At The Heart of The Normal Heart

May 19, 2011

Silence. That's what we walked in for several blocks after seeing The Normal Heart this past weekend. Three of my friends and I sat at the bar, each of us ordering drinks ready to talk about the play, and still we sat in mostly silence. After about an 20 minutes we found ourselves somewhere between deeply moved and deeply depressed and decided it best to end the night. It wasn't just the rave reviews from both critics and friends alike that had me aching to see The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's semi-autobiographical play about the rise of HIV/AIDS in New York City. It was the need to further my gayducation in both history and the arts.

The material and performances from the entire cast were so strong, that almost a week later, I find myself thinking about the play at various points throughout my day. I think of all the gays I know: close friends, acquaintances, even peripheral friends of friends and wonder what it would be like if in the span of a few months 40 of them were dead. I can't imagine the uncertainty, the fear, the frustration of something so mysterious and deadly that's seemingly targeting your entire world. And worst of all, that no one seemed to care. I don't think the younger generation of gays really understands the terror and devastation that this disease once caused, and still can cause. And even though we're bombarded with safe sex messaging and education, we still don't really get it. Especially now that HIV is considered such a "treatable" disease.

Aside from a realistic depiction of the onset and hysteria of the virus, the thing I was most fascinated by was the way cultures form. To think that just one element could define and entire grouping of people so strongly and for so long. Not the associate between gays and AIDS, but the way we relate to each other. They say at one point in the play how they think Ned Weeks, the Larry Kramer character, is trying to make sex dirty again for gay men after they worked so hard at becoming sexually liberated. AIDS brought the freedom that gay men were starting to embrace to a screeching halt, and I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if we continued to progress. Would all those rights were still fighting for have happened sooner? Would we have been less stigmatized, or not stigmatized at all? With nothing stopping us would we have fucked ourselves into oblivion? I guess what I wonder is what would gay culture be like today?

Then there's everyone who did nothing. Reagan, former Mayor Ed Koch, The New York Times, the majority of the medical community: to think what would have been if these influential and powerful institutions had not been silent during such a crucial time. There are many comparison's to the holocaust in the play and in the same way that it's still unfathomable that millions were executed unbeknownst to the rest of the world, it's even worse when you think about how this happened in the modern world. A world where information and news were easier to disseminate and broadcast. And still so many remained silent or indifferent.

And yet, the quote that stood out the most to me was when Ned said something like, "as gay men we're taught not to love." Hearing him say that, I realized that that probably was the case back then to a degree. We're often so overly sexualized that it's almost as if we're bred to only have sex. It's a stereotype rooted in truth, and one we've certainly discussed here many times, but once again it gave me insight into where so many of our learned behaviors come from. Today, there are so many wonderfully representation of gay love, and I wonder if the Ned Weeks of today would still think the same thing?

To say this play struck a deep, bellowing chord with me, doesn't even cover it. I wish everyone could see this play, gay and straight alike (and there were a surprising number of straights in the audience), especially those born during and after the 80s. Knowing where you come from and the history of what came before you is so essential, and for as much progress we've made, remnants of the way we lead our lives today are still deeply rooted in this era. Seeing this play helped me to better understand how we as gays came to be and with this insight, I can see how everything we do today as a culture bleeds through to the ones that come after us.

The play runs through July 10th. If you're in New York City and can get out here before then, I highly recommend it.

Having been born in 1984, I obviously have no memories from this critical time period. I would really love to hear from those of you who lived through this era and the effect that it's had on you today. Whether you were indirectly affected, far removed, or right there in it, I think we'd all appreciate hearing your insight and perspective on the subject. I know I would.

Tags: Gay Culture, HIV/AIDS, The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer, Broadway
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Post written by RobHeartsDH (View Author Profile)
About this author: Rob lives in Manhattan with his black pug Riley. When he’s not thinking about daddies, he enjoys writing, eating burritos, watching copious amounts of television, and thinking about his next meal.
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Comments

In 1984 I was young boy just entering year 5 in primary school. But it wasn't until 1987 when Australia started the scare tactics with tv & print advertisements. Some of which were scary as hell specially to kids. They were targeting EVERYONE. To practice safe or safer sex.

