Saturday, May 31, 2014

We Watch "Normal Heart," and Think of Our Recent Marriage and Friends Who Went Before Us

Steve and I watched "Normal Heart" this past week, and as we did so, how could we not think about the story it told without viewing it through the optic of our recent marriage? I don't mean (I hope) that I'm obsessed with talking about and seeing things through the optic of our marriage.

What I mean, quite plainly, is this: the story that "Normal Heart" tells is a story through which gay men of our generation lived (when the AIDS epidemic didn't end our lives tragically young). And that story links in very direct ways to what has happened in the latter part of our lives: the opening to marriage equality in one state after another throughout the U.S.

We lived through a seemingly endless procession of days in which it was at first not apparent why this friend and then that one had become mysteriously, seriously ill. And then died . . . . And when the cause of this epidemic became known and the mechanism of infection understood in at least rudimentary ways, things got worse instead of better — worse in terms of how the world around us chose to deal with the fact that many of us were sick and dying from a sexually transmitted disease (and one transmitted by blood transfusions).

We lived through years of gruesome rhetoric about gay cancer and plague and proposals to tattoo us on our buttocks, through years of watching televangelists and churches use the bible as a weapon against us as they exploited a deadly illness — as they exploited a death-dealing illness, for God's sake! — mowing many of us down in the flower of our youth. And as these men of God celebrated our destruction as God's will for us . . . . 

We also lived through the silence of people we had expected to be our friends, especially within communities of faith, as those good people stood by with their mouths clamped fast shut while we were turned into despised scapegoat objects by people proclaiming the love of Jesus as they enacted laws restricting our rights, singling us out for singular moral reproach, building their political empires by ginning up hate against us. We lived through the silence and inactivity of our political leaders, of people like President "Morning in America" Ronald Reagan, who could not be brought even to say our names, or the name of the illness killing us in massive numbers.

And so, as Steve and I watched "Normal Heart" within days after we had married, how could we not think of the good friends we lost during the period on which this play focuses? To be specific: as we watched, I thought of how our friends — a close friend of ours for years in New Orleans; my best friend from childhood through high school; a colleague (and friend) with whom I taught — who died of AIDS in the early 1990s were an essential part of the process that resulted in the miraculous opening to marriage for us years down the road, in the senior period of our lives.

I thought of how, though Bruce died in an AIDS hospice in New Orleans, his mother demanded at his funeral that we tell no one that he had died of AIDS, even as he lay, gaunt and exposed in his open coffin, a young unmarried man wasted to the bone, who had died, his mother insisted, of "pneumonia." I thought of how the rector of a Catholic seminary at which Steve taught moral theology in these years, who is now an archbishop and who unilaterally denied tenure to Steve after the seminary faculty and students voted to tenure him, commanded Steve never to say AIDS when several young seminarians died in a row of . . . pneumonia.

I thought of how Joe's parents chose to emblazon his funeral program —the funeral was held in the Southern Baptist church in Arkansas we both attended as boys — with the biblical text, "The wages of sin is death." And I thought of how Landrum died never having mustered the ability to tell his mother he was gay and had AIDS, and of how he went home to spend summers with her in Georgia in the years in which he was becoming sicker and sicker, planting a veritable orchard of fruit trees around her house so that she would have them, at least, to remember him by after he had died.

I thought of all of this, and of the courage displayed by the gay men and lesbians whose story "Normal Heart" tells, who banded together to form networks of support for dying friends whom the rest of society was intent on treating like lepers. I thought of their courage at coming out of the closet and cajoling others to do the same, since it is that much harder for any society with a shred of humanity to treat dying people as subhuman when those people have faces and names, and are people we know as family members, co-workers, and friends.

And I thought of how all this inexorably led to the opportunity for us to marry in 2014. I thought of how Bruce and Joe and Landrum were there when we married. Of how they and their lives richly deserve to be remembered, celebrated, never forgotten, because they and the lives they led paved the way for what is now happening in our culture as it begins to see with clearer eyes that those who are gay are human beings like everyone else, deserving of humane treatment and human rights.

I thought of how Joe's parting shot to me on the day on which he died, as we spoke by phone, he in New York and I in North Carolina, was, "You're so confused!" He had come out of the closet immediately after we left high school and went to college together in New Orleans, to adjoining campuses, he to Tulane and I to Loyola, where I was cocooned in a faith-based environment that didn't, to say the least, conduce to coming out of the closet, so that it took years and much game-playing and considerable lying to myself before I finally gained the courage to say that I was gay.

