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The Daily Agenda for Monday, March 18

Jim Burroway

March 18th, 2013

TODAY IN HISTORY:
William F. Buckley, Jr. Proposes Tattooing “All AIDS Carriers”: 1986. Two op-eds appeared in The New York Times’s editorial page under the heading, “Critical Steps in Combating the AIDS Epidemic.” One was written by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, and the other by conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. Dershowitz’s column, in keeping with the general hysteria of the day, was not without its alarmist elements. He repeated the belief that “AIDS may, in fact, be transmissible by tears, saliva, bodily fluids and mosquito bites” — a contention that was quickly refuted by those more familiar with the disease. But he also pleaded that “the flow of solid data should not be polluted by personal moralism. … We have a right to know the hard facts about AIDS, unvarnished by moralistic prejudgements.”

That recommendation contrasted sharply with Buckley’s op-ed that appeared on the same page. Buckley acknowledged that many who see homosexuality as morally wrong also saw AIDS as a “special curse of the homosexual, transmitted through anal sex between males.” But that didn’t stop him from trying to claim that those who “tend to disapprove forcefully of homosexuality … (tend) to approach the problem of AIDS empirically.” And how did Buckley “empirically” approach the AIDS crisis?

We face a utilitarian imperative, and the requires absolutely nothing less than the identification of the million-odd people who, the doctors estimate, are carriers.

How?

Well, the military has taken the first concrete step. Two million soldiers will be given the blood test, and those who have AIDS will be discreetly discharged. …The next logical step would be to require of anyone who seeks a marriage license that he present himself not only with a Wassermann test but also an AIDS test.

But if he has AIDS, should he then be free to marry?

Only after the intended spouse is advised that her intended husband has AIDS, and agrees to sterilization. We know already of children born with the disease, transmitted by the mother, who contracted it from the father.

…The next logical enforcer is the insurance company. Blue Cross, for instance, can reasonably require of those who wish to join it a physical examination that requires tests. Almost every American, making his way from infancy to maturity, needs to pass by one or another institutional turnstile. Here the lady will spring out, her right hand on a needle, her left on a computer, to capture a blood specimen.

Is it then proposed …that AIDS carriers should be publicly identified as such?

The evidence is not completely in as to the communicability of the disease. But while much has been said that is reassuring, the moment has not yet come when men and women of science are unanimously agreed that AIDS cannot be casually communicated. Let us be patient on that score, pending any tilt in the evidence: If the news is progressively reassuring, public identification would not be necessary. If it turns in the other direction and AIDS develops among, say, children who have merely roughhoused with other children who suffer from AIDS, then more drastic segregation measures would be called for.

But if the time has not come, and may never come, for public identification, what then of private identification?

Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.

A year later, Buckley “withdrew” his proposal under the unique kind of protest that only Buckley could muster:

Sixteen months ago, in a thinking-out-loud exchange with Professor Alan Dershowitz, I suggested that perhaps AIDS carriers should be tattooed discreetly, to guard uncontaminated sexual or needle partners from danger. This proposal reminded everyone of Auschwitz, and I have seen, in print, that Mr. Buckley “wants to tattoo all homosexuals.” It is as though anyone who found a use for barbed wire was secretly a concentration-camp fetishist. Never mind: I quickly withdrew the proposal for the simple reasoning that it proved socially intolerable. I have ever since been waiting for a socially tolerable alternative to be proposed…

But in 2005 when the news media would initiate a new round of hysteria over an imaginary AIDS “superbug,” Buckley was there again, suggesting that the tattoo idea be revived:

The objective is to identify the carrier, and to warn his victim. Someone, 20 years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration.

The so-called “superbug” was a phantom; but Buckley’s Buchenwaldist proposal was, apparently, serious — serious enough for him to raise it again unapologetically 20 years later.

Malcom Forbes on his Harley-Davidson, on the cover of OutWeek, March 18, 1990. (Click to enlarge.)

Michelangelo Sigornile Reports That A Very Wealthy Businessman Was Gay: 1990. Malcolm Forbes was gay. You knew that, right? Playwright George Osterman knew. He had had sex with Forbes a few times, and was one of the very few willing to talk about it under his own name. “To a degree, he was very charming. I did it for the experience, I mean, I was having sex with a millionaire, It was an experience. It was fine,” he said. A host of New York City waiters knew; Forbes seemed to have had a particular thing for waiters. A former employee at Forbes magazine said that half of the staff knew and the other half just didn’t want to know about it. New York’s gossip columnists knew: Newsday’s James Revson, The Daily News’ Billy Norwich, Village Voice’s Michael Musto. Liz Smith, also at The Daily News, undoubtedly knew, though she claimed to be “too square” to be aware of it. Besides, she was still tending to her own closet at the time. Even Elizabeth Taylor knew — even though the New York Times implied in Forbes’s obituary that he had wanted to marry her, only to strike that reference in the paper’s later editions. And because Michelangelo Signorile put all of that in a cover story for OutWeek three weeks after Forbes died of a heart attack, you know it too:

People talked and, in quite a few segments of the gay male community at least, it seamed that everyone knew someone who’d done it with Malcolm Forbes. He was also quite showy, liking to ride around with his “dates” on his motorcycle. It was not uncommon to spot Frobes on Christopher Street taking a break next to his bike with a hot, young, leathered bikemate by his side. He also would show up — often with young men — at such mixed clubs as Love Machine and Celebrity Club at the Tunnel, where the crowed was predominately gay but was never listed as such or considered a gay club per se. This the contradiction of Forbes: While he tried to keep it all very hush-hush, he behaved many times in a sloppy, seemingly deliberate way, yearning to have fun, and testing the limits of living a closeted life.

