"NO ONE HAS SAVED US BUT OURSELVES": A GLIMPSE AT THE PLAGUE YEARS FROM THE PAPER ARCHIVES

By Curtis Mason
In honor of World AIDS Day, we had a look at our archives from the late '80s, when virtually every issue of PAPER featured reportage from the front lines of the AIDS crisis. The following article, first published in June 1989 under the headline "Gay in '99," caught our eye. Originally interspersed with a chorus of voices from the queer community peering 10 years into the future ("Gay life in the '90s will be a fascinating mix of responsibility and hedonism," predicted Michael Musto), Curtis Mason's story is a heavy time capsule -- a reminder of how far we've come and how far we still have to go.

At the dawn of the decade, disco and drugs were everywhere and the struggle for civil rights was something that other people worried about while we went out dancing. I was an organizer for the movement, as we called it then, since we had no reference point except the antiwar and feminist struggles. Gay men used to laugh at me when I handed them leaflets; or throw them away. I was called a communist by other gay men. "I don't need my rights," was a common retort from the macho clones of the day. Obviously people feel differently when their lives are threatened.

After the "gay leadership" failed us in the early '80s, new organizations like ACT UP were created. ACT UP taught us that individuals could take responsibility for their actions and that a democratic organization could work in the community. Street demonstrations influenced the way that we dress, our language and how we socialize. Gay life in 1989 is more democratic, more open and less cliquish than 10 years ago. If they find a cure for AIDS, will all of our political training be lost? Will the old habits of yesteryear come back?

In this decade, a strong community came together: the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center; the Hetrick-Martin Institute; the Harvey Milk High School for our young people; Senior Action in a Gay Environment for our elders; GLAAD, our own anti-defamation league; the Anti-Violence Project; political action committees; lobby and professional groups; political clubs; and the gay synagogue. Ten years ago, gay people didn't exist in the minds of straight America. We were ignored or ridiculed. AIDS has brought out our enemies. (At least we know who they are.) It has also brought out our true friends.

The march on Washington in October 1987 was the turning point. Over half a million of us in the streets. The religious right and their republican allies may have wanted us gone, but we weren't going without a fight. As the community embraced ACT UP and civil disobedience, the other gay organizations rushed to embrace the new philosophy. No more apologies. No more concessions. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force and the National Gay Rights Advocates upped the rhetorical ante. ACT UP is only two years old. Last year, when the City Council of Pittsburgh defeated a gay rights ordinance, several hundred activists occupied City Hall for the night. This year, South Carolina saw its first demonstration against AIDS discrimination and homophobia. Those years may well have been light years ago. 

The real battle for our rights is now being waged, not in the halls of government or in the streets, but in the media. A great tragedy of this century is the way the media has handled the AIDS crisis, first ignoring it and then sensationalizing it. The New York Times refused to accept obituaries that mentioned a same-sex lover. No one challenged the government on AIDS. Again, that was only two years ago. To conquer the media, we must topple the misconception that a music, television or film star can't be openly gay. 

Many gay people have turned to a new spirituality, epitomized by the healing circle here in New York. Sounds California. Maybe that kind of self-examination is the future.

Whatever happens to us, one thing is clear. This decade has immutably changed us. It has forced us to take stands and examine the way that we live. While some of us have not measured up to the hour, by far the most of us have been capable of a heroism that we did not think we possessed. No one has saved us but ourselves. Those of us who have become enlightened through this crisis will be transformed for good. As for those of us who have not been enlightened, there is still hope. For all of us, there is no going back. On Gay Pride Day, I'll think of the men and women of this community, the ones who are here and the ones who aren't, and I will be proud.

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