Roseanne Barr was practically drawn and quartered by the liberal gay left in 2007 when she had the nerve to call them out for something that some of us have thought but kept quiet about. "Never once in my 54 years have I ever once heard a gay or lesbian person who's politically active say one thing about anything that was not about them," said Barr. "They don't care about minimum wage, they don't care about any other group other than their own self because you know, some people say being gay and lesbian is a totally narcissistic thing and sometimes I wonder."
Sometimes I wonder, too. Why do I say that? Because after writing about gay culture, health and political issues for 30 years, it's only the men and women I see working through non-gay groups -- with a broader vision of equality and social justice -- who seem to care about interests other than their own. Not only that, but among LGBT-rights advocates there is an angry intolerance of anyone who isn't willing to toe the line of the far-lefties who are most visible and vocal in the organized gay political community. Just this week I've been appalled to see some friends on Facebook boasting of "de-friending" others who dared to "like" a Republican, and justifying their harsh behavior by invoking the usual rhetoric of the persecuted gay victim of Republican/evangelical/heterosexual oppression. It doesn't seem to cross their mind that they are every bit as intolerant as they their former Facebook friends allegedly are. They don't seem aware that their behavior is every bit as hurtful as their "oppressors." I suspect that it doesn't even occur to them that the tolerant society they claim to want requires dialogue, friendly disagreement and mutual respect. It's not a one-way street where "we" get all we demand and "they" get nothing more than our self-important "friendship."
This situation has bigger implications and, for my money, even more important ramifications, when you look at it in the context of something like America's health-care system.
As a gay man who has reported on HIV/AIDS as a journalist for more than 25 years (and who will mark seven years living with HIV on Oct. 27), I am enormously proud of the bravery with which gay people rose to the many challenges of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Two of gay America's proudest achievements have been the landmark legislative victories -- the Ryan White CARE Act and the HIV protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- that have aided many thousands of Americans living with HIV/AIDS. The combined efforts of ACT UP's street activists and the "coat-and-tie" gay and lesbian lobbyists in Washington showed what our people are capable of doing when self-interest alone isn't the dominant force driving our actions. Working through coalitions of other patient-advocacy and medical-specialty organizations, gay and lesbian advocates were able to amplify their voices and accomplish what they wouldn't likely have done on their own.
Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 133 million Americans live with chronic medical conditions, and that each year, seven out of 10 deaths in this country are the result of chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The number is far bigger than the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, and it is magnitudes greater than the estimated 396,210 gay and bisexual men living with HIV in the U.S. as of 2009. Therefore, it would make tremendous sense, even from a self-interested point of view, for HIV/AIDS advocates to again work in coalitions with patient advocates and medical-specialty organizations representing other disease "communities" to push the federal government to change its current system of awarding drug companies 20-year monopolies on prescription medications for chronic diseases.
When I recently interviewed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for an Atlantic article I wrote on this subject, he told me that only a powerful grassroots movement will succeed in defeating almighty Pharma, which uses its monopoly power to squeeze Americans and our insurers and government programs for the highest prices they can get -- even though our tax dollars already pay for most new drug research and development. So why aren't HIV/AIDS advocates and the organized LGBT political community leading the charge? Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation put it succinctly. "Unfortunately, too many 'advocates' are bought and paid for by the industry," he told me. "Corruption comes in many forms." As long as the paychecks of AIDS-organization executive directors and so-called "medical case managers" (who, in my experience, tend to know little about medicine) can be processed on time, there is little interest in rocking the gravy train. And so the tens of millions of Americans whose lives could actually be saved if they could afford the medications they need to manage their chronic conditions do not benefit from the knowledge and skills of HIV/AIDS advocates, who proved that change happens when force is strategically applied.
As I said, I am grateful for -- and proud of -- what our people accomplished, but it angers me and shames our community when we justify criticism like Roseanne Barr's by behaving the way selfish, narcissistic people behave, demanding tolerance and services to meet our needs and saying, "To hell with everyone else."