The spectacular production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart that exploded onto Broadway in May is beautifully written, brilliantly acted, and above all, a window into a time when gay men were dying without explanation or real diagnosis. By 1985, when the play premiered, the virus had been identified, but not remotely addressed. Sitting in the audience at the Golden Theater in 2011, it is tempting to see it as a moving, frustrating period piece; in the years between 1981 and 1984, the virus didn't have a face. Before the deaths of Rock Hudson and Ryan White and the birth of the red ribbon forced mainstream awareness, it had terms which mostly burdened it with stereotypes. Gay cancer. Gay Related Immune Disorder. Anyone who didn't want to pay attention had plenty of convenient outs. For me, the piece hit home particularly hard because I got an email at intermission that yet another old friend was about to die. One of the challenges of being an AIDS activist in 2011 is that it's been so long that you forget people are sick. Until they're in their last few days on heavy morphine, and eventually you get a text that he "has left the building."
I was 20 years old in 1997, when I discovered the resource center at Chicago's Test Positive Aware Network. By then, AIDS was everywhere. The epidemic had metastasized in America -- to say nothing of the world, where a generation was wiped out in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. By 1997, we had the science. We knew exactly how to stop the spread of AIDS. It was a completely solvable yet wildly uncontrolled public health disaster, at least in terms of preventing new infections. And yet, many who had the power to make fact-based decisions -- decisions that would cut the epidemic down where it stood -- hedged their bets or backed off. At 20, I just didn't get it. Why was this controversial? People were dying, and they didn't have to. I sat in that windowless little room on Belmont Avenue and looked through a magazine called Poz. On the cover: Kramer with cake smashed all over his face, and the headline "Larry Kramer's Back and Madder Than Ever." And I learned how it feels to be pissed off at the world, and at the silent, complacent majority.
Within months, a panel of judges in Atlantic City had given me the Miss America title, after an interview in which I promised to use my year to do more aggressive activism for a cause than any Miss America had ever done. Because of that institution and how it operated in that era, I had unprecedented access to communities where the doors were locked tight against traditional AIDS activists. And yet they rolled out the red carpet for me to come and talk to their kids about the very same subject. It didn't hurt that I was Catholic, white, Republican, upper-middle class, college educated, HIV negative, and a quick learner about language and fear and plausible deniability, or that I had a crown in my suitcase. My anger and sense of injustice had to be heavily cloaked, so as to maintain this access. But it fueled me. Not to Kramerian levels -- I wouldn't put a condom on a banana in a school assembly, let alone over Jesse Helms' house -- but we all have a role to play in these situations, and mine was dependent upon a degree of decorum and about seven hundred rhinestones.
For me, the biggest lesson of that year was that AIDS is a disease that brings out the worst in a lot of people. The hatred, anger, suspicion, and desire to marginalize anyone who is different. Particularly horrifying has always been the behavior of those who spend every Sunday in church under the auspices of "judge not, lest ye be judged" and every other day that ends in "y" deciding who's going to hell. It was a year of learning that there are those who'd rather let people die in slow agony than step outside their hermetically-sealed bubble and do something about the horrors.
Right this minute, we find ourselves confronted with a parallel battle, being fought by many of the same activists. This time, we are smarter, and tougher, and more strategic framers of the topic. Yet in Albany today, there are 31 people who have the power to make same-sex marriage legal in New York, and for one reason or another, they may vote against it.
The damage caused by conferring second-class status on gay Americans is less overt and visible than the damage done by AIDS. It's not hospitalizing people -- unless you count Damian Furtch, beaten to a pulp outside the West 4th St McDonald's in March. It's not causing deaths -- unless you include all those gay kids bullied into suicide in the past couple years. It's not bloody -- unless you're thinking about Lawrence King, a middle-schooler shot in the back of the head, in class, by a 14-year-old. Or Jose Sucuzhanay, killed in Brooklyn with a baseball bat because he was mistaken for a homosexual. Or Matthew Shepard, whose face was so covered with blood when he was found tied to a Wyoming fence that the only skin visible was where his tears had washed it clean.
Those who would argue that this issue is about one word -- marriage -- are wasting their air. It's about sending the message that members of the LGBT community are of equal value in America. Those who hang their beliefs on a church's definition of its own sacrament -- which has been neutralized by provisions in the current bill allowing churches to opt out of performing same-sex ceremonies -- make a fool's argument. To them, I propose that anyone, gay or straight, who gets married at City Hall, or on the Maid of the Mist, or by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, agrees to call their legal status a civil union and accept that they will automatically have about 1100 fewer federal rights than their church-married friends. Let's see how far that one gets.
Those who do not fight for same-sex marriage are complicit in the eventualities that occur when we treat LGBT Americans as second-class citizens. It is the same as sitting by and watching countless healthy gay men waste away and die before deciding America should do something about AIDS. It is the same as sending Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War Two. It is the same as restoring dedicated drinking fountains for "whites" and "coloreds."
The only awesome thing to come out of the recent battle in Albany is Republican Senator Roy McDonald's take-this-job-and-shove it rejection of partisan politics. In one short, somewhat profane quote, he made me want to move to his district specifically to vote him into office forever, and/or lock every one of the fence-sitters into a small room with him so he can explain why this is a crystal-clear case of right and wrong.
We are out of time. We should be ashamed for letting it go on this long. We have a chance to set this right. And we will have blood on our hands if we don't. Legalize same-sex marriage now.