Recently, I marched with thousands of other people in a candlelit rally here in San Francisco. We marched in unity – LGBTQ folks, women, undocumented immigrants, elderly straight folks, young kids, African Americans, Latinos – all the marginalized people who face dire and immediate threats from the Trump administration. We marched and chanted. We held each other, we commiserated, we cried and laughed, we pledged to support each other and to work together against the forces of racism and bigotry that have won this temporary victory at the polls. We pledged solidarity.
Then, about half a block down Castro, I was stopped, frozen in my tracks by a hand on my chest.
There was no one in front of me.
I’ve never believed in an after-death, but I know as surely as I know my own name that the hand I felt on my chest belonged to one of my friends long dead from AIDS. Suddenly, as I stood there in the middle of Castro Street, hearing the chant of “ACT UP! FIGHT BACK!” I felt surrounded by the ghosts of the thousands of men with whom I have marched down that same street over the course of the last thirty years, chanting, fighting for money for research into AIDS, fighting for access to life-saving medicines, fighting for our lives. At the first protest I marched in, I never would have guessed that thirty-some years later I would be back on Castro street, again, chanting “ACT UP! FIGHT BACK!” again, fighting for my life. Again!
And that’s exactly what I did last night – I fought for my life. That is neither an exaggeration nor a hyperbolic over-reaction to this election.
Trump and Pence have stated positions and made proposals that qualify them as the most vehemently and openly anti-LGBTQ administration in my 64-year lifetime. A draft of a national “religious freedom” executive order, modeled on the one that then-Gov. Pence signed in Indiana, was reported by the media in early February. We all know that these “religious freedom” laws are misnamed: they are “freedom to discriminate on whim” laws. That is their intent; that is their effect.
And what of funding for the life-saving work of the Ryan White Care Act, including ADAP, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program? What’s to stop Trump and Pence, with the assist of anti-LGBT representatives in Congress, from cutting or simply eliminating funding for these vital programs, condemning hundreds of thousands of people with HIV to die, or diverting the funds to ineffective, harmful, cruel, unusual conversion therapies?
Have we forgotten the capacity that a Republican-controlled Congress has to propose and pass anti-LGBT legislation, with President Trump to sign it into law? Remember: Republicans opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, opposed the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, opposed AIDS funding for many years, opposed including sexual orientation in hate-crime laws, opposed the ACA, which eliminated discrimination against HIV as a “pre-condition” — the list goes on. We have only to look at Indiana to see the effect of Gov. Pence’s draconian anti-LGBT policies: he slashed Planned Parenthood funding in half, spurring the closure of five of its smaller clinics which provided HIV and STD testing. Scott County, home to one of the closed clinics, became the hub of a totally avoidable HIV outbreak.
At the rally, after I felt those ghosts surround me, I felt them guide me to the sidelines of the march, where they set me down on the curb of Castro Street, and I sobbed. I cried for, and felt with me, the thousands of men who were too sick to march with us in the 1980s and 90s; I cried for, and felt with me, the dozens who did march no matter how sick they were, but are no longer here; I cried for those of us alive now, old and tired as we are, STILL fighting the same fights.
And after I had sobbed for several minutes, I felt the hands of all those ghosts lifting me back up to my feet, brushing me off and wiping the tears from my cheeks, steadying me on my cane and pushing me back into the marching crowd. And I heard them again, all around me, yelling along with us the only words that make any sense to me right now –
ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! ACT UP! FIGHT BACK!
I’m old and tired, but I’m not dead, and I am never going to back down.
I am going to fight like my life depends on it.
Because it does.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.