By Doctor Comrade
Duberman, Martin B. Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS. New York: The New Press, 2014.
Renowned historian and biographer Martin Duberman’s newest book Hold Tight Gently is a poignant examination of the reaction to the AIDS epidemic in its early years (1981 to 1995). Told through the biographies of two gay men who contracted and died of AIDS, Mike Callen and Essex Hemphill, Duberman masterfully constructs a heart-wrenching narrative of the failures of the medical community, US government, and gay liberation movement to recognize and properly counteract the disease’s early incursions into the gay community. Through a series of interviews, examinations of personal correspondence, and analyses of artistic works, Duberman demonstrates how gay liberation failed to maintain its radicalism. The gay liberation movement has essentially “moved on” from the AIDS epidemic and focused on “the assimilationist items of legal matrimony and the ‘patriotic’ right to serve openly in the armed forces,” despite the disease’s overwhelming prevalence in the gay community (x). Hold Tight Gently is part dual biography, part political polemic, and part microhistory. By focusing on Callen and Hemphill, Duberman deploys their experiences in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in order to reinvigorate the discourse of radicalism in the gay liberation movement.
Duberman makes several careful delineations throughout the book. For example, he thoroughly defines the gulf between the gay liberationist radicals who sought social change and the assimilationist and mainstream “gay rights” organizations that rose to prominence in the late 1980s (10). In this way, he also clearly delimits the bounds of AIDS rhetoric, which declined in prominence along with the liberationists. These careful outlines are characteristic of the whole narrative and major strength of the book: his chosen case studies describe the various factions of the gay liberation movement, which has too often been interpreted as a monolithic entity.
Callen’s experiences speak to the promiscuous, white-privileged, gay man’s experiences of the AIDS epidemic. When he first developed symptoms, he was treated by noted virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a doctor who worked with a predominantly gay male clientele (9). An unfortunate side-effect was Sonnabend’s observation that promiscuous gay men seemed to be developing a similar immunosuppressive disease. Diagnoses like Sonnabend’s and other medical professionals led the Centers for Disease Control to label the outbreak as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency in 1982 (49). Despite evidence to the contrary, the CDC and other groups (including religious organizations) drew the “equation… between gay male promiscuity and terrifying disease” (14). GRID would eventually become known as AIDS, but not before attaching the stigma of homophobia to the condition; Duberman convincingly argues that the stigma of AIDS as a gay disease or gay cancer would severely impact the lives of thousands of gay men around the country who could not get treatment because of their sexuality, and it would impede meaningful funding efforts to fight the disease in its early stages.
On the other hand, Hemphill’s experiences in the gay community speak to the prevalence of not only homophobia but also racism. Though Hemphill left behind less physical evidence for Duberman, the author still managed to construct a compelling story of the problems black gay men faced. Classic examples of intersectional oppression, black gay men faced homophobia in their own communities as well as racism within the gay community. Hemphill’s important role in northeastern gay activism demonstrates how black gay men were not silenced, but certainly marginalized by white-dominated gay rights organizations (28). Moreover, Hemphill’s experiences allow Duberman to make a nuanced analysis of race and class in the context of gay liberation. For example, Duberman argues that black lesbians and black gay men had relatively little tension and cooperated in activism, in stark contrast to their white counterparts (42). Perhaps more tellingly for gay black men writ large, Hemphill declared that he was always a black man first, and that the role his sexuality played in his identity was secondary to his race (17). Duberman rightly focuses on this issue as a key factor in how two wildly different men, Callen and Hemphill, had divergent experiences in the AIDS outbreak, an important point when considering the fractious and divided nature of the gay liberation movement.
Though he openly admits that reconstructing Hemphill’s experience was more difficult due to the lack of sources, Duberman still took extensive license with Hemphill’s work, especially in terms of whom Duberman implied Hemphill was writing about. For example, Duberman attempts to reveal conflict with Hemphill’s father by stating that some obtuse and angry poetry was directed towards his father’s intransigence (23). It is the prerogative of the biographer to attempt to fill in the blanks where explicit evidence might not exist, and overall Duberman does use these microhistorical legacies as a means to tell a larger story. It also becomes clear throughout the book that Duberman has extensively researched both men and their broader historical context. Callen’s extensive archives and Hemphill’s literary works, coupled with numerous interviews, allow Duberman to paint sympathetic portraits of two young men and their various experiences in a shared historical phenomenon. More importantly, their experiences speak to larger issues in American culture and gay liberation, which Duberman deftly uses to reclaim areas of gay experience that had previously been erased in the historical narrative.