Monday, May 26, 2014

The Gay Thing: My Thoughts on The Normal Heart

I was in high school when there started to be scattered reports of "gay cancer" in New York, and other large cities. As a Columbus, Ohio teenager who had sussed out long-term suspicions, and inwardly accepted that I myself was gay, I was attuned to any scrap of news that came out. In those days, with no internet, and being terrified of being "found out," it's kind of a mystery to me how I managed to keep up to date on the story, but I did.

HBO's The Normal Heart begins just before any items I may have heard about in the news, before anyone knew there was a coming plague. As I was getting my developing sense of self intertwined with fear of a deadly disease, the actual people that the film's characters are based on were living it. It had to be terrifying, and enraging. The film centers upon the activists who were desperately trying to get a handle on what began to be known as "GRID," and later AIDS. These activists weren't just at ground zero of the disease, they were present for the waning days of the sexual revolution, and the height of 1970s/early 80s excess, which was magnified in the gay community.

Remember that the gay community, such as it was, hadn't even existed for very long. Not until after Stonewall in 1969, was there a community outside of the shadows. Imagine if you belonged to a group of people who were marginalized, demonized, and forced to hide your life away for most of recorded history, and suddenly you were free to do what you wanted! Add to this freedom, the fact that what binds you together with this group is sexuality, and that you're all men. That things were excessive and unbridled isn't really a surprise, then, is it?

But the ultimate party had a hell of a hangover. Put a sexually transmitted disease into a group that has lots of sex, and you have the perfect storm. Throw in other "undesirables" like IV drug users, and you get a shrug from the general public, at least at first. I remember hearing things like "AIDS is a punishment from God," and "Hey, it's killing all the right people." Getting people to care was difficult, and getting people to help was even harder. Add to that, the disease itself was amazingly adaptable, and difficult to pin down, and also easy to spread. It was (and still is) a horror show.

Somehow, as this was evolving, I was able to see through the negative public take on AIDS, the biased and unflattering portrayals in the media--even from hard news sources--and see what was happening. That's one thing that I always felt about being gay, and I really don't know how I arrived at it: "I'm not wrong, everyone else is." I never felt guilty, or ashamed, or bad for who I was. And I didn't assign those things to AIDS sufferers either. But it sure would have been easy to in those early days.

The protagonist in The Normal Heart is based upon its author, Larry Kramer, and played (very well) by Mark Ruffalo. Kramer in real life is an abrasive guy, and quite polarizing, even in the gay community. The film doesn't pull punches there. It follows him (or rather, his avatar) as AIDS starts taking his friends, and ultimately his partner (Matt Bomer, who goes from stunningly gorgeous to wasted away and covered with sores), while local and federal government stands on the sidelines.  The film is ultimately a snapshot in time, covering the early development of the AIDS crisis before it really had that name. As such, there is no happy ending of course, and no resolution. As HIV is still not cured (though much more manageable and preventable), it still kills people in great numbers today.

The film is worth a view, particularly if you--like me--were not at the heart of it. I was 19 by the time Rock Hudson died, and the disease went "mainstream".  I basically sat out the worst years of the crisis, having been young, stuck in an unrequited love situation and being terrified to do anything about it. So, I didn't lose any friends, and have to date known very few people with HIV (that I'm aware of). And while nobody would lament not having lived through it personally, it does make me feel a bit disconnected from it.

That's why films like this are important though, to connect you to what happened. To realize what our community has been through, and to see how far we've come. And when it is done like this film was, with excellent actors, treated with a measure of reverence, it's even better. I will be shocked if The Normal Heart doesn't pick up a number of Emmys and other awards. It's worth your time, I highly recommend it. But get your box of tissues ready.

The Normal Heart is available on HBO Go, and HBO On Demand, and also stars Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts and Taylor Kitsch.


  1. What a fantastic review for the movie, you've really hit the nail on the head once again! We too saw it Sunday night and I learned things I didn't know about the beginning of the movement and the government's response (or lack thereof). A perfect storm not only in throwing the virus into the gay sexual revolution, but arming the evangelical right with such a weapon to demonize and further ostracize the gay community. I had read that Bomer lost nearly 30 lbs for the role, having to leave his family and go to a spa so that his kids wouldn't have to see him like that. Touching, great tearjerker of a movie!

  2. Says the unrequited love interest! ;)

    My previous reply vanished into the ether, and I don't recall what I'd typed. But I don't know if I can get The Other Half to watch this film. At five years older, he was affected a whole lot more by the AIDS crisis than we were. He lost friends and several people he dated. We're all lucky to be here.


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