National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 53: In the Valley of the Shadow Of Death and Contrition

I am asked why I focus so much in these installments on what I call our gay “Age of Contagion” from 1972-96. Isn’t it ancient history? Isn’t it better to just move on?
Hardly, I reply. First of all, much of the information I’ve highlighted is new to any who’ve not searched heavy tomes to find it. Not only is most confined to scholarly discourse, but much has been suppressed within the gay movement because of its unflattering nature.

An important component of what I have been doing with these weekly installments over the past year is that I have made them accessible to a wide general audience, posting them on two websites and reprinting them in a popular weekly gay news magazine in the nation’s capital. In that format, younger and older, neophyte student and noble senior survivor, all have had access to the same information and perspective.

Thus, this series, entering briefly into a second year, is not just words, but in its totality constitutes an “event” in itself of some historic relevance.

Making the history of the “Age of Contagion” accessible is vital for the future of gay liberation. I’ve first made the case that homosexuals are beautiful and essential components of the natural order of creation.

So, when it comes to the “Age of Contagion,” the axiom applies that he who does not learn from history is condemned to repeat it.

But more than that, the need to face up to the horror of what really happened is an essential precondition for embracing a new collective gay identity, a “new gay morality” as playwright Tony Kushner calls it.

Facts relevant to the “Age of Contagion” begin with the socially-engineered “counterculture” tsunami of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” that swept the nation in the 1960s and flooded a fledgling post-Stonewall gay movement with an anarcho-hedonistic urgency for rampant, depersonalized sex.

Mass hysteria in the form of a clinical addition to sex resulted, and the proliferation of sexually-transmitted diseases compromised immune systems that became conveyors by 1975 for the silent spread of the HIV virus.

While no gay movement leader (apart from Larry Kramer) issued a single public cautionary statement about this, “frank” AIDS hit in July 1981 and thousands quickly became sick, horribly tormented, demented and dead.

Sadly, sex addiction compelled many in the gay movement to furiously resist effective public health measures to stem the epidemic. Almost no leader of the gay establishment spoke against this, either. Thus, hundreds of thousands of additional gay people became infected and died who might not have otherwise.

A hostile wider society and government inaction contributed to the death toll, but the ghastly reality is that we alone spread this epidemic by ourselves to ourselves.
Denial and emotional recoil seal hardened hearts, perpetuating the paradigm of behavior that drove the epidemic. But beneath that, a level of sorrow and remorse can be tapped by grasping the magnitude of the AIDS horror, which can serve as a wellspring of penitence for a collective moral healing and rebirth.

Our great genius Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), brought down from the heights of fame and celebrity to humiliation and shunning when convicted of the “the love that dare not speak its name” (homosexuality), wrote a letter from prison in 1897 entitled “De Profundis.” The first part directed to his beloved Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), its second part counts among the magnificent short works in literature.

Wilde’s remorse was not for being gay, or for the “crime” for which he was convicted, but for the arrogance that ignored the consequences of flagrant behavior, which by ruining him, ruined his benefit to humanity.

“Sorrow,” he wrote, ” is the supreme emotion of which man is capable,” adding “I must say to myself that I ruined myself and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand.”

He wrote, “Nothing in the whole world is meaningless and suffering least of all…Hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility. It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting point for a fresh development.”

He referenced Dante’s La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), written in 1295, a short poetic essay whose Beatrice is the assimilation of beauty, reason and love into a singular desire, the pursuit of “virtue.”

Wilde referred to “the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure.” Then he wrote of “that imaginative sympathy in the entire sphere of human relations, which is the sole secret of creation.”

“Pleasure’s fierce misery” is set against “imaginative sympathy:” rival animators of personhood.

Male chauvinist civilization’s great vice is arrogance, a wanton disregard for the consequences of behavior on general social well-being. In our “Age of Contagion,” homosexuals aped that arrogance. Through contrition comes a restart.

To be continued.