The AIDS crisis gave birth to both the modern LGBT equality movement and the movement to reform the nation’s drug laws.
If you were born after 1994, you’re forgiven for not appreciating the raft of social change that has occurred in your lifetime. But the past generation heralded remarkable progress that might leave the rest of us shaking our heads.
I chose 1994, because that was the year of my first political protest. Other than voting for Bill Clinton two years prior, I wasn’t the least bit political. But there was a rally to legalize medical marijuana for AIDS patients promoted by the now-venerable activist group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). And I was a gay, HIV+ pot smoker. So I decided to check it out.
I also had a crush on one of the organizers, which might be the real reason I went.
Gregg Scott was an out-loud-and-proud gay man who fearlessly brandished his HIV+ status in an era marked by terror, denial and silence. Gregg also smoked cannabis (both to combat the ill effects of the AIDS virus, and because he liked to smoke pot).
“If you’re a pot smoking queer with HIV, your very existence is a political act,” he used to tell me, cajoling me towards a more militant posture. There was, after all, good reason to be militant: The LGBT community was facing an existential crisis during the AIDS epidemic.
HIV, from ignoring the dead to saving lives
It’s easy to forget, but in 1994, there were very few — if any — legal protections for the LGBT community anywhere in the nation. There was no AIDS drug “cocktail,” and the pace of AIDS-related deaths was dizzying. It wasn’t just the velocity of the funerals, but also the nature of those deaths: often wasting away, covered with lesions, ostracized and shunned by their own families, and ignored by their government.
The Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul II, was openly hostile to gays and seemed to use HIV as a weapon to further marginalize the community. Even our Democratic President Bill Clinton — now an ally — was busy then signing laws that oppressed LGBT people. In that atmosphere, a scary, deadly disease emerged.
Our nation’s initial reaction to the AIDS crisis under President Ronald Reagan was shameful. It wasn’t until 1987, several years into the epidemic, that Reagan even publicly acknowledged its existence. By that time, 21,000 Americans had succumbed to AIDS-related complications, and another 37,000 were infected with HIV. A positive HIV test was utterly hopeless. It was tantamount to a death sentence. Like, literally, no hope.
Instead of fighting AIDS, the Reagan administration chose to stigmatize people with AIDS. That was America’s policy for the first six years of the disease. There was simply no appetite in the conservative president’s administration to address a disease that primarily affected gays and drug addicts.
All the while, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration dragged their feet reacting to what was then a deadly plague. Groups like ACT-UP, which sponsored my first pot rally, were instrumental in pressing the FDA to expedite anti-AIDS drugs and drug combinations. That life-saving “AIDS cocktail” would come two long years later, which meant a lot of dead people in the meantime.
Nowadays, HIV is largely seen as a treatable infection, manageable with daily medication and a doctor’s care. “Kinda like diabetes” is a common refrain that is heard in the community. With preventive treatments like Truvada, people who are HIV-negative can today take a pill that inhibits HIV transmission rates even when condoms break or when we play it not-so-safe. (No judgment; been there.)
All in all, a quantum leap forward. What used to be a deadly disease in America is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
Losing a wrong-headed ‘war on drugs’
In 2009, New Jersey became the 14th state in America to adopt a legal medical marijuana program. Since then, nine more states have followed suit, with many more poised to follow. Four states now even allow for recreational marijuana use: Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. Our nation’s capital city permits both medicinal and recreational cannabis use.
The legalization trend bucks a decades-long policy that vigorously pursued, arrested and incarcerated pot smokers. Marijuana’s been illegal in America since the 1930s. The arrest rate accelerated considerably after Republican President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” which failed, and which has come at a colossal social and monetary cost.
An important component of Nixon’s policy was to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic — along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD — a classification reserved for drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In other words: “the most dangerous drugs of all.”
Anyone with cancer, multiple sclerosis or AIDS who uses cannabis can tell you its medical benefits, so the government is wrong on that part.
But that “most dangerous” part proves just how incoherent America’s drug policy really is. According to our government, marijuana is more lethal and addictive than methamphetamine, crack cocaine and OxyContin. Let that sink in while you contemplate your own views about marijuana legalization.
I advocate ending marijuana prohibition because our government got it wrong. Just like it did on LGBT rights and AIDS for all those years.
The so-called War on Drugs was declared in 1970 just months after the Stonewall Riots in Manhattan mobilized the modern national movement for full LGBT equality. It was a tumultuous time in American social history. The Vietnam conflict was escalating, racial strife was boiling over, abortion was still illegal, and many Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. All this under the specter of the Cold War.
In one action-packed generation, everything changed.
It’s all interconnected
To me, the AIDS crisis, gay rights and pot legalization are inextricably linked. The decade and a half following the Stonewall Riots were not good years for pot smokers and LGBT people. And then along comes the AIDS crisis, and in that battle for survival, the LGBT community finally found its political mojo.
That day back in ’94, when I followed a hot guy to a random political protest, it was still illegal to be gay in 14 states. HIV was still a death sentence. And marijuana wasn’t legal anywhere in America.
Look at us then and look at us now and decide for yourself:
AIDS is no longer desiccating the LGBT community. The Gay Pride marches of the early ’90s focused on loss and coping. Think of the AIDS Quilt. Last year’s Jersey Pride in Asbury Park highlighted LGBT families with a focus on making our community more prosperous, healthy, politically potent. It’s a lot easier to have fun at Pride when your friends aren’t dying.
Since 1994, the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy banning LGBT people from openly serving their country, was both made law and repealed.
The most anti-gay legislation of Bill Clinton’s administration, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, cooked up by anti-gay Republicans in Congress to to keep gays and lesbians from ever marrying their partners, was undone in the U.S. Supreme Court. Now same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states.
Medical marijuana is legal in nearly half the states in the nation. The trend of states legalizing marijuana seems as inevitable as marriage equality seemed five years ago. Presently, the biggest obstacle to ending marijuana prohibition is the federal government’s rigid ‘Schedule 1’ classification of the drug. That means the Drug Enforcement Agency prioritizes marijuana arrests over meth busts.
While recognizing there’s still work to do, I’m glad today’s generation of LGBT people will live in a tolerant climate that previous generations might never have imagined.
I also believe the battle against AIDS set the table for the current movement to reform our nation’s ill-conceived drug laws. The first medical marijuana dispensaries in America were set up in 1994 in San Francisco, which was in many ways the America’s AIDS epicenter. That’s not a coincidence.
And remember, it’s the same federal government that failed to approve AIDS drugs that’s now telling America that pot’s more addictive than crack. So a degree of militance is still required when dealing with the DEA. And that’s where today’s drug reformers, myself included, took the baton from ACT-UP.
I am immensely privileged to have witnessed the last 20 years of cultural and social evolution on LGBT rights, AIDS treatment, and marijuana legalization.
Jay Lassiter is a big-mouthed iconoclast from Cherry Hill where he’s currently pushing his left-wing agenda. He’s often in Trenton or Harrisburg agitating for things we’ll all embrace in a decade. He recently returned from Ireland, where he and fellow YES campaigners passed an historic marriage equality referendum.