Being a queer person in the United States in 2018 is an experience of ordinary visibility—if one is white and not poor, that is. Like other white and not-poor people, one sees oneself routinely represented in the media, and one takes for granted the rights of full citizenship, from voting to marriage. And then George H. W. Bush dies and, for nearly a week, is remembered. One is reminded then of Hannah Arendt’s observation about facts and events: “Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.” There was a time, not very long ago, when queer people in this country were systematically elided from the public sphere. The memorialization of the first President Bush has transported many of us back to that era.
George H. W. Bush was the President while more than seventy thousand people died of complications of H.I.V. in the U.S. The single largest group among them were men who had sex with men. Many of them, though not all, died in the confines of the gay neighborhoods and communities of the largest American cities. They had come to the cities months, years, or decades earlier, often leaving behind families who wouldn’t have them. Some of these families came to take care of them as they died; many didn’t. The gay and lesbian community—lovers, friends, neighbors, volunteers—stepped in. In my early twenties, living in New York City, I often went to more than one memorial service a week. I was burying more of my peers than my grandparents were.
Some people faded slowly, taking the time to say their goodbyes as their bodies wasted away and their faculties gradually left them: sight, hearing, the ability to walk unassisted. Others seemed to die suddenly, of a catastrophic infection that developed in the course of a few days, or of a heart attack, possibly brought on by using an untested drug procured underground. The news of a friend’s death might catch you at a memorial service or, say, in the process of helping sort through someone’s apartment. It was like living through a war, except the war zone was circumscribed by the boundaries of the gay community. The war was invisible to other people in this country, or even in this city.
Activists at an ACT UP–organized demonstration in Kennebunkport, Maine, home of the Bush family’s summer retreat, in 1991.
Photograph by Dirck Halstead / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty
The essential demand of AIDS activism was that the war be seen. Visibility is the starting point of politics. Unlike other disenfranchised groups, gay men with AIDS, many of whom were white and not poor and had been closeted, had experienced the shock of elision. George H. W. Bush consistently refused to see them. He followed in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan, who didn’t publicly address AIDS until four years after the first cases were reported, and didn’t address the topic at any length until 1987. Bush made his first statement on AIDS more than a year after taking office. He called for compassion for people with AIDS, and promised to oulaw discrimination but made no promises regarding money to fight the epidemic. (Bush held to the view that what was needed was behavior eradication, not medical research on the infection itself.) The Times covered his speech as a breakthrough, though its story didn’t quote anyone who could be clearly identified as gay. It mentioned that the speech was “repeatedly interrupted” by Urvashi Vaid, then the thirty-two-year-old executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The Times quoted Bush referring to Vaid in the third person, addressing others in the gathering: “I understand the concern that these people feel. If we do nothing else, I hope we can make them understand that not only you care, but we care, too.” The paper didn’t quote Vaid or mention what her sign said: “Talk is Cheap / AIDS funding is Not.”
In January of 1991, ACT UP shut down Grand Central Terminal in an action called “Day of Desperation.” The name reflected our sense of the moment. The banner that went up over the station said, “ONE AIDS DEATH EVERY 8 MINUTES.” The posters said “TARGET BUSH.” In September of that year, ACT UP marched through the streets of Kennebunkport, Maine, where the President was vacationing. The posters said, “IT’S TIME FOR A NATIONAL PLAN, GEORGE,” “WE DIE BUSH DOES NOTHING,” and “114,000 AIDS DEATHS.” That year, while the number of AIDS deaths was doubling every six months, the rate of increase in funding for clinical AIDS research was actually reduced. In October of 1992, ACT UP marched to the White House, led by dozens of people carrying small plastic bags or wooden boxes with the ashes of people who had died of AIDS. Many of them were men carrying the remains of their lovers. They marched up to the fence and dumped the ashes on the White House lawn.
The following month, when the ACT UP activist Mark Fisher died, his comrades carried out his wishes by carrying his body to Bush’s New York City reëlection headquarters. The banner at the head of the procession said, “MARK LOWE FISHER / 1953-1992 / DIED OF AIDS / MURDERED BY GEORGE BUSH.” In a manifesto written weeks before his death, Fisher had said, “I suspect—I know—my funeral will shock people when it happens. We Americans are terrified of death. Death takes place behind closed doors and is removed from reality, from the living. I want to show the reality of my death, to display my body in public; I want the public to bear witness.”
The actions grew more explicitly desperate, and still it felt futile. Bush responded by repeatedly suggesting that people should “change their behavior” so they didn’t become infected with H.I.V., and criticizing ACT UP for exercising an “excess of free speech.”
Protesters organized by ACT UP march outside the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, in 1992.
Photograph by Greg Smith / Corbis / Getty
For many queer people who were adults during the first Bush Presidency, the week of commemorating Bush’s death has brought back the sense of living in a political reality separate from the rest of the country—an invisible one. “It’s causing P.T.S.D. for a lot of people,” Vaid told me. (Vaid is now a political consultant in New York; twenty-eight years after her protest, she was finally quoted in the Times, in a third-day follow-up story on Bush’s death.) Bush has been celebrated for everything, it seems—even for doing something about AIDS, an assertion that can be made if seen in relationship to his predecessor’s near-total inaction, but not in the context of the AIDS activist movement, which has once again been disappeared. Bush is remembered for his niceness, kindness, gentleness, and gentlemanliness. His wars have also been remembered politely. This is possible because wars have traditionally been the province of gentlemen. Another province of gentlemen: the practice of not seeing an entire segment of the population.
Unlike the war in Iraq or the war on drugs, the act of rendering someone invisible doesn’t leave a trace. Most of the angry, desperate gay and lesbian newspapers from the eighties and nineties aren’t digitized. Footage of ACT UP protests and scans of flyers live in a few remote corners of the Internet, though two relatively recent documentaries have brought the history of AIDS activism to a wider audience. It makes one see that Arendt was right: once elided, facts and events are almost impossible to restore to a narrative. Sarah Schulman, a writer and a former ACT UP activist, summed it up in a Facebook post: “Watching MSNBC kiss George Bush’s ass was very informative.” The tributes make it plain that our current experience of ordinary visibility is contingent: one minute we are here, and then a President dies and we are gone.
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