Addressing the Clash Between Generations of LGBTQ Activists

Published on: 21 Jun 2017
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To start a discussion on LGBTQ activism and mental health during Pride Week, we asked two LGBTQ activists of different generations to meet and discuss their views, experiences, and perspectives. Michael Noker, a millennial who has written about LGBTQ issues, interviewed Patrick Cleary, a long-time LGBTQ activist who fought for gay rights during the AIDS epidemic and beyond. The two discuss the grief and mental health implications of losing a generation as well as the critical need for activism.

Noker: What would you say was the most monumental moment for the LGBTQ movement in your lifetime?

Cleary: There are a few, so forgive me for not picking only one. The 1987 FDA approval of AZT, a drug for treating HIV/AIDS is the most monumental thing I can think of as a gay man, because it meant that my friends stopped dying so often.

Ronald Reagan hadn’t even said the word “AIDS” until the year before. The honest opinion of most of the country was that AIDS was something that should burn itself out. It only affected gay guys and drug addicts, and we weren’t worth the trouble.

Participating in ACT UP and Queer Nation, holding die-ins and marches and literally going into Catholic churches and shouting “Shame!” at priests who refused to acknowledge that birth control also saved lives…that’s what did it.

Of course, Lawrence v. Texas is another one. I don’t know if a lot of the younger, even fairly socially aware adults these days knows that it took until 2003 to strike down sodomy laws in the country. Until then there were states where you didn’t check into hotel rooms together if you didn’t want to get raided, where gay clubs were still targeted by the police, and where you could be arrested and imprisoned for gay sex.

And of course it was during my lifetime — although I was a baby at the time — but the Stonewall Riots got it all started. Because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the difference from before then, I can’t really speak to it. It was within my lifetime, though.

Noker: I’ve noticed a lot of emphasis on getting “woke” lately. There’s a sort of backlash against anyone who doesn’t care enough about the right things. People tend to call out would-be “slacktivists” as effective apologists. Is this new? How do you feel about it?

Cleary: These days everything is sped up because the dissemination of information and ideas is sped up. Issues that may have taken years to spread can become memes within days, and that’s when the backlash begins.

Humans are not great with nuance. Small differences in approach toward the same goals escalate into unbridgeable rifts in groups that would make tremendous allies, if only everyone would sit down and figure out what we have in common and how the strengths of one group can help the others.

In a way, the backlash is also coming from people my age who got exhausted through the process of fighting for a certain set of rights and get offended when we’re told we’re part of the problem. As an older, not-quite-so-active activist, I struggle to resist the urge to dismiss issues I haven’t experienced personally, and not to elevate the experiences I had into a mythos meaning I can be forgiven for any further transgressions.

I know a lot of older white gay men who believe the AIDS crisis gives them immunity from ever being criticized for their way of thinking. It’s really hard not to say, “Do you understand that every friend I had in 1988 is now dead?” That doesn’t help anything, though.

Noker: I think that’s something really important to point out. It’s also something I would not have thought about. The gay community isn’t short on misogyny and sexism (and a hundred other issues), but I don’t know if anyone’s taken the time to appreciate exactly how much HIV/AIDS took out of the previous generation. A lot of the gay men taking criticism for abandoning transgender issues (or even feminist issues), for example, were already exhausted and resigned several years before gay marriage was legalized. I hadn’t considered the other side.

Cleary: And I forget that most of the younger crowd have no idea how bad it was, even if you know intellectually how bad it was. In one year, I remember keeping track and I’d gone to 53 funerals. That’s more than one a week. I was on the tail end of this. I was only in my early 20s. Guys in their 30s and 40s were basically wiped out. A lot of the groups scolding us were nowhere to be found back then. But holding that anger doesn’t help me at all, and it doesn’t help the conversation at all either.

Noker: What was the most important issue the LGBTQ movement focused on? What do you think the most important issue facing our community is today?

Cleary: I think it is extremely dangerous to “rank” issues based on importance, because each and every issue migrates in terms of importance, depending upon the circumstances of the day. Today I think the main thing we need to battle is within our own communities, and that’s inclusion and intersectionality. I believe there’s a terrible rift that’s grown between those who are experiencing a level of comfort and those who are still in desperate circumstances. To rest on the laurels of battles we think we’ve won won’t keep things moving in the right direction, and most likely will result in our falling backward.

Noker: I did notice that once gay marriage was legal across the United States, everybody kind of cracked the metaphorical beer. Does that worry you, too?

Cleary: We’re already seeing the country line up toward removing such things as marriage equality and they’re taking up new battles like bathroom segregation as a way of attacking transgender rights. If you’re not willing to fight for the rights of all oppressed people (and all people in general, but minorities particularly), then you have no right to complain when your rights are eroded alongside theirs.

Noker: Do you feel that Pride still holds significance in today’s community? If so, do you believe it’s become less significant over the last couple decades?

Cleary: Lost significance? No. Changed focus? Yes.

I recall there was a hugely political atmosphere to my first Pride event in 1984. Stonewall was only 15 years before, so imagine if Stonewall had happened in 2002, and you’ll get a bit of the vibe of it. I looked to see if I could find any images of the Boston Pride event from that year, and one of the first results is “Black and White Men Together.” I totally remember this because that was a hot-button issue for a lot of gay people: the idea of not only gay couples, but interracial couples at the same time.

We were also marching for AIDS research and funding, against sodomy laws, anti-discrimination laws, etc. So there were different stakes for a lot of the people in my demographic that have been lessened today.

Noker: So the tone has undergone a major shift.

Cleary: There’s also been quite a bit of what I’d consider “pink washing,” where corporations have caught on that a lot of gay and lesbian couples have disposable income (this was a discovery made in around the mid-1990s, from what I recall). Sponsorship has gone beyond the local gay bars providing water bottles and floats to large-scale celebrations. This can be terrific but changes the dynamic a lot.

Also, we don’t focus on Pride as a political act so much anymore. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” sounds incredibly trite these days. Nonetheless, it was a battle cry that was super-dangerous to say when I was at my first few Pride events. I’ve been hit by bottles thrown by the crowd in Boston and in Washington, and the police at that time didn’t think of doing anything about it.

But because the police give lip service to Pride events, does that mean they’ll give their full attention to a homicide of a trans woman of color in their precinct? It’s something to think about.

Noker: I’ve also noticed that a lot of Pride events are starting to charge admission now.

Cleary: I don’t attend Pride that much anymore, because it seems more like a big block party than anything, and I’ve never been one for block parties.

Noker: What could the upcoming generation and its LGBTQ community be doing to make the most difference?

Cleary: Drop cynicism. I feel so old for saying this, but I’ve now been involved in activism in one form or another for more than 30 years. Every new generation of activists thinks they are the only generation who has ever fought for a cause, and that they are the only generation who are facing hopeless circumstances.

It’s so tempting to believe the odds are stacked so much against us that there’s no sense in fighting at all, or that the people who aren’t expressing your exact opinion will not be useful to your cause. But that’s exactly what the people who would silence us count on to get us out of the way.

Maybe it’s because we are exposed to so many voices every single day via the media available to us, but I see so many younger people deriding one another for issues they essentially agree upon. That doesn’t help anyone at all. Listening to those who have it harder than you and using whatever social or economic clout you have to assist them is so very important.

So work toward the things you think will make the most difference for the people who need it the most, and don’t always assume everyone’s motivations are suspect. If you do suspect the motivations, know enough to use what you can from those individuals and groups and then discard the rest.

Bio: Patrick Cleary is a Boston-based playwright and puppeteer. You can find more of his work and writing on

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