July 1, 2011

Reflections on the Link between Today's Gay Marriage Laws and the AIDS Outbreak of the 1980's

This is the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of AIDS as chronicled in the current Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart. I saw the play last Saturday night -- less than 24 hours after the Republican-dominated New York State Senate cleared a Gay Marriage Act for Governor Cuomo's signature, and just a day before Manhattan's Gay Pride Parade, which became an unexpected, impromptu celebration of the new legislation.
The Normal Heart is Kramer's largely autobiographical portrayal of an angry, aggressive AIDS activist (like Kramer in real life) during the plague's early years, when the number of AIDS cases rose from a handful in 1981 to 16,000 by the end of 1985. As the play mentions several times, the New York Times gave repeated front-page coverage to the deaths of seven people from defective Tylenol, but ran only a few back-page stories about AIDS. President Reagan never spoke about the growing epidemic until 1987.

In the final scene in the play, the activist holds his lover in his arms as he dies of AIDS. I've never heard as much sobbing in a theater as I did Saturday night. As one of those openly moved playgoers (and I know like many others in that audience), I was deeply affected because so many memories came flooding back... recollections of treasured loved ones, vital young people, who died hideous deaths in those early years of the new disease.
Walking back to my hotel in a bit of a daze, I thought about the odd coincidence of getting this reminder of those dark, early AIDS years just one night after the adoption of the Gay Marriage Law, and one day before Sunday's Gay Pride Parade. Not for the first time, I thought of the key role AIDS played in the seismic shift from pervasive homophobia in the 1980's to much broader acceptance of gays and lesbians today.
Before AIDS, movies and TV typically showed gay men as one-dimensional stereotypes: silly, effeminate, limp-wristed. We know now how incorrect and misdirected that depiction really was. And back then, gays felt compelled to hide their orientation, another cruel burden.

AIDS changed all that. Rock Hudson's death from AIDS was just one of a thousand eye-openers, as the plague "outed" closeted relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors. Most Americans now know and love someone who is openly gay.

The background reports on how the Gay Marriage legislation was adopted in New York is a classic example of the political impact of today's gays being openly visible. Governor Andrew Cuomo is credited with being the driving force behind the law's passage. He reportedly was urged to press forward by his longtime companion who has a gay brother. In voicing his support for same-sex marriage, New York City Mayor Bloomberg has mentioned -- and appeared with -- his lesbian niece. The key Republican senator who broke ranks with his party's opposition has a lesbian relative.

I hesitate to inject political controversy into this blog, but I can't resist observing that Governor Cuomo was able to keep his gay-marriage promise by his leadership in developing strategies and working one-on-one with legislators to round up the votes. It was a successful approach that's been conspicuously absent on the national scene.


janinsanfran said...

Back in the late 70s, one of my lesbian friends used to say that straight people would never recognize our full humanity unless one day we all turned purple. I think about that when I think about my gay male friends who were lost to the epidemic. The guys turned purple and we lost so many of them.

Yet suddenly "we" were everywhere. Or at least it felt like "everywhere" if, in Vito Russo's phrase, you were "living in the war zone." And the war zone did spread.

And now supporting our right to marry is the definition of doing right for a generation of liberals. It's an interesting world.

Appreciate your blog and will read frequently.

John said...

Thanks. I agree that it's an interesting world. But many of the changes going on today make me think of the Chinese curse of "may you live in interesting times." At least this one - the greater acceptance of gays and lesbians - is a plus.