A slow process that, as Joe himself sometimes also said to me, may have saved my life, since it meant that I had not ever bought into many of the verities of "gay life" in the 1970s and 1980s into which he bought when he bought the gay package as he came out of the closet in the early 1970s . . . . Even so, he could not understand and would not forgive my continued connection to any religion at all, given the hatefulness of many communities of faith to those of us who are gay.

Hence my "confusion": I was simply pig-headed and not very bright to imagine that there was some meeting point somewhere between my Catholic faith and my gay self. Joe took this debate with me to his grave.

And I understood. I understood why he thought as he thought. I half-accepted that he was right in this analysis. When he and Bruce and Landrum all first told Steve and me that they were HIV+, we decided that, though we were both on the theology faculties of Catholic universities in New Orleans, we had to do something to be prepared to help them.

And so we signed up for training to assist those living with HIV and AIDS. The training sessions were sponsored by a group similar to the one on which "Normal Heart" focuses—a group started by gay men and lesbians, with no connection to any religious organization at all, though not a few of those undergoing training were people working in faith-based ministries to people with AIDS.

At these training sessions, I understood what Joe meant by the word "confused" when I encountered the open hostility of many members of the gay community involved in work with those living with HIV and AIDS. The open hostility was directed to us because we were Catholic theologians. 

Nor was this open hostility too different from the open hostility Steve and I experienced within our  Catholic community, where even signing up for training to assist friends dealing with AIDS could be an open declaration of our own sexual orientation that would lead to our loss of our jobs as theologians at Catholic schools who had no openly gay faculty members. In many communities of faith that had begun to create ministries to people with AIDS in this period, we could see from our "confused" vantage point in the middle that hidden, never-examined homophobia often vitiated these ministries, as people of faith appeared to enjoy providing care for sick and dying gay men, but were totally unwilling to hear the testimony of living and breathing (and mouthy) gay folks who challenged them to connect the homophobic theology of their churches to the social and cultural factors that had spurred on the promiscuity among gay men that resulted in the AIDS crisis.

There is no place more confusing than this betwixt-and-between place in which two warring camps are intent on reducing one's humanity, caught in the middle, to total rubble. Just because: because the camps are at war with each other and the human beings caught in the middle, on the battlefield, have no role to play except as objects to be battled over and battled with. 

I have lived my life as a gay Catholic theologian in this no-man's-land of total confusion, and I have to admit that I am no less confused now than I have ever been by the chasm between my Catholic community and my gay self.

I cling to the confusion, however, and I cherish the no-man's-place in which it has been my lot in life to live, for this reason: I've learned by living in this place that it's not the politicians and the tacticians, the managerial class, of any camp who will lead all the rest of us into a bright and humane future. It's the artists and the visionaries, the mystics and the bridge-makers, who will do that.

I have deliberately kept my distance from the politicians and the tacticians, the managerial class, of my gay community, many of whom are now grousing all over again about Larry Kramer and his infamous irascibility, as "Normal Heart" is screened. Just as they groused when Larry Kramer first rang his warning bells about how the ideology of free-wheedling sexual encounter was feeding the epidemic, and how this ideology might not, as its adherents wanted to think, betoken liberation but might be a vestige of our shame and our self-laothing.

And just as they groused about Tony Kushner and his impossibly leftist ideology when "Angels in America" captured the imagination of America several years back . . . . They grouse about Kramer and Kushner, it appears to me, because neither of these men with the souls of artists is willing to give his humanity over in toto to the latest ideological orthodoxy of the gay community or of any other of the warring camps that want to claim our souls at any given moment.

I'm convinced that when all the grousing is done, when the politicians and tacticians, the managers, have had their say, it's the artists who will be shown to have pointed the way to a brighter future for all of us. And they'll have pointed the way by trying to keep spaces for human encounter open and not slamming them shut, even when those spaces run through their own hearts and lives in exceptionally painful ways — like the painful disconnect between religious faith as it's currently configured by many religious groups, and the gay community.

I'm not an artist. If an artist in any shape or fashion, I'm merely an artist manqué who lapses continually into grousing about politics and tactics on this blog when I know and should do better. But this I know in my heart, and watching "Normal Heart" this week confirms the insight for me: if I ever accomplish anything of significance with my continued grousing about the disconnect between the Catholic church and gay people, it will be because I've held onto some crumbs of confused, baffled artistry in my soul, and have resisted becoming a mere politician or tactician with all the answers at my fingertips to manage the lives of others.

The trailer at the head of the posting is from HBO by way of YouTube.

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