The Effect of AIDS on Same-Sex Marriage

The huge media coverage that the passage of same-sex marriage in New York State has received is not that big a surprise. After all, not only is New York the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, but the state (especially New York City) is, in many ways, also a political, cultural, and social bellwether for the country. But what was so interesting in the coverage of the Empire State’s new law was the sheer absence of any mention of the city’s (and state’s) long connection to the HIV-AIDS epidemic.


Looking at the time frame tells us a lot. AIDS was first reported in the gay male community in the summer of 1981. By 1983 there were 3,000 cases. By 1986 the New York Times reported that, “the Federal Centers for Disease Control predicts between 14,000 and 15,000 new cases of AIDS, the vast majority in the two groups who are already afflicted, male homosexuals and intravenous drug users.” If that wasn’t frightening enough, the Times went on to state that, “Dr. Anthony J. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the Government’s top authorities on AIDS, said today that he believes, on the basis of very ‘soft’ estimates, that one million Americans have already been infected with the virus and that this number will jump to at least 2 million or 3 million within 5 to 10 years. He also hazarded a guess that about 40 percent of those infected would eventually develop AIDS and die from it…”


Not all of the people affected by HIV-AIDS were gay men, but the stigma of the disease from the very beginning and even, to a large degree, now, was connected to gay male sexual activity. The reality was that entire gay communities in urban areas—San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, and New York—were devastated by AIDS, facing not only enormous amounts of death, but discrimination in housing, employment, and medical treatment.


Many men discovered that their relationships—recognized by law—were unrecognized and ignored by hospitals, doctors, their lover’s families, and even social work organizations. Stories of men being refused permission to be at their partner’s hospital bedside because they were not legally a couple were common. LGBT legal groups fought against this discrimination in a number of ways, most specifically by helping gay men write legal documents—such as medical proxies, power of attorney, and living wills—that would give couples or friends a legal relationship. During this time, there was no same-sex marriage, which could have given couples all of these legal rights.


In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was discrimination. A Constitutional Amendment was quickly passed that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. But the panic caused by the original Hawaii decision was strong enough for Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 that prohibited the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages allowed by states and also stated that individual states did not have to recognize them either.


In the early days of same-sex marriage organizing, activists focused on a “constitutional equality under the law argument.” It was basically discrimination under contract law that forbade same-sex couples from entering a state-sanctioned legal marriage. As same-sex marriage activists arguments become more complicated, clearly the “equality under the law” argument—which was ethically and legally correct—was not working at all. There was some mention of the horrendous problems faced by gay men in the 1980s, but, given that this was the more obvious historical precedent, they were relatively few. What same- sex marriage advocates did mention was that legal civil marriage would allow couples to have full access to visiting and making medical decisions for spouses. But AIDS, for the most part, went unmentioned.


When AIDS did enter into the same-sex marriage discussion, it was usually introduced as a threatening image of what happens when people cannot marry. Many writers invoked AIDS—and its inevitable link to deadly gay male promiscuity—as the result of the denial of same-sex marriage. Because, the argument goes, gay men were not allowed to marry, they did not form solid, loving relationships and, therefore, had lots of promiscuous sex  leading to AIDS.


Even William Eskiridge, an esteemed scholar at Yale Law School, made the connection in The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment, where he wrote “Human history repeatedly testifies to the attractiveness of domestication born of interpersonal commitment, a signature of married life. It should not have required the AIDS epidemic to alert us to the problem of sexual promiscuity.” Later, he argues that “sexual variety has not been liberating for gay men” and “[a] self reflective gay community ought to embrace marriage for its potentially civilizing effect on young and old alike.”                                                                                                             


This connection between AIDS and same-sex marriage is clearly fallacious and, worse, terribly misleading since it does not address the basic facts of HIV prevention. It also insinuates that marriage itself is a social and cultural prophylaxis. But marriage won’t stop the spread of HIV, safe-sex will. It doesn’t matter how many people you sleep with, it matters what you do. Regardless, because Americans still seem to have a deep connection to the idea that sex is connected to disease, death, and social and political corruption, that idea took root and is with us today.  


The overt, grossly inaccurate connection between HIV/AIDS and same sex marriage surfaces occasionally—often as a scare tactic. Alarmingly, after 30 years of the AIDS epidemic some people still think that scare tactics actually work as a useful form of HIV/AIDS education.


For the past five years I have heard again and again that these men’s parents—most often they mention their mothers—are more accepting of their coming out and their homosexuality if they entertain the fantasy that their sons will ultimately get married. At first, I thought this was a similar complaint to the one I hear from young heterosexual students (usually wo- men): parental pressure to get married. And why not? If marriage is the “gold seal” of relationships in our country parents would, of course, want their children to find the perfect partner to wed. But the more I listened to these young men and what their parents were saying, the more it became clear to me that the main fear was not that they may wind up single, but that they may wind up dead from AIDS. Their ambivalence about their son’s sexuality—often they were quite explicit in their unhappiness of their offspring’s sexual orientation—was deepened by their fear of HIV/AIDS and their fantasy that if they were sexually active they would be at risk.


This makes perfect sense as most of my students have grown up in a world in which HIV/AIDS is now a manageable disease. This was not true of their parents who lived through the most horrific years of the epidemic when there was no cure and there was an immense social stigma that had very real effects on people’s lives.


The best response to these parental fears is to make sure your child knows about safe sex, uses condoms, and feels great enough about his sexuality to be open and honest with partners and value his health and theirs. Obviously, “I’m so glad you met someone you like, do you think it will work out and you’ll get married?” is an emotionally easier and reassuring response than encouraging them to explore their sexual desires—which they are doing anyway—and be as careful and healthy as possible.


Some of my male students voice a desire to marry, usually in the future, and some have no interest at all. I suspect that some will change their minds. I also suspect that, like many heterosexuals, they may marry more than once and, like many heterosexuals, have complicated emotional and sexual lives before, during, and after their marriages. None of this, however, has anything to do with HIV/AIDS prevention.


The reality today is that most same-sex couples that get married are older and have harbored the fantasy of marriage for years. Only time will tell what younger lesbians and gays will actually do. But one thing is certain: the fantasy that same-sex marriage has any real connection to HIV/AIDS prevention is a dangerous one for parents, young people, and same-sex marriage activists and should be abandoned as quickly as possible.


Michael Bronski is a senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His latest book—A Queer History of the United States (2011)—is part of the ReVisioning American History series from Beacon Press.