(Also published on Bilerico.com)
In the 1980’s, when AIDS transfixed and terrified the entire nation, decimated a generation of gay men and brought the concept of guilt and shame to a whole new (mostly sexual) level, something remarkable happened.
In the cities, ACT UP raised awareness of our anger and sadness, gay men’s advocacy groups sprang from pain and suffering and LGBT social service agencies were born out of frustration and feelings of helplessness in the face of open discrimination by established services. Our Lesbian sisters became our mothers and nurses. Our mothers and sisters became our advocates and protectors. And those very brave souls who self-identified as positive became our pioneers.
In rural America, it was different.
In rural America, being gay was/is not so well supported and buttressed by community and numbers. In rural America, LGBT people were and mostly continue to be the victims of jokes, derision and violence.
It has always been a fine line to walk, that place between integrity and safety. In rural America, the stigma of HIV drove most gay men and even some women deeper and deeper into the closet. Fear and concern for their safety kept ACT UP at a distance, a Bozeman Gay Men’s Health Crisis a laughable impossibility.
But some people stepped up.
In Montana, it was our mothers and sisters and friends. These were mostly, with a few notable exceptions, straight, white women who were not a threat to anyone’s faith or social structure.
They stepped into the gap where compassion should have been and created organizations that doled it out. They cajoled governments and churches and people in power to allocate money and space and time. They quilted and baked and visited hospitals and went to funerals and spoke at Rotary. Their faces were the familiar faces of compassion and reason in the increasing climate of fear that gripped us here, and I suspect much of rural America- and it was none too soon.
I remember the fear. I also remember the love and the dedication of these women that inspired me to overcome my fear as a closeted gay priest and sponsor the World AIDS Day Prayer Vigil at the Cathedral in Helena. I also became (somewhat) of an activist- limited by my fear and my priesthood. I suspect it was a completely familiar feeling to many gay men growing up in the wilds of Montana, the prairies of the Dakotas or the backwoods of Idaho and Wyoming at the time.
Those feelings that kept me and others like me in the shadows still linger, but more importantly, they are less powerful because of the dedication, perseverance, stubbornness and downright balls of these women.
So: Straight, White Women- Thank You. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
There’s only one problem: you might have done your job too well.
To this day in Montana (and I suspect it’s true in other places as well), most gay men’s health organizations, HIV testing sites, and state-governed departments that have a direct impact on our lives are not led or even staffed by gay men- and gay men remain the most severely saturated population with HIV here.
Maybe because we didn’t have to.
So dear women, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say gay men need your help one more time. We need you to help us get back in the saddle, because it’s high time we quit hiding and start taking control of our issues instead of complaining about them. It’s time to face discrimination and homophobia instead of hiding behind your apron strings. I think we can do it because you’ve bravely shown us how. But now, it may be time to start stepping back just a bit.
I don’t mean to imply that we don’t need you. We do. Please continue to be our teachers and mentors and cheerleaders and supporters as well as being our mothers. We especially need good mothers.
Because a good mother teaches her children to tell the truth, to make a bed, to use good manners, to survive a fight, to love, to learn, to thrive. In short, a good mother not only teaches her children to grow up and leave her and to make the world their own, she knows when her kid needs a swift kick in the ass- and gives it to him.
And I’m thinkin’ that’s just what we need.