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May 22 2023
Donna Summer Redux: More On The Scandal That Tainted Her Career Comments (0)

Donna-summer-boycultureIn the good old days of Summer (Image via video still)

The other day, I posted about the superb new Love to Love You, Donna Summer doc, and went into the scandal involving her homophobic comments in 1983, after she became born-again.

I was on the fence as to what she really said, with Village Voice reporter Jim Feldman the only critic there to document her words contemporaneously, and with more things being attributed to her over the years. But I wanted to point out an excellent, well-reported OutWeek piece from September 18, 1989. This was six years later, but not 60 years later. Still, while anything recalled years later can be embellished, including by well-intentioned people, I find it persuasive that several men who were at her concert independently recalled Summer's churchy words.

Donna-summer-aids-boycultureIt was a Donna bummer. (Images via OutWeek)

One man quoted her from memory as having told an enthusiastic gay fan at an Indiana concert:

I can help you change your ways. AIDS is your punishment and you must change your ways.

A second man who attended that gig characterized her post-concert speech as “real derogatory,” but he left before she said more and he did not paraphrase her beyond recalling she said homosexuality is a sin.

Feldman's own quotes from his 1983 review of her Atlantic City concert include these words directed at a gay fan in the crowd:

Oh, not you. After all, God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Oh, but I love you anyway.

This account was backed up by Parlee editor Tom Danna. In Atlantic City, Summer was said to have made these comments from the stage during her concert.

Summer said nothing about the whole thing for a couple of years, then denied it, and in 1989, told The Advocate:

Eight years ago [sic], I made a reference to AIDS. What I supposedly said I did not say, and my referenced to AIDS was really an innocent reference. At the time, I thought AIDS was a herpes pimple, like you get on your mouth. I certainly didn't have any idea what it really was and certainly if I had, in my heart I would not wish AIDS on anyone. I'm not that kind of person. It's one of the most horrifying diseases around. I don't think they're doing enough for it. I've lost a lot of friends who have died of AIDS.

I think it is pretty obvious she said the Adam and Steve bit; the doc accepts that she did, probably because the people involved heard her say it themselves behind the scenes. As for AIDS, I think Summer's 1989 interview acknowledges she said something that to our ears now would sound much more horrible than it did even in 1983.

But I think the doc does a good job of showing that she changed over time, and also contextualized her sudden embrace of hardcore Evangelical Christianity. I think watching it can be therapeutic for old fans who never quite came back around after her betrayal. I also think that she's gone, but her music is here, and we can appreciate her artistry, remember her strengths and weaknesses and move on.

P.S. I'm sure some people think it's bizarre to dive into stuff like this at all, but I find the historical record — while we still have the ability to have one — important. I'm also really interested in urban legends. This one appears to be mostly true. I remember I also once spent a long time digging into the story that Bob Hope made an AIDS joke on national television during the Statue of Liberty renovation celebration. He did not, but he did make a negative job privately at an event during that time at which Reagan was not in attendance. And the flap over what he said led to Hope relenting and doing a PSA against anti-gay bigotry: