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'Stonewall Strong' looks at 'conscious resilience'

by Brian Bromberger

They may be the worst eight words a gay man can hear - "I have bad news on the HIV test" - but health journalist John-Manuel Andriote endured them in 2006 when he received an HIV diagnosis, turning his world upside down.

It was particularly difficult because for years he had been chronicling the impact of HIV/AIDS on individuals, the LGBT political movement, the medical research establishment, and popular American culture, which resulted in his critically acclaimed 1999 book, "Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America" (University of Chicago Press). He quickly decided his HIV-positive test result would not define him or undermine his self-esteem and sense of his own value and lovability.

Andriote's journey to discover how he made those affirming choices to be resilient led to his latest book, "Stonewall Strong: Gay Men's Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community" (Rowman & Littlefield). He writes about the traumas in his own life, drawing from journals he kept since 1980, and how he managed to stay sane, hopeful, and optimistic. Drawing from leading-edge research and almost 100 original interviews, he shows how gay men have been resilient before Stonewall, through the AIDS years, and onward to marriage equality. He charts resiliency in family (both birth and chosen) relationships, marginalized LGBTQ youth, drag houses, community centers, institutional religion, in work lives, among gay men of color, and the elderly, as well as resiliency being a key to good health.

Andriote, 59, recently spoke with the Bay Area Reporter.

He said that he has been asked many times why he became infected with HIV despite knowing all he knew on the subject.

"I got infected because I am human," he said. "While I know a lot about HIV, that didn't always translate into 100 percent safer sex, 100 percent of the time. As I reviewed my journals in writing this book, I was reminded that I took ever-greater risks because of my belief that as an HIV-negative 'top' I was at only minimal risk. But I had forgotten about at least one incident, in Amsterdam, where I bottomed for a hot young man in the dark room of a bar, so I clearly was not a total top. I still think I got infected by not consistently using condoms in topping guys. I think it's my obligation to my fellow gay men to be frank about my own behavior if it can help them consider their own sexual choices."

Andriote said that he came up with a definition of resilience.

"In the book I coin a term, 'conscious resilience,' by which I mean the ability to draw consciously on, and to bounce back, from earlier traumatic events in our lives," he said. "Knowing we have already lived through tough experiences means we can comfort and encourage ourselves to keep going in spite of our newest challenge."

Andriote explained why he thinks gay men remained so resilient despite the many social, political, cultural, and religious forces arrayed against them.

"We hear time after time in gay men's coming out stories that a pivotal moment for them, the point when they somehow knew they would be OK after experiencing bullying or rejection, is when they realized they are not the only one," he said.

Having lived among so many empowered gay men, Andriote believes he has the power to choose whether he will be a victim or victor in his own life story, an important theme of "Stonewall Strong." Consequently, Andriote examines key pivotal events in recent gay history, "to showcase examples of how gay men have changed the world by refusing to live as victims, rejecting the stigma non-gay people have too-often expected us to bear for being 'different,'" he said.

"We gay men have much to be proud of in our history and I write about it in a way that flips the 'victim' narrative on its head to show that what was really going on was resilient men showing us how to survive and resist oppression - whether it was by living vicariously through the great female divas of stage and screen before Stonewall, the Stonewall riots themselves and the massive coming-out afterward, the community responses to AIDS, or the movement for marriage equality," he said. "I believe we should celebrate our strong and our proud history of resistance against those who oppress us."

What gays can teach straights
Andriote said that there are lessons about resilience that LGBTQs can teach straight people.

"I think the importance of framing our personal stories as tales of survival and strength, rather than struggle and weakness is key, as is the lifesaving value of being connected with a bigger community, of claiming for ourselves the courage of, for example, our immigrant ancestors," he said. "I write a lot in 'Stonewall Strong' about claiming our gay history as our own and it's the same for people in other communities, regardless of their sexual orientation."

The author also discussed resilience now that President Donald Trump is in the White House.

"In this time of anger, resentment, and uncertainty stirred up by Donald Trump, we must remember that gay men have a long history of resistance against oppression," Andriote said. "The very word 'gay' was chosen to give ourselves a way to speak to, and about, one another in the face of our oppressors. We have always found ways to subvert those who seek to marginalize and stigmatize us, and we must continue to do so, especially now. The most surprising thing I learned while writing this book was how few people, including gay men, seem to have a conscious awareness of their own resilience."

