Remembering the Plague Years

Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, by Sean Strub (Scribner)

Let me open by saying that Sean Strub’s Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is an essential, engaging piece of social history that belongs on everyone’s reading list. Word!

Body Counts is one of a number of books being released this spring that reflect back on major social movements of the late 20th Century. Other such titles include Eating Fire, Freedom Rider Diary, and Resister, all of which I plan to review upon their release. For some readers, these will be “history” books; for me they feel much more immediate.

My world has changed immensely over the course of my 50+ years. In high school in the late 70s, when I was drawn to gay rights issues, but didn’t yet view them as personal issues, I kept a picture of Leonard Matlovich hanging in my locker. In graduate school in the early 80s, I volunteered in support of a local non-discrimination ordinance that included gay men and lesbians. As a professional in the late 80s and 90s, I helped found the Lesbian and Gay Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (my field’s most important professional organization); co-edited The Lesbian in Front of the Classroom, the first published collection of writing by lesbian teachers; and taught several first-of-their-kind Composition courses designed to create a writers’ community among lesbians and gay men.

The years Sean Strub writes about in Body Counts are the same years I was engaged in my own activism, and his writing simultaneously makes those years feel very immediate and very removed historically. Today, at least in the liberal college community where I work, being lesbian is pretty much normal. I’m legally married (when a finance guy my wife and I were working with recently referred to us as “domestic partners,” we explained to him quite firmly that we are married and had never participated in that separate-but-equal charade). We’ll even be filing joint federal taxes this year, rendering unnecessary the asterisks and explanatory statements that have been accompanying my federal tax returns since we were married.

Strub’s book reminds us that this normalcy is quite a new phenomenon. In the period from the late 70s to the 90s we were definitely not normal. Roughly half the states in the U.S. had laws criminalizing sexual acts between people of the same gender. Not only that, but in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of these laws. (That decision was finally overthrown in 2003.) George Moscone and Harvey Milk were murdered by Dan White, who got a minimal sentence thanks to his “Twinkies defense.” The AIDS epidemic erupted, followed by all sorts of anti-gay legislation. We had a president who refused to use the word AIDS. Congress passed laws denying funding for any AIDS research or education programs that included information on safe sexual activities for gay men or lesbian. We were—quite literally—dying by the thousands, and, as the title of Randy Shilt’s book about the AIDS epidemic made clear, “the band played on.”

I experienced these years on the “left coast,” which makes Strub’s account of gay activism in New York all the more interesting. Strub was politically active from a young age. Before he began college, he worked as an elevator attendant in the U.S. Senate, and he spent years involved in D.C. politics. Ultimately, Strub gave up on his mainstream political dreams and began working more overtly on gay rights, particularly on the fight against AIDS. He went on to found POZ magazine and continues to devote his life to activism on behalf of those who are HIV+, particularly the economically and politically marginalized. Political figures, artists, writers—Strub seems to have known almost everyone, and they all appear in the pages of Body Counts.

Reading Body Counts will give you a detailed, accurate, engaging historical overview of this period. It will remind you of the necessity of street activism, as well as more mainstream politicking. It will also point out that the struggle (and really it’s struggles plural, not struggle singular) is nowhere near over. We have much to celebrate, but we can’t afford to be complacent.

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