Growing up in a state of indifference

We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.  — Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”

With plays that focus on recent history, it is natural to cast your mind back to that time period and any personal memories you have of that moment in time.  One of the things a production of The Normal Heart does for audiences now is to combat a bit of revisionist history. It can be easy to forget how little was known about the disease and how slow the political and social structures of the country were to respond. Huge parts of the country were not initially affected by the crisis and felt it was something that happened to other people; the fact that those people were mostly gay men, Haitians and IV drug users only exacerbated the indifference.

Early headline about what would become known as AIDS in The New York Times, 1981.
Early headline about what would become known as AIDS in The New York Times, 1981.

I was a child when AIDS entered the public consciousness, living in Idaho—about the most remote you could be from the deaths in major cities. AIDS entered my personal consciousness in 1984, when I showed my parents the article on the first reported AIDS cases in Idaho, which I proposed to take to school for my current events assignment. My parents, who were liberal-minded for Idaho, suggested that it might not be appropriate for me to take to school because the teacher and some of my classmates would not want to talk about the people who were getting sick.  I don’t recall any of my other current events articles, but my parents’ caution made the article lodge in my mind. Why would front-page news be something that you couldn’t talk about?

That same year hemophiliac teen Ryan White would make AIDS a source of concern for those in states like Idaho. The controversy surrounding whether he should be allowed to attend school with other children slipped into our playground consciousness. Because children are the natural distillers of their parents’ opinions and conversations at home, “faggot” and “gay” became the new insults. Children no longer talked about cooties; the shunned child on the playground had AIDS.

That mix of fear, indifference and hate has a way of becoming part of the cultural fabric. A few years later, when I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease, I hid it from my friends. I found that teachers and adults who knew me looked at me with this unnerving mix of fear and pity, and I did not want anyone to know. I started preparing myself to die before the age of 20. It turns out that my illness was quite treatable, but because the immune system was part of the diagnosis in a climate of little information about AIDS—paired with an atmosphere of judgment and fear—it had me contemplating my mortality at age 12.

I write this not to evoke pity for me, I am fine, but to try to remember and understand the world that changed with AIDS. With the benefit of hindsight, I ask myself: If I was that filled with fatalism as a young girl, what was it like to be a gay man who lost not just a few friends to a mysterious illnesses, but tens or hundreds?

My point in reflecting on AIDS and this moment of early understanding is similar to performing Kramer’s play at this moment. We are asked to look back and see what we did or failed to do. We are also asked to look at ourselves in the present moment and examine whether or not we are still failing.

Kramer’s language in both the play and the essays and articles he wrote throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic are polemical. He is hard on the mostly straight and straight-laced people who ignored or feared the first deaths in New York and San Francisco. However, he is equally hard on the gay community, and ultimately, on himself.  His language is that of a Biblical prophet crying out in the desert because someone had to raise an outcry.

I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values symbol to attach to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family.Cleve Jones, Founder of The Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt, interviewed on “Frontline”

David Cromer (as Ned Weeks, from left), Patrick Andrews (Felix), Mary Beth Fisher (Dr. Emma Brookner) and Marc Grapey (Ben) in the final scene of TimeLine's "The Normal Heart."
David Cromer (as Ned Weeks, from left), Patrick Andrews (Felix), Mary Beth Fisher (Dr. Emma Brookner) and Marc Grapey (Ben) in the final scene of TimeLine’s “The Normal Heart.”

At the same time Kramer also presents us with a beautiful, tragic love story. He asks us to reach out sympathetically and identify with these men. Like Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay activist and part of the group who created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he asks us to make room in our family values to be more inclusive, more compassionate. Much like A Raisin in the Sun put us in the middle of the Younger family and asked us to make their troubles our own, we are asked to grieve with Ned, Emma and Ben for the loss of the Felix in their family. We are asked to redefine family.

When I see the play now, I wish the young me had brought the article to class, or stopped someone on the playground from using a slur. But I also have to ask myself: What have I done for my friends who managed to grow up in Idaho and come out of the closet? What am I doing to ensure that they are being treated as my healthy equals, as Ned Weeks asks his brother to do in the play? What about those who are HIV positive or will be HIV positive, those who can’t afford the cost of medicine, those who live in countries without access to the medicines that are not a cure but a way of slowing the virus down. A friend wrote me a note when much of The Normal Heart cast and crew participated in the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago and thanked me fore walking. I wrote back that you don’t get to work on Larry Kramer’s play and not do something.  In truth, it doesn’t seem like enough.

At TimeLine, we regularly ask these questions of ourselves: “What is the relevance of this play at this time? What is the power of art to promote social change?” Larry Kramer asks us not just to be moved by the sight of these men in love and their tragedy, but also to get up off our asses and do something.  I have some catching up to do. We hope audiences will be inspired to do something, too.

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