Where are the men?

Gay men's political activism is at a 30-year low.

GAY MALE POLITICAL activists gave the nation Stonewall and brought the horror of the domestic AIDS epidemic to the country's full attention. Yet in Seattle, in the year 2000, while lesbian political activity enjoys a wave of vitality from Dyke Action ("New radical Seattle," SW, 2/24) to a revitalized Lesbian Resource Center, the men have no comparable groups. What's happened to the men?

It's impossible to separate Seattle's gay male political lethargy from the fate of its HIV organizations. For a generation, AIDS was what mattered. Now, however, despite the failure of protease inhibitors on the horizon, there is no ACT-UP. There is no Queer Nation. AIDS service organizations have scrambled to retain funding and broaden their missions in the wake of successful treatments for AIDS and longer, fuller lives for HIV infectees. As groups like the Northwest AIDS Foundation and the Pride Foundation depoliticize themselves from queer rights issues, only one—John Leonard's Gay City Health Project— remains active and focused on serving gay men.

The exception that proves the rule is Resist the List, a tiny direct action group that has relentlessly advocated for protection from state reporting of HIV patients' names. Its cofounder, Richard Jackman, is a veteran of New York's ACT-UP. Jackman speculates that the gay men's community is taking a breather from the AIDS crisis: "There's a sense of complacency and coziness that says they don't have to do that kind of work. There's no sense of danger." He also decries the electoral focus of most gay men's groups: "Every time an issue comes up that isn't about legislation or getting people elected, there's no organization to deal with it."

Yet the electoral activists are also frustrated. "I think it's true nationally as well as locally," says Ed Murray, the gay state representative whose 43rd District encompasses Capitol Hill. Murray rattles off gay male political activists who are involved in other issues—the new UW student body president, for example, is queer—but it doesn't add up to organizations, and Murray has almost always been on the losing end of queer rights battles in Olympia and at the ballot box.

The absence of established groups to carry the banner of gay men is something that was also noticed by Pete Gregson. The 30-year-old Gregson was spurred to action recently after stumbling upon a Web site looking for volunteers to confront the bigoted views of radio and TV celebrity Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

"We had a really tremendous response," says Gregson. "A lot of people were really surprised by the outcome." (The protest drew a couple of hundred people to rally in front of KING TV.) Gregson, however, did all of the organizing work himself. "There was no group in town that had a real wide range of people that they could call upon," he says. "We had a whole generation who died off. Dr. Laura activists were either very old or very young."

The sense in the gay male political community—from the corporatized, depoliticized gay pride march to the absence of men among the leadership of most of the country's queer rights groups—is that the men have earned some time off and that an entire generation that would now be the core of activist leadership is dead or emotionally drained. "We're still recovering from that," Jackman notes, "both the reality of losing all those people and also, I think, psychologically."

The answer to the absence of street activism among gay men, then, may simply be time—and an issue that will rally them.

 
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