Being There Political Correctness: The HIV to the First Ammendment
I love and treasure individuals as I meet them; I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to. — George Carlin
What got me thinking about this piece started about two months ago with a local pastor from a church called The South Wedge Mission in Rochester, NY, who had taken to what is euphemistically called social media to post a bizarre collection of veiled references and subtle endorsements of censorship of speech and free ideas, culminating with actually judging a person’s faith based on the level of their political correctness. This took me back to about 5 years ago when I was present at a Unitarian/Universalist Church service where the pastor – a gay man who never stopped reminding you of that – said, “You do not belong in this church unless you believe in the liberal ideas of social justice!” Coupled with the more recent atrocity, I suspected that I had stumbled yet again into another faithless cul de sac of politics and Newspeak. In a less destructive manner, though, it did get me reflecting on myself and my career.
Speaking for myself, I have been homeless for prolonged periods of time. I have been an addict of the worst kind. I have lived in places that frighten me in retrospect. And I have been in jail. I was on Welfare for 10 years and I have lived for months at a time with murderers, rapists and criminals of every stripe. I have seen nearly every kind of inhumanity another human being can visit upon another. I have also seen acts of uncommon generosity and kindness flowing from the very people and situations mentioned above. I have met the best people in my life in some of the worst circumstances. These are the people I trust and not the people I grew up with. And I arrived at that thinking through some very powerful lessons.
After college, I cut my professional teeth in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention starting in 1988 by creating the first upstate New York outreach effort to young teen boys living on the street, selling themselves for shelter or drugs. They were a hard bunch to get to know, but get to know them I did, learning in the process how to play pool…badly, and experiencing firsthand how true exploitation works, as well as the vermin who perpetrate it. This was in Albany, New York which was a wretched place then and is to this day. A certain amount of decadence goes a long way, I suppose. But the point is I hung around the people. I talked their language. I was only 24 and therefore not a threat and I did not attempt to manipulate them into a crusade. It was kind of comical watching them get all befuddled by someone who just wanted to help them out and who expected nothing in return. After all, nearly all of these boys were used to being subjected to exploitation of the worst kind, including periodic drunken, drug-laden parties thrown by a man from then Governor Mario Cuomo’s staff at his home in downtown Albany. I just wanted them to stay alive. They were the lost boys of the AIDS politics which was thrust upon the country by the gay “community”, forever making it impossible to deal with HIV/AIDS as the public health issue it really was. Because AIDS was shoehorned into a political issue thousands of men died who wouldn’t have, victims of the “sex as a civil right “movement. The people were lost. These boys were lost.
So, lately I’ve been thinking about the actual people used to populate the causes people take on. Often I get thinking about this when I run into someone or experience something directly related, and in this case it was a “chance” meeting with my friend Donnie. Donnie is a young man living on the street in probably the most dangerous neighborhood in Rochester, New York: Lyell Avenue. This street is a veritable hub for prostitution, drugs and extreme violence. I lived on this street for quite some time and, to give you an idea of the atmosphere, one day I witnessed a group of kids- relatively well-dressed in their afterschool clothes – chase down an old man and beat him with a 2x4 to get his book bag. Such was the neighborhood then, and it still is.
It was in this environment I met Donnie and I would give him food, money sometimes and clothes when he needed them. I still do. He is a very smart guy and can hold a conversation on par with the best. I nicknamed him Donatello, after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, because it made him laugh. I have since found out that, for some reason, the people in a group of houses on the street call him that and he doesn’t know why. Funny stuff.
Anyway, my reason for bringing him up is that he is the person behind ominous “Homeless” label. He also reminds me of all those boys in Albany 25 years ago. Donatello doesn’t give a rat’s backside about the “movement” or the politics. And though he doesn’t ever say it, he thinks my problems are tiny compared to just staying warm and getting something to eat. I mean, he listens to me with patience. He smiles and makes no comment whatsoever most of the time. Anyone who knows me knows I am extremely fond of Donatello mostly because he’s my friend but also because he reminds me that too often the individuals are lost by the “concerned others” wielding the battle mace of “social justice”, preferring to intellectualize and abstract the problem, rather than experience the people behind it.
Experience makes “concerned others” nervous.
Experience frightens the Ivy League.
Pick your issue. It will all come down to a case of “Help them! But just don’t bring one of them home!”
As an outreach worker in the 1990’s, in Rochester, it was often a painful experience wandering into crack houses and “shooting galleries” to teach people to use bleach and water in cleaning their syringes. The work myself and countless others did would lead to AIDS Rochester’s (now Trillium Health) Needle Exchange Program, as well as their Men’s Outreach Department, which would finally gain funding by 1995. Imagine standing in public parks discreetly handing out condoms to men “cruising” each other, or sitting at the top of the stairs at a gay bathhouse at three in the morning doing the same. But I did it. Because no one else would. It was on this level that I connected with the people behind the issue: embarrassed businessmen, young college students, people who could be working across from any counter in any store. These weren’t spokespeople. These weren’t poster boys. These weren’t puppets for lobbying in the state capitol. These were people who went home to their cats, their wives, their lovers, their families…each born into a different life, working their way toward its conclusion, hopefully in joy.
