Last night I was privileged to attend a special screening of HBO’s upcoming film “The Normal Heart” in an audience filled with people working for HIV Services Organizations. It was the perfect room in which to see this movie, because the audience itself brought with it the history reflected on the screen.
We are now 30 years past the events depicted semi-fictitiously in the film, and one of the most stirring revelations I had was this: history has redeemed author Larry Kramer, GMHC founding president Paul Popham and GHMC founding executive director Rodger MacFarlane, who are the real life counterparts of the film’s Ned Weeks, Bruce Niles and Tommy Boatwright. They were all right, and they were all doing what they thought they needed to in the moment. When I first encountered the play in the late 1980’s, Bruce/Paul seemed to be the antagonist of the piece, which would always favor the author/protagonist’s point of view. Today, however, it seems clear that even to Kramer, he understands that he was imperfect, and that Bruce/Paul was imperfect, but that they were both working on the same problem from different angles.
Kramer’s approach, and his need to keep fighting when he was forced off the board of GMHC, gave him the strength to co-found ACT UP: an organization that could serve as the angry voice of a people oppressed. Popham’s approach required safe and secure space in which critical services could be delivered to people who were scared and dying: GMHC. In the 1980’s, we needed both kind of organizations, and in the 2010’s, we still do.
It is the problem that still exists today: How can you be an attack dog and channel anger and fear to get a job done when those in power require tact and diplomacy? How do you speak out openly and honestly about your feelings without risking the delicate work at hand? How do you yell at people for not doing enough when it threatens your ability to receive any help at all?
Marginalized populations: LGBT persons, racial and ethnic minorities, women, people living with HIV/AIDS, these groups have never been given any of their social advances lightly by those in power, and it requires the actions of fighters, of poets, of visionary leaders working together to gain those advances step by step.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it right when he said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." He understood how to channel fear and anger toward a progressive good, and he was killed for it. But in death, his power became even stronger and continues to inspire people today. Larry Kramer has faced decades of character assassination for the same beliefs, but it is in his life and the fact of his survival that has given him greater power and the chance to continue the fight and continue the inspiration.
July 3rd marks the 33rd Anniversary of the first article in the New York Times about (what would become known as) AIDS, and yet, in many ways, we are facing the same problems: marginalized populations being ignored by the mainstream power structure. In this case, I’m talking specifically about women of color.
The National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), released in 2010, defined women’s risk factors as mostly having to do with the activities of the men in their lives, and doesn’t spend much time or energy talking about women in their own right. Consequently, many funding streams for women’s support programs have cut or been channeled toward men’s programs, consistent with aspects of the NHAS, but at odds with what we see in the community. If the NHAS concept of Treatment as Prevention is to be taken seriously, then programs for women with HIV should be funded proportionately to the number of cases of people living with HIV. Cut support programs for women, and an entire population is at risk for increased health problems. Ultimately, it impacts us all, because once again, a virus doesn’t discriminate and unless we’re working to eradicate it everywhere, we won’t succeed.
People grew complacent as drug regimens turned an HIV/AIDS diagnosis from a death sentence into a “chronic, manageable condition,” and yet we need the next generation of Larry Kramers to start shouting. We need more money, desperately, to continue programs that we know are working to keep people living with HIV/AIDS healthy. But at the same time, it’s hard for those of us “on the inside” to shout too loudly, to risk offending those very people who are still playing politics with people’s lives. This film gets that right: to win a war, you have to start one. But there are different ways to fight a war and you need both brute force and intelligence. You can’t have one without the other, and you can’t be both.
We’ve got the intelligence. Where’s our brute force today? The world needs Paul Pophams AND Larry Kramers, and especially an Iris de la Cruz here and there.