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After the holocaust, still playing with fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAVRE DE GRACE -- There's a certain Hollywood-style inevitability about the case of Andrew Phillip Cunanan, the homosexual hustler who's believed to be America's newest and most lurid mass murderer.

Gay "rage," both real and bogus, directed sometimes at individuals and institutions, at other times simply at the world, has been bubbling away for years. If young Mr. Cunanan is the psychopath who wasted designer Gianni Versace and at least four others, the only surprise is that it took such a long time for a human weapon of this sort to detonate.

For half a century at least, male homosexual life in the United States has been a culture of death -- a culture that has now taken something like 300,000 lives. For almost 15 years, meaning ever since the AIDS virus was first identified, that's been known and understood. Sooner or later, a product of that culture was going to take violence on the road.

If it wasn't Mr. Cunanan, it would have been someone else. And Mr. Cunanan probably won't be the last. There will be other young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed, young men who have tired of distributing death by microbe and now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.

The number of AIDS deaths in the United States dropped in 1996, it was reported hopefully this past week, and indeed that's good news -- though not for the more than 30,000 who died during the year. Sophisticated treatments using a combination of drugs have bought time for many who are infected. Maybe one day a miracle cure will be discovered.

But that won't change the incontrovertible fact that drastic changes in behavior by gay men in the latter half of this century set the stage for this epidemic, which is far from over. And that unless that behavior undergoes equally drastic modification, the deadly cycle will go on and on.

A powerful new book by Gabriel Rotello, himself a gay activist, explains in excruciating detail what happened, why it happened and what must be done to stop it. In "Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men," Mr. Rotello shows not only how the AIDS epidemic began, but how its successful treatment was aborted by gay political pressure with the complicity of mainstream liberal institutions.

The former resulted in useful public-health initiatives such as mandatory HIV testing being labeled "homophobic" and abandoned. The latter's role was most notable in the pushing of assorted well-intended but ultimately groundless propaganda messages -- that AIDS was about to erupt in the heterosexual community, that the use of condoms could achieve "safe sex" and so forth.

Mr. Rotello describes a seismic shift, beginning at about mid-century or a little earlier, in homosexual behavior. Before the shift, gay sex was usually furtive. Brief encounters in public restrooms, not infrequently with willing heterosexuals, were typical. But then everything changed.

Gay political power

This was attributable to greater public acceptance of homosexuality, to an increase in gay political power in certain cities, and to a new consensus among both heterosexual and homosexual elites that there could be no such thing as too much promiscuity. "Promiscuity," said one gay newspaper in the 1970s, "knits together the social fabric of the gay male community."

With the rise of bathhouses and sex clubs, it became possible, and not uncommon, for a gay man to have hundreds of partners during the course of a year. Core groups of highly active homosexual men were formed in many cities, and once this happened the clinical conditions for the spread of the AIDS virus were ideal.

At the same time, while the promiscuous cores represented a minority of male homosexuals, the more restrained gay mainstream looked on with a spirit of benign tolerance -- and hung around on the fringes. This meant that male couples who were usually but not resolutely monogamous could be readily infected, too.

Gay sexual practices as well became more radical during this period. Mr. Rotello explains, for example, the new emphasis on "versatile" sex, in which partners alternate male and female roles. This made contagion even more likely.

In sum, setting all questions of morality aside, it is Mr. Rotello's argument that the gay community couldn't have done more to facilitate the spread of AIDS had its goal been mass homosexual suicide. This is not a popular view, but it's getting more attention from respected gay writers.

Even the outspoken Larry Kramer of ACT-UP wrote recently in The Advocate that "We have made sex the cornerstone of gay liberation and gay culture, and it has killed us. . . . We knew we were playing with fire, and we continued to play with fire, and the fire consumed monstrous large numbers of us and singed the rest of us. . . . And still we play with fire."

The fire has left tragedy and ashes, and a few hot coals, of which Andrew Phillip Cunanan is one of the currently prominent.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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