Saturday, March 14, 2015

Did AIDS Sympathy Set The Stage For Gay Marriage?

Odd thought.  I spoke with a Jewish man 30 years ago who said the state of Israel could not have come into being if it hadn't been for the Holocaust. He was not only wondering how many Jews living in the next generations would think that was somehow worth it, or at least debatable, but how many of the Eastern European Jews who lived in that time would think so.  Of the survivors, virtually none, I thought.  But dying for something is psychologically quite different than living for it. Some of those Hasids were pretty intense, and such a thought might give meaning to dying. We can't replay history to know whether it is even true, let alone read the minds of what people would have thought under various circumstances.

I think of this in terms of the AIDS epidemic and gay rights.  It may be that the popular support for gay marriage would have proceeded along similar lines anyway. The Stonewall Riots and Gay Pride parades certainly predated the epidemic, but public opinion didn't move much.

While most people in the 1980's still felt uncomfortable around homosexuals in person, and doubly so around those who were infected, there was a growing sympathy for them in the abstract.  Hollywood and New York went into full-court press to remind us that 1) people were dying an ugly death, and this was sad, and 2) they were In Love, which 20th C America had swallowed as an excuse for anything decades earlier, all on our heterosexual own with no assist from gays or lesbians. It was all so sad and unfair, and people began to feel it would be nice if we could do something for them.

There was additional social/political opportunism for those who wanted to blame Reagan, or reject the families and churches they grew up in, or identify an external reason why they felt so bad and went succeeding, but that is always true with any issue, and I don't think it's part of this discussion.  Your mileage may vary.

About 10 years after AIDS came to public attention, amidst all the fundraisers and awareness-raisers, civil unions/gay marriage became a legit political issue that politicians had to lie about. Maybe that wasn't entirely a coincidence.


jaed said...

The other factor was the horror stories about a sick person and his partner of many years' or decades' duration being denied access to each other in the hospital because they were not legally related - "Relatives only for visiting hours!" And other horror stories about long-estranged parents sailing in and claiming their dead son's estate in toto, kicking the long-time partner out of the home they had lived in together, barring him from the funeral, and generally behaving horribly - taking out whatever problem they had with their son upon the said long-time partner.

So I think it was more specific than sympathy over widespread illness and death - it was also practical considerations for the survivors of those who died, and problems due to a lack (sometimes, at least) of due respect for their relationship and a legal framework that could handle these situations. And that last is what feeds into gay marriage activism: "marriage would solve this".

Christopher B said...

I'm not exactly sure that the circumstances you describe accurate reflect the drive for gay marriage. Some variation of civil union would have covered the situations that jaed describes so I think avi is probably a bit closer to the mark with the idea that we needed to do this because people were In Love. While that is generally a positive motive, I think it reflects the fact that we've totally turned marriage as an institution on it's head. It's no longer about family formation and procreation but a vehicle for adult personal fulfillment, which makes it wrong to deny any adult the benefit of being married.

Texan99 said...

I can't remember the subject ever coming up in high school, but by the time I met gay people in college, in the mid-70s, it never occurred to me to disapprove of them, nor did it occur to anyone around me, apparently. When the AIDS crisis hit, it was a big wave of cold water. I was worried for my gay friends, of course, and then for everyone I knew who was sexually active, but the first person I knew who got AIDS was a young boy who'd had leukemia. Though he survived that disease, he got tons of transfusions before they knew there was a danger.

So the change AIDS brought about in the thinking of my set was that promiscuity and careless blood contact of all kinds was dangerous, where we'd never given it much of a thought before. Our views on homosexuality already were fairly fixed. Being anti-gay would have been roughly like being racist: something shameful and faintly ridiculous.

Grim said...

My own sense is that it was internet pornography that moved the needle so swiftly and radically.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Fascinating theory! I read something recently that male heavy users of internet pornography are found to be more generally supportive of gay unions of some sort. Which is cause and which is effect might be hard to distinguish.

Grim said...

The causal story we'd tell if I'm right is that lots more people were able to look at gay porn in a kind of safe privacy, and found they were at least a little aroused by it. Since it existed in themselves, it couldn't be wrong (of course! Everything I do is right, obviously). So, they became less likely to judge homosexuality as wrong. From that follows everything else.

If I'm wrong, we have to tell a story in which they become less judgmental of gays, and then to celebrate this they go looking for porn -- perhaps not even gay porn -- as an expression of their open-mindedness. It's much less obvious how the causality would line up on this account.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Or looking at any "unusual" sort of porn might make you less upset about the other unusual types.

Grim said...

I suppose that works too. In any case, the two things correlate for certain: the sudden drop in opposition to homosexuality lines up with the rise of easily available hardcore porn on the internet temporally.

Texan99 said...

Pro-gay attitudes were entrenched in a large part of our society long before anyone got used to the idea of the internet, let alone internet porn. We were well into the 21st century before I even met anyone willing to admit to anti-gay sentiment in person. Before that, anti-gay sorts were stock Hollywood villains, on a par with evangelicals: very exotic. Only gradually did I become aware that there was a principled stance against homosexuality, beyond this cartoon version.

I think jaed and Christopher B are much closer to the mark: there was a revulsion against the refusal to honor close emotional ties between gay people, such as in the hospital context, and there was a huge social drift in favor of "Love" and personal fulfillment over mundane family mechanics like child-rearing, fueled (I would add) by contraception, apocalyptic beliefs about overpopulation, and radical (especially anti-clerical) libertarianism.

Grim said...

...anti-gay sorts were stock Hollywood villains...

What are you thinking of, here? I can't come up with an example, but we don't always watch the same movies.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I knew lots of people deeply opposed to any sanctioning of gay relationships whatsoever. Hell, I was a theater major and knew people in the department who made jokes about gays and lesbians. I knew male dancers who got along with gay males, but clearly thought there was something not right about them. Perhaps they were defensive. More likely, they had no illusions about the pathologies of gay culture.

But for the most part, the people I knew who disapproved of homosexual acts were A) evangelicals and B) Freudians.

Donna B. said...

Back in the day when AVI was a theater major, I was a music major and the departments had a substantial overlap. (Remember musicals??)

Fast forward 30 years and I'm raising a child active in our local ballet company and also a talented violinist, taught by the lead violinists of the local symphony.

Some of the male dancers (who were always imported for major performances) were obviously gay, some left us guessing, and some were obviously not gay. It was a form of entertainment for the middle-aged mothers watching from the sidelines to out-lament each other on how unavailable they all were to us.

One of the partners of one of the local dance teachers was a good friend of mine. They were both obviously gay, but my friend was obviously the "wife" in their relationship and it was female 'relationship' similarities and problems that first formed the basis of our friendship.

It was in the symphony that lesbian relationships were most obvious. And ugly. They became obvious because of physical domestic abuse and as a result, I'm much more leery of lesbian relationships than those of gay men. I'm not saying that gay relationships can't be abusive, but just that I didn't see signs of physical abuse. Could that be because feminine-acting males are physically strong enough to counteract that in their partners?

At the time that I was active in these volunteer activities, I was also employed as an administrator for an agency working with severely mentally ill outpatients.

I am thrilled to be retired and away from the drama of both.