(Gay Times, November 1999)
by Richard Smith
I'm sure most gay men's hearts sank when Donna Summer's appearance at G.A.Y. last month caused the rumor that has dogged her for sixteen years to rise from the grave once more. It's baffling that this story - despite endless streams of denials from Donna - can still haunt her after all these years. That she once said Aids was a divine punishment from God has become something of a "gay myth." And like any good myth, it refuses to die, even though the truth is somewhat different. Part of the popular myth is that it was years before Donna Summer issued any denial. This is not true. Donna Summer has denied making such comments in every interview since the mid eighties. She issued a press statement in 1984, stating: "It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic all I can ask is for is understanding as I believe my true feelings have been misinterpreted."
It is true that Summer didn't take any legal action until 1991 - after New York Magazine printed a two-paragraph item in their gossip column. But that piece explicitly denied that Donna had made endless denials (concluding, wrongly, that "it's incomprehensible that she won't retract those statements.") Summer files a $50 million libel and invasion of privacy suit. Under terms that remain confidential, the case was settles out of court. At a press conference afterwards, Donna tearfully said, "the magazine said that I said homosexuals were sinners and that Aids was a divine ruling. That is completely false. I did not say it, I do not believe that. I would never say the things attributed to me in that article."
So what really happened and how did such a rumor start? As Donna has acknowledged, the whole thing started when she was talking to some fans after a concert in America at the end of 1983, about her recent conversion to Born Again Christianity. This conversion had been preceded by some form of collapse - after the death of disco at the end of the Seventies, her career had bottomed out and she split up with her husband and her record company Casablanca. ("I became desperate and suicidal. I was taking a very serious anti-depressant drug and knew I had to come off it - but I didn't know how. It wasn't living, it was living hell.")
It's important to remember that these were not good times for gay fans either. Aids had really hit hard, and it was manipulated by the Christian Right in the States, who were seen as the Republican Party at prayer. For many gay men, this was life during war time. And. Merely by being Born Again, Donna was seen as having defected to the side of our enemies. As one long time fan, Cathy Hawkins, explained to me: "The political climate of the time, combined with a bit of naivety on Donna's part, made for a bad combination. She would occasionally appear on Christian television shows - not realizing that those appearances allied her with the political right in the minds of some. I think that left some of her fans feeling a bit betrayed."
According to Donna Summer, initially she had hoped to clear up any confusion about her beliefs: "There was a lot of different stories in the newspaper, and I didn't want anybody to have the wrong idea, like I was going crazy or something. And so after one concert I told some people 'if you are interested I'll talk to you after the show'. So about 500 people stayed At the end some boys were asking me some questions and I guess they were gay, and I answered the questions and then at some point one of the boys got angry and he started yelling back and forth to me and, you know, and we said things back and forth to each other, but not really. I can't explain it He said it [Aids was God's punishment]. He said that I said it, but that's not what I said!"
I put an appeal out on the web, asking eyewitnesses to this incident to come forward. The following account from one fan, J, backs Donna's version of events. "A gentleman with Aids asked her if she would pray for him. She said she would be delighted. Then some wise-ass in the audience said something about, if she did, it would be hypocritical. She stopped and asked what he meant. There was some talking and I could not hear the next couple of exchanges. Then she said, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son". The world meant everyone. Then the guy went ballistic. I got confused during the debate, [I wasn't sure if he was like Jerry Falwell and attacking her for praying for the guy, or if he was gay and anti-God. Anyway, she was either frustrated or confused herself, and became sarcastic. People were leaving during this time because it was out of hand. She then told the guy it was because of the reckless lifestyle, Aids was in the gay community to begin with. The guys in the audience went berserk That was the slam against gays."
J, a gay Christian, thinks she was right, although he acknowledges it wasn't something gay men wanted to hear. - "At the time we were all in denial [that] it had anything to do with sexual freedom, but we now know that was what caused the disease to spread so fast " - but that's not the same as calling Aids a divine punishment, and at no point did she condemn gay men.
"The guy with Aids stayed and was prayed for. She never condemned him, but did ask that he turn his life to Jesus. Being a gay Christian, I had no problem, however, there are some gays in our community who will not accept this. I do not think she realized the whole thing was going to blow up in her face. Nor do I think she meant any malice to the gays whatsoever I do not think she thought anyone would leave the room. She can be really naive."
J also stresses that Summer hugged the fan who had Aids; "At that time, people did not do that unless they had gloves on. She also prayed for him." And he emphatically states that Donna Summer said the exact opposite of Aids is a punishment from God. "If the people who got mad had stayed, they would have heard her say: 'the devil comes to steal and destroy, but God came to give life and life more abundantly', basically blaming Aids on the devil."
Some fans believe the rumor that Donna called Aids some divine punishment was started and spread by just one man who was at that concert. Some argue that those around Donna made things worse by shielding her from this 'bad press." In 1987 she spoke of why she may have appeared "unconcerned" by the rumor before: "When I was first becoming famous, the gay community said I was a guy, so I figured this is another rumor, this is gonna die too. So I really didn't get too bothered about it, you know?"
Donna says it was "A misquote taken completely out of context. I'm here to spread love and not to judge people." Asked to clarify what she meant, she says: "What I was trying to say was 'look, I've done a lot of crazy things in my time and God changed my life and helped me'. The message that I was trying to bring, that has been taken totally out of context and perverted, was that, whoever we are, God is still there and he does love us and he will forgive us only if we ask I'm not trying to force it down your throat and I'm not trying to make you change."
All you can judge Donna Summer by is her record; her endless statements that she did not and would not say such a thing, her numerous performances for Aids charities, and the fact that everyone I've spoken to who knows Donna Summer - fans, journalists, and musicians - have all said the same thing: Donna Summer is in no way homophobic. "I've had the pleasure of talking to her around 17 times." J says. "All I can say is Donna is full of love, hates anything to do with gossip, hates lies, hates bigotry of any kind, and always accepts a person unless they do harm to her or her family. She knew I was gay and never shunned me or my partner. Donna Summer can not be anti-gay in any way."
© 1999 Gay Times