what i know about fear


The Stranger, July 27, 2002   By Gabriel Rotello

What do I know today that I didn't know back in the late '80s and '90s, when I was a gay journalist who railed against AIDS and injustice and acted up and fought back and prayed for an end to the terror that took the lives of half my friends?

Strange to say--and I wouldn't have believed it then--but here it is: I didn't know I'd miss fear so much.

My muckraking career was founded on fear. Before AIDS, I had been a rock musician, and I rarely thought about gay issues. I thought gay-libbers spent a lot of time arguing, and they seemed so--forgive me--uncool. But then hints of fear crept into my life with whispers of a "gay cancer" in the early '80s, and gnawed at me when acquaintances grew oddly thin. And then fear exploded one night in 1986 when I got the call that my soul mate Hap was in the hospital, diagnosed with AIDS, struggling on a respirator, and possibly about to die.

Something happened that night that never happened before or since. Hanging up the phone and sitting alone, I began to scream. Primally, uncontrollably. After a minute or so I said, "Okay Gabriel, you've screamed, now stop and do something." But I couldn't stop. I just kept screaming, out loud, terrifying my cat, until I made a desperate call to my friend Naomi, woke her and told her I'm coming over because--you won't believe this, Naomi--I can't stop screaming.

Hap lived, dying, for two years, then was snuffed out in agony, and in a way, I never stopped screaming. My years in ACT UP were a scream. Then I founded and edited the gay magazine OutWeek, starting a new, unexpected career as an activist/ journalist. No music now, no jams. Journalism was my amp, and the outing controversy was one result of my decision to jack it up to 10. Eventually I screamed so well that a big city newspaper, New York Newsday, hired me as a columnist and let me scream every week to a million readers.

Some people thought all the screaming was about anger, and, yes, there was a lot of anger. Grief, too. But mostly, really, it was fear. Fear that all of my friends would die, that our world would end, and that we would disappear. I remember walking into an East Village bar one night, I guess around 1988, and running into my most happy-go-lucky hipster friend. I asked him casually how he was, and he looked at me with burning eyes and simply said, "I'm terrified." He was fine then, but he died three years later.

I wanted the fear to end. Desperately. I couldn't believe we could live with so much fear. I couldn't believe how destructive it was. And then in the late '90s protease inhibitors appeared and poof! Fear evaporated.

And now I miss it.

Of course, I wouldn't miss it if the end of fear meant the end of AIDS. But it didn't. Protease inhibitors have extended the lives of many friends, and for that I'm truly grateful. But the bigger picture--the picture I strive to see--tells me that the end of fear has actually made AIDS worse for future generations of gay men. AIDS activism and prevention and most importantly safer sex were, necessarily, based on fear. Fear drove us outward to the streets, to fight and foment and distribute condoms and stick it to the fuckers. And it drove us inward, to practice safer sex and make sure we didn't stick it to ourselves when we fucked.

It is now a sad commonplace that once protease inhibitors appeared, fear evaporated. And once that happened, activism withered, unsafe sex shot up, new HIV infections followed suit, the drugs slowly began faltering, drug-resistant strains of HIV began multiplying and spreading, and now the future looks like a prologue to my primal scream of 1986. Or worse. Fear's premature death gave HIV a new lease on life.

But I don't miss fear just because of that, bad as it is. I also miss it because, for better or worse, fear made gay life a brotherhood and sisterhood of striving, and of love.

I think about the demos, the meetings, the fiery oratory spouting unexpectedly from stock analysts and lesbian theoreticians and hairdressers. It seemed like every six months some article or book or play or event or outrage would have us reinventing ourselves. I think of the outing debate, or the debates over tactics, or over the circuit, or over direction of HIV prevention, or the very meaning of gay life. I think about how we screamed and yelled over ideas, over Bruce Bawer's A Place at the Table, or Mike Signorile's Queer in America, or Tony Kushner's Angels in America, or even my own book, Sexual Ecology, in which I tried to put into perspective the reasons why AIDS happened to gay men. These were all works that practically everybody read, or at least yelled about. And then, still screaming, we threw our arms around brothers and sisters and trudged to dinner and screamed more, striving to find meaning in our lives and our early deaths.

Psychologists might tell you that the fear behind all this intellectual ferment and brother/sisterhood was debilitating and dangerous and unsustainable, and I can testify to that. But it was also stimulating and provocative and turned gym bunnies and disco queens into philosophers who thought deeply and read voraciously and debated and grew.

Flash forward to this Gay Pride week, and ask yourself, when was the last time you heard about a gay controversy or book or article or play or anything that everybody was reading and arguing about? I took an unscientific poll, and people rattled off issues and titles and controversies from the late '80s through the late '90s--maybe something by the late sex radical Scott O'Hara, or lesbian provocateur Sarah Schulman, or Larry Kramer, or Signorile, or whomever--and then protease inhibitors, and then nothing. The gay press is celebrity puff. The gay bookstores are half empty, or stocked with soft-core porn, or closed. If they survived, the former debaters are pumping at the gym. If they breathe, the former thinkers are breathlessly cruising the Internet.

All this would be fine if AIDS were over. Death-inspired fear is way too high a price for stimulation, or even a deep sense of solidarity at a demo. But AIDS isn't over. It's now a massive, sprawling metastases. And it has spread, in large part, because we're no longer afraid. So now we have the worst of both worlds. The horror of AIDS, and the complacency of disco dummies.

Now for a confession, or as they say in the papers, full disclosure. Having helped spark controversies like outing and the sex wars and the Sexual Ecology debate, what, you might ask, am I doing to shake things up? Well, in 1998 I left journalism and fled New York for Hollywood, where I now write and produce TV documentaries. Occasionally something edgy for HBO, like the new one about whether Hitler was a homo. But mostly fun stuff. Fashion. Music. I drive a neato car and go to the beach and work out at Gold's and choose my wines carefully and hardly ever think about AIDS.

I guess you could say that, like everybody else, I'm fearless. And that's a fearsome confession, and it makes me very afraid.