It wasn't until 1991 when one of my good friends told me he was HIV positive. He was diagnosed that same year. Unfortunately 4 years later he passed away from complications related to Pneumonia. This was the first time I felt that bitter taste in the back of my throat. As the community at large were still calling it a gay disease.

Until you have lost someone very close to you because of this disease, you really have no idea. Just how insidious it really is.

My friend I spoke of earlier was not gay & did not do drugs. He was a victim of tainted blood supply. He had blood transfusions during surgery in 1988. Surgery to safe his life, ended his life sooner then expected. But yes that stigma was there even then.

May you all cherrish every day you have.

Blessed Be.

Larry Kramer is a force of nature playwright when it comes to writting about gay issues and HIV. What dismays and frustrates me is that the play only got an "off-Broadway" production when it was created in 1985. Some people saw it then, of course. Barbra Streisand was moved enough by the piece to sew up the film rights to the piece, but never got around to pulling a film production before the rights expired. So, now, in 2011 the play has been revived in a mainstream Broadway playhouse. I haven't seen it in ANY production, but believe the reports of the piece being profoundly moving are true.

It saddens and dismays me, though, that the piece has languished for more than 25 yrs. since its now, come-lately, mainstream production. How could anyone see the piece now and not feel "Oh, that was back then....but HIV has become a manageable syndrome now?"

As great as the impact of Kramer's work is, might it not have had an even more important influence on the attention that could have provoked a meaningful response to ravages of HIV/AIDS if it had been given the opportunity to move the greater audience it deserve when it had the immediacy and urgency of "Listen up, people.....this is happening RIGHT NOW on the streets outside this very theatre?"

In my mind, then, Reagan, the US Gov't, and Ed Koch aren't the only ones complicit in ignoring HIV and hoping that by sweeping it under the rug, like ignoring behavior of an unruly child it would go away. Everyone who could have effectively supported the spread of the play's message through production of this piece before now . . . .but didn't wear the same mantle of responsibility for minimizing the spectrum of issues presented by HIV as did Reagan, the Gov't, and Koch.

I "came out", if anyone uses that expression any more, in 1981. I was a freshman at a small college about 1 hour outside NYC. As a college student during the early 1980's, I was somewhat insulated from the early devastation that the AIDS crisis wreaked on my peers. But not for long...By 1984-85, I started losing friends at an alarming rate - especially those who lived in NYC or who socialized there. But I was safely(or so I thought) existing in my pleasant little upstate bubble. Despite frequent trips into NYC, and frequent dates with men there (and I mean actual dates - I never went to bathhouses or sex clubs, and I still do not), I remained personally unscathed by the epidemic. Then, in the late '80's, it started hitting closer and closer to my social group. By the end of the '80's, i had lost EVERY SINGLE MALE FRIEND I HAD, except for one. I dealt with the almost unbearable sadness of losing these dear friends quietly, and took some minor comfort in the fact that I had escaped infection. I also became somewhat complacent, and figured that since I had made it that far, that I would remain spared from the matter.

I relocated to Atlanta, GA in 1991. And the cycle started all over again...Atlanta was about 5 - 10 years behind the initial curve, which primarily impacted the larger cities up until that point. Then i started losing many of the new friends I made here in Atlanta within a few years. Still, I felt fortunate for having seemingly escaped...I kind of forgot the holiday season of 1988, when I spent 2 weeks sick as a dog at my parents home...I had no idea that I was in the process of seroconverting at or near that time.

I suppose where i am going with all of this is that I am a bit saddened by the lack of understanding of the younger guys regarding what we went through, and what they need to do to remain safe. It kind of shocks me to see some 20-something guy indicate in his profile that he is poz. However , i do not judge anyone despite the judgements that people cast in my direction frequently. But HIV is still out there, and despite it being a more manageable situation than in the past, it is cumbersome, draining and difficult to deal with.