Michelangelo Signorile

Signorile’s first job out of college was with a public relations firm that specialized in getting their clients mentioned in gossip columns. That’s where he became increasingly aware of the double standard with which gossip columnists — and journalists generally — treated gay people. Every hint of a heterosexual dalliance was given press, but whenever they became aware of a romance involving a gay celebrity, there was nothing but silence — or a manufactured story of a heterosexual romance. As Signorile became involved with ACT UP in 1989, the group’s motto “SILENCE = DEATH” took on a special meaning. As long as gay people were an abstraction to the general public — as long as gay people were those people, relatively nameless and faceless — the unique combination of apathy and hysteria surrounding the disease would continue, all to the detriment to the very people who were falling in ever increasing numbers.

Forbes wasn’t the first celebrity whose homosexuality Signorile reported on. As the features editor of OutWeek, Signorile also wrote a regular column titled “Gossip Watch,” in which he sought to hold New York’s other gossip columnists accountable. Beginning in 1989, he launched a second column called “Peek-A-Boo,” in which he listed the names of some ninety allegedly closeted celebrities. Critics, including many in the gay community, lambasted Signorile for publishing private and “salacious” details, as though being gay itself was somehow salacious. By 1990, the mainstream media began to notice, when Time magazine published “Forcing Gays Out of the Closet,” in which media critic William Henry III coined the word “outing” as a verb, a term that Signorile has always disliked. As he saw it, what he was doing was reporting, and was in no way different from what other journalists were writing about heterosexual celebrities.

As for the Forbes article, Signorile’s portrait was actually somewhat sympathetic. But in the end, Signorile said that setting the record straight, so to speak, was important “for the sake of posterity:

Is our society so overwhelmingly repressive that even individuals as all-powerful as the late Malcolm Forbes feel they absolutely cannot come out of the closet? It would seem so. Much like Congressman Barney Frank before he came out, Forbes was the victim of a virulently homophobic society which he too fed into regularly. He was forced to lead a life of secret pursuits and dark, dirty doings; of exploitation and abuse, His own internalized homophobia far outweighed the commanding authority that any amount of dollars could possibly wield.

And what is the significance of bringing all of this out now?

First, for the sake of posterity the truth must be told. All too often history is distorted. One of the most influential men in America just died, and regardless of how we may or may not see him as a proper public figure, he was gay, And that must be recorded.

Second, it sends a clear message to the public at large that we are everywhere.

Third, perhaps gays and lesbians at all levels of society can learn a great deal from the story of Malcolm Forbes, In researching this piece, in an attempt to try to obtain more information about Forbes and get to people who were close to him, I came upon someone who kneW the family very well and who would have been able to discuss intimate details about the man; not merely about sex, but about the the real inner-workings of Forbes’ mind, It was a person who could perhaps provide an insight into what Forbes thought about such issues as gay rights and AIDS, But, after considerable thought, he decided not to speak to me. Currently living a closeted existence with regard to his own family and business, he said, “My choice in speaking to you is between myself and the greater gay community, And — at this moment — I have to go with myself.”

Ultimately, that was the tragedy of Malcolm Forbes’ entire life, Under the guise, perhaps, of doing the best for “himself,” Forbes initiated a senseless, self-imposed prison sentence which benefited no one.

Despite what had become rather common knowledge — and despite Signorile’s efforts to promote to story to other news organizations, the mainstream press remained silent. Several months later, The New York Times, in an article about the “outing” controversy, refused to mention Forbes’s name, referring to him simply as “a famous businessman who had recently died.”

[Sources: Michelangelo Signorile. “The other side of Malcolm.” Outweek (March 18, 1990): 40-45. Available online here (PDF: 21.3 MB/108 pages).

William Henry III. “Forcing gays out of the closet.” Time (January 29, 1990). Available online with subscription here.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

This your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

Comments

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gsingjane
March 18th, 2013 | LINK

I really appreciate this reminder about Buckley. Today, when we look at vulgar conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, it’s easy to feel a bit of nostalgia for the likes of WF Buckley (plus, his son, Christopher, is such a funny and enjoyable writer). It’s good to review, once in a while, the sorts of things that Buckley actually had to say. While cloaked in an elegant vocabulary and smoother writing style, they were no less hateful and dangerous.

paul canning
March 19th, 2013 | LINK

Signorile reported the truth. The reaction said everything about the real depths og anti-gay animus.

Very relevant history given the recent Jodie Foster episode, whose early 90s prelude has been conveniently forgotten.

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