GenDivide: A Boomer’s Take on ’The Normal Heart’
Editor's Note: This is the first half of a two part story in which two EDGE editors respond to "The Normal Heart" -- one, a Boomer who lived through it; the other a Millennial not born when the epidemic began. This is Boomer Bob Nesti's response. To read Millennial Jason St. Amand's follow this link
For many Boomers, like myself, gay life has been defined by life before AIDS and life after AIDS. Before it was like being a kid in the proverbial candy jar -- sex was easy, plentiful and largely non-judgmental. There were health risks, but as a cheerful public health nurse told me once: "Just make sure you urinate afterward. It will clean out your urethra and lower the chance of infection." It was also a time of growing political visibility and optimism. Anita Bryant may have demonized us, but she was publicly shamed and lost her attempt to legislate bigotry while Harvey Milk inspired us to march and stand up for our rights.
The hope proved short-lived: Milk was killed and in a very short time the gay community was shrouded in fear. People were becoming ill with scary-sounding mysterious illnesses long thought rare: pneumocystis pneumonia, Kaposi's Sarcoma, cachexia and toxoplasma became terms that we reluctantly became familiar with. "What are we going to do?" my friend Sal crowed after the New York Times began reporting on a strange cancer that seemed to only target gay men in the summer of 1981. "We're all going to die!" We didn't, but many did; and those early years were a scary, fractious time.
Singes in memory
Sal, by the way, did test positive; but he’s still here and is planning to watch "The Normal Heart" this Sunday on HBO. I was fortunate to attend a screening earlier this week and the film, directed by Ryan Murphy, singes in memory. It was also my first encounter with the work. I avoided the work from its first production, which played at New York’s Public Theater in 1985. The closest I came was seeing Brad Davis, that production’s Ned Weeks (the play’s stand-in for playwright Larry Kramer), smoking a cigarette at Uncle Charlie’s in the Village; but that day didn’t look like the iconic Tom of Finland-like character he played in Fassbinder’s "Querelle;" rather another anxious and world-weary gay man, as most of us were.
The main reason why I passed on "The Norman Heart" (while seeing the similarly themed "As Is" and "Jerker") was that I, like many of my peers, found Kramer irritating during those early years of the epidemic. His diatribes, written in ALL CAPS that appeared in the New York Native, pushed everyone’s buttons the wrong way. He may be, in hindsight, the voice of reason but it appeared to so many us that he co-opted the health crisis to serve an agenda that was anti-promiscuous sex. He pretty much said so in "Faggots," his 1978 novel. While other gay writers were writing sensitive coming-out stories, Kramer wrote a satire of gay men meaner than "The Women."
Once AIDS hit, confusion became a way of life and Kramer didn’t so much shed light on what to do as throw gasoline on a flash fire. Don’t rain on our parade: we wanted to see "Dreamgirls," dance through the night at the Saint, then head over to the meatpacking district or the docks for sex. Kramer wanted us to settle down and be monogamous. It was an unpopular message in the best of times; as the worst enveloped us, he was a righteous scourge -- a Savonarola of Greenwich Village.
All that confusion is vividly brought back in Murphy’s adaptation (written by Kramer) and it has a piercing reality. What makes "The Normal Heart" work so well on film is how succinctly it brings back the emotional terrain of those frightening days. It was a time when every skin abrasion was examined with concern; a fever left you anxious; a cough kept you awake all night with worry. There was no way of knowing. The virus wouldn’t be identified until 1984 and the test for it wasn’t available until the following year. In those early years, there was no way of knowing if you were sick, nor was effective treatment available. Add to that a climate of silence in the media and by the government; and one of hate by the Christian Coalition that used their liturgy to suggest that AIDS was a scourge of a mean, old Old Testament God. It was like living in that 1975 David Cronenberg horror movie "They Came From Within," except it was real and even uglier than that film depicted.
Strategies surrounding sex were debated: some, like Kramer, felt that monogamy was the best defense; others argued that may be flawed because if one partner had whatever it was that was causing the illnesses it could be repeatedly transmitted over repeated encounters. Others said that celibacy was the only route; while some denied it was sexually transmitted at all. Avoiding any contact of bodily fluids became the rule. Sex became frottage (touching and jerking off), both in public spaces and behind closed doors. In one such careful exchange, my load shot into my partner’s eye. What would in a few years earlier been an awkwardly comic moment became an anxious one. Who knew then just what was in my semen?
Walking the streets of New York during those early days often left you also anxious and depressed. In the swell of people on the street, your eye would catch that hunky guy you admired at the gym six months earlier, now a skeletal shell of his former self, or that the waiter who served you at a recent birthday party was covered with purplish sores. A visit home (in my case Boston) was greeted not with the faces of old friends, but a list of those that had died in the interim. Andrew Sullivan put it this way in the New Republic as the 1980s came to a close: "But for gay men in America in 1990, none of this applies anymore. Death is less an event than an environment."
Tolerance wasn’t equality
Yet, as in any epidemic, many survived. And Kramer -- for all his righteousness -- hit a nerve: sure, we had made progress, but tolerance wasn’t equality. Beneath all the talk of sexual behavior was the cold fact that we were as a small, but vital segment of the population, marginalized. Kramer spoke the harsh truth after criticism of an ACT-UP demonstration that disrupted a Sunday mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989: "We couldn’t have gotten worse publicity than the Church action, and that put us on the map. ... Don’t use the backlash argument as an excuse. They’re not going to like us. They hate us anyway."
Today we are in the gay moment -- actually approaching a post-gay world. But, as the titles at the end of the film point out, AIDS is still with us. Sure it has been textured into our world in ways that have made it, at best, manageable; but it is still a scary reality. Kramer still rails, though now more frail than he was back in the day. But "The Normal Heart" captures his voice with eloquence and power. At the screening I attended, largely attended by Millennials, there wasn’t the usual swell of applause when the film ended, just a stunned silence. For two hours Larry Kramer brought some of us back and gave a glimpse of what it was like to those that hadn’t lived it. There may not be a better way to celebrate Memorial Day than to watch this film. I hope Sal likes it.