20th Century America, AIDS, Gay Rights Movement, Homosexuality, Larry Kramer, Movies, New York City, The Normal Heart
When Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart debuted in New York City in 1985, it was probably the first piece of theater to confront the emerging AIDS crisis. It was an incredibly angry play, with a protagonist who is filled with fury over what he sees as gay folly and government indifference. Kramer was trying to draw attention to a disease that was erupting with lethal intensity among gay men. In a pre-Internet age, he sought not to entertain the audience but to educate them. So the play is filled with facts about the AIDS crisis and the government’s lack of response to it. It is the theatrical equivalent of a pamphlet handed to people on street corners.
It was also a play meant to mobilize its audience to take action. Kramer had already become an activist within the gay community in 1981, when he invited what he saw as the A-List of gay New York to his apartment to hear a doctor talk about this new disease (not, as The Normal Heart suggests, Dr. Laubenstein, but another doctor who had begun to work on the problem). That meeting led to the foundation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, the first AIDS organization. Kramer’s bold, confrontational style helped bring the crisis to wider public attention, but it also made many gay men uncomfortable, both because he seemed to be blaming gay men for contracting AIDS and because he was alienating many of the people whose help GMHC needed if it was to succeed. As a result, in 1983, he was ousted from the board of the organization.
The Normal Heart is a fictionalized account of these events from Kramer’s perspective, as I explored in my previous post. One of his goals in the play was the rouse viewers to action, to get them to protest, demand greater government attention, and try to change the course of the emerging epidemic. The play seeks to show the audience how the forces of homophobia, the closet, and general disinterest were combining to kill large numbers of gay men.
By 2014, when HBO premiered its adaptation of the play, however, things had changed drastically. AIDS is no longer an obscure disease. While there is neither a cure nor a vaccine yet, enormous strides have been made in understanding exactly how the disease operates and how it spreads. The development of various drugs have turned AIDS from a quick death sentence into a disease with significant though largely manageable health effects, although the drugs themselves come with side effects and can be quite expensive. In many patients, these drugs work to reduce the infected person’s viral load to a level where it is undetectable, which appears to render the person non-infectious. (Indeed, this has led many gay men to describe themselves as “Poz undetectable” to prospective sex partners.) The anti-viral drug Truvada now offers pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PReP) to those who take it regularly, and appears to be nearly 100% effective at stopping the spread of the virus when used properly; it’s not a vaccine, but it’s a big step toward one.
Another equally important change is that gay men are no longer so universally reviled as they were in the 1980s. One recent poll found that 80% of Americans believe that people should not be fired because of their sexual orientation; indeed many people are surprised to discover that it is still legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian in 29 states. Support for gay marriage rights has reached an all-time high. Last month, my husband and I celebrated the first anniversary of our legal wedding; 15 years ago that would have been inconceivable. A majority of mainline Protestants now support gay marriage and these churches permit their ministers to conduct gay weddings. While coming out of the closet can still carry risks, particularly in more conservative parts of the country, large numbers of gays and lesbians and even transgender people are now able to live openly and with a considerable degree of social acceptance. And, of course, it is quite possible that later this month, the Supreme Court will decide in favor of permitting gay marriage across the country.
The changing context of gay rights makes the HBO adaptation quite a different piece from its theatrical counterpart. While Mark Ruffalo’s Ned Weeks is still angry and abrasive, the film feels much less pressure to educate and persuade its audience, because much of its audience already knows what AIDS is and why it’s a problem and feels much more sympathy for the plight of those New York gays in the early 1980s. So Kramer trimmed down the bulk of the fact-giving, and instead developed Ned’s relationship with his dying lover Felix, giving the audience a deeper understanding of their lives together. The film is less about educating the audience about AIDS, and more about educating the audience about what it was like to be a gay man dealing with AIDS in the early 1980s. In 1985, the end of the play left the audience with an awareness of the mysterious crisis that was still escalating around them, whereas in 2014, the film ends with the audience aware that the disease has been identified, methods of fighting it have been developed, and the death rate has declined substantially. So the film cannot have the emotional impact that the play originally had. In other words, the story has moved from being a polemic about a growing problem toward being a documentary about the early years of the AIDS crisis and the birth of gay activism.
It’s hard for younger people, especially young gay men, to recognize just how enormous the impact of the AIDS crisis was on the gay community. Prior to the AIDS crisis, gay men had only a rudimentary degree of social organization, mostly focused on gay bars and the Gay Pride movement. Gay men met at bars for social solidarity, to find potential sex partners, and to enjoy a safe space where they could express themselves more openly.
The AIDS crisis, however, spurred the growth of gay advocacy organizations. Some, like GMHC and Kramer’s second organization, ACT UP, focused specifically on AIDS, while others like the Human Rights Campaign which was organized in 1986 (after a less organized version founded in 1980) emphasized legal issues such as workplace discrimination and gay parenting; in 1989 it reorganized as a lobbying organization. ACT UP helped inspire Queer Nation, a more militant organization than HRC that emphasized street theater and guerrilla protest tactics to demand greater toleration for gays and an end to gay bashing. It helped reclaim the label ‘queer’, which prior to that had mostly be used as a term of abuse and ridicule; today many young non-heterosexuals prefer to label themselves as ‘queer’ rather than ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, because they feel the former term allows for a wider range of identity. In 1980, the organization that would become PFLAG had about 20 affiliated groups but no national organization, having been founded in 1972 and spreading mostly by word of mouth; today it has more than 350 member groups in all 50 states and is a national organization that claims about 200,000 members. The AIDS Quilt, the world’s largest folk art project, began in San Francisco in 1987 to memorialize those lost to AIDS; today it commemorates some 48,000 men and women who died from the disease and is still accepting panels (incidentally, anyone can make a panel to commemorate someone, even without having personally known that person).
