Because I was born in 1991, teaching a course on the AIDS crisis takes on a different meaning for me than for my older gay colleagues. Growing up and coming out, I didn’t daily confront the realities of my death. Although I grew up in a small farm town so by no means was I safe as a young gay kid, I didn’t face disease and constant violent attacks. These did not define my coming out and coming of age as a young gay man. I felt relatively safe. Almost all my millennial friends loved and accepted me for who I am, and even those who didn’t, recognized a certain new cultural norm that had come to prevail in our generation: a norm of acceptance of varying sexualities. I felt safe with myself, a safety that my queer forefathers and mothers certainly did not feel. And so my experience of teaching a course on AIDS on the first day of class on June 6th was based upon my deep respect for my older queer family who fought the fight to save people like me from disease, a respect borne out of my own personal sense of safety, a safety born of my privilege as a white gay man: in New York, in 2016.
But on June 12th my perspective changed. For one of the first times in my queer life, I stopped feeling safe. I realized that gayness is still deviant, and in its deviancy, society still condemns us to death. In light of this, it seems quite poignant, then, that my class, only two days after the largest mass shooting of queer people in US history, will be reading Leo Bersani’s seminal essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” In this essay, written at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1987, Bersani points out the startling reality that to be gay is to be condemned to death; to be queer is to have society execute you. And so the pleasure induced for gay men by the rectum — pleasure that society is horrified by — is our death sentence. Sex equals death. Of course in the case of the AIDS crisis, this reality of death has been incredibly present; in 1987 one could quite literally have died from unprotected anal sex. But of course, what actually condemned the gay men who died during the AIDS crisis to death was the refusal of society to do anything to stop the plague. And so an entire generation of gay men came of age with their understanding of their own subjectivities and sexualities constituted with the possibility of death.
In being gay, the possibility of death is ever-present, reminding you that your own deviancy is a threat to the people around you. And they will kill you if given the opportunity. This is homophobia. This is society. This is homophobic society. Even post-1996, the year that modern medicine stopped AIDS from being a death sentence, being queer is still marked by an orientation towards death that cannot be escaped. To be queer is to be condemned to death.
But I grew up in a society that was “different.” Or so I believed. Don’t get me wrong, I have been called “faggot” more times than I can remember, but I never felt unsafe as a gay man because my friends supported me, and New York City allowed me to feel safe. I especially felt safe in the gay clubs where men and women like me, and also very different from me, could meet and join in community and solidarity. It was in the clubs that I thought society had really embraced me. I was able to ignore my death sentence because “times had changed” and a bunch of neoliberal capitalists had given us marriage equality.
It’s now June 12th and one of the most heinous attacks in U.S. history was carried out in Orlando, Florida with a single end in mind: execute the queers. I went from freely dancing in a gay club on June 11th, surrounded by all my friends, to a world in which even my safest of safe havens became a death chamber. I went from a world in which I was teaching my students about the AIDS crisis and the oppressions we had fought to overcome, to a world in which my death sentence has taken on a new form. And so Orlando robs me of my safety and reminds me of just this: I am gay and people want to kill me for it.
Is the rectum a grave? Whether its disease, social ignorance, or mass gun violence: the gay death sentence takes on any number of forms and in this it shapes the gay subject. To be gay is to be condemned to death either by AIDS or by a Omar Mateen or by any number of of other external factors. Even our safe havens — our clubs and bars — cannot keep us safe.
And so we, queers and gays and lesbians and bi-sexual and transgendered people, have two choices. We either fold into our own death sentence or we understand our condemnation to death is not inherent: we can fight it. To be gay is to be condemned to death, but we can fight this: acts of resistance, acts of solidarity, acts that say your condemnation of me to die will not stop me from living. In light of Orlando, I have new understanding of my own gay subjectivity, of the fight people like ACT UP fought during the AIDS crisis, and of the meaning of queer community when we are all condemned to death. In all of this, one element stands true through-and-through, we must not give in to our own condemnation. If the rectum is a grave so be it; if the rectum is a grave, we must still dance.