All I can say is, be safe, be cautious about what you do and with whom you do it, and be compassionate of us guys who contracted it during that time when no one really knew much about how it was transmitted.

I am rambling here, but I just wanted to weigh in.

Georgia Daddy,
That was a compelling story. I lived in NYC from 1978-1983, when I moved to my hometown in CT. I attribute that simple act of moving to being healthy and having survived the AIDS epidemic. The love of my life walked out on me in early 1984. I sought psychological counseling to get over it. I never saw or heard from him again, until in 1996, a mutual friend called me to say that Gordon was in NY Hospital, ICU, with AIDS and his parents weren't allowing anyone to see him. I perused the NYT obits, and found it: Gordon passed away in March of 1996 and left behind a lover. What I cannot understand is how does a person have a lover who is pos, and himself not contract the disease? Gordon was a total bottom. I googled the lover and he is still with a prominent law firm.
I also lost several friends. I remember spending a week in Fire Island in the summer of 1981, I had a torrid affair with a guy from Washington DC and it was just coming out about this "gay cancer." We were scared. Anyway, I moved to CT and limited my contacts. I'm almost afraid to have sex anymore. I've had several lovers since Gordon and I knew they were being faithful to me. I hope you are well, take care of yourself good luck.
Gardis in CT

Thank you for the insightful reply - Yes, I am remarkably well, and in great health. I lead a very normal existence - I worl nonstop, I do volunteer work, I am in the middle of renovating one of several homes that I have worked on over the years. not everyone was so lucky...But I thank you for caring enough to respond, and I hope you are also well.

Thank you Big daddy. I am well, in perfect health (don't have AIDS) and am so happy to hear you are leading an active life. How do you handle relationships if any? Curious to know about that. I don't share enthusiasm for Larry Kramer, but let's leave that aside. I read a profile in NY Mag about him recently and he strikes me as a bitter, angry vulgar human being (and vindictive)who has wrapped himself around the 'gay lifestyle'......it defines him totally. I doin't want any part of that, just speaking personally. But God bless him.

I enjoyed your story and hope you keep us informed about your life. Thank you Big Daddy.

Gardis in CT

I came out in 1981 as well. Here in Florida news traveled fairly quickly about the "gay plague". We had a very active gay support group on campus, and we even did safe-sex outreach and such. Around 1985, a friend and I went to get tested. I kinda knew that one of us would come back positive... he drew the short straw. He was from NYC and was the first person I ever knew who was positive. Fortunately, he's still very much alive and well today.

A few years later, I received a mailgram that a college friend was dying. His lover sent the mailgram so we could call and pay our respects. I remember that he only spoke a few words - his lover then took the phone and said that was the first time he had spoken in weeks. He passed shortly thereafter.

Sometime in the early 1990's, I found out that a friend who killed himself in college did so because he was positive. The depression overwhelmed him and he feared what could happen.

Around 1995, a 23 y/o friend had blueish-purple spots that took over his body inside and out. I had heard about Kaposi's sarcoma... now I knew what it looked like. To actually watch someone die of this was one of the worst things I have ever witnessed. His family was wonderful and I visited the home several times. At the funeral, I walked over to his father and gave my apologies - he said "It was his lifestyle that killed him." I thought, no - it was a disease that killed him... but who am I to correct a greiving man at his son's funeral?

I skipped over my own diagnosis in 1993. The news came on my birthday from a counselor who had quit the job because he couldn't take giving people bad news anymore... I had to comfort him. I then went home and cried for three days; then said "I'm tired of crying and that's not going to make me healthy." Fortunately, I've had very good doctors who have made good guesses as to what would work and I'm still undetectable after all these years. I have a little bit of a hand in that as well: no unsafe sex, full disclosure and discussion with a prospective partner, and a "no sex until at least after the third date" policy... so few make it to a second date, let alone a third.

All this popularity with barebacking is unimaginable to me. Nobody is worth that amount of risk. And while HIV is treatable, the drugs have so many side effects... but they allow getting to the next day - where there may be a cure.

