Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control officially recommended that sexually active HIV-negative gay men and other people at risk for contracting HIV avail themselves of Truvada, an antiretroviral drug otherwise used to treat people who are already HIV positive. Truvada is the belated fruit of activist groups such as ACT UP, whose crowning achievement in the 1990s was forcing drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration to adopt patient-led decision-making processes that resulted in the development of the first medicines that would treat and, for many, halt the destruction of AIDS.
But this month’s Truvada recommendation was introduced without such direct involvement, one reason it has inspired such controversy among gay men. Larry Kramer, a founding member of ACT UP and a critic of using the drug preventively, has opposed it on different grounds. He has called gay men who take it “cowards.” They should just use condoms, he said, rather than take an antiviral that will lessen “your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.”
Kramer has long believed gay people fight the wrong way. A bitter critic of the promiscuous 1970s-era sex culture, he advocated a politics that presaged today’s fight for marriage. Crucial to his brand of activism was that AIDS was a life-or-death question. But now the urgency seems to have waned. This may be a bad thing for Kramer: If gay men are now able to take a pill to dodge the threat of fatal infection from sex, how will they know to refrain from the promiscuity Kramer thinks is so deadly? This was the central drama of Kramer’s 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” the movie adaptation of which debuted last Sunday on HBO (directed by “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy). As today’s chapter in gay history appears to be drawing to a close, Kramer’s signature work has ostensibly been brought back to remind us of the pain of an earlier era and the rightness of Kramer’s dire warnings.
Agitprop and erasure
Playwright Larry Kramer in his apartment in Manhattan, New York, on April 22, 2012.Melanie Burford / The Washington Post / Getty Images
“The Normal Heart” centers on Ned Weeks, a stand-in for Kramer, whose attempts to galvanize the gay community in the earliest years of the epidemic see him helping found Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an early AIDS advocacy group. Weeks is the bearer of a message from a doctor treating many of these early cases: Gay men need to stop having sex. The message does not go over well; neither does Weeks’ scorn, and he is eventually ejected from the group’s ranks.
It’s not a full history. Watching it might give you the impression that only white gay men were affected by AIDS. It doesn’t even cover all of Kramer’s involvement in AIDS activism: The more militant ACT UP was founded in 1987, four years after the narrative in “The Normal Heart” ends. Rather, the play is a piece of agitprop, intended to wring a moral sentiment from its viewers; it banks on a change of heart.
Kramer is an effective polemicist. But treating his account as history — as Murphy’s adaptation does — risks enshrining his biases as fact. Before his plunge into AIDS activism, Kramer viewed (PDF) gay politics with disdain. In “The Normal Heart,” Weeks is either condemning the movement for being too weak and hedonistic or apologizing for it to straight people.
Kramer doesn’t seem to understand why people objected to the demand to not have sex. In fact, such resistance becomes a trial Weeks must righteously overcome. Kramer allows a fellow activist named Mickey to deliver the most coherent expression of the position that he opposes. “I’ve spent 15 years of my life fighting for our right to be free and to make love wherever, whenever, and you’re telling me all those years of what being gay stood for is wrong and that I’m a murderer,” Mickey says. “Can’t you see how important it is for us to love openly?”
This portrait not only dishonestly reduces Kramer’s critics to decadents or murderers but also silences the real reason people pushed back: Before the drugs were introduced, promiscuity was the only thing that could save anyone’s life.
Promiscuity is not “being defined by your cock,” as Kramer repeatedly insists he is not. It is the freedom to dismiss the two moral imperatives that are lethal in the midst of a sexually transmitted epidemic: Abstinence, a message delivered with the knowledge that no one will follow it, and monogamy, which is no protection if you can’t know whether a partner is infected — the case at the time of the narrative, before the discovery of the virus and thus tests for it. The promiscuous sex that people were having directly led to the deployment of safer options. Pioneering pamphlets such as “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” used real sex practices as a starting point for reducing risk.
“The Normal Heart” tells a version of the AIDS story that dismisses both the importance of the activism that came before it and the centrality of promiscuity to the invention of safe sex. But as a scold’s tale of how right Kramer was, it seems an apt precursor to today’s same-sex marriage fight. “The Normal Heart” ends with a deathbed wedding between Weeks and his lover. A line of Weeks’ that was cut from the HBO adaptation makes the link explicit: “The gay leaders who created this sexual-liberation philosophy in the first place have been the death of us. Mickey, why didn’t you guys fight for the right to get married instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity?”
“The Normal Heart” adaptation flatters present-day gay politics because it pulls the suffering of AIDS into the narrative of marriage rights, which similarly rejects promiscuity as one of the wild aims of the earlier liberationists. These people — who fought to create (and died defending) a world outside the bounds of a homophobic society — have been erased twice: first by AIDS and then by survivors like Kramer who opposed them. He takes the silences brought by death as arguments for his own position.
This approach lets him present an ongoing crisis as settled history and erase positions that he has been criticized for omitting. The sole lesbian character in his narrative is a defector from the women’s camp, and then only because she misses her dead gay best friend. Trans women, front and center at New York’s Stonewall Inn, show up merely in the background. One of the two black men with speaking roles is present at an early meeting but then disappears, his presumed death unworthy of mention; the other’s HIV status is disclosed the minute he walks offscreen. This is especially cruel, given that black men died of AIDS at the highest rates and the black community as a whole still sees the most new infections.
By burying these voices, “The Normal Heart” in effect attacks the memory of all those who suffered along with Kramer (without the foresight to share his position). The incongruity of settling old scores now, the insistent focus on the unique and exemplary suffering of white gay men and the vilification of sex as the true culprit are untenable as histories. They can serve only to spotlight a personal story about a mass event and cast the rest in shadow.
To his credit, Kramer has at least always been up front about how he feels about this history. “I came to realize that I had been given this, like a reporter who gets parachuted behind enemy lines and gets his first big story,” he said in a 2009 New York magazine interview. “I was the one left alive to tell it.”