Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Virus Comes to America

On Sunday the Tony Awards ceremony rocked a certain population of the world. Not Just Gays, though, professed Neil Patrick Harris's opening number. This year a front runner in the nominations was a play called The Normal Heart, written as a battle cry in the first terrifying years of the AIDS crisis in America. In honor of that I'm making this week's list about AIDS and art.

1. Ellen Barkin won Best Supporting Actress in a Play for The Normal Heart. In her acceptance speech she mentioned that the AIDS virus came to America 30 years ago this week. I was 12, how old were you?

2. The Normal Heart was written in 1985 by a gentleman activist named Larry Kramer. Many nights during the current production he stands outside the theatre after the show handing out literature about AIDS activism and what individuals can do to mitigate the devastation of this particular disease.

3. Mr. Kramer founded an organization called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) which has been instrumental in this fight. Perhaps you remember their Silence = Death logo or that line from Rent, "Actual reality, act up, fight AIDS!"

4.  The first time I found myself in a position to directly confront fears and prejudices associated with AIDS I was working at a theater company here in New York. Michael was my boss, it's how we met, and he was gay (probably still is wherever he has gone). Part of the job was to coordinate maintenance of the building where we had our offices and one day we were having roof leakage so he took me up to show me where the drains were and talk about clearing them. While digging leaves out of a drain cover with his hand he banged up against something sharp and drew away with blood on a finger. We both stopped and he looked at me. I looked at him. We must have said something eventually but I can't guarantee that it had anything to do with the injury. Those few seconds said it all about me not knowing if I should help and him not knowing if he should protect me or what. I can still remember the exact feeling of looking at his hand and not knowing what to do.

5. Rent is perhaps the most widely known piece about AIDS and living with the virus. It was written by Jonathan Larson who died the night before the opening of the show due to HIV related complications that compromised, of course, his heart.

6. When I moved to New York in 1987,  less than a decade after the virus arrived in this country, the fastest growing population of HIV+ people were women between the ages of 18 and 24. I don't know if that still holds true but I wouldn't be surprised.

7. Much of what we hear about the tragedy of HIV and AIDS is centered in Africa. I do not in any way want to diminish the horrors that the disease is sowing on that continent but I also don't want you to think that it is under control here in happy go lucky North America.

8. If you haven't seen the dramatization of the non-fiction book And The Band Played On I would be happy to wait right here until you rectify that. Given when I moved to New York and the industry in which I was trained I felt very well informed and yet the things I learned from this movie about the very first months and years of the epidemic both here and abroad chilled me to the bone. Sometimes I despair that attitudes haven't changed nearly enough from that time.

9. Speaking of the information I was given early on in my NYC settlement years, one story stays with me to this very day. Lack of knowledge, superstition and fear meant that it was very difficult for people with AIDS to get care in the early years. More often than not they relied on friends to keep them clean and safe and fed. Since that sort of caregiving wasn't necessarily the norm or organized in the way it can be now GMHC and other organizations were finding that groups of friends would go off on vacation or wherever people often go and wouldn't have provided for the patient and those patients were dying. From that type of story God's Love We Deliver was born in 1985. It has grown so strong by now that they are able to serve people who struggle with a number of terminal illnesses. However strong, they can still always use your help so feel free to donate.

10. Other plays and movies you might be interested in on this subject are Jeffrey, Angels in America, As Is, Beat The Sunset, It's My Party, Long Time Companion, An Early Frost, and Love, Valor, Compassion! I'm sure you can name more and please do!


  1. It was terribly mainstream, but Philadelphia still resonates with me.

    I lost an uncle to AIDS in the late 90s. I am still horrified by the callous disregard and criminal negligence of the Reagan administration on the issue of AIDS; I wonder how many lives could have been saved if certain people in power hadn't thought it best to remain silent about the epidemic.

  2. I was five and even though I've never lost a loved one to this horrible disease, I have been an advocate since HS. There is no reason for any one to ever have to die from this.

  3. In 1982 or so I toured with a stage manager named Tommy, who was a sweet, lovely man. As the year progressed, he began to miss work, or be ill, and looked more and more frail. The tour closed, but I still worked for the same production company, and about three months later we heard that Tommy had died.

    That was the first time I ever knew about AIDS. I will remember how terribly frail he looked near the end, and how inexplicable it all was. If I ever think of anyone suffering from AIDS, I see Tommy's face.

  4. i wasn't but a twinkle in someone's eye back then, but i remember my first exposure to AIDS: remember Pedro from The Real World: SF? i was riveted. we didn't have cable back then, but i caught episodes here and there at friends' houses.

    i think that was the first real AIDS/HIV exposure most of the younger GenX folks had.

  5. I was 24...and married to my first husband, who, I'm quite sure, had slept or fooled around with men during his coke days...anything for a high! And he was a homophobe...go figure.

  6. Chili, I found the specific names of some of the movies I listed (remembered the movies not the names) by trolling through gay and lesbian films on Netflix. Philadelphia didn't show up even though I quit about 6 pages in. What's that about?

    Cindy, so true.

    Aunt Snow, it's a certain look and it's haunting.

    Laura, I had no idea that The Real World was so progressive!

    Oh Janet, that's terrifying. And yet, you know, they're all homophobes when it goes like that, aren't they?

  7. yep, it was pretty amazing back then. i remember the news having FITS over it...and i remember hearing Pedro passed away and cried like a kid. his story broke my heart.