That having been said, I am also firmly convinced that crystal is the "gay plague", not AIDS. And I thank Rob for that "aside" in his Gay Role Models article. Crystal will be the demise of our gay culture. I've known several people who's lives have been adversely affected by crystal - and only one successful turn away... history repeats itself.

I haven't been super active because of being super shy but when I heard that there is a new attitude in some circles for younger guys to think they want to actually have the virus as a sort of "rite of passage" because some guys imagine that the remedies make it not as much of a risk and thats not a good way to see things for sure. Its like where some chat room someplace is actually labeled "bareback" and there is a certain risk that some find fun to take as though its like playing cards or russian roulette. Guys need to be safe or make sure that anyone they meet is tested so that progress can be made without more variants of the virus popping up due to heavy activity all over the country and that makes it harder for the researchers if everyone goes full steam ahead with being reckless.

it's late, ao I hope I can make sense of something which is and has been my life since the onset of AIDS. There are cards in an old file and names crossed out in address books. The respective number of my losses is not a competition. The pain is real. I was diagnosed in 1988 and lost the two men I loved, who loved me. The first, in 1991 when medical choices were few and I had to make a call to our doctor to get information about my partner as he lay dying in the hospital because the nurses didn't give personal information to anyone not a blood relative. Back then, it was a bold commitment for the funeral home on W 14th St. to take people who died of HIV/AIDS. Many other establishments were still quite fearful of casual contact leading to infection in ways which have mostly been debunked Suffice to say, I lived in a state of constant anxiety about my own health and the health of my few remaining friends.
My second partner died in 2001, when there were numerous pills one could take to stave off further deterioration to the immune system. I knew he was positive when we met and my hope then was that I wouldn't die alone.I was his caregiver in the last and harrowing months of his life, and because I didn't check my will while there was still time to change it. He left me having to sell off the co-op we'd bought together and his furnishings to pay the estate. In what his attempt to please his unsupportive family, he named a cousin he hated as executor of his estate In addition todealing with this second occasion for grief, I was forced to fight for rights I would automatically have had if we could have been legally married.

Since 2001, although I am still here and my T cells vary at a good level and my viral load is undetectable,my health is threatened by the consequences of fifteen years of taking very powerful drugs to keep me alive. A bout of PCP pneumonia wherein I was given a medication which weakened my pancreas and brought on Type 2 Diabetes. The diabetes and quite possibly a medication prescribed to me by my HIV doctor, caused end-state renal failure. I have been in dialysis for four hours, three days a week for six years now.The day before Thanksgiving I had triple bypass surgery and was told that the almost total blockage in three arteries in my heart, may have been plaque buildup from the HIV meds. The cardiac sugeon warned me that I faced a stroke or heart attack if I didn' t have the operation. Now, although I'm blessed with a resiliance which has restored most of my energy and stamina, I have some sexual funcion problems and a knifelike pain in my chest from the titanium threads and staples used to repair my sternum which was broken for the operation. This is my life!

LET THIS BE A WARNING TO ANYONE WHO THINKS GETTING POSITIVE JUST MEANS TAKING A FEW PILLS: I take four sets of between five and ten pills a day and have to inject myself with insulin. The suggested dietary restrictions of my multiple, incurable albeit, 'treatable' conditions, make me feel like I'm dancing around a landmind. I even have a suggested liquid restriction of 30 oz a day. That's less than an quart. Sure, I've somehow lived this long but while every year has been a blessing and something of a surprise, I'm growing older alone in a gay 'culture' which still disrespects and marginalizes the men who fought to get them the rights and lives they take for granted. I'm invisible to most of the men I see when I go out and I don't go out like I used to because I know I'm not going to meet anyone, especially at a bar or club. The Internet is like a virtual bar. It hardly matters what a guy writes because he may be lying and since I invariably disclose my HIV status, the dating pool would hardly hold a minnow.

