When the “Gay Liberation” movement was born in 1969, its leading activists and theorists emphasized the importance of promiscuous anal sex as a behavioral repudiation of America's repressive “sex-negative” culture and its “heteronormativity” (i.e., the heterosexual and monogamous norm), as queer theorists called it. In the radical view, existing sexual norms reflected nothing about humanity’s biological experience, but were merely a social construction to preserve the privileges of a dominant group.
Like black radicals before them, gay activists rejected the idea of integration into a normally functioning civil order. Gay liberation was identified with a sexual agenda that did not seek civic tolerance, respect, and integration into the public order of bourgeois life. It was defined instead as a defiant promiscuity, the overthrow of bourgeois morals and sexual restraints -- and, consequently, of bourgeois standards of public hygiene. It recognized no natural or moral barriers to the realization of the radical project.
The Gay Liberation Front issued a manifesto in 1970 which proclaimed: “We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete liberation of all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature.”
The effect of this radical self-conception and agenda was immediate and unmistakable. In the three years previous -- the flowering of the sexual revolution -- the incidence of amoebiasis, a parasitic sexually transmitted disease, increased fifty times in San Francisco because of promiscuous oral-anal sex among gays. Despite the consequences, a Toronto leftist paper defended the practice in an article titled “Rimming As a Revolutionary Act.” During the next decade, the tolerant American civil order made room for the sexual revolutionaries. Public officials licensed sexual gymnasiums called “bathhouses” and turned a blind eye towards homosexual activity in bookstore backrooms, bars, and “glory hole” establishments. Gay activists described such places as homosexual “liberated zones.” By the end of the decade, a $100 million public sex industry flourished.
As opportunistic but still treatable infections multiplied in the petri dish of the "liberated" culture, gay radicals only increased their defiance. Overloaded VD clinics became trysting places in the "liberated" culture. In his authoritative history of the AIDS epidemic, author Randy Shilts describes the atmosphere on the eve of its outbreak:
“Gay men were being washed by tide after tide of increasingly serious infections. First it was syphilis and gonorrhea. Gay men made up about 80% of the 70,000 annual patient visits to [San Francisco’s] VD clinics. Easy treatment had imbued them with such a cavalier attitude toward venereal diseases that many gay men saved their waiting-line numbers, like little tokens of desirability, and the clinic was considered an easy place to pick up both a shot and a date.”
Far from causing radical activists to re-think their agenda, the burgeoning epidemics prompted them to escalate their assault. When Dr. Dan William, a gay specialist, warned of the danger of continued promiscuity, he was publicly denounced as a “monogamist” in the gay press. When playwright Larry Kramer issued a similar warning, he was accused in the New York Native of “gay homophobia and anti-eroticism.” At a public meeting in the year preceding the first AIDS cases, Edmund White, co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, proposed that “gay men should wear their sexually transmitted diseases like red badges of courage in a war against a sex-negative society.” Michael Callen, a gay youth present at the meeting, had already had 3,000 sexual partners and was shortly to come down with AIDS. When he heard White’s triumphant defiance of nature’s law, he remembers thinking: “Every time I get the clap [gonorrhea] I’m striking a blow for the sexual revolution.”
Callen’s attitude was emblematic. The first clusters of AIDS victims were formed not by monogamous civil reformers who had come out of the closet to demand tolerance and respect, but by sexual revolutionaries who had engaged in extremely risky behavior in order to advance the new order. Callen, who later founded the organization People With AIDS, reflected on this revolutionary path:
“Unfortunately, as a function of a microbiological ... certainty, this level of sexual activity resulted in concurrent epidemics of syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis, amoebiasis, venereal warts and, we discovered too late, other pathogens. Unwittingly, and with the best of revolutionary intentions, a small subset of gay men managed to create disease settings equivalent to those of poor third-world nations in one of the richest nations on earth.”
The diseases were being transformed as well. As Shilts explains, the enteric diseases -- amoebiasis, Gay Bowel Syndrome, giardiasis and shigellosis -- were followed by an epidemic of hepatitis B, “a disease that had transformed itself, via the popularity of anal intercourse, from a blood-borne scourge into a venereal disease.”
As these epidemics grew, public health officials did not intervene. The reason was the revolution itself. So successful was the campaign of the radical activists, that it made traditional public health practices politically impossible. When officials sought to close the sexual bathhouses which were the epidemic’s breeding grounds, gay political leaders accused them of trying to eradicate important “symbols of gay liberation.” As Don Francis, the Center for Disease Control official in charge of fighting the hepatitis B epidemic, told an interviewer: “We didn’t intervene because we felt that it would be interfering with an alternative lifestyle.”
In the early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was still confined to three cities with large homosexual communities. Aggressive public health methods might have prevented the epidemic’s outward spread. But every effort to take normal precautionary measures was thwarted in turn by the political juggernaut which the gay liberation movement had managed to create. Under intense pressure from gay activists, for example, the director of public health of the City of San Francisco refused to close bathhouses, maintaining that they were valuable centers of “education” about AIDS, even though their only purpose was to facilitate anonymous, promiscuous sex.
Not only were measures to prevent the geographical spread of AIDS thwarted by radical politics, but measures to prevent its spread into other communities were obstructed as well. Thus when officials tried to institute screening procedures for the nation’s blood banks and asked the gay community not to make donations while the epidemic persisted, gay political leaders opposed the procedures as infringing on the “right” of homosexuals to give blood. The San Francisco Coordinating Committee of Gay and Lesbian Services, chaired by Pat Norman, a city official, issued a policy paper asserting that donor screening was “reminiscent of miscegenation blood laws that divided black blood from white,” and “similar in concept to the World War II rounding up of Japanese-Americans in the western half of the country to minimize the possibility of espionage.”
The result of these revolutionary attitudes was to spread AIDS among hemophiliacs and drug-using heterosexuals. Similar campaigns against testing and contact tracing -- standard procedures in campaigns against other sexually transmitted diseases -- insured the metasticism of AIDS, specifically into the black and Hispanic communities, where it came to account for more than 50% of the known cases.
By 1998 the AIDS epidemic had taken the lives of 300,000 Americans, with a million more infected. The implementation of real public-health methods was nowhere in sight. By 2009, the AIDS death toll exceeded 583,000.
In 2007, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released a report which demonstrated that some minimal progress had been made toward implementing safety precautions:
"Approximately 100 bathhouses exist in many cities across the United States, and policies toward them vary considerably. Many cities have no established policies to recommend or enforce. [In a study of] New York and four other cities that have written policies in final or draft form, [a]ll except for New York allow sex to occur in public spaces if condoms are used; when patrons are found engaging in unsafe sex, required actions vary from unstated to asking patrons to stop the activity to expelling patrons from the establishment for three months. Unlike New York City, where sex in private areas is not regulated, in San Francisco sex is prohibited in private areas so that staff may observe condom use. All of the other cities require that safe-sex rules be posted, and four of the five cities require patrons to sign an agreement on entry to practice safe sex. Los Angeles requires HIV/STD testing to be available at the bathhouse owners’ expense for 20 hours per week (although this has not been fully implemented). Monitoring and enforcement practices vary substantially. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, bathhouses are assessed or inspected monthly; in other cities inspections only occur in response to complaints or linkage of STDs or HIV to the bathhouse."
Adapted mostly from "A Radical Holocaust," by David Horowitz (1998).