When the world suddenly changed back in March due to COVID-19 — some have even been so bold as to say the world “stopped” — and governments, scientists, doctors, emergency workers, and everyday people banded together to combat the horrible spread of this latest virus, I also felt a dizzying swirl of emotions: disoriented, anxious, fear. But quickly, I felt angry.
After the New York Times published its Sunday cover story over Memorial Day weekend, “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss,” with its stark presentation of names and obituaries, I felt a confusing mix of emotions. It seemed the media world had been waiting for this milestone so headlines could be made and poignant think pieces launched for eyeballs hungry to click and share.
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Then Peter Staley, one of the early, influential members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), shared an image and caption on Instagram that jolted me awake. “On January 25, 1991, this is how The @nytimes reported that 100,000 Americans had died from AIDS. They didn’t bother writing their own story. They ran an Associated Press story instead. On page 18. Below the fold. No pictures. No names.”
I’d been thinking constantly how governments reacted to the reality of AIDS ever since we heard the words pandemic earlier this year. So when news of Larry Kramer’s death was announced last week on May 27th, it felt like another wake-up call and reminded me of the word for this emotion I was bottling up: anger.
I was angry that people were acting like a novel virus that erupts and begins killing innocent people was new. I was angry that ignorant people acted like being stigmatized for “not using protection” like a face mask was unfair. I was angry that people felt that anxiety from showing any signs of illness — annoying nasal congestion or a random cough — was psychologically damaging. As a gay white man, I know that I still operate with a certain level of privilege — but I also know what it feels like to be forever on guard against shame and disease.
Each time I feel “flu-like symptoms,” I assume I’m seroconverting and that I’ve done something that put me and my partner at risk. Every time I’m intimate with a person, there is always the specter of potential danger and death. And I grew up in the deep South and ran from men in pickup trucks who yelled faggot and may have strung me up on a deserted county road if they caught me. So I admit that at first, I felt like this coronavirus wasn’t going to best me: I’d been living with the potential of dying for simply existing in a dangerous world ever since I started having sex as a teenager. Even with a condom. Even since preventative and life-altering drugs came on the market. But I kept that anger to myself.
On March 23rd, our Embarrassment-in-Chief tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Now, just a few decades after the AIDS pandemic — which killed an estimated 770,000 lives in 2018, according to the World Health Organization (despite all the advances in new drug treatments and fewer cases of new infections) — the people in power were already justifying the deaths of less-desirables: the elderly, immunocompromised people, black and brown people. Another set of conservative politicians were once again weighing whose lives were more valuable. And now the president fans the flames — inciting a collision of dark forces.
The thing is, I’m not very good at expressing anger. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found inspiration in Larry Kramer’s words since I was 15 and stumbled upon a paperback copy of the script for The Normal Heart. The play premiered in New York City in 1985, but I performed a monologue from it in 1992, effectively coming out to my high school on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, around the same time President Bill Clinton was signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law. I’d never met a person living with HIV as far as I knew, but I identified with the urgency of the message and how people perceived the toxicity of gay men’s bodies. I can never forget the lines about a man having to wrap his dead lover’s cadaver in a black garbage bag to find someone to incinerate it. When people feared the bodies of those who died from the coronavirus, and they started stacking up, it felt like déjà vu.
In his recent tribute to Kramer, Tony Kushner wrote of his complicated friend: “His focus was so exclusive that it could sometimes feel exclusionary, but the specificity of his vision gave it an astonishing, unsettling, disruptive force. Through his singular devotion to L.G.B.T. liberation, he attained the expression of something like a visionary politics of universal value.”
The late activist and playwright was labeled combative, acerbic, ornery, irascible, impossible. He was also white, rich, and privileged, and so had a social safety net many of us could never imagine. Yet instead of working to protect his wealth and social standing, he did battle with words and actions. He scared me; he inspired me. When I met him for the first time in 2011 and shared what he meant to me, with tears in my eyes, I could see he was touched that a kid had been transformed thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the plague that he worked to stop. I never felt like I could live up to his ideals. I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to be liked so I could survive in a world that always told me I was lesser — but he gave me permission to bellow and be obnoxious.
The day before Kramer died, protests began in Minneapolis and St. Paul as a reaction to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. Floyd’s death came after reports of the wrongful death of Breonna Taylor and the lynching of Ahmaud Aubrey. On May 27th, a black trans man named Tony McDade was killed by police.
