Monday, May 26, 2014

Two Memorial Days

It's no small coincidence that the airing of HBO's adaptation of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart took place on Memorial Day weekend. While most of America commemorated its war dead, others are still recovering from the war known as AIDS.

The reaction to the groundbreaking play has been overwhelmingly positive, as it should be.

And it took producer-director Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, etc) to finally help Larry Kramer wrangle it from Barbra Streisand, who clung to the film rights for decades.

Seeing Mark Ruffalo portray Ned Weeks, the protagonist version of Kramer himself, offers a fascinating look at the best and worst of what critics and fans have used to depict Kramer himself.
In an unintentional bit of ironic critique, a writer for the New York Times offers a petty negative comment about Murphy's film. "This Normal Heart can feel a bit dehumanizing, as if it’s introducing characters only to kill them in hopes of wringing some tears out of us."

The writer ignores (or has yet to realize) that the Times itself is not only the employer of a dying character. Despite the publication's infamously dismissive yet factual 1981 "gay cancer found in homosexuals" news brief, its history of AIDS reporting, or lack of, is in part culpable for the spread of the epidemic, as well as homophobia and misreporting for decades (Google Gina Kolata). is a bit more supportive, citing the film as "the most important movie HBO has ever made." Perhaps that's because that website, unlike the complacent and crumbling NY Times, isn't invested in its ghost of objectivity (This is the same publication that to this day refuses to properly spell the initialization of Kramer's group as ACT UP, instead choosing the diminished Act Up.)

Vox also provides important back story information for those are too young and uninformed to understand why such a mere "play" should have such an impact.

Some people (unworthy of mentioning here) still cling to their distaste for Kramer, ignoring the fact that his rants, anger and annoying persistence are probably responsible for their still being alive.

And if that sounds extreme, so be it. Kramer's persistent, relentless attacks on complacency in the gay community over the AIDS pandemic will be his proud legacy. As in the play and film, opponents who decried his approach were either culpable, or complicit, or died.

I had the honor of being a small cog at the center of the late-1980s early 1990s AIDS activist movement through ACT UP and by working at the shortlived OutWeek magazine.

Kendall Morrison getting arrested at an ACT UP protest
Here's a photo of publisher Kendall Morrison once again braving the phalanx of police to get arrested in a demonstration. People like Kendall took Kramer's message of desperation and anger to heart.

And then-editor of OutWeek Gabriel Rotello offers his take on Kramer as a modern-day Cassandra in a fascinating essay, "Kramer as Prophet."

While it's sometimes easy to wax into nostalgia, as do war veterans, it's also hard to remember pain. Our bodies and minds are trained to forget pain, otherwise we'd be screaming and howling in misery all the time.

But although two of my published novels (Monkey Suits and Cyclizen) directly deal with New York City's AIDS generation, my latest, Message of Love, attempts to draw on those early days before anyone knew anything, yet the plague was spreading. Is it wrong to be nostalgic for a plague?

This Newsmakers feature includes reportage by and about nonfiction writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, about how veterans long for the days of their military service. Certainly they don't miss the bombs, the carnage and the horrors. But they do miss the tribal sense of being.

“They come home, and of course they don't miss getting shot at, they don't miss having to shoot at people,” Junger explained. “But what they do miss is that brotherhood of combat. It's not replaceable back home and I think that's the sort of secret to understanding why soldiers can miss something as terrible as war is.”

In the same way, I long for the intimacy and fealty of my fellow activists. While friends and friends of friends were dying, we clung together. But before we did that, we were in fear and denial.
Larry Kramer

Michael Musto, who wrote for decades about the fabulous Manhattan nightlife of the era, could not ignore AIDS and its impact on the gay subculture. As he states in his Daily Beast feature, "You’d be so shocked into submission by the growing awfulness that you’d numbly rip up card after card in your Rolodex, praying that this was just some real-life science fiction movie that would end soon so you could return to the mundanities of life. You wanted it to go away, and from the mass media’s lack of coverage, you might think it had, but it kept bubbling up, building, and destroying with a reckless vehemence."

Nowadays, we post distant Facebook remarks arguing over Larry Kramer's "dismissive" "outdated" critique of new HIV prevention drugs Truvada and prep in a New York Times interview published mere days before The Normal Heart's premiere broadcast. Peter Staley offers a balanced perspective on the controversy on

While I've never taken them, and hope I won't have to, I feel a disconnect with my HIV-positive friends, many of whom have abandoned sero-discordant sex and romance.

What the hell were we fighting for? I ask. For fences to be put up dividing us, because some guys have given up condoms?

