The War This Time
Why Was I Thinking About Pat Buchanan, Gay Bars, and AIDS While Colorado Burned?
Four hundred homes went up in flames in Colorado last week.
"Nature Takes a Fiery Toll Despite a Community's Efforts to Prepare," a June 14 New York Times headline read. They're calling 2013 the "most destructive wildfire season in Colorado history." The last wildfire season they described that way? That would be last year's wildfire season—the 2012 wildfire season—when 600 homes and countless acres in Colorado burned.
According to research cited in the New York Times, six of Colorado's worst wildfire seasons have taken place since 2000.
Reading about the wildfires in Colorado—particularly that "Nature Takes a Fiery Toll" piece—reminded of something the conservative Christian commentator/terrified white man/bigoted straight person Pat Buchanan had to say about "nature" back in 1983. And it was the second time in less than a month that Buchanan's three-decade-old remark sprang to mind.
The first time was back on May 17, when This American Life devoted an entire episode to the subject of climate change ("Hot in My Backyard"). The first third of the show featured a report from Julia Kumari Drapkin on the extreme weather conditions in Colorado in 2012: Record-breaking temperatures were reported all over the state, flowers bloomed earlier than usual, pollination patterns were out of whack, the state saw the lowest spring snowfalls in its history (snow equals water supply in Colorado), crops dried up and died in the fields, there was an outbreak of West Nile virus, bears came down from the mountains to kill and eat livestock because there wasn't enough food for them in the woods—and then fires started.
Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken, the central figure in Drapkin's report, knows what's behind the "weirding" of Colorado's weather: man-made climate change. But Doesken is reluctant to level with Colorado's ranchers about why their world is burning down around them. They know something is wrong. "It's not right. Nothing about this is right," as one rancher told Drapkin. This rancher, like all of Colorado's ranchers, relies on the state climatologist for predictions about weather patterns when determining what to plant (or whether to plant) and just how much livestock they will be able to support with the land. Telling these ranchers "what the weather has done, what it is doing, and what it will do" is Nolan Doesken's job. But he is afraid to do his job. He's afraid to tell Colorado ranchers the truth—and he has cause to be afraid.
"Taking a stand can be dangerous," Drapkin pointed out in her report. "In recent years, climatologists in four states have lost their positions because of what they said publicly about climate change—Oregon, Virginia, Delaware, and Georgia. Democratic governors got rid of climatologists who didn't embrace climate change, and a Republican fired two who did."
Colorado has trended blue in the last two national elections—it went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and the state currently has a Democratic governor. But Colorado has historically been a conservative state (it went for Bush in 2000 and 2004), and the ranchers Doesken answers to are far more conservative than the average voter. And conservative voters don't believe in climate change—not even conservative ranchers who are witnessing its effects firsthand.
"The fact is the people most directly affected by climate change around the state are also the most likely not to believe it's real," Drapkin stated in her report. "And they say all the reasons you've probably heard: It's a liberal conspiracy, or God's in charge, or the science is wrong or rigged or inconclusive. Even the word 'environmentalist' can trigger outrage."
When a rancher Drapkin interviewed realized that she was doing a report on climate change, he chased after her in his four- wheeler and threatened to smash her recording equipment—a shoot-the-messenger moment caught on tape.
"Climate change is the last thing a lot of farmers and ranchers want to hear [about]," Drapkin sadly concluded. "They stand to lose so much if climate models come true."
Listening to the ranchers in Drapkin's report—hearing the anger, denial, and fear in their voices—took me back 30 years. They sounded like another group of people whose world was on fire and who also couldn't bring themselves to face reality. They sounded like people I used to know. They sounded like those faggots who stood around in gay bars in 1983 insisting that AIDS couldn't be a sexually transmitted infection. Even as their friends lay dying, even as more of their friends and lovers became sick, they couldn't accept that sex had anything to do with this terrifying new illness.
So what was AIDS if it wasn't a sexually transmitted infection? It was a conservative conspiracy, they said. Or the science was wrong. Or rigged. Or inconclusive. The medical establishment was homophobic and couldn't be trusted. The federal bureaucracy was dominated by religious conservatives and couldn't be trusted. Messengers were shot. Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP, was called a fearmonger and a drama queen. Randy Shilts, a gay journalist who called for the closure of San Francisco's bathhouses, was spit on in the Castro. The first grassroots AIDS activists who tried to pass out condoms were chased out of bars.
Stupid, stupid faggots. Insisting that it wasn't true—insisting that AIDS couldn't be sexually transmitted, or insisting that AIDS wasn't that serious because "only" 1,500 gay men were sick in the summer of 1983—didn't prevent a pandemic. It was true. It was deadly serious. We would have to live very differently if we wanted to survive in this world. We would have to fight back. We would have to transform ourselves sexually, socially, and politically. And we did that, all of that, but precious time was wasted before gay men began to make the changes that had to be made, and countless lives were lost as a result of the denial and delay that paralyzed us in 1983.
Which brings me to Pat Buchanan. In 1983, Buchanan wrote a vicious column for the New York Post about the emerging AIDS crisis. Buchanan gloated and celebrated a disease that had already killed hundreds and would go on to kill millions. Buchanan's reaction wasn't unique; almost all social conservatives at the time welcomed the AIDS epidemic with unconcealed glee. God's judgment had come at last, and it vindicated everything the TV preachers had been saying since Stonewall. Homosexuals were sinners, the wages of sin is death, and now the homosexual sinners were dying. Praise the Lord.
The last line of Buchanan's acid column was etched into my brain the day I read it: "The poor homosexuals—they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."
That line—17 words—stung more than all the antigay sermons thundering down from the pulpits of all the American churches combined. Writing this piece, I didn't even have to look it up. I could recite it from memory. We had long been told that gay sex was unnatural—that we were unnatural—and now nature was moving to exterminate us.
Now every time I read about fires in Colorado or rising seas or Canadian tar sands or Native villages already being washed away in Alaska or preparations for the next hurricane that slams into New York City, a slightly modified version of Buchanan's vicious line about AIDS plays in my head. We have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.
We have declared war on the water we drink and the air we breathe. We have declared war on the forests and the oceans. We have declared war on the honeybees. All of us have—liberal, conservative, independent. Some of us, however, are ready to start making the changes that must be made if we want to survive in this world.
But the conservatives, the poor conservatives, they're like those faggots in gay bars in 1983. They're standing around, drinks in hand, insisting that the conflagration currently engulfing them—the conflagration that is engulfing us all—isn't happening. That it can't be happening. But just as denial and anger and shooting messengers didn't save those gay men in Chicago's bars in 1983, denial and anger won't save Colorado's ranchers in 2013. Nature is exacting an awful retribution.
The only question is how much time will be wasted and how many lives will be lost as a result of denial and delay this time.
Dan's new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, is available now!