Sure, all things being equal and there being not AIDS, barebacking has some defiinite and even, potentially spiritual aspects. I know it used to have for me. THOSE DAYS ARE GONE. I'm sorry you younger guys missed the big party and I don't mind if you resent us, but please be aware that there was a lot more to those hedonistic days of gay liberation. We worked very hard to keep our enemies from prevailing as it would mean certain death to us all. (See: Uganda and Jamaica today)

I know that there's at least one guy here who indicated that he was interested in knowing his history. I'm here as are the other survivors. Look around, make a friend, maybe find a mentor or at least find the wisdom of your elders.

Larry Kramer is like the Old Testament god and the mythical Cassandra. The former as he's so many pronouncements and lightning bolts. The latter because no one wants to hear the truth because it's too hard. "The Normal Heart" which I saw during its off-Broadway run, back in the day, was a powerful work of drama as well as effective agitprop. I'm glad it's on Broadway now although my limited finances don't allow me much theatre. Did I mention that I had to go onto long-term disability from a job I was at for 19 years or that I subsequently had to declare bankruptcy? Now I live on Social Security, my work disability and an allowance from my 84 year old father.I might not outlive him His health is much better than mine. I'll be 58 on Tuesday if the world doesn't end on Saturday. .

The reason I stayed up writing all this is that someone asked and I felt compelled to respond. I'm past survivor guilt, which is to say, I don't fret over why I'm still here and so many others are not. I am trying to get back into the swim of things as is appropriate for my age and other circumstances. I'm not as happy being single as I would be, with a partner, but I can't control the way things happen. I can just keep hoping, trying, and reaching out however and whenever I can. Who knows, maybe I'll be inspired to complete my memoirs of my life in SF during the 1970s. I hope someone cares?

I happen to live and work at Ground Zero for the Gay Community on the west coast, the Castro. The business I manage there has been around a long time and we used to routinely gather around the local gay paper every Thursday morning to look at the obits and see which of our customers had disappeared that week.

But the most massively important moment in all that time was a visit from my parents. (I was fortunate enough to grow up in a functional family, and my Mom and Dad were always supportive of me and loving to my friends and lovers.) I was at dinner with them when my Mom looked at me after a bit of silent prompting from my Dad and asked: "How do do it?" "How do I do what, Mom?" "Deal with all the death around you?" I remarked that I dealt with it because it was right and because no one else would. But I added that it must have been just as hard on her during WWII when her friends didn't come home. She said, and I've never forgotten it: "That was different, it had a point. This doesn't. All these bright young souls disappearing is totally without reason."

I have MADE it have a reason in my life. It has made me committed to living every day fully and to engaging my friends and loved ones with my whole being. We never know how long we will be here, we must spread love and joy and care wherever we go, or we diminish ourselves and our community in the process.

I saw the original production at The Public Theatre with hot Midnight Express Brad Davis.
As someone who lost 3 partners since 1978, and am still HIV-, I have very different reactions to the entire period. There was plenty of blame to go around, especially our own community that just would not give up promiscuity, the baths, and sex in the parks in the face of all the evidence. I remember the hostility to then Mayor Feinstien and Dr. Tom Waddell of GayGames. Randy Shilt's 'And the Band Played On' almost came out and said it. I wish he had lived to write more. And it took years of writing in the Village Voice for people to take Larry Kramer seriously, when he really was only saying the same thing Reagan said years earlier, but we are so politically polarized that we ignored sound medical advice. Some of us figured it out by 1980, and practiced only safe sex from then on. The mantra for our enlightened group was to behave like it was Hepatitis, and it -worked-! The recent film 'We Were Here' was IMHO a bit of a pollyanna whitewash. I remember the dudes being thrown out on the street by their partners who just took everything, abandoned them, and moved out. I remember the suicide parties that sometimes went awry. I remember the total lack of support in SF in the early '80s, such that I took care of abandoned friends in my downstairs room, and took my partner back to Chattanooga to be properly cared for by his family and Church of Christ parishoneers, so he could die with some dignity. To this day I cannot speak evil of right wing Christians because they did what the so called enlightned ostriches of SF would not/could not in 1981. Someday someone will research the period and tell the dirty truth. It was not until the mid/late '80s that things significantly changed in SF. But we suffer today from political correctness in the media, and we cannot speak ill of gays or SF even if it is the truth/history.