Perhaps the discord is related to our collective blunted pain. Michelangelo Signorile wrote about The Normal Heart, and in the Facebook comments, Thomas Coleman succinctly called the film "a perfectly sustained, 2 1/2 hour PTSD flashback."
Matt Bomer in The Normal Heart

This may be why many people, gay men who survived this era, are delaying their time to view the film. We know in advance what a powerful message it portends. We lived through it. So, reliving the pain, the uncertainty, the re-remembered horror, cannot be endured by all.

As an HIV-plus feature states, Matt Bomer won't let you look away as his character rapidly perishes. As Bomer said in the interview, “I don’t know how you could be a part of this movie and not be changed on some level, unless you’re just really a slab of concrete.”

And yet, we know that so many politicians did behave like slabs of concrete. The entire Reagan administration, the likes of Jesse Helms, took a malicious pleasure in ignoring or blaming or attacking us openly. 

In the HIV-plus article, and an excerpt from his OUT magazine feature on his own website, Bomer said
that “getting to meet Larry Kramer was akin to someone getting to meet one of the Beatles." For me, it better.  Because while I certainly enjoy the Fab Four, they didn't literally save my life.

Equal yet different than the pain of the AIDS epidemic, the suffering of war continues to plague our nation through indifference. Consider the overwhelming jingoisitic flag-waving from Republican politicians who then turn around and vote against veterans benefits.

Yes, the same creeps who voted for war are the first to vote against helping those who served, including disabled veterans.  Consider the oddly patriotic and erotic poses with amputee models Alex Minsky, Christopher Van Etten, and another pal. Shot by Tom Cullis, the visual outcome seems conflicted. Are we supposed to respect these veterans or sexually objectify them? Can we do both?

As we commemorate those who died of AIDS,  some also remember the war dead. This weekend's scroll of Facebook posts include photos of family members who served in various wars. While some survived through their service, others died. It's not wrong to look at an image of a handsome male or female veteran and say or think, "Wow, what a cutie!"

Dian Hanson's new photo book My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare features an array of stunning homoerotic images of male sailors, soldiers and Marines in little or no clothing. Their frailty as human bodies is combined with a nostalgic air of longing.
from My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare

Similarly - okay, maybe not- Larry Kramer is said to have wondered if actor Matt Bomer was "too pretty" for his role in The Normal Heart.

But shouldn't we be allowed to remember how handsome our soldiers and friends were? Isn't the erotic nature of adoration a fight against –in spite of– mortality?

For my own small connection to The Normal Heart, at least one version of it, I, like Bomer, got to meet one of my heroes through that play.

I somehow managed to volunteer to make photocopied posters as makeshift set decorations for a staged reading benefit of the The Normal Heart at The Public Theatre back in...1990? I have no photos, and dearly wish I had taken them.

DW Moffat and Brad Davis in The Normal Heart
This was before Brad Davis died of AIDS. I got to meet him, and Colleen Dewhurst, the day I brought in the posters with AIDS statistics, which were dead-hung to the upstage area for the performance.  I remember frantically enlarging actual statistics, over and over again, at the ACT UP work space's copy machine while, in a series of phone calls, the director impatiently demanded their completion.

All my efforts were amusingly commented on by Brad Davis, who, upon seeing me work with the set designer on the posters, asked, "What are these; cue cards?"

In a way, they were. I got to sit beside Larry Kramer as his play was read and performed, somewhere in between its original staging and its later Tony Award-winning revival.

So while it is painful to recall those horrible terrible years, it is good to know that this story, this iconic work of art, has evolved into a new incarnation that will remind people what happened, and what didn't.

Make the time to re-experience this pain. It's what separates us from the 'slabs of concrete.' 

As Perry Halkitis notes in an essay for the Oxford University Press relating to his book The AIDS Generation, "As we watch The Normal Heart, we will be reminded of those dark, confusing early days of the epidemic. And while we must celebrate the resilience of a generation of gay men to fight this disease, we must also be reminded of our obligation to create a better world for a new generation of gay men." 



  1. Amazing post, Jim! It's so important to explore how today more people are open to learning about AIDS. Finding a way to portray how difficult the disease is, and how it was when no one knew what it was, is crucial to educating the public. Sometimes seeing difficult things makes us feel that, as people, we should help those that need it. And this is one of those issues that needs all the coverage it can get.

  2. Thanks so much, Jamie. Yes, the film got one of HBO's highest ratings ever. It's difficult to explain that looming "before AIDS' world to those that didn't experience it. Larry's play and film are epic Greek tragedies.

  3. Thank you Jim. I am one of those folks who haven't had a chance to see it. But I definitely will, probably on DVD or something. But your recollections of that period of right on the money. I have no doubt that HIV+ peeps might need to prepare themselves before watching. I look forward to experiencing the 're-experience'.