Sunday, June 05, 2011

AIDS thirty years on

Today, June 5, 2011 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the date when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of AIDS. Of course it was not called that then, and very little was known about the condition, except that gay men were disproportionately affected.

As I sensed the approach of this anniversary (I knew in a general way that the reports had surfaced in 1981), I decided to attend the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's eviscerating play The Normal Heart. I had been putting this visit off for a reason that will shortly become clear. Featuring Joe Mantello in the title role, the revival is superb. I cried.

Thirty years ago I was something of a gay activist. I ran the New York City chapter of the Gay Academic Union (GAU), a once-vibrant organization that has been defunct for some years now. Yet for some of us GAU provided the graduate education in gay studies that one could not get in universities in those days. Nor even now, I fear, can one learn the essentials in academia, as all sorts of faddish pseudo-disciplines have come to dominate the field. But there are plenty of good books available.

At all events as 1981 advanced, I became informed about the menace posed by the new disease--I regularly read some 20 gay newspapers from the US and abroad. From this perusal and conversations with my peers I realized that I needed fundamentally to change my behavior--apparently successfully, as I have been HIV negative ever since.

At the time, my associates and I debated whether we should follow the lead of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and commit ourselves completely to the issue. Most of us concluded that it would be better to keep on with what we were doing, as that was where our skills and training could be best applied. And so I did, resulting in my books Homosexuality: A Research Guide (1987) and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990).

Yet I have sometimes wondered what would have happened had I thrown myself into the fray. That is why I approached the prospect of seeing the Kramer play with a certain dread--which turned out not to be warranted at all.

Well, that was the path not chosen, and in retrospect I think that I was right, for I might not have been able to make much of a contribution to AIDS education. Other people have. As it is, though, I am satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish in my own area, modest though the harvest may be.

Towards the end of the play, which is very much a' clef, Kramer tells of how he was driven out of his own organization, GMHC. One could say that in this tremendously powerful play Larry Kramer had the last laugh. Yet he would be the first to disagree, as he does in an open letter distributed to the Broadway audience as they leave the performance. He points out that in many parts of the world HIV/AIDS is still raging. This is truly scandalous.

I am told that Larry is putting the finishing touches on the shortened version of his enormous manuscript on the history of the USA from a gay standpoint. I can foresee that academic scolds like me will find much to criticize when the book is published.

Absit! Nothing doing, as the Apostle would put it. For I trust that I will be able to refrain: Larry Kramer is a truly heroic figure.



Post a Comment

<< Home