Recently, we’ve seen the President of the United States call the press our "biggest enemy”. We’ve seen right-wing extremists call for the assassination of journalists and liberals. A Black Democratic woman who is a member of Congress has had to call off public appearances because of death threats after she called for non-violent protest against the members of our hideously corrupt and immoral administration that is kidnapping children and holding them in concentration camps.
Welcome to the world I lived in during the 1980s and 1990s.
Back then, prominent religious leaders and politicians, like Jesse Helms, constantly demonized gays and lesbians. In the middle of a public health crisis, some of them called for creating “camps” for gays with AIDS. Some even called for direct violence against gays.
We were told to be patient. To be civil. We were told, “They’re good people. They just have a different point of view.” We were told that “It’s just all politics. They’re not really serious.”
We were told to win over hearts and minds, eventually, these bad people would just go away.
In the 1980s and 90s, we protested. We held marches. We educated ourselves to stop the spread of AIDS and protect ourselves as best we could from violence. We organized people to vote. We lobbied. We were disruptive, shutting down streets with groups like ACT-UP. We even outed gay political figures that were causing us harm.
Our state and federal legislators wouldn’t listen to us. Courts pretty much ignored us. The FBI couldn’t be bothered with us, except to crack down on our publications as “violating community standards”. The Republican party wrote platforms that insulted and called us societal pariahs. The Democrats kept mumbling support, but would do little, if anything, to help us.
In the end, we only had ourselves.
If someone we knew lost their job, was kicked out of their home because they were gay, or was dying of AIDS, we took them in and supported them as best we could. We held fundraisers for gays in trouble. We raised money for AIDS charities and political groups.
It wasn’t some weekend hobby for us. It wasn’t something we would get stirred up about just at election time. We lived with it and faced it every single day.
Through informal networks, we advised each other on places that were “safe” and “unsafe” to work. We warned each other about businesses or neighborhoods to stay away from where, at best, we might be insulted and, at worst, bashed in the head for being queer. We learned “code words” and how to wear buttons or pins so we could recognize each other or to see if someone we knew was “gay friendly”.
We spent hours on the phone or sitting with someone we knew, consoling them over a recent death or trying to figure out what to do if they had been outed or harmed because they were gay.
Some of us dealt with all this by simply retreating. Some went back into the closet. Others moved away to “safe” places where they wouldn’t have to confront the potential of harassment and violence. Some committed suicide.
All of us, every single day, saw the potential of our life changing in an instant. We might be arrested if we cruised for sex in the wrong place. We might lose our jobs, our families, everything we owned. We might be beat up or killed. We might get AIDS and face a certain death sentence.
After a couple of decades of having absolutely no one to turn to, we wound up with a lost generation. Over that time, I got to know hundreds of gay men, many of which I called friends. Very few are left now. Almost all of them are dead, victims of a “gay” disease that no one wanted to do anything about. Many of those that are left had careers ruined when they were outed at work. Others carry the scars and pain they suffered from beatings and violence. All of us remember.
Am I looking for sympathy for what we went through? Hell no.
But everyone should learn from our experience.
We were told not to “demonize” our enemies. To be polite. To be civil. To not call out evil for what it was.
Not just gays, but all of us find ourselves in this position today. “They’re good people. They just have a different point of view. We must have civil debate.”
Today, I ask you, just how many people are you willing to let die or suffer, simply because you don’t want to call out and confront evil when you see it?
Are you willing to have, in a couple of decades, a lost generation of minorities, liberals, and progressives because you looked the other way?
How often, ten or twenty years from now, will you be saying, “Imagine where we would be if the people we loved and lost were still here? What could we do if everyone wasn’t still dealing with the pain and trauma from those days?”
Are you willing to see politics as something that doesn’t affect you as your friends, family, and coworkers are harmed and traumatized by evil that controls the levers of power?
You might scoff at all this right now. But, look around. How many people do you know are afraid to go certain places because they fear for their personal safety? How many are talking about or have already moved to someplace more “friendly”? How often have you hesitated about posting something on social media, afraid that a right-wing nutcase will harass you or try to do you harm? What kind of future have you had to put on hold for yourself, your family, or your kids because of tax giveaways for the rich or the uncertainty of living in a world where “Making America Great Again” means you may not have a job tomorrow?
If you don’t speak out, if you don’t disrupt, remember that, in the end, you will only have yourselves to look out for each other. Even then, that may not be enough to fight evil.