In the early 90’s these men and boys would be put on the back burner of prevention due to the lie of the “changing face of AIDS”. AIDS organizations were made to swallow the politically correct falsehood that “AIDS was not a gay disease”, when the sorry fact was that IT WAS and always had been so in the United States. But because of the vast dollars available to fledgling community-based organizations for HIV/AIDS prevention, attention was shifted to the black and Latino communities where the sheer numbers of cases paled in comparison to gay men. Even the rates of infection weren’t even close. To those of us working on the front lines it would have been different if we were told to give equal attention to gay men and ethnic minority groups, but we weren’t. It was clear that we were to give primary focus to people based on their color, not their potential risk of infection. As it would turn out, the impending pandemic in those communities did not materialize. And once again politics and political correctness had murdered people.
By the time 1999 rolled around, I was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, working as a case manager for people with HIV/AIDS. I carried a caseload of 75 people, including one who claimed to be the love child of Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy. He had an enormous file of correspondence with the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis to show for it and, frankly, he looked the part. Anyway, the political pressure was off, for the most part. Way out on the end of Cape Cod, men had moved there ostensibly to die, only to discover that they were not dying. In fact, they were thriving. Later, when I would move into Boston to become the director of a 30 unit apartment program for homeless people with HIV/AIDS, it became clear that, finally, the people behind the issue were living lives and, in some cases, fighting back against the politicization of their station. I had clients who railed against being “infantilized” by the HIV/AIDS Industry (which is what it was). They despised being poster children, one to the point of exclaiming to me, “I wish I had died before I became a cute photo op for guilt-ridden suburbanites!” They longed to live out their lives as people with AIDS, not PWA’s, and certainly not “ AIDS, oh, and here’s a couple of the presentable looking ones who represent these poor people.”
Somewhat ironically, this was when I was introduced to the hardcore believers in Newspeak. At a conference on prevention in downtown Boston on a hazy summer afternoon, the head of a major AIDS organization uttered something that would be forever scalded into my memory. He said, “Words are violence.” This just plain pissed me off, so I replied through clenched teeth, “No, words are protected. Violence is violence.” It was lost on him. I mean, this organization was the one that actually hired gay men to go into gay bathhouses to have sex…but safely. They called this “cutting edge outreach.” And anyone who would take issue with anything they did would be branded a homophobe or a charlatan. I called it taxpayer funded prostitution. My hope is that they eventually grew up.
I actually should have known better from the beginning. After all, I was working for an organization called The Justice Resource Institute. Any time you see the word justice outside the court system you can rest assured that some group of people is about to be steamrolled by the political ambitions of “concerned others.”
This does not, however, include those who genuinely want to help. There are those, such as church groups without a political agenda, youth groups and even developmentally disabled people. My issue is with those who exploit others for political gain. These are the “community organizers”, or the self-appointed community “stakeholders” and “gatekeepers”, or whatever the hell else comes out of a Sociology 101 text book. These consist of undereducated or even overeducated men and women so far divorced from the people behind their subject headings and so deep in their ideologies they can't see one pair of eyes staring at them.
Today I work as a counselor in what is best described as a shelter and housing program for people who are homeless. I meet with people one-on-one, ask them about their needs and do what I can to alleviate suffering. Being homeless is traumatic, and after living for a long period of time in survival mode, in a perpetual state of vigilance, it takes its toll on the mind and the subconscious. I empathize, I relate, I act.
Politics and political correctness are meaningless, especially at the expense of people. When you try to be all things to all people, you are nobody to anybody. If you love everybody, you love nobody. If everyone is the same to you, no one is special. Try as you might; only God can do these things. And the intellectualization of God and Christ as tools for a political agenda is just offensive.
This brings me back to the beginning of this blog, this journey. To those who consider themselves Christians why not take 15 seconds and think before advocating for censorship. Take 15 seconds and think before judging someone's faith based on the level of their political correctness. Take 15 seconds and take time to ask someone who was ill how they are feeling. Take 15 seconds to see the individual souls in your dwindling congregations. Take 15 seconds to get off your iPhones,iPads,Androids and meet with the people.
And take 15 seconds to consider doing the work of Christ and not Hillary or anyone else.
Andrew T.Durham is a graduate of State University at Albany, with a degree in Psychology/Philosophy. In the late 80's to mid 90's he was instrumental in creating ground-breaking outreach/prevention programs, as well as being a highly successful public speaker. A former acupuncturist and clinician (primarily to inner city adolescents), he has also been a consultant to the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health and several non-profit organizations. He is an accomplished musician - proficient in 7 instruments - ,actor and author of 10 plays, 5 of which have been produced. He is currently a consultant for small non-profit agencies and lives in Rochester, NY