I lived through the 80's & 90's in NYC. My partner and I had a five bedrrom house on Fire Island which we shared through the summers with friends in various combinations of shares, half shares, quarter shares. Saturday nights there would be 16 -20 people at dinner. They were high flying and fabulous times and then AIDS struck and by the end of the 80's , of the 50 or so people who frequented the house at least 40 of them would be dead. You asked at the top what it was like to live through that; and the answer is simple - you simply do. People, friends, or friends of friends were constantly dying. You were always going to a hospital, or a friends apartment, or a funeral, or memorial or taking care of someone's family from out of town. Both my partner and I have survived and remained HIV-negative, even though those close to us were sick and dying - we survived. And we had the survivor guilt which was ( is) a confusion. Why did we not get sick? Why didn't we get infected? ( Once it was known, we stayed monogomous. ) Whatever we have accomplished in our lives is somehow tainted by the fact that we lost so many friends on the journey. Growing up our parents would talk about people they grew up with that were lost during the war. The AIDS crisis was our "war". The silience of the government and the media was shocking and awful. And Larry kramer stood up a screamed and shouted - yes he has helped our cause, yes he was right - but at the time ( and as he has depicted in the play ) his screaming and his rage also did horrible harm , he alienated people in power, he made ordinary people less compassionate. But we were all different then, even if we lived our lives openly as gay men, we were still closeted in terms of mainstream America. Gay parents? Civil Partnerships? Gay Marriage? They weren't even talked about as pipe dreams. It took the AIDS crisis to mobilize us and galvanize us into a powerful community that is standingup for our rights. Those friends we lost along the way are our soldiers in this horrible battle. They are our history. When I meet younger guys they simply can't imagine what it was like. So I'll find a program from a Broadway musical of the time and Ill show them the title page with the cast and credits and I'll count for them the number of people on it that died during that time. They cannot help but be overwelhmed by it. A horrible time but somehow that human spirit that allows people to soldier on and insome cases thrive through adversity is in all of us.

I was born in the 80's, yes it does make young but still i live in South-africa. One of countries in the world with the most HIV count. Africa is bombarded with the disease, its on every doorstep.
It's the thing i fear the most in this world.
I am just so far from NYC and would have loved to be a part of Larry Kramer's thoughts and visions. To me expresion is like breathing, its how people protray themselves as humna beings.
We all have our own ways of showing people who and what we are.

I have read most of the comments and i have soooo enjoyed all that has been printed to memory. I would love to find out more about the Play and would love to be part of it.

Please guys let me know when it is, maybe i will have a flight down there and come enjoy the talented Mr. Larry Kramer.

Will
South -Africa

I’m up. It's 2:30 am, maybe it's giving into this, my losing battle trying to avoid the assault of a relentless moon. Yet I find myself reading this bit about the normal heart and the responses it has generated, and I know I won’t sleep anymore tonight. The moon wins.

Post after post I read of life back in the day and I am haunted.

Even as the geese begin to stir, having moved up onto the cliff as the river below is flooding, and the sun is already hinting it will soon light the eastern sky; and even as I now live so far removed from the gay scene, I don't know what a normal heart is. I do know that Larry Kramer is our Moses. His anger management issues are not without cause. He is and will always be among my hero’s.

Just a week ago it seemed winter would never pack up and hightail it to the southern hemisphere. But even here, in this place on the northern edge of the Great American Outback, HIV, unlike winter refuses to leave. I want to believe in a cure. But, I just don't go there anymore.

