National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 50: Our Gay Movement’s Colossal Failure

When I became a vocal gay liberation leader in San Francisco after completing graduate seminary and coming out with a bang in 1969 (shortly before the Stonewall riots across the continent), I quickly came under fire for contending our liberation called for fundamental socio-political change, rather than just boundless sex.

Using my journalistic skills, I became the most prolific writer on all matters gay in the Bay Area, contributing weekly to the Berkeley Barb, often to its rival the Berkeley Tribe, to the Gay Sunshine newspaper, authoring its first editorial, to my own paper, The Effeminist, and a variety of San Francisco gay bar rags, like the Kalendar.

I co-founded the Berkeley chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and I was voted by my peers to be the first gay spokesman formally invited to speak at a major anti-war rally. When the first collection of post-Stonewall gay writings was assembled, The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts Press, 1973), including entries by Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, William Burroughs and other big names, I was the only one among those who had more than one entry. I had three.

This was all before the legendary Harvey Milk migrated from New York, where he’d been a Wall Street Republican, to set up shop in San Francisco. I had many exchanges with Milk, who dismissed all initiatives except electoral and legislative ones.

Milk and others did a great deal to win political gains for homosexuals. I ran on the same ballot with him in San Francisco in 1975. He ran for supervisor, I ran for mayor, losing with a dozen others to George Moscone, who was killed along with Milk by Dan White in November 1978.

By 1972, from my vantage point as a gay leader, it was clear that a countercultural, anarcho-hedonistic tsunami was turning the movement away from any sensibility for wider social change to focus solely on unbridled sex and license to it.

The gay “The Age of Contagion” (my term) ran from 1972 to 1996, AIDS being phase two. It was fueled by unlimited impersonal sex, which became not only normative, but a “politically correct” imperative. It was common for gays in urban centers to be infected with venereal disease almost monthly, compromising immune systems to provide opportunity for the HIV virus, while crippling the emotional capacity for sustainable romance.

I became sharper in my arguments against all this. I wrote against, and even picketed, Allen Ginsberg, the gay beat poet with two decent compositions to his credit, because Ginsberg bragged publicly about masturbating to images of young boys, ran a help-wanted ad in the Barb for a personal assistant, providing a physical description of the kind of boy he wanted, and was a founding member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).

Ginsberg assailed me in the Barb, contending I was “obviously in need of a good f**k.” (My fiery redheaded boyfriend insisted on writing a reply that I was not lacking in that regard).

Ginsberg, elevated to countercultural sainthood, and the gay French post-modernist philosopher, Michel Foucault, were highly visible Pied Pipers of “The Age of Contagion.”

Lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-1970s on the “history of sex,” Foucault was notorious for spending his nights at leather S&M bars on Folsom Street in San Francisco.

Enticing young gay students and anyone else toward what he called “limit experiences” that led them to degrees of sexual degradation they normally avoided, Foucault mused, with all the trappings of academia, that the only novel invention in all the sex of the post-Stonewall era was “fisting.”

The words, “love” and “romance,” of course, never appear in any of Foucault’s teachings, only “pleasure” and “limit experiences.”

Foucault reportedly laughed cynically upon hearing the news that what became known as AIDS began appearing in the summer of 1981. In 1983, he returned to the Bay Area, manifesting symptoms of AIDS, himself, which did not deter him from almost surely spreading the virus at nightly bath house engagements until his death in mid-1984.

Overwhelmed by all this, I chose exile from the gay movement in mid-1973, and bailed out. Subsequently, despite the urban gay culture’s descent into dangerous sexual excess, no one in the gay movement spoke out about it. No one. Not one leader. Not one, except for a single angry playwright, Larry Kramer who wrote Faggots in 1978 and was accused, as I’d been, of being “sex negative.”

The terrible truth about AIDS is that, while outside factors introduced and perpetuated the 1970s sexual excesses, virtually every lethal infection was passed by one gay person to another. We did it to ourselves, even after knowing the consequences. Our actions caused the “Age of Contagion,” starting about 1972, and our movement failed, abjectly failed, to prevent within in our own ranks what became the horrible, premature deaths of 400,000 of our beautiful, very own.

To be continued.