I went to my first Gay Pride parade in New York City in June 1993. Still a virgin at 17, my untapped sexual desire danced and swooned down Broadway unburdened by the dangers of an active sex life. If I had been 15 years older and fortunate enough to survive the AIDS crisis, it would surely have been a different experience, peppered with melancholy and survivors' guilt. Even though coming out in the early 90s was a brave move when "homophobia" was the word of the decade, I was like the son of first generation immigrant parents or war veterans who'd done most of the heavy lifting and paved the way for an easier and more secure future.
Watching Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart on Sunday night, a rambunctious but mature HBO movie adapted from his 1985 Broadway play, I was reminded that this generation gap probably saved my life and was dogged by the question, "How hard would I have fought"? While other characters attempt to balance their activism with diplomacy, Kramer's alter ego Ned Weeks (an impassioned Mark Ruffalo) shoots from the hip and doesn't feign any attempts towards likability or polite knocks on powerful doors. His only match in unbridled and exhaustive anger is Dr. Emma Brookner, infused with Brockovichian bravado by Julia Roberts, who is paralyzed after a childhood bout with polio. When she tells a group of gay men at the first meeting of what will become Gay Men's Health Crisis to "cool it" and stop having sex in the hopes of containing this thing, their reactions are reminiscent of the business owners of Amity Island when Chief Brody tries to convince them to close beaches seeping them of potential revenue. No unseen menace is going to curtail their hard-won sexual freedom. Like the killer shark in Jaws posited by some theorists as a metaphor for capitalist greed, AIDS here represents a broader ideology. No longer the grim reaper it once was, the disease personifies the lethal cocktail of self-hatred and denial that was killing gays long before this shadowy figure had a face, and it continues to infest us 30 years after its initial reign of terror.
On that summer day in June 1993, soaking up the sunlight in backseat of my former babysitter, Katie's red Toyota Corolla convertible with my floppy "Manic Panic"-dyed hair dangling over my eyes, I was energized by the promise of inclusion in the day ahead. In the passenger seat was Katie's Indian lesbian friend from school. The two women had just graduated from Brown, and I was high off their post-collegiate queer charge. After a day of weaving in and out of the parade from Midtown to the West Village, we hailed a cab to go east to meet one of their gay male college friends. The celebration turned sour when the driver, gridlocked, cried, "It's impossible to get through with all of these fags running around." Katie, straight but gay-identified, fired back, "You have three gay people in the back of your cab, you mother*cker! We're getting the f*ck out!" We refused to pay and jumped out amidst his feeble protests. In this moment, I learned about hatred and the necessity of yelling for your cause.
The experience in the back of the cab, however empowering, was a haunting overture to the bullying I endured during my last year of high school. I confided in school counselors and lesbian gym teachers, but the abuse continued and kicking up dust started to feel futile so close to graduation. I never stood up to my verbal assailants like Katie did to that cabbie. As a consequence of the petrified hatred for those boys and myself, I went back in the closet for my first two years in college until I fell into a group of friends who I felt I could trust with my pockmarked sexual identity.
Today, I'm an openly gay man married to another man. This is inherently a political move in a culture where gay marriage is still in its Gold Rush phase. At the same time, like Ned Weeks who pleads to his brother, his lover, and his fellows at the GMHC to recognize that silence and weakness are killers, I couldn't help but engage in wish fulfillment that I'd showed the same gusto in my late teens. I no longer wish toxic harm on those high school bullies, but I sometimes regret that I let their homophobia damage the chords of my gay voice. It's coming back but the higher octaves have given way to a more seasoned, jazzy baritone. To say very of little of its exceptional quality, The Normal Heart is a fearless reminder that sometimes the only option is to get loud.