The anger from these disgraceful killings sparked something within people across the country who had been under self-quarantine for months. On Friday and Saturday, peaceful protests turned into violent uprisings. People shouted: “Say his name!” Some torched cars and buildings. Others busted out windows of restaurants and coffee shops.
Seeing the standoff between protesters and a phalanx of police at the doors of the CNN Center in Atlanta was shocking, effective agitprop. It got the world’s attention. And those in power — politicians and police — attempted to quell the outrage. Some did it by trying to pacify — “go out and vote” — and others did it with rubber bullets and tear gas. Some of it meant to squelch the anger, to silence the outrage; others attempting to incite even more acts of violence so that it could be condemned.
In a speech to the protesters on Friday night, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms explained that she could relate as the mother of four black children, denouncing the violence and urging: “This is not the legacy of civil rights in America. This is chaos, and we’re buying into it. Go home!”
But the fact is that many of the protesters know too well that nobody pays attention when you sit passively at home. And after the optimism of Obama’s “Yes we can” presidency, it feels like voting is being rigged by voter roll purges and other swampy tactics and the already-corrupt system is forever infected by the taint of Trump. And the anger doesn’t go away. And we in the media only pay attention when people take to the streets. When there are shocking images. The cover of this week’s Sunday New York Times proves that point: “Spreading Unrest Leaves a Nation on Edge” — complete with a photo of orange flames and silhouette of an anonymous protester with right fist raised in defiance.
We’ve gotten so good at sheltering in place, many of us felt guilty staying home — distancing ourselves to keep healthy and alive — while these passionate protesters took to the streets from Seattle to Miami, Los Angeles to New York. We watched on TV and scrolled through social media; read the critiques of white people who didn’t join; noted the screen grabs of Venmo receipts of friends who donated to nonprofits raising money to bail out those arrested. Yet we felt solidarity with those around the country who continue to let out their howls of defiance.
James Baldwin was interviewed in 1968 about the nationwide protests taking place after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The white establishment was trying to figure out how to get black people to “cool it.” His first response, “We are only the ones who are dying fastest,” sounds eerily relevant to what is sparking anger today, with much of the data showing that black and brown people are dying at higher rates because of COVID-19 in the United States.
When asked specifically about “looting,” Baldwin’s words explain why the familiar refrains to quell civil unrest persist: “He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. … He wants to let you know he’s there. … After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.” Those words reverberated when a CNN reporter was asked by a host what people were stealing from a ransacked Starbucks in downtown Atlanta on Friday night. What did she expect: That there’d be images of black men running out with skinny chai lattes clutched to their chests? The point was to be seen.
In the past decade, Kramer published his epic, two-volume omnibus, The American People, which attempted to queer American history. Most critics have said it’s not very good. But as New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote in his review of the second volume: “It reminded us that non-heterosexual men and women have been with us forever, and it asked us to imagine and consider the lives they have led. It’s impossible to speak of the American people without also speaking of them.”
This month, we celebrate LGBTQ Pride to honor the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 — some have called it a riot — which itself was a response to police harassment that also targeted people of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie. The first Christopher Street Liberation Day took place the following year, on June 28th, 1970. In the past 50, it’s since morphed into a celebration for visibility — even when some have wished that it wasn’t so brazenly sexual, naked, or glittery. And despite all the criticisms of its capitalist commodification over the decades — with corporate floats shilling for banks, politicians, TV shows, and expensive pharmaceuticals — in whatever form it exists around the world, Pride still demands to be seen. Last year, I marched for the first time in New York during World Pride and felt the power of that sweaty swarm of bodies gathered on the city’s streets: the cheers, the outpouring of support. This year, there will be no official parades, no sanctioned celebrations.
As Kushner explains: “The AIDS epidemic laid bare for Larry a terrible, galvanizing truth: Liberation from oppression is, in the most concrete sense, a matter of life and death. Therefore, oppression is as impermissible and intolerable as murder. Oppression is, in fact, murder. … Comfort with oppression wasn’t bad because it might lead to a holocaust; oppression was the holocaust, and comfort was complicity.”
As our country erupts from so many sources of pain and anger, I want to remind the world that queer people continue to feel rage and must join in supporting any and all who are oppressed. We fought for marriage equality and won that right five years ago this summer — but it was a balm to make us feel comfortable and complacent. Enraged activists will continue to be told to shut up and go home. But civil disobedience is what helps save lives. The motto of ACT UP — emblazoned on T-shirts and buttons with a pink triangle to remind people of the queers killed during the Holocaust — seems to apply forever, to everyone: “Silence = Death.”
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