In 1984, only a tiny handful of out gays or lesbians had been elected to public office, chiefly the ill-fated Harvey Milk of San Francisco, who was murdered in 1978 after less than a year in office. In 1999 Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to an initial term in Congress, and in 2013, she became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate (she was proceeded in the House of Representatives by Massachusetts’ Barney Frank, who was still in the closet when he was first elected in 1980, but was out of the closet when he won re-election in 1990; in contrast Baldwin has been out since she first took public office in 1992).Today she is just one of 8 openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual members of Congress (all Democrats).
Obviously not all of these developments can be attributed to the AIDS crisis. Some of it would have happened had AIDS never emerged; the precursors to the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG were already in existence in 1981. But it’s clear that the AIDS crisis and the political disinterest it initially received galvanized the gay community in a new way. Because hospitals were often unwilling to accept AIDS patients, many gays and lesbians took up the task of caring for friends, lovers, and relatives stricken by the disease. Films such as An Early Frost, Longtime Companion, and Philadelphia helped bring the problem of AIDS to a heterosexual audience in a sympathetic way, and the death from AIDS of film icon Rock Hudson in 1985 shocked many people, including President Reagan and his wife. President Reagan’s failure to issue a public statement about his friend’s illness contributed to the impression that he simply didn’t care about the AIDS issue; his wife Nancy refused an appeal from Hudson’s publicist to help get Hudson admitted to a French hospital after he collapsed in Paris. Numerous straight friends and relatives of gays dealing with AIDS were just as outraged by government indifference and lack of funding as Larry Kramer was. AIDS forced many closeted gay men to reveal their homosexuality to friends and family. It seems safe to say that had the AIDS epidemic not emerged, gay rights and social acceptance of gays and lesbians would not be as far along as they are today.
And herein lies the lesson of The Normal Heart for those gays and lesbians too young to remember the 1980s. Gay rights didn’t come out of nowhere. They came out of a community of men and women who organized and demanded attention and legal rights and resources. These men and women carved out a space for non-heterosexuals that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. One of Queer Nation’s favorite protest chants was “We’re here, we’re queer; get used to it.” And the nation has. But if non-heterosexuals don’t continue to organize and fight for their rights, for their place at the national table, those rights may easily go away.
One Other Point
The AIDS crisis had another effect on American society, one more subtle and with reach far beyond the gay community. It changed our notions of male beauty in a profound way. Prior to the 1990s, few men engaged in substantial weight-lifting, except a small number of professional bodybuilders and powerlifters. Male actors and models were not expected to be muscular and ripped. Consider for a moment Burt Reynolds’ famous 1972 centerfold for Cosmopolitan:
Reynolds’ is healthy-looking, but hardly muscular. This was considered a sensational display of male beauty at the time; it established Reynolds as one of the leading sex symbols of the decade. This was what sexy men were supposed to look like in the era of sexual liberation: natural, healthy, and not over-groomed. But by modern standards, Reynolds looks downright flabby, and it’s hard for us to recognize the erotic charge this image had in its day. Today an actor with this physique would probably be cast in comic roles like those Steve Carrell gets, where a lack of definition would suggest the character was an ineffective sad sack. (Think of the chest-waxing scene in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.)
So what changed? AIDS.
In the 1980s, before the development of drugs to combat the effects of AIDS, physical wasting was one of the prominent symptoms of the disease. Weight loss is one of the early signs of HIV infection, and gauntness was extremely common as the disease progressed. Matt Bomer’s physical transformation in the film is a very realistic view of what happened to many gay men who struggled with the disease.
So in the 1990s, gay men began hitting the gym aggressively, putting on muscle to make a statement that they were healthy and not dealing with HIV. As so often happens, gay men set the standards for straight men in terms of appearance and fashion, so it was inevitable that as gay men began sculpting themselves into Greek statues, straight men would eventually take notice and follow suit. And the result is that now, movie stars don’t like Burt Reynolds in Cosmo, they look like this:
One of the few false notes in The Normal Heart comes early in the film, in a few scenes set on Fire Island in 1981. Ned Weeks sees a number of shirtless (and sometimes pantsless) gay men who look like they stepped out of the Magic Mike poster, when in reality very few men anywhere looked like that at the time. Even Bomer’s Felix, who is only moderately buff, is probably too ripped for 1981. It’s a small issue, but one that momentarily threw me out of the setting.
2014 was the first year since 1983 that AIDS was not in the top ten leading causes of death in New York City. That’s a wonderful accomplishment, and one that can be partly attributed to the work done by groups like GMHC and ACT UP. Sadly, however, it seems that many younger gay men have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the shift of AIDS from a terminal disease to one that can be managed with drugs, because rates of HIV infection among 14 to 24 year old men have started rising again. It would appear that a new generation of gay men may have to learn some of the lessons The Normal Heart has to offer the hard way.