good job identifying the culprit. Not just lack of information, but homophobia.
Lately, even relatively conservative international organizations have started to consider it in their programs, talking about the “gay” stigma of AIDS. Men who have sex with men think they can only get it if they identify as “gay”. Straight men don’t think they can get the “gay” disease. Women in that constellation are apparently immune. UNAIDS aspires to get to zero. Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.
The only effective way to get rid of the (gay) stigma of AIDS, is to get rid of the stigma of gay. Because the other side of cultures of intense homophobia is shame. Which in the case of young black men is amplified by racism. Unprotected sex can be just another slow suicide like the bottle. Or hanging around street corners. Or joining gangs.
Part of that may begin to turn around now that Obama’s seen the light, and his positions have “evolved.” In 2012, Hillary Clinton used her international platform as US secretary of state to declare that gay rights were human rights. A few weeks later, Barack Obama announced his support for marriage equality.
Despite worried or gloating pundits, it didn’t cost him the election. He won queer votes. And people of color mostly stayed on board. In fact, he gave renewed hope to lots of queer activists and allies of color. The usual verbal gay-bashing has been muted. Several black celebrities like Jay-Z have actually come out against homophobia: “It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination. Plain and simple.” This sea change can only help struggling young queers of color.
It’s a good start, but there’s still the little intractable matter of racism and race. It’s easier for a straight president to speak up for the queers than a black president to speak up unapologetically for himself and all the kids who look like him. They are invisible particles we swerve around trying to keep the lid on. Sacrificing them to keep somebody else’s peace.