The Normal Heart – Why It Leaves Mine Cold
I had only been in San Francisco a few months in 1981 when a doctor friend, who was doing research at the CDC, mailed me a photocopy of the first epidemiological report on “gay cancer.” He paper-clipped a note to the reprint: “Be careful.”
At one level, I understood what he was trying to say. For several years, before he went off to Atlanta, he’d been my doctor. During the late 1970s, he’d treated me for any number of STDs, and what he was hearing at the CDC was that people with “it” had a history of STDs. So: “Be careful.” But what did “careful” look like, exactly, if my past meant I was already infected?
When Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart aired on HBO last month—his 1985 play transformed, at long last, into a movie—I couldn’t help but remember receiving my friend’s note, a moment that now feels as though it took place in some distant, tramontane past.
Just like that note, The Normal Heart also seems like a dispatch from antiquity. And that’s one of its biggest weaknesses.
Full disclosure: there has never been a time when I wasn’t ambivalent about Larry Kramer. I am glad he exists and can’t imagine the 1980s and 1990s without him. But while Kramer was an enviable communicator, he was often a lousy source of information.
During the years when I was writing AIDS journalism for Spin, the Bay Area Reporter, QW, and other magazines and newspapers, I interviewed Kramer at least twice, very briefly. Sometimes, in journalism that makes some feint at objectivity, you need someone to represent the extreme position in order to provide the kind of contrast of opinions that allows you to write your way back to the point you actually want to make. Kramer was good for that, and I always knew exactly what he was going to say. You’d push a few buttons and there he’d be. “Say something outrageous, Larry.” And he would. If you accused me of smarm because of the way I used Kramer as a source, I wouldn’t defend myself. But I certainly wasn’t the only writer who did, and Kramer didn’t seem to object to the role. It was never hard to get him on the phone.
The Normal Heart was a bad play when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, and it’s kind of a bad movie. It’s Larry Kramer settling scores and saying outrageous things, and whatever drama is in it takes a second seat.
The Normal Heart wasn’t, by the way, even the first “AIDS play.” Playwrights like Robert Chesley, Doug Holsclaw, and Rebecca Ranson, and theatres like Theatre Rhinoceros were presenting work about AIDS, living with AIDS, and the impact of AIDS on lesbians’ and gay men’s lives as early as 1983. But none of that work got the mileage that The Normal Heart did, a major portion of which is about Ned Weeks’ crusade to get gay men to stop having sex, spurred on by a woman doctor who tells him it’s the only way. A year earlier, meanwhile, Robert Chesley had set Night Sweat in a sex club for the terminally ill and argued that sex didn’t have to equal death.
I distrust The Normal Heart for other reasons, too. As history, it’s suspect because Larry Kramer wrote it after the fact, shaping events to make him seem more prescient than he likely was. Now, thirty more years have passed, and there’s been more opportunity for tinkering. When the film premiered last month (this is from the New York Times of 21 May 2014), “director Ryan Murphy led the thousand-member audience in a standing ovation for Mr. Kramer. ‘Larry, before we begin this film, I only have one thing to say,’ Mr. Murphy said. ‘You were right.’”
Well, slow down a sec, Ryan. Larry Kramer was indispensable, but he got a lot of things wrong.
In its 2014 incarnation, The Normal Heart has the shape of one of those WWII films from the 1950s: everybody fought hard, there were tremendous sacrifices, many decent people were lost. Those who died of AIDS were heroes. People who “responded” to the disease by forming organizations and collecting money and marching and educating the public were an army of gallant knights-errant in search of wrongs to right. And, in the end, it was all worth it. We fought the good fight and we won. Didn’t we?
The final moments of the film, when Ned Weeks attends Yale’s “Gay Week” dance (alone; his lover has just died) and sits tearfully on the edge of the stage watching male couples shuffle around the floor, are clearly supposed to represent progress. Ned suffered terribly for his convictions, but at least a bunch of cute Yalies got to put their arms around each other and slow-dance with other hot boys right out in front of God and everyone (there were apparently no lesbians at Yale).
But that moment didn’t make me tear up; it made me squirm. That isn’t how it happened at all, and Kramer and Murphy have crammed history into a terribly distorted shape.
I cringed at The Normal Heart’s portrayals of saintly gay men (all white, all upper middle class) who became saintly because they had AIDS. I am unconvinced by the idea that getting AIDS somehow touched people with wisdom and righteousness; I object to portrayals of the divine victim and the holy caregiver. (A lot of jerks got AIDS, too, and a lot of people dumped their friends and lovers and went running; I didn’t even always blame them, given the prevailing reign of psychological terror.) And I object to the implicit suggestion that AIDS singled out the best, the brightest, the most talented, the most beautiful and that that added to its tragedy. It’s an almost irresistibly romantic—even cinematic—notion, but it is not true.
If you think I’m exaggerating the false spin that The Normal Heart is getting, read what Patrick Healy said about Kramer in the Times:
In the 1980s, he was the most strident, scolding voice in New York City (in the world, really) on behalf of gay men infected with H.I.V.: men whose parents shunned them, whose doctors feared them, whose dignity disappeared as their corpses were stuffed into trash bags. Now, 33 years after Mr. Kramer helped found the advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis, AIDS has just fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983. Epidemics of loneliness and isolation have given way to same-sex marriage and the Michael Sam kiss.
In other words, it got better. The arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward justice.
Except that it doesn’t. There’s still no cure; there’s still no vaccine. Though the rate of new diagnoses of HIV infection has remained steady for nearly a decade in the U.S., there are still some 50,000 new HIV infections each year. The vast majority of them are among men who have sex with men. (And ONE-THIRD of them are in the south, which, don’t even get me started.)