The endless, devastating totality that defines HIV---I mean how do you even approach such a monstrous totality of ruin? In the beginning I remember the solace and awe, the hatred and grace, and the silence colluding with ignorance---all this occurring in a distinct, compressed unison of funerals and disapperances, suicide and exile. The beginning, the first 15 years, is a time I never thought would end. The better years that follow, laden with happy phrases, these terms celebrating our new power. the rodeo of barebacking, the raw emancipation of a loaded gun with the safety off, our drug cocktailed dependencies and our leisure drug holidays, we are now manageable and chronic. Like all exteme sports language, current culture mitigates risk with hype and only seems to enable a new type of silence and a false security. We have drugs. Thank the Lord. We can breathe easy, as long as the drugs remain, the insurance is in force, the copays affordable.

Yet I sometimes feel as if it is 1981 all over again. Nearly half of all new infections are landing on those under 25. In reading some of the comments, I encounter that bitter taste of too much death and the futility of wanting to put a barrier between passion, and I know the folly of distance--that there is no isolation, no truly safe place. Passion usually overrides logic and I get more than most would think the losses incurred by trying to keep skin from knowing skin, and that barriers create barriers. My anger lands at a virus, not at culture or language or semen licking blood.

Up in the Selkirk Rockies, we've known for weeks that this year’s flood was coming, but some of my friends wait to sandbag, hoping the forecasts are wrong. It’s like HIV, you don't really know what the ruin will mean for you until it hits. We hear numbers. Montana snowpack, this late in May is 185% of normal. In Idaho and NE Washington it’s 150% of normal. All that release is coming this way.

It reminds me of 2008, when the feds announced that they’d been under reporting new HIV infections in America by roughly 40%. Overnight 39,000 new infections became 56,000 new infections. Give or take.

I also remember hearing the first numbers way back when. But they were in the teens. Then the hundreds. An adult store owner saved my life at 16, back in 1981/82, whispering to me about this strange horror coming from big cities elsewhere. And then, almost in an eye blink, it hit. HIV is both flash flood and global warming. A force of nature thing transforming familiar landscape forever. Now, even after years of sand bagging, and looking for weakness in the protection I rely on, I still find myself scanning the horizon, wondering about my defenses and trying to prop it all up, yet stay human. I hope I've done enough, even as a second surge approaches, before all hell gives way again and it's time to roll up the sleves, start over because somewhere else the levee gave way or a breach is occuring because the current changed.

I’m both a working class guy, knowing my way around aviation, trucking, ranching and logging but I've also been a writer all my adult life. i suppose many would find it strange I've not really written about the personal loss HIV exacted, not until recently. In the last two years, I'm not sure how it happened, but I found myself hosting survivors of The Holocaust, the Rwandan, and Khmer Rouge genocides as well as providing a place HIV researchers and refugee camp workers from S. Africa and the Sudan recharged. As we’ve sat around the campfire, I've found this collective sense of permafrost that remains with all of us, as the horror of their experiences, coupled with mine, falls into this common phrase, I keep hearing.

Always, they begin their stories with "back in the beginning". And Back in the Beginning, eventually brings us to now. Before we knew better; before the denial imploded or we could see and accept how bad it would be. With HIV/AIDS, this shock has lasted so long and words continue to fail us. We were unprepared for the horror that seemed so impossible to believe. Mourning ourselve numb as we lifted shovel, dirt covering love, and yet somehow, there we were, still standing when the dust settled.

The epilogues and eulogies ignite over campfires, and people begin talking about things they've never spoken of or let their thoughts shape. Maybe it’s the American Flags they bore witness to on every Indian Grave north of here. Maybe it’s the serenity of a hush falling on the bull pines, and the space and the silence broken only by hoot owls and a lone semi on an echoing highway that is still ten miles down river. Maybe it's the way the Kalispels, the last people whom should ever forgive anyone, do so with a grace and generosity.

In these stories, I've listened with awe while stirring embers or putting more wood on the fire, and I do not hear hatred or accusation, just that this is often the way of the world and that hatred is enabled by silence and inaction. It is as if the Polish poet Milos returns, with an encore of Beauty Will Save Us. These encounters leave me rethinking