Gay Identity and Activism in the Wake of AIDS: A Piece of Eric Rofes’ Legacy

“Among the most effective ways of oppressing a people is through the colonization of their bodies, the stigmatizing of their desires, and the repression of their erotic desires and the repression of their erotic energies”
–“The Emerging Sex Panic Targeting Gay Men” by Eric Rofes (p.727)

§0: Introduction

Consider the following question:

What does it mean to be a healthy gay man in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s?

In the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis, this question was important in two ways. On the one hand, it was important in the creation of a new variety of gay identity. That is, a gay identity formulated and constructed either in the grasp of the HIV/AIDS epidemic itself or in the years following the epidemic as the understandings formulated and necessitated by the crisis rippled out to inundate and form a new corpus of understanding and intelligibility of gay identity. On the other hand, it was also important in setting the tone and program for public health interventions and policies.

As the pandemic progressed and eventually began to wane, new understandings emerged pertaining to identity, at times, were lauded as the only correct answers to the above question. These answers in turn shaped not only identity formation and understanding, but as noted above influenced and shaped health interventions and frameworks. For example, in sexual health circles a healthy gay man was depicted as a gay man who did not engage in condomless sex, did not engage in anal sex at all, and who ascribed to monamory. However, answers like this did not go without critique or calls for substantial revision and reflection. One person who sought to destabilize many of the answers, and health responses, to this question was Eric Rofes.

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Rather than accept what he took to be a “repression of […] erotic desires and […] erotic energies,” [1] he furnished an intersectional and liberatory understandings of how we might answer the question without ceding to moralism and a mono-heternormative parsing of relationships, connection, and family. In doing so, he called on persons, especially gay men, to question who sets the conditions for what counts as a healthy gay man and he questioned how to build lines of solidarity and activism that could create new, non-hierarchical understandings while contesting definitions that upheld some gay bodies and persons at the expense of others.

Prior to his untimely death in 2006, Eric Rofes was a prolific author and activist who engaged the conversations noted above and, in doing so, furnished additional questions and frameworks for consideration. In this paper, I examine a set of five speeches Rofes presented 1993-2002 which critiqued many of the common answers to the above question. In doing so, I strive to analyze these speeches for components of theory and praxis and I argue that Rofes’ own understanding of how to answer the above question contests the legitimacy of these “correct answers” and furnishes, instead, an account that allows intergroup difference while also centering the role of activism and coalition building in opening up avenues of potentiality in identity formation and understanding without being proscriptive or delimiting.

In defending this thesis, I pull not only from Rofes’ speeches, but also from two works by Audre Lorde given similarities in the use and place of the erotic in theory and praxis. I also turn to an interview conducted with Dr.Christian Matheis who interacted with Rofes at Creating Change, heard him speak to elements of his theory in person, and who was able to illuminate the patience and compassion that underlie Rofes’ work. I also turn to secondary sources, such as work done by Historian Alan Berube, that contextualize why the common definitions of a “healthy gay man” were so pernicious at the time of his writing and required response from those concerned with gay liberation. Finally, I pull from dialogues and conversations held in a memorial session entitled “The Eric Rofes Legacy” at Creating Change 2017 in order to highlight Rofes’ long lasting impact on activists, scholars, and community activists concerning their understandings of their own identities, the roll of pleasure in their lives, and their commitments to community organizing.

§2 Context Setting: Laws, Actions, and Dispositions

In order to understand why Rofes furnished specific critiques and recommendations we must first understand the context in which he was writing and the movements he was writing in response to. While it is clear that he is writing in the context and in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, he is also writing and working in response to what he and others called a “Sex Panic”. As noted by historians such as Allan Bérubé, a sex panic is a “moral crusade that leads to crackdowns on sexual outsiders.” [2] The history of moralism and sex panics is not new to the United States and, as Bérubé notes, the history of the United States is replete with instances of shutting down gay oriented establishments. This is especially true of establishments which centered or permitted transgressions in sexual mores and customs. For example, bathhouses were a space where gay men could avoid “isolation and develop a sense of community and pride in their sexuality” [3] but they were also the targets of police raids, governmental legislation, and increased scrutiny in the wake of HIV/AIDS.

Moving into the 1990s a new sexual and moral panic emerged in the United States as a result of a movement we may broadly construe as “The Right.” The Right furnished a new wave of sustained persecution for gay men and other sexual minorities who did not ascribe to or practice what we may call heteronormative proscriptions.[4] This persecution included utilizing Megan’s Law to target gay men even though the policy was formally much broader in application and scope. The 1990s also included a number of newly instantiated public policies and ordinances that targeted and restricted spaces where gay men not only congregated but also where they had sex such as bars, sex theaters, and bathhouses. These and other concerns are, in fact, represented in the teach-in pamphlet from SexPanic!  which is one of the organizations founded by Rofes and others in response to the moves to criminalize, ostracize, and punish those engaging in transgressive sex. [5] Laws and policies were not the only emergent problem during this time that Rofes and others had to account for and respond to. In addition to formal legislative restrictions the court of public opinion was replete with less than favorable representations of gay men and had a penchant for focusing on sexual acts and preferences, such as barebacking, that could be linked to the HIV/AIDS crisis within the gay community


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