I knew what AIDS was by the time I was five years old. My mom is a professional ice skater, a member of a community filled with and accepting of homosexuality. Her close friend, a gay man, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. In the coming years, many more of her friends would also pass away, leaving a palpable void in the otherwise bold, larger-than-life community filled with athleticism and glitter. I am eternally grateful to her that she did not shield me from the tragedy unraveling around us. I trailed after her as we visited her friends in hospice, standing in her shadow, afraid to look at the skeletal bodies presenting death before my very eyes. I remember even now their sharp cheekbones, their pained efforts at trying to keep the sense of humor that was so integral to their personalities, the huge rows of teeth attempting to form smiles.
I didn't know her friends well, the young and painfully shy kid that I was, but I mourned for them all the same. I walked in the AIDS Walk Los Angeles with my mom and our golden retriever, we visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and we had too many red ribbons to count. I knew without question that what was happening around me was a tragedy, and the names on that quilt were nothing more than the names of victims, of friends who had died too soon. I didn't understand what political implications were, much less why a friend's death could be political in the first place. It was a simple matter of sadness.
But I didn't live in a bubble, as much as my mom or I might have wished it, and I overheard people talking about AIDS like it was punishment for a sin. When yet another friend died, I heard people whisper, "It was his own fault," or "It's sad, but what can you expect?" It was the first time I realized that AIDS stood for something more; that being gay wasn't "normal" according to the people around us, and especially to the Catholic community I was brought up in.
Years later, I was playing an either/or game with my mom. Questions like, would you rather live in France or in Ireland? Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible? Would you rather cure cancer or AIDS? (An impossible question, really, but that's the nature of the game.) I responded, "Cancer. Because the people who have cancer didn't do anything to get it." My stomach still rises into my throat when I remember the moment. My mom's face fell, the fun over. She paused, trying to choose her words carefully, but ultimately unable to go on. "Yes, I guess you're right." It was the easiest response, knowing that she was battling an entire society's prejudices and assumptions that had made their way into my own thinking. I was one of the lucky ones surrounded by freethinking from the start, but even then, my mind wasn't safe from the intolerance I found at every turn.
Now, I've fought for my liberal politics. I studied theater, moved to New York, and then studied some more; this time, in the even more radically liberal field of Performance Studies, reading queer theorists and pouring over art of the 70s and 80s by artists like Ray Navarro and Keith Haring. And now, it's my own closest friends, not friends of my mom, who are members of the gay community. It's now my choice to go out dancing at the Ritz, to wait in line to see the drag performers I idolize, and to eagerly support gay rights. I am a part of the gay community myself, as a witness, supporter and friend.
I share this story not as confession or penance, but only to say, it's been a long road. My generation, those millennials that the media so often tells us are the "Generation Me," have had to earn our beliefs. My gay friends didn't have to fight for their life at Stonewall, but they did have to fight their parents. Now that we've made it to the marrying age, gay marriage is legal and there are plenty of same-sex couples to look up to, but it's only legal in some places. We've come so far, but we're not there yet. We are moving, ever so steadily, toward a promising, inclusive future, but we are still picking away at the prejudices that were ingrained in us and still hold so many under their grasp.
I have witnessed some gay twenty-somethings throwing around offensive language, slang that could so easily be deemed as hateful: Calling another gay man a fag, even making jokes about HIV. I don't assume to understand the gay experience, and certainly don't mean to tell anyone what to do, but I am confused by the word choice. Maybe it's that the younger gay generations have lost sight of how hard others had to work for us to make it this far, since they didn't do that work themselves. Or maybe it's another example of "internalized homophobia," as the deceased, but ever-present star of Mothers and Sons, Andre, would have said. In Mothers and Sons, Cal, Andre's surviving partner, uses the phrase when describing how hard it was for him to start using the world "husband." According to Cal, "It means you've become so accustomed to being unloved because of who you are that you've become adept at not loving yourself because of who you are."
Mothers and Sons makes a huge case for the power of a word. "Husband" legitimates Cal and his husband Will's relationship. No longer are they the childish "boyfriends," business-like "partners," or illicit "lovers." No, now gay men and women can proudly call their significant other their husband or wife, boldly claiming their gender if they so choose, and demanding that their relationship be equal to those of their heterosexual friends. We've come so far. I'm aware of the arguments questioning the point of gay marriage, criticizing it as conforming to a normative institution when the beginnings of the gay movement were a more free "be who you are" call to arms. And I see that point. But Terrence McNally has a point too. In a fit of rage, Cal screams, "Relationships like mine and Andre's weren't supposed to last. We didn't deserve the dignity of marriage. Maybe that's why AIDS happened." Whoa. Now that's something to think about.
And that's why I loved Mothers and Sons so -- it gave me so much to think about. Something that is so beautiful in the play is how every character has an extremely different relationship to the AIDS crisis, but relationships that are all equally relevant and all in need of healing. To be perfectly honest, sometimes I'm concerned that I don't have the right to discuss the issue: A heterosexual female invested in a world not her own. But the crisis has affected all of us, which Mothers and Sons reminds us. It has changed our world and there's no going back. Hopefully that forward movement is toward something better. I think it is, and Will and Cal's son Bud, the fresh-faced figure of youth who cannot comprehend why two men wouldn't be able to marry, is a beacon of hope. No longer will generations learn to be tolerant of each other's differences, but they will embrace those differences with open arms. One day, there will be a child born into the freethinking family who won't run into the impenetrable opposition that I did. One day, a generation will never have known that "internalized homophobia."
It's an important step to find the first married gay couple on Broadway, and Terrence McNally speaks right to the heart of our changing times. And while the play is a gay pride landmark, both teaching about and taking steps to heal from the 1980s AIDS crisis, it is also a profoundly human play. The characters guide us through feelings of grief and remorse that every person in the audience can relate to, no matter their gender or sexual orientation. They find forgiveness, learn to move on, and lean on the hope for evolution, a hope we all must cling to. There's no other way but forward.
Few plays on Broadway today speak as urgently to our times as Mothers and Sons, the 20th Broadway production from legendary four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, now in previews at the Golden Theatre. In the play, Katherine -- portrayed by Tony- and Emmy-winning Tyne Daly in perhaps her most formidable role -- visits the former lover of her late son 20 years after his death, only to find him now married to another man and raising a small child. A funny, vibrant, and deeply moving look at one woman's journey to acknowledge how society has evolved -- and how she might -- Mothers and Sons is certain to spark candid conversations about regret, acceptance, and the evolving definition of "family." Daly is joined by Broadway vet Frederick Weller (Take Me Out), Tony nominee Bobby Steggert (Ragtime), and newcomer Grayson Taylor, under the direction of Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller (Next Fall). For more information, visitmothersandsonsbroadway.com.