What Happened In 1990?

How the gay-rights revolt turned into a battle for acceptance.

Members of ACT-UP march in New York's annual Gay Pride Parade, June 25, 1990. (Joseph F. Major / AP)

Several readers have wondered what my best guess is for why that year was the turning point for gay rights in America. Here's my best shot at some of the factors, although it seems clear to me it was multi-determined as my shrink often (helpfully) says. The first is that this coincides with a re-framing of the issue in public discourse. Many of us then derided as right-wing fascists believed that the focus on sexual liberation, on "queerness" and subcultural revolt were not actually very descriptive of most gay lives and not the most persuasive arguments for gay equality. I mean: if you want to be queer, why seek any legal acceptance at all? Isn't marginalization the point? Why not revel in oppression as the only legitimate way to live as "the other"?

So in the late 1980s, the homocons, as we were subsequently described, started making the case for formal civil equality, not counter-cultural revolution. 1988, I wrote a piece for the Advocate arguing that the legal bans on military service and civil marriage should be the focus of the movement in the next decade. I gave a speech on those lines to HRC a little later (they were, for the most part, appalled). In 1989, I wrote the first cover-story in favor of same-sex marriage in a national American magazine. By 1993, with the military ban in the news and Hawaii's ruling on marriage equality, the intellectual structure for re-framing the debate on grounds finally favorable to gays was in place. Ever since, the dynamic that posits gay men and women as heroes trying to serve their country or human beings trying to construct families keeps adding to the momentum—and the next generation, having imbibed this new order, are the most adamant of all.

But much, much more important than all of this, in my view, is something the younger gay generation rarely mentions, remembers or honors any more. That was the transformative, traumatizing effect of AIDS on both gay and straight America.

It came in the early 1980s, but the deaths only reached their stunning peaks in the early 1990s—which is when the polling shifts.

Remember: most of these deaths were of young men. If you think that the Vietnam war took around 60,000 young American lives randomly over a decade or more, then imagine the psychic and social impact of 300,000 young Americans dying in a few years. Imagine a Vietnam Memorial five times the size. The victims were from every state and city and town and village. They were part of millions and millions of families. Suddenly, gay men were visible in ways we had never been before. And our humanity—revealed by the awful, terrifying, gruesome deaths of those in the first years of the plague—ripped off the veneer of stereotype and demonization and made us seem as human as we are. More, actually: part of our families.

I think that horrifying period made the difference. It also galvanized gay men and lesbians into fighting more passionately than ever—because our very lives were at stake. There were different strategies—from Act-Up actions to Log Cabin conventions. But more and more of us learned self-respect and refused to tolerate the condescension, double standards, discrimination and violence so many still endured. We were deadly serious. And we fight on in part because of those we had lost. At least I know I do. In the words of Mark Helprin:

He knew that this was because the war was still in him, and that it would be in him for a long time to come, for soliders who have been bloodied are soldiers for ever. They never fit in. Even when they finally settle down, the settling is tenuous, for when they close their eyes, they see their comrades who have fallen. That they cannot forget, that they do not forget, that they never allow themselves to heal completely, is their way of expressing their love for friends who have perished. And they will not change, because they have become what they have become to keep the fallen alive.