Recently I wrote an essay for Enduring Gloucester in which I expressed concerns about what I see as the creeping classism within my own community. (See essay here.)
I actually described in that essay a conversation I had about it with John Barnes, my late roommate, who died twenty three years ago this month after a courageous battle against AIDS.
John left Gloucester as a young gay man because, coming from his socioeconomic background, being gay was neither easy nor accepted in Fishtown – despite there being a sizable but largely clandestine gay community.
He, by his own admission, led a pretty wild life as a young gay man blessed with a striking resemblance to Patrick Swayze. He returned to Gloucester for the last years of his life, however, as a brave adult man determined to educate young people from hardscrabble, often abusive backgrounds like his, about the dangers AIDS posed to them if they let the harder side of life determine their most intimate personal decisions.
In the conversation I wrote about, John shared with me his belief that if he had not had AIDS and had he not been a client of a local AIDS services organization (ASO) that was supported by some of Cape Ann’s wealthiest gay men, he would never have been invited to any parties at the home of two very wealthy Annisquam men for purely social reasons – but because he had AIDS and was a client of the local ASO, his attendance at a fundraiser those two men hosted back in 1992 was both financially and politically important.
I initially questioned John’s assertion but, in the nearly quarter century since Johnny’s death, I have, sadly, had to conclude he was on to something and that he was, in many ways, a man ahead of his time in terms of understanding where the gay community was headed.
Six years after Johnny’s death, my own concerns about the creeping classism within the gay community had reached such a level that I addressed them in a speech I gave at Joe Tecci’s restaurant in the North End, when I accepted the Jeffery Barmeyer Memorial Award for AIDS Activism from the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
Overall, my comments were not well received, but a few people did come up to me after the speech to thank me for raising an uncomfortable issue and to say they shared my concerns.
Shortly after the awards dinner at Joe Tecci’s, I received death threats at my house in Lanesville that were deemed so credible, both then Police Chief Jim Marr and the executive director at HES advised me to go visit family in NH for a few days until the clouds had passed and the threat fully assessed. It was then realized I had reached a point where I was questioning what the fights against AIDS and for “gay” civil rights were really all about and, quite frankly, the answers coming to me were the primary motivators in my “chucking it all”, as the saying goes, and heading to points south where I worked really hard to shed the largely political label of “gay man” and make some peace with the fact that what I really am is a homosexual.
That sojourn resulted in me meeting and falling in love with a Costa Rican man who, along with his extended family, forever changed the way in which I view myself as a homosexual, the so called “gay rights” movement, especially in the United States, and the role money, often big money, plays as a guarantor of social and political acceptance in America.
In many ways, nothing exemplifies the reality of just what a role money plays in attaining a modicum of social, legal, and political acceptance more than the push for “marriage equality” that was largely driven by affluent, well connected, overwhelmingly white, gay and lesbian professionals and political insiders hailing from the Big Apple, Washington, and Los Angeles.
Now, lest anyone misunderstands the purpose of this essay, I think it is great the Supreme Court has ruled that those gay couples who wish to marry have a constitutionally guaranteed right to do so in all fifty states.
But I also worry this kind of upscale, bourgeois bohemian mainstreaming of the so called “gay community” will result in homosexual Americans losing sight of the fact that our long struggle was, from its outset, one that aligned us with the “others” of society – the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, and the disliked.
There is a strange irony, for example, in hearing so many gay Americans hail their “equality” in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, when so many other “inequality indicators” in America, like the assault on voting rights, the lack of equal pay for women doing the same work as men, efforts to deny women the ability to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to reproductive choice, increasing housing and school segregation, police violence against minorities, and long stagnant wages and the rapidly- disappearing notion of some security in retirement, are all ascendant.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, at least for homosexual Americans, is that the legalization of gay marriage is much less a guarantor of the rights of the vast majority of American homosexuals than the passage of federal laws that would, finally, end discrimination across the country in relation to issues like housing and employment.
Sadly, gay couples may now be able to marry in all fifty states, but there remain far too many states where they can be fired from their jobs, lose custody of their children, and be denied housing simply because they are homosexual – their being married means diddly.
In addition, many of the well- to -do gays who so pushed the marriage agenda, I have seen this first- hand here in Provincetown at social gatherings, are loathe to talk about harsh realities like the fact new HIV infections among young gay men, especially young gay men of color, are rising at an alarming rate.
At one such gathering, I pointed out that gay rights activists in New York State had raised millions on behalf of the “marriage equality” cause in the years leading up to 2011, when same sex marriage became legal in the Empire State, but had been all but silent in response to a state budget that slashed millions for programs serving homeless youth – despite the fact demographic data revealed significant numbers of homeless youth are gay or transgendered kids who have been rejected by their families.
Needless to say, my comments went over like the proverbial lead balloon.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the troubling classism within the gay community more than the visit of Hillary Clinton to Provincetown on July 2.
Mrs. Clinton came to town in pursuit of gay dollars and, man, was she well rewarded.
Two fundraisers, one a $1,000 a head event, the other a $2700 a head soiree, were said to be going to bring in more than a million dollars for a candidate who just last year said the issue of marriage equality was one best left to the individual states to decide. Go figure.
When I learned of Hillary’s impending visit, I wrote a letter to the local paper to ask if, after the elegant soirees, Hillary might want to spend some time walking around town to chat with many of the working class, liberal Democrats, gay and straight, who labor in Provincetown’s tourism and service industries and, thanks to the out of control gentrification I worry looms on Gloucester’s horizon, live in constant fear of losing their apartments, if they are lucky enough to have an apartment as opposed to just a room somewhere, to high end condo conversion, and scrape by in the winter on their summer savings, unemployment, and visiting the town’s soup kitchen for lunch on a regular basis to stretch their budgets.
Needless to say, like my question about events in New York in 2011 at the social gathering earlier this summer, and my comments at Joe Tecci’s eighteen years ago, my letter to the editor was, well, let’s just say, I am not likely to be invited to any dinner parties in certain circles anymore.
But that’s OK.
For me, it is just one more reason why I feel increasingly comfortable whenever I am asked if I am gay saying, “No, I am a recovering gay who remains proudly homosexual.”
Mike Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.