With all the news about sexual harassment by powerful men in entertainment, media, and politics, it may not be surprising that Andriote learned that researchers at Boston's Fenway Institute found that nearly half of gay men are sexually abused as boys, with an even higher rate for African-American and Latino gay men.

"The researchers found this after asking themselves, why it is that there is still a hardcore [group] of gay men that, in spite of every effort to encourage safer sex, continue to engage in risky sex and become infected with HIV?

"What they found about CSA, as they refer to it, is that whether male or female, people who are sexually abused as children typically grow up with a poor sense of self-esteem, deep shame, and a propensity for self-destructive behavior, including unhealthy relationships, partner violence, and risky sex," he said, referring to child sexual abuse.

"The researchers believe that if we can address the trauma of gay men's CSA experiences, it would be by far the most effective way to prevent new HIV infections because healthy men make healthy choices, and unhealthy men typically don't," Andriote added.

Gays and religion
He also found interesting evidence that religion does play a role in fostering resilience for LGBTQ people.

"I cite research data showing the inaccuracy of believing that all LGBTQ people reject religion or that all religions reject LGBTQ people," Andriote said. "In fact, the numbers show that even as fewer Americans identify as persons of faith or align with a particular religious tradition, the numbers are actually increasing among LGBTQ people."

Andriote noticed that LGBTQ people of color, whom he described as "doubly different, twice as strong," while facing anti-gay stigma both in their own racial or ethnic communities as well as in white and middle-class LGBTQ communities, may actually have an advantage when it comes to being resilient.

"The twice as strong part comes in these folks' ability to draw from other sources of personal identity - their racial and ethnic identities, their communities' histories of resilience, and survival against challenging odds - to affirm themselves. I write about how African-American gay men have always told me they experienced the impact of AIDS on gay men differently because they were more in touch with these other aspects of their personal and community histories than the urban gay men who frequently were cut off from, or living far away from, their families and hometowns, and didn't have those sources of continuity and connection from which to draw."

Another way gay men have developed resiliency is to find meaning in being stigmatized, the concept of "positive marginality," which Andriote discusses in his book.

"This term suggests that we can draw on our experience of being stigmatized as gay men and our efforts to resist the stigma and replace it in our own minds with a definition of us that disproves the stigma. For example, our bullies might tell us that we are ridiculous fags who only care about sex," he said. "If we internalize that message, allow our bullies to define us for ourselves, depression and self-destructiveness too easily follow. But if we reject the stigma, and replace it in our minds with positive, affirming images of ourselves and what being gay 'means' to us, then we can support our health and well-being and not let the bullies win.

Andriote said that he wrote the book to encourage gay men to make healthy choices in their lives. For example, he observes how, in the gay community, there has been an attitude toward promiscuity and drug use that not only tolerates, but also celebrates them as "somehow being gay birthrights."

Andriote suggests instead, that "we should consider celebrating our shared history of courage and resilience in the face of oppression, and the amazing cultural contributions we make in the world because of our 'difference.' Instead of celebrating our 'right' to be promiscuous (and I realize that for many gay men, this is an unpopular non-PC word), why not focus on our ability to love one another and build a strong community together?"

He said that he finds it nearly miraculous that any gay man survives to adulthood, especially having to deal with bullying or worrying that someone will find out their "truth," coupled with rejection from families or sometimes from places of worship.

"Reminding us of what we have already learned about taking care of ourselves, how we managed to make it through all our trials, provides the nugget of pride and self-esteem that form the core of our drive to be good to ourselves. When we believe that we are lovable, despite what anyone may have tried to make us believe about ourselves, then we are more apt to treat ourselves in a loving manner - and to care for our health."
For Andriote it all comes down to choice.

"My late, dear friend Richard Rasi, a psychologist and Catholic priest in Boston who founded the Provincetown Dignity chapter, always ended Mass by saying, 'Let us not be our own oppressors,'" Andriote said. "Choosing to move beyond our internalized homophobia, our self-stigma, is the beginning of being whole and healed as gay men. We can reframe our stories not as victims but as the heroes we really are and to see ourselves as members of a long lineage of brave gay men."

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