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Haunting Reminders from the Past

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As LGBT New Yorkers gather this Sunday to honor and celebrate the 37th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, two unsettling pieces of news remind us of how society and, unfortunately, the gay community itself too often remain stuck in the past.

The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at UC Santa Barbara disclosed this week that it had come across a Pentagon manual that classifies homosexuality as a mental illness 33 years after the American Psychological Association removed that designation from its diagnostic reference book. The military document is a guide to discharge and retirement policies related to physical impairments, and discusses same-sex orientation in the same context as mental retardation and personality disorders.

This news is startling coming not only the week of Pride, but also as the world witnesses acts of nearly unimaginable brutality aimed at two U.S. soldiers.

Two years ago in a cover story on the horrible abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, this newspaper, in calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, argued that the simulated acts of same-gender oral sex and other sexual humiliations forced on the detainee victims were not incidental to the outrages, but rather that “the military’s culture of homophobia lies at the center of the current scandal.” In short, it is no accident that a military ethos based in the hatred of gay men—and in no small measure on misogyny as well—led to such horrendous acts of national shame.

And now, 25 months later, with no end in sight to the fiasco Rumsfeld and George W. Bush have created with their Iraq war policy, the vicious cycle of sickness has taken another turn. Two young Americans have been sacrificed in heinous fashion, joining 2,500 other G.I.s and untold number of Iraqis, these latest deaths distinguished only by their ability to shock the world’s conscience, when so little else seems to.

Here in New York, a widely circulated e-mail from Larry Kramer provided the other discouraging news, though on a completely different matter.

The veteran AIDS activist, who did such heroic work in awakening gay community alarm over the epidemic and demanding effective action, was scheduled to appear with Dr. Mathilde Krim, founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on a New York Times Talk panel Monday evening marking the 25th anniversary of AIDS. Kramer had distributed his prepared remarks in advance of publicly delivering them.

His intention that evening, as best I could discern, was to emphasize that the AIDS plague was allowed to balloon out of control due to hatred of gays, and that official neglect was criminally abetted throughout the 1980s by the pharmaceutical industry, New York Mayor Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and The New York Times, among others. Kramer also used his remarks to advance a theory that HIV entered the gay community through sexual transmission from a hemophiliac, infected by blood product which its makers knew to be tainted.

Much of Kramer’s political analysis about the culpability for AIDS’ spread has merit in its broadest strokes. In fact, it has been quite nearly conventional wisdom among gay and HIV activists, advocates, journalists, and political leaders for the past 20 years that all of the institutions he targets share in the blame for a wholly failed response to a health emergency.

As for his epidemiological suggestions, they seem at best poorly presented, drawing in unwarranted, even careless fashion from the meticulous reporting of Pulitzer Prize-wining journalist Laurie Garrett.

What galls me, however, is that Kramer has squandered a chance that our community had to be heard on a long-standing grievance against the inexcusable negligence of The New York Times in the early years of the epidemic. Dr. Lawrence Mass recalls encountering Times science writer Lawrence Altman at an ‘80s health conference and pressing him on why the paper had fallen so short, only to be told that the Gray Lady “is not an advocacy publication”—as though that were the issue in reporting on a matter of vital public health concern.

But instead of presenting a thorough and documented brief that The Times would have to hear—at its own panel, of all places—Kramer, self-righteously convinced he is the only one able to speak honestly about AIDS, relied lazily on ludicrous and inflammatory hyperbole about Nuremberg Trials, the criminal culpability of Ron Reagan Jr., and patient zero in fact being a gay hemophiliac half-share in the Pines, summer of 1975.

My guess is that The Times won’t soon invite a credible critic in to continue the debate.

And so, grateful for all he has done on our behalf for so many years, perhaps it’s time we thank Kramer heartily, give him a gold watch, and diplomatically ask him to exit the stage.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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