Stonewall Strong

by | Nov 30, 2017


John-Manuel Andriote, a former member of St. Thomas’ Parish (DC), who also served as a longtime member of the Diocese’s Southern Africa Partnership Committee, has published a book about the resiliency of gay men. Andriote, who has worked as a health journalist for more than 30 years, says he wrote Stonewall Strong after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2005. “I briefly saw a psychiatrist then to help me come to grips with my new reality as an HIV-positive gay man, after reporting on HIV-AIDS as a journalist by that point for 20 years,” he says. Andriote went on to chronicle, as the book’s subtitle describes it, “gay men’s heroic fight for resilience, good health, and a strong community.” Read Church House staff member Richard Weinberg’s interview with Andriote below.

What led you to write Stonewall Strong?

I wrote Stonewall Strong because I became interested in the subject of resilience after my 2005 HIV diagnosis. I briefly saw a psychiatrist then to help me come to grips with my new reality as an HIV-positive gay man, after reporting on HIV-AIDS as a journalist by that point for 20 years. He told me it was natural to feel sad in the face of suffering, including my own. This was novel to me as I had been brought up to put my needs—my suffering—aside and be strong for others. He told me I needed to be present to my own suffering, because my new medical reality had upturned everything I knew about myself and believed about my place in the world and my future in it. He also told me I was very resilient and that this was an “exciting” time in my life because it would give me the opportunity to reexamine nearly everything. That’s what got me thinking about resilience, and reading more about it.

I have always been very interested in psychology and mental health, so it was natural for me to explore the subject. In my exploration I found in new research that in fact most gay men are amazingly resilient in spite of the profound traumas most of us experience beginning in our boyhoods. I wanted to know how that could be, and so I explored the subject further by interviewing researchers, reading books and journal articles, and talking with other gay men. All that led eventually to writing Stonewall Strong.

What is the book about?

As the book’s subtitle describes it, it’s about “gay men’s heroic fight for resilience, good health, and a strong community.” What distinguishes the book from any other book I’m aware of is that it starts from a very positive place in telling stories from gay men’s lives. We are familiar with the “victim” narratives, that focus on how abused and wronged we gay men are. I flip the narrative on its head, telling our stories from the vantage point of strength—looking through a different lens to focus on the bravery, courage, resilience, and strength gay men have exhibited even before the 1969 Stonewall riots and as we particularly demonstrated in the AIDS epidemic. I like to say the book celebrates gay men’s remarkable resilience, because it really does frame our experiences as tales of survival and strength rather than weakness and defeat.

What memories of resilience do you have about your time living in Washington?

I first moved to Washington in the fall of 1985, while I was working on my master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. I participated in the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program where I was a working reporter for a Wisconsin newspaper in the school’s Medill News Service. That fall I met a man who changed my life through his passion and commitment to helping our gay community’s efforts to address HIV-AIDS. Bill Bailey became not only a mentor, but also the love of my young life. He told me it was my duty as a gay man who was a journalist to use my skills to chronicle and document our community’s valiant efforts to address the epidemic.

Through Bill I made many professional contacts, in Washington and across the country, who became important sources for my reporting as I focused on writing about HIV-AIDS. Being involved professionally with the issue meant I also knew many gay men who were diagnosed with, and killed by, AIDS. It was a gut-wrenching experience to live through what gay men call the “dark years” of the 1980s, before there was effective treatment for HIV. Everything I had been taught about putting aside my needs and my fears to be strong for others came to the fore as I comforted friends and attended multiple memorials.

I lived in Washington when I was diagnosed with HIV in 2005. I had to learn to apply to myself what I had learned in my many years of being strong for others. I really had to dig deep into my heart and soul to affirm myself and resist the shame and stigma that, even in 2017, too many people still expect someone living with this particular virus to bear.

A cornerstone of my spirituality is my belief in Incarnation, the idea that God took on human flesh and thereby validated our existence as physical beings living in a dangerous world. One of the many dangers we face is lethal microbes such as HIV. Of themselves they have no meaning whatsoever, but many humans insist on attaching meaning to them as a way of protecting themselves against their own fear that something like HIV infection could happen to them or someone they love. I choose to embrace compassion and love for my fellow humans regardless of the medical misfortunes that befall them precisely because I believe that as incarnated beings we simply must make the very best of our time on this earth. As such, judging others for their medical challenges is wrong.

Why was it important to you to include a chapter on the resilience of gay men’s faith during the height of the AIDS crisis?

Partly because of what I just described about my own beliefs, but more importantly because of the erroneous belief that “all” gay men and other people in the LGBTQ community reject religious faith and that “all” religions reject LGBTQ people. It’s simply not true, as the studies and national surveys I highlight in the book bear out.

The interesting thing is that as fewer Americans identify with particular religious institutions, or as people of faith, the trend is the opposite among LGBTQ people. This may be surprising if you don’t believe—as I do—that LGBTQ people tend to be quite spiritual even if they don’t identify as “religious.” The pioneering gay activist Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950 and later the gay spiritual group called the Radical Faeries, certainly believed strongly that gay people are very spiritual. In fact he described us as “spirit people” as he explored the questions that intrigued him: Who are we (gay people)? What are we for? What role do we play in society? Hay believed our role has much to do with saving heterosexuals from straight men’s tendency toward violence and domination.

