The Politics of Outing and AIDS Activism in the 1980s

 AIDS Action Now Demo4

John A. Carranza //

“Archibald Anson Gidde, a prominent San Francisco realtor and social leader, died Tuesday at his home in Sea Cliff after a bout with liver cancer. He was 42./Mr. Gidde was a witty and flamboyant figure who distinguished himself by spearheading some of the City’s most notable real estate transactions…/A member of the Bohemian Club, he was active on the boards of the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Opera, and the American Conservatory Theatre./Mr. Gidde is survived by his parents, Eleanor and Clinton Gidde…”[1]

The fictional obituary of San Francisco “A-Gay” Arche Gidde in Armistead Maupin’s Sure of You echoed many of the obituaries of gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The reactions by the protagonist, Michael Tolliver and his partner, Thack Sweeney, represent at least two viewpoints on the politics of being out as gay men during the epidemic. Michael who was HIV-positive was resigned to let the diagnosis of liver cancer be what people remembered about Arche’s life. However, Thack was outraged by the duplicitous nature of Arche’s obituary, and others with similar, generic, diagnoses. The silence and masking of deaths due to AIDS-related illnesses became a morbid game for Thack where he identified gay men whose friends and families kept the cause of their deaths secret. The obituaries became so common that Thack could spot a gay man who died of AIDS based on how old he was, the absence of a spouse, and their occupation while living. The frustration of the moment heightened when Thack screamed at Michael: “This is why people don’t give a shit about AIDS! Because cowardly pricks like this make it seem like it’s not really happening!”[2]

The anxiety and anger surrounding the metaphorical closet that gay men inhabited mounted as government officials, the medical community, and high profile closeted gay men were slow to advocate for funding for medical research, access to trial drugs, and to speak about the importance of safe sex. The Reagan administration’s initial lack of a response to the crisis prompted gay men and lesbians to organize their community to raise money for education and research into the mysterious disease. Seeing friends and lovers die from an illness that had no known cure pushed many gay men out of the closet. In Houston, Texas, Gene Harrington, a law professor found himself organizing meetings and protests. For Harrington, being visible and out of the closet in his political activities were because: “I don’t have the luxury of giving up…Whether you are going to live or die is a pretty strong motive for political action.” He added: “Through our deaths, we have become energized.”[3]In fact, one of the more prominent organizations to emerge was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), which by its very actions and protests, outed its members and the disease that they were calling for action for. SILENCE=DEATH was the striking slogan of the period that encouraged gay men to speak up and out to save lives.[4]

Towards the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s the gay community also responded to the AIDS epidemic by outing public figures to gain visibility for the cause. Outing, or the threat to out, a public official or religious leader who criticized and condemned the gay community was claimed as a moral right. Celebrities and other well-positioned society people were also as vulnerable to the threat of being outed because of the influence that they were not using to help. As the epidemic wore on, Armistead Maupin took part in outing celebrities when he confirmed that Rock Hudson was gay shortly after Hudson publicly announced that he had AIDS. Maupin also outed other celebrities who were confirmed or believed to be gay. As more men continued to die in San Francisco, New York City, and other large cities across the country many in the gay movement saw it as imperative that they begin to speak up and out about finding a cure and promoting (safe) sex education.[5]

Outing, while seen as a very personal event for gay men and women today, was a matter of life or death in the 1980s and 1990s. Using the discourse of the women’s liberation movement where the “personal is political,” AIDS activists ensured that politicians and the public were paying attention, and if they weren’t, they risked being outed and incurring the stigma associated with being gay.

The gay community’s relationship with outing in the past was based on the historical context in which it occurred, and each moment carried different meanings. In the case of Oliver Sipple, the gay community needed a hero to prove that it was worthy of being included as full citizens with equal rights. However, that ended up destroying an already fragile man who was not ready for the large-scale attention it garnered. AIDS changed the narrative of outing by demanding that gay men come out as a survival method for the community. The politics of outing are complex, but the implications (socially, medically, economically) of performing this action should always be considered. However, we may question when it is imperative to out someone in order to save other people’s lives.

[1]Armistead Maupin, Sure of You (New York: HarperPerennial, 1987), 84.

[2]Ibid., 84-85.

[3]R.A. Dyer, “AIDS Fear Lends Sense of Urgency to Gay Activism,” Houston Chronicle (December 16,1990); Newsbank 1990 HEA: 130: G3-G6, reprinted in The AIDS Crisis: A Documentary History, eds. Douglas A. Feldman and Julia Wang Miller (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998), 89-90.

[4]John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Second Edition(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 354-356; Warren Johansson and William A. Percy, Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994),138-139.

[5]Ibid., 85; William Henry III, Andrea Sachs, and James Willwerth, “Forcing Gays Out of the Closet: Homosexual Leaders Seek to Expose Foes of the Movement,” Time135, no. 5 (January 29, 1990): 67.

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