National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 94: Larry Kramer’s Play Still Not Taken to Heart

In conjunction with the 19th International AIDS Conference this week in Washington, D.C., Larry Kramer’s prophetic 1984 play, “The Normal Heart,” is being performed at Arena Stage, following its initial Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway in New York last summer that included the as-of-then-still-closeted Emmy Award-winning actor, Jim Parsons, in the role of Tommy Boatwright. I wrote extensively about the play at that time.

The play, like Kramer, was widely reviled in the gay community when he first wrote it, although it helped spur his formation of “Act Up,” the civil disobedience movement that was the first to make major breakthroughs in the public awareness of and concern for AIDS.

Reading reviews and blogs, and in conversations with many who’ve seen and praised the current production of “The Normal Heart,” it is troubling to find how little of Kramer’s play is being taken to heart as a very contemporary critique of gay culture, even now.

It is appreciated as a tragic and sad chapter in the history of the gay movement, way back then, 30 years ago. But now, as then, the notion that gay men should stop having sex in the face of a deadly epidemic, as proposed by the character of Dr. Emma Brookner in the play, gets the biggest laugh of the night. Preposterous then, preposterous now.

All the blame goes onto public officials, Reagan and the mayor of New York. But Kramer was hardly limiting the blame to them.

Kramer was treated like an outcast by the gay movement’s leadership when in 1978, in an amazingly prescient book, “Faggots,” he exposed the extent of urban gay America’s descent into a morass of boundless impersonal sexual encounters. His point was how impossible it had become for a young gay man coming to New York looking for love and romance to realize his dream, having to abandon his hopes in favor of a culture of relentless, drug-laden pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.

Despite the venereal diseases ravaging gay scenes in the 1970s, no one saw AIDS coming, and the long incubation period meant that plenty of young men were doomed by exposure to the virus long before AIDS first manifested itself in the summer of 1981. The appearance of the HIV virus in urban gay communities could have been as early as 1974.

I was swept up in the urban gay scene in the early 1970s, after enthusiastically coming out and taking a leading role in the gay liberation movement of the San Francisco Bay Area. But it didn’t take too long, or too much of all that promiscuous sex, for me to realize this was taking my life nowhere. I recall more than one opportunity for a serious romantic relationship that was shattered by the sheer volume of easy and casual sexual encounters in bathhouses, in parks, and dark rooms in the rear of bars. In New York there were the infamous long-haul trucks docked at the West Village piers that were stuffed full every night with men who were lucky if a struck match could enable them to catch a fleeting glimpse of some of the others they were performing sex with.

In S&M clubs, those preferred by the likes of Michel Foucault, the practice of “fisting” quickly evolved, spiking Crisco’s market share, as well as gerbil adventures and public displays of things like “erotic vomiting.”

For all such behaviors, the scions of the gay movement – those profiting from the operation of clubs, baths, sex houses, poppers, intoxication and the proliferation of porn – argued that love and commitment may be out of the equation with all this, but it is replaced by boundless pleasure and “trust.”

For me, backing away from this scene was not easy. It involved a personal struggle having nothing to do with being prudish, but with wanting my life to matter for something. Because of the highly-addictive nature of the scene, there was no other way but effective exile. But while I loudly announced my departure from the political movement, I bounced along the urban scene’s periphery, struggling with temptations, for years.

So, I was brutally abused by the force of those, like Foucault, who fueled the degeneration of the gay scene in this manner. As a young gay man, I was first abused by a culture that caused me to hate my orientation and to hide it at all cost. Coming out, I was abused by my family. My dad threatened to kill me, and I became persona non grata in my home town. I turned to my gay community, but far from finding the love I’d longed for, I found its polar opposite, violently determined to dash my hopes.

In “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s pitch is for love over impersonal sex, for gay lives with meaning and purpose over lives ruled by genitalia. Sad to say that for many, his message is still not getting through.