AIDS may have “fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983,” but that’s in part because people with HIV are now living long enough to die from something else. You can give Larry Kramer full credit for that if you want; I won’t.
Equally alarming to me is the fact that we’ve made no recovery at all from three decades of propaganda that turned sex into something terrifying and bad. Conversations exactly like the ones in The Normal Heart are still going on, even among young gay men; when you hear terms like “Truvada whores,” you understand the degree to which sex continues to be demonized.
Meanwhile, it took Nick Rhoades five years and a state supreme court decision to overturn a conviction for criminal transmission of HIV in 2009. Rhoades had had sex—with a condom—with a man who did not know Rhoades had HIV. He didn’t infect the man with HIV; he didn’t even do anything that might have infected the man with HIV. But he still got convicted. Gay men (or “men who have sex with men,” as the federal government has it) are still prohibited from donating blood by the FDA and the Red Cross—under regulations that haven’t changed since 1983.
Even if you’re HIV-negative. Even if you’ve only had protected sex. For thirty-one fucking years.
And that’s because what is suspect is sex between men itself. When it comes to queers, there’s no such thing as “safe sex.” We’re all infected. Sex is the disease.
For years after we began to hear about gay cancer, GRID, ARC, HIV disease, AIDS (and I’ve probably left out some names along the way), no one had any better advice than my former doctor’s: “Be careful.” “Know your partner.” Lawrence Mass famously opined in a May 11, 1982 New York Times article entitled “New Homosexual Disorder” (different from the old disorder, which was just being homosexual), “gay people whose life style consists of anonymous sexual encounters are going to have to do some serious rethinking.”
Even once safe(r) sex had been “invented,” educational campaigns still made gay sex itself the problem. So-called “promiscuous” sex was re-pathologized by experts—even from within our “community”—who cheerfully opined that a gay man who wanted a lot of sex with a lot of different people must be suffering from “internalized homophobia” and self-hatred.
Our “leaders” had no willingness (or backbone) to say that so-called “anonymous sex” or “promiscuity” were not really the issue. And why would they? Who wanted to come out in favor of saying two guys who didn’t know each other’s names should be left alone if they wanted to butt-fuck in the backroom?
In the face of this, organizations like the well-intentioned Stop AIDS Project did their best to provide a sort of counter-propaganda but, at least in its San Francisco incarnation and at least for me, Stop AIDS’ cadres of vanilla boys patrolling the Castro with clipboards and a chirpy message of “sex positive” salvation were about as welcome as a Jehovah’s Witness at the door. Maybe there were people who still needed to hear that “safe sex can be hot,” but my feeling was that most of us could have used something a lot more nuanced.
Virtually no one could or would talk meaningfully (at least not in public) about harm reduction or about how to assess personal risk. When I published “Safe Sex Sucks: The Oral Sex Controversy” in 1994, I was assured I was murdering people.
Meanwhile, you could smoke all the cigarettes you wanted and expose everyone around you to scientifically verified harm from second-hand smoke, and no one proposed arresting or even shaming you for it. But if you wanted to fool around with guys, no matter how safely you did it, there were still people who thought your sex life was a matter for the state.
There was little recognition that sex was important in people’s lives for perfectly legitimate and defensible reasons (maybe especially in gay men’s lives? I’m not sure) and that telling them to “just say no” was never going to work.
More than that, there was total abandonment of a principle that ought to have been fundamental to gay politics: the radical notion that consenting adults had the right to do what they wanted with their bodies.
Larry Kramer helped make this transformation not just possible, but inevitable. He started with his novel, Faggots, in 1978 and, when AIDS came along, he wrote The Normal Heart as if to say, “See, I told you all that sex was bad for you.” The Normal Heart makes “just say no” seem like a reasonable message, but it wasn’t.
It still isn’t and, more to the point, it still isn’t working.
Making people feel ashamed of their sex lives encourages them not to get tested, not to raise the issue with partners, not to practice safe sex. Sure, homophobia is one reason the “down low” exists in the first place, but what holds it in place is shame about sex.
I doubt Ryan Murphy will be making a movie about that.
Unlike the New Yorkers in The Normal Heart, I lived the early plague years on the other coast in San Francisco, which was different in important ways from New York, but not entirely dissimilar. We looked to New York, to ACT-UP, to GMHC, especially in the beginning. Until San Francisco’s journalists got their act together, we, too, read the often hysterical New York Native and the loathsome, toadying Gina Kolata in the New York Times.
Here’s one thing Larry Kramer got right in The Normal Heart. In those years, gay men and lesbians and an awful lot of straight friends and relatives created an unprecedented and inspiring political and social response to a horrifying situation. Not unprecedented in human history, but certainly unprecedented for queers. It was nothing short of heroic.
Doing so gave us a sense of purpose and a way not to sit there like victims in the face of indifference and pure evil on the part of the government, the media, pharmaceutical companies. It was the closest thing to a sense of community that most of us had ever experienced. Of that, nothing remains. Not one shred.
And there is no moral to this story. There is no graceful skyward arc toward progress, uplift, wisdom. There is no saving grace. There is no redemption. It’s just what happened.
I can’t even remotely imagine that The Normal Heart will energize or inspire “a new generation,” which is what Kramer says he hopes. It depicts a reality that no longer exists and, in the end, it teleports into the present the worst message of “the AIDS years”: be wary of sex.
Kramer himself is still on message: “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” he told Patrick Healy. Other people’s sex lives are still Larry Kramer’s business.