Washington Blade - June 1, 2006
IN THE LATEST "X-Men" movie, the humans discover a "cure" for the
mutant "X gene," and the mutants find themselves at war among
themselves over whether to take the bait.
The analogy to homosexuality isn't lost on us gay viewers, since
we've all probably thought about whether we'd take "the cure," if
there ever were such a thing. Of course the politically correct
answer for any well-adjusted, self-respecting homo is that our
sexual orientation isn't an illness to be "cured," anymore than
heterosexuality would be.
That's certainly what our X-Men heroes would have us believe. The
reality, on the other hand, is much messier.
Who among us hasn't explained our lives to a straight friend or
family member by arguing we didn't choose to be gay. "After all,"
we say, "who would choose a life of disapproval and rejection
So if we wouldn't have chosen to be gay at the outset, why would
we choose to remain gay if the "cure" were at hand?
For those of us in relationships, love and commitment for our
partners would be a powerful reason to say no to a cure. For many
gay men, the sexual freedom of our culture would be a strong
motivation to stay the course. For many lesbians, there's the
liberation that comes from living the feminist slogan that, "A
woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."
For the religious among us, changing sexual orientations would
mess with God's handiwork, although the cure itself would be
God's creation as well, so that muddies the waters a bit.
For most of us, there is also the strong bond of "community" -
admittedly a very overused word - that comes from a shared
culture and sensibility, not to mention the camaraderie born out
of being targeted for moral disapproval and discrimination.
FOR ME, HOMOSEXUALITY was the single most important life teacher
I ever had, even before I accepted it as a part of who I am. Born
white and male into a conservative Republican, upper-middle class
family, the rules of American life were set to work in my favor.
Yet for some reason, I became fascinated with the civil rights
movement and 1960s counter-culture. Even though all my close
friends were white, I helped launch an organization in college to
improve the racial environment on my conservative Southern
campus. I railed from the editorial pages of the student
newspaper about our segregated Greek system.
I'm convinced that my subconscious motivation was a connection I
felt with those "on the outside," even though I rejected the idea
I might be an outsider myself. I remember someone suggesting my
senior year that our racial diversity group work to improve
things for gay students as well. I quickly spoke up to squelch
If I hadn't been gay, I don't know that I ever would have felt
that connection, much less known the fulfillment that came from
acting on it. Since the rules of American society would be
working for me still today, I would have missed out on my most
important personal journey.
IF ADVERSITY IS such a wonderful life teacher, maybe that
explains why so many deaf people are uninterested in cochlear
implants and other medical advances that might allow them to
hear. The price would be the lost community with other deaf
people and the sign language they use to communicate.
The same does not hold true, of course, for most medical
conditions. What person living with HIV or AIDS would turn down
"the cure," for instance?
Twenty-five years after scientists first identified the illness
we now call AIDS, there's still no cure. Hyped talk that the
"drug cocktail" might beat HIV into a permanent state of
"virtually undetectable" has proven overly optimistic, even as
medical treatments have drastically reduced death tolls from the
'80s and '90s.
We don't know yet if existing treatments will allow those
infected with HIV to live a normal lifespan. Most AIDS experts
I've spoken to say that, absent further advances, most of those
living with HIV will still die from a condition caused by it.
But even though everyone with HIV might jump at the chance to
take the AIDS virus "cure," the X-Men lesson, learned in life
from being gay, still applies in part to HIV/AIDS as well.
AIDS has been a powerful, if horrible, life teacher as well. The
early days of AIDS made heroes out of untold thousands, as Mark
King so eloquently describes on the opposite page. No single
other factor is more responsible for joining gay men and lesbians
from our very different lives into alliance.
HIV forced not only Rock Hudson out of the closet, but countless
more like him, and in solidarity with him. The government's
sluggish response to "the gay cancer" in those early days proved
the straw that finally broke the closet's back. As activists
poured into the streets in a fight for their lives, their
visibility and energy was a critical fuel for the gay rights
movement as well.
What had been a "gay liberation" movement primarily about sexual
freedom drastically changed course, putting the focus instead on
the most conservative social institutions: work, military
service, marriage - even the Boy Scouts!
Only the most extreme and hardened conservative still draws moral
conclusions about the method by which HIV is transmitted, but the
rules of safe sex can be credited with curbing the hedonism of
gay male life in the '70s. In a weird way, the virus played the
role most straight men credit to women, influencing gay men in
larger numbers to "settle down" and try more meaningful
With the advent of more effective HIV treatments, gay male
sexuality is on the rise again, but at least now we have more
experience with relationships, and settling down is a better
defined, more accepted lifestyle option.
Finding the cure for AIDS today wouldn't undo those incredibly
important lessons, just as it wouldn't bring back the hundreds of
thousands we have lost to the pandemic. But as we reflect on the
terrible toll of AIDS - past, present and future - we can find
some small solace in what we've learned from its devastation.