I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.
It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.
The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.
It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.
I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.
What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.
People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.
And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.
When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”
I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.
My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.
I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.” On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.
I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight. I said nothing.
How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?
One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”
The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.
The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.