October 15, 1982Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. -- quoted by Ben Dreyfuss in "Flashback: The Reagan White House Thought AIDS Was Pretty Hilarious In 1982" Mother Jones
October 15, 2015I remember the year I began to think for myself. It was 1995, and I was fourteen. 1995 was the year that I started thinking it might be okay to be queer (although I would have said "gay" then) and that maybe abortion should be legal.
Now, it's easy for me to forget that I ever thought otherwise.
But I did. In 1995, I dared for the first time to believe something that the adult authority figures in my life (of whom there was really only one) had not authorized me to believe.
The sacred nature of that moment is not recognizable at the time. At the time it feels uncomfortable, the way many parts of adolescence are uncomfortable. I missed out on a lot of the parts of what's normally constructed as "adolescence" in my culture, but I did get to have that magic moment, or series of moments, where I realized my mind was my own and I could disagree with the person who raised me, which meant that I could be something other than what the people who raised me were. I don't know whether people ten years younger than me, or ten years older, understand the atmosphere of fear that us children of heterosexual parents were breathing during the 1980s. The first time I heard about the existence of queer people, it was because my mother told me that my Girl Scout troop leader, who was rumored to be lesbian, was "trying to have a baby with another woman". I had already been taught how babies are made, so there was some missing piece of information there. A vacuum that contained something frightening. I was told that gay people deserved to get AIDS because "they should know it's not clean to have sex that way", and I didn't have any reason to doubt it. What did I know about sex? I believed what I had received: that gay people weren't quite people. In 1994, I wouldn't have seen too much wrong with what Larry Speakes said in 1982.
I went to college instead of high school, and when I was 14, and taking a sociology class called "Social Movements, Democracy, and the State", I read AIDS DemoGraphics by Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston; we also watched the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk". I was uncomfortable -- I was experiencing cognitive dissonance between what I had been taught and what the beginnings of my own independent moral sensibility were telling me. It wasn't just that I was rejecting something I had been taught, but something that had been glued down in my mind with the adhesives of shame and silence. "It's not clean to have sex that way", I was told at the same time I was being told in so many tacit ways that it wasn't okay for me to think or talk about sex at all. Slowly, a light came on, and I saw that the small room constructed by that shame and silence had an exit door.
In the same sociology class, I learned about the concept of "cognitive liberation" from Douglas McAdam's book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. McAdam explained that a prerequisite for organized social change is internal personal change: the process whereby individuals (potentially working together to do so) free themselves from the beliefs that limited them. Without freeing themselves from the beliefs that limit them on the inside, people can't organize to demand change on the outside.
Without knowing it, I was experiencing cognitive liberation myself at the time. I was developing the ability to conceive of bodily autonomy as a fundamental human right. I wasn't raised to believe in bodily autonomy. I had to learn about it as a teenager and as a young adult. I don't remember the moment when I became pro-choice, but that, too, happened around the same time. I couldn't formulate the concept of bodily autonomy then, but I remember deciding that if enough people disagreed about a moral issue, it was better for the government not to legislate one side of it or the other.
To recognize that my body belonged to me, and that other people's bodies belonged to them, I had to take ownership of the inside of my own head first. That wasn't something I could have done at home -- I had to go to college to do it. 14-year-olds today don't have to go to college in order to be exposed to non-family-approved ideas. At least, not if they have access to the Internet.
Maybe this is why it's so popular for adults to dismiss "Tumblr culture", Tumblr being the current chosen stand-in for a forum where young people's voices get heard. As a culture, we haven't really made up our collective minds about whether young people's bodies are their parents' property or not. It's threatening when people you think are your property start getting ideas about autonomy.
That's why it's even more threatening to adults when teenagers get to experiment with ideas, in a space unsupervised by parents or parental proxies, than it is when teens experiment with sex or drugs. On the Internet, teenagers get to talk to each other in a way that isn't constrained by adult rules, or by geographical homogeneity. They get to compare notes. They get to find out firsthand that their parents' beliefs are not always fundamental truths. "Thinking for yourself" sounds so clichéd; it feels inadequate to describe that moment of moral awakening that, for me, was just as powerful as sexual awakening.
Teenagers going through cognitive liberation remind adults that when they were that age, they weren't free. That makes some adults angry and uncomfortable.
All hail the Internet, all hail young people daring to be wrong in public, and all hail all of us stumbling towards freedom in our minds and bodies.
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