gay bar sign
Ryan Cannon

Writer and gay-rights activist Dan Savage has a provocative piece in the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, comparing today’s climate deniers to gay men in the early ’80s who refused to face up to the reality of AIDS.

He starts out discussing a recent This American Life segment on ranchers in Colorado who won’t acknowledge that climate change is happening, even as it’s ravaging their land and livelihoods.

Listening to the ranchers in [reporter Julia Kumari] 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. …

[T]he 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.