What role can the Church continue to play?

The Church, broadly defined, can play a powerful role by being a beacon of light and love in the world. As I note—and quote from the gay and lesbian religious leaders I interviewed for Stonewall Strong—the Church runs into problems when it focuses on being an institution rather than a force for good, when people get hung up on, say, the rules and protocols of the liturgy rather than the power of a loving community that embraces all of us. My understanding of Christianity, as Jesus modeled it, is that by loving and affirming us to become all God created us to be, we are prone to rise to become our best. No one wants to be chastised and told we are evil and sinful. Jesus didn’t judge others, even those noted for their sin. He embraced them, welcomed them, dined with them, and by doing so made them feel loved to the point that they wanted to be good, ethical people.

What do you say to people who feel that HIV-AIDS advocacy is a thing of the past?

I say that they need to pay attention to current politics and see how fragile all our gains really are. It’s wonderful that we have effective treatment for HIV that lets people like me live with the virus rather than get sick and die like too many of my friends did in our young years. It’s exciting that the HIV drug Truvada, used as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), can help people to remain uninfected while they hopefully explore the reasons they choose to have unprotected sex. I report in the book how PrEP has created a new level of comfort among gay men in San Francisco, reduced fear and allowed men to enjoy one another without the fear that this one or that one might be “the one” who gives them HIV. But these wonderful things are contingent upon people having access to them, the ability to pay for them and use them properly. Sadly, there are still too many people—and too frequently claiming to have a mandate from God—who would prefer that LGBTQ people return to our closets of shame and silence so they won’t be troubled by our existence. When those people are in power, they are able to inflict their views on the rest of us through government policy. This is why we must constantly remain vigilant and guard against those who would not hesitate to undo our hard-earned gains, whether it’s legal same-sex marriage or access to lifesaving HIV prevention and treatment.

What do you feel the younger generation of the LGBTQ community has failed to understand about the generation you represent? And conversely, what is something you think your generation doesn’t appreciate about the new generation?

First let me say I am 59 years old, and not afraid to say so. I saw too many of my friends and age peers die in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, to be concerned about others’ stigmatizing me for being an “older” gay man. The penultimate chapter of Stonewall Strong is called “Defining ‘Old’ for Ourselves” with the subtitle “The open secret is that most of us already do.”

There is terrible ageism in the gay male community, probably because most gay men do not have children and therefore do not have the expectation that someone will be there to care for (and about) them as they age. We tend to be “in the market” sexually and romantically speaking than typical heterosexuals. In a culture that overly values youth, it’s too easy to internalize the message that as we age we lose our value as partners and members of the community. This is harmful to us as individuals and to our community. Real communities value their elders, and elders in real communities respect their own roles as keepers of history, lore, and wisdom. It’s time for older gay men to claim our role as elders. Whether younger men will feel less terrified of aging when we do is up to them as individuals, as are most of the choices we each make about how to live our lives. I say that “most of us already do” define for ourselves what it means to be older or old because that is my experience—and the experience of an exceptional number of gay men, some of whom I profile in the book.

As for my fellow gay men “of a certain age,” I think that we can find ways to relate our experience to younger men that don’t smack of reverse-ageism and condescension by looking for common ground. I’ve heard young people say what they’d like to hear us talk about how we have dealt with being “different.” Whatever label we use for ourselves—gay, queer, cisgender, transgender, whatever—we in the LGBTQ community are each and all “different” in our way from the predominant heterosexual man or woman. I expect we have all had to deal with being bullied or mistreated in some way because of it. We’ve had to wrestle with finding for ourselves a way to live our truth in the face of others’ disapproval. We can support one another across the generations by relating the truth of our experience without weighting it to favor or slight a particular generation. Young people offer new ways of thinking about things, and of course their marvelous energy and enthusiasm, and those are valuable in our community and in showing the world a positive image of who we are today.

What role do you think gay men should play in advocating for the rights of other oppressed groups?

Gay men, when we are in touch with ourselves at a deeper level, have the capacity to empathize with other people to a degree that isn’t as common among heterosexual men. In fact, the men I interviewed for Stonewall Strong who work in the corporate sector—Todd Sears, founder of OUT Leadership in New York City, and Brian McNaught, one of the country’s best known corporate diversity trainers—point out that large companies today recognize the unique value that gay men bring to their work precisely because of their strong ability to empathize with an array of different people. I believe that our experience of being bullied and stigmatized for being “different” gives us the ability to relate to other oppressed people in a real and profound way.

An example from my own life was in my first visit to Africa. I was in Nigeria with my former job as senior editor for FHI360, known then as Family Health International. I was part of a training conference for community-based HIV-AIDS service providers. I was the only white person there, which for most white Americans is a pretty rare experience. During our lunch break, all of us went outside the hotel for a group photo. I was asked to sit in the front row because I was treated like an honored guest. There, against the rows of dark-skinned Nigerian men and women, dressed in their beautiful, colorful clothing, you see my shiny bald white head. I treasure this photo because for me it represents what it is like to be the “only one,” the only one who looks like you. As a gay man, I know very well how that feels, but this was the first time I had the experience of being different from the majority because of my skin color, too. From that experience, I took away a greater sensitivity to others I encounter who likewise stand out in a room because they are different—and it makes me want to welcome them because I know how that feels.