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How AIDS Disrupted Cultural Life

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 28 juli 2010

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

In the summer of 1977 the Rooie Flikkers (Red Faggots) from Amsterdam organized a summer camp near Montaigu de Quercy, as the French say “dans la profonde France.” The queens came from all over Western Europe: many Dutch and French, but also German, Italian, Swedish, Belgian and English. It was a special occasion for everyone: we created our own fabulous gay world at a big farm and we could do as we pleased on the ample grounds surrounding it. For two weeks it was the queer nation we lacked at home.

As Rooie Flikkers we got in touch with other radical gays, especially with the French guys of diverse branches of the GLH, which stood for the “group for liberation of homosexuality.” Later they were to start up the best gay magazine in the world, the “Gai Pied.”

I especially remember the first visitor Frank Arnal, who told me about French philosophers, several of whom were supposed to be gay (Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault) and others who were definitely bicurious. Confronted with all this information I felt very provincial.

We knew about Guy Hocquenghem: his “Le désir homosexuel” (1972) in German translation, was our bible. But that was about as far as our gay French horizon would reach. We befriended several of these guys. We started to travel up and down from Amsterdam to Paris, and took occasional trips to Berlin and other places with decent faggotry going on.

Were We Less Interested In Anal Sex?

These were happy and horny times, cruelly disrupted by AIDS not long after. The peculiar thing is that none of the Rooie Flikkers died of “the disease,” but that it took a devastating toll amongst our French connections. The Parisian thinkers Foucault and Hocquenghem died of it (Barthes was “simply” hit by a bus). And many of our friends died: Frank Arnal, who later had become chief editor of “Gai Pied,” the author Gilles Barbedette, the historian Michel Rey. We lost touch with other boys and wondered what would have become of them, but we didn’t know the answer.

Those friends of ours were of course just the tip of the Parisian gay mortality statistics, many other famous gays died of the disease, like Paul Aron and Hervé Guibert. Aron was the first to announce his serostatus publicly in the mainstream media and Guibert left a trail of novels and diaries which first focused on boys and cruelty, and later on AIDS. He also took photos of his disease ridden body. It was as if an entire generation, in Paris as well as New York, was wiped out. A few survived after 1995 because of the combination therapy.

“Gai Pied” magazine folded because much of its audience died of AIDS. I’ve never understood why it hit our friends in Paris so badly while we were largely spared. Had they had more sex in New York, were we less interested in anal sex?

Those were sad years. I specifically remember Frank Arnal’s final goodbye: weakened but still effeminate he waved in front of a holiday home in Quercy. I didn’t make it to his funeral because his very correct but not very gay-friendly family buried him in no time.

The tiding came on a Monday night and Wednesday morning the funeral took place in the Var region where he was from originally. That morning I taught a class on sexual subcultures and I told my students about the cruisiest Parisian parks and urinals that he had shown me and my beloved.

Almost twenty years later I still get a lump in my throat thinking of those sad last moments. Of when we had our last difficult telephone conversation over Christmas, his last postcard, the news upon arriving from Quercy in Paris that Michel Rey also had AIDS - and we were staying with him.

A Blow To (Gay) Cultural Life

The original group of Rooie Flikkers might have been spared, the Nachwuchs however, weren’t: like Geert Visser a.k.a. Hellun Zelluf, Marco de Koning, Jules van der Veldt and Michiel Bollinger, who is a survivor. The last two were members of the Softies - a cabaret-like faggot art group as we don’t know anymore. Geert Visser was with Club Chique and the Gay Dating Show in 1990 one of the key figures of a lively drag and transformational art scene in Amsterdam.

Other acquaintances died. Author Frans Kellendonk, who read parts of the book “Mystiek lichaam” (Mystic Body) he was writing in a series of gay studies at the university. His lecture drew a mere audience of twenty students but once the book was published it caused turmoil for being antisemitic. One could just as easily accuse him of homophobia, if you were so dumb as to confuse the opinion of a novel’s character with the opinion of the author himself.

This book still is the most important work on AIDS in the Netherlands without the acronym even being mentioned in it. At his funeral in the St Nicolas church the barefoot Carmelites - I never even knew of their existence in The Netherlands - sang a requiem.

The leather poet Jim Holmes, who taught literature at the Gay Studies department as James S. Holmes, was one of the few elderly men who died of AIDS; otherwise they were always the young ones, the ones of my generation.

In December 2009, we finally published his coming-out-epic “Billy the Crisco Kid” in full. His friends of the leather shop and gallery RoB died of the disease, just like Walter Kamp, who continued their work at an activist level and imported “illegal” AIDS medications to the Netherlands.

My friend Bram van Stolk, a sociologist, who wrote about sex and gay emancipation, died shortly after his boyfriend. They were the Dutch heirs of the world famous sociologist and closet-case Norbert Elias, who’d died shortly before them of normal old age in his Amsterdam home.
The list of names of people from the world of culture and press goes on and on. AIDS was as much a blow to the (gay) cultural life here, as it was in other Western cities. The website lists all the known and unknown names of those who died.

The disease robbed us from the campy theater reviewer of the daily newspaper “NRC Handelsblad,” Jac. Heijer, as well as from his black lover Michael Matthews. I still have a book from his collection, as well as his beautiful collection of essays on theater. Ton Kors, who wrote obsessively about the dildo, died too early.

Russian refugee Yoeri Egorov died before he reached the top of his career. Michel Vassallucci from Marseille grew from a small gay niche publisher with his lover Lex Spaans, De Woelrat, to a leading figure in the publishing business with a company sporting his own name..

Never In The Limelight

Aside from all those people who were once famous or otherwise known, there are all the boys who never took center stage. I remember a fleeting love, Peter Vlaspolder, to me in the late seventies the most beautiful boy on the dance floors of the COC and the DOK. Beautiful because of his questioning eyes and special way of dancing. I suffered from a broken heart after he broke up with me after three months. Later he became one of my favorite students. We never spoke of my love for him again, except at his graduation I referred to it. My colleague Saskia Poldervaart speeched just before me on a student she had met during a class on housekeeping. I could say I met Peter on the dance floors of Amsterdam.

The news that he was terminally ill came nonchalantly from his drop-dead gorgeous Argentinian boyfriend who also studied with me. I tried to get on to Peter but it was already too late. AIDS patients died quickly in those early years. I heard about his funeral only after it had taken place, his family didn’t want people to know about it. Another brief lover was Willem de Ridder, carpenter and brother of the photographer Frits de Ridder, who published a book with photos of AIDS patients. Willem was, I believe to everybody, a very charming young man with great beauty, gorgeous lively eyes and black curls. In “my” time his landlady forbade him to have gentlemen visitors in his room at the Egelantiersgracht after ten o’clock at night. He was able to endure AIDS much longer than his brother, always remained the happy spontaneous boy. He had a very Catholic funeral in the Mozes-and-Aäron church in 2002.

Cities of Dying

For me, I experienced loss personally in the cities of Amsterdam and Paris, that is where memories of my disappeared friends take place. More than any other gay capitals. I first visited the USA in 1985 and the gay community and movement were in shambles. I remember a discussion of intellectuals in New York about AIDS and policies. They were paralyzed by the focus on whether someone was OK or not in local medical bureaucracy - it was gossiping rather then analyzing.

For the real activist work they had Larry Kramer. I visited a gay bar in San Francisco where they, just as hare-brained as that matter at the east coast, decided to go back to their roots: no hippie dress and glamrock but more leaning towards cowboy outfits and songs. They said goodbye to the city they ran to, fleeing homophobia in the countryside and now they wanted to return to their roots, away from AIDS, but sometimes already infected.

In reality, they had never really shed their macho mentality of the Wild Wild West, neither their Bible Belt background. Their return was no solution, the enormous American Flag hanging over the dance floor wasn’t helping either. America under Reagan didn’t do anything to combat AIDS. In 1989 I was in the USA again. In a bar in Washington a few young men were discussing Amsterdam and they agreed that it was so much fun because the saunas and dark rooms were thriving while they’d scaled way down in the USA. Or at least that’s what their opinion was. I gathered that in the USA the sex in general was the problem, not just the unsafe parts of sex.

In 1985 New York and San Francisco were the cities where the gays died. The rest of society was hoping the disease would stick to the members of the gay ghetto - as well as junkies and some blacks. The straights were affected at a later stage, but much less severely. Too many gay men died to be able to mention. Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, half of the group of gay authors around Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, a series of gay scholars like John Boswell, Alan Berubé, Vito Russo, Marty Levine.

From Germany I remember the Berliner Frank Ripploh, who directed that funny movie “Taxi zum Klo” and who claimed he could determine whether people had AIDS or not by their looks. His expert eye deceived him. His good friend Manfred Salzgeber, who presented gay movies first at the Berlin film festival, and later, when he’d moved to Amsterdam, at “our” queer festivals as well, died of AIDS. Well, we could go on and on with other countries where the gay cultural community was hit as hard, like England and South Africa.

Positive Effects

Of many people we remember their names because we say them out loud while reminiscing. But some faces steadily lose color. People whose names we might have forgotten but not their nature or characteristics. Like the boy with the big one that could squirt like no other. The member of the Pacifist Socialist Party, who came up with the idea for a HomoMonument. And then there are all those faces and memories of situations from times now long ago, with names forgotten, and you wonder whether they’re still alive.

There once was a boy called Roy Syphilis, I wondered if he stood any chance at all to survive this epidemic with a nickname like that. There was a boy on the cover of the COC magazine “Sek” once and he always had little spots on his colorful satin pants so that you could see it clearly, they had taught him to swing his dick after pissing to prevent this. Never saw him again.

The world would have looked different, and also the gay world, if all those names were of people still alive and in full swing. How different, we will never know, because AIDS might have ripped a lot of people away from the cultural scene and gay community, there have also been some positive effects.

All those casualties have caused an impulse for the gay emancipation and social acceptance. The victims are doing alright in modern society and that’s the upside to it, but it was by no means necessary of course.

AIDS ruined our cultural life through all those people who died way too soon, through all those loves and friendships lost, through promises that were broken. Because sexual life - after the sexual revolution gave way for a good decade of freedom and sensuality - became so troublesome that people were turned off or at least discouraged, not for religious reason but for new medical taboos.

In the nineties gay life scrambled to its feet in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. The causes of HIV and AIDS had been identified, people knew how to avoid infection. Het Vagevuur in Eindhoven flourished as a European center of perversions, droves of horned up leather men from all over Europe flocked to Amsterdam for the kinky sex parties, The RoXY and the iT were world famous clubs at the time.

My elderly friends praised the local brothels and rent boys. The Europride and Gay Games came to Amsterdam. All this has not happened in the new century. We got gay marriage, internet sex and a lot of discussions on whether gay emancipation failed, and on al those handsome Moroccan boys, who were not just hot, but sometimes also dangerous. Amsterdam was outclassed by other capitals much bigger and therefore with more exciting gay scenes.

Putting Sexual Pleasure Back On The Map

The Dutch gay movement had gotten lazy and was hooked on government and AIDS was now a chronic rather than a lethal disease. The Schorer Stichting and Aids Fonds thrived but also got bureaucratic, drifting away from gay life itself. Young gays seem to be more concerned with their hair style than with AIDS. Their older brothers sink away in apathy because of the assumed “Dutch achievements.”

AIDS dealt gay and cultural life an enormous blow and even though we now seem to deal with its direct repercussions and can live with it, the epidemic has most certainly contributed to the difficult position of sex. We talk about sexual health, rather than sexual pleasure.

In the seventies and eighties gays thought that after a hundred years there had finally come an end to the medicalization of sexuality, but the opposite happened. Sexuality is more than ever in the hands of doctors, and of pharmaceuticals profiting incredibly from Viagra. Sexual health in psychological and physical sense is the magic word government wards off matters of sexual pleasure with. Doctors haven’t got the foggiest when it comes to sex, of intimacy, or love.

In the seventies sex was fun and we were just discovering how much fun when AIDS hit the scene. It forced sexual pleasure way out of sight. It’s easy to find sexual pleasure, like on internet. But in the real world we encounter mainly shyness, discomfort and angst surrounding physical intimacy. The question for our future is how to get sexual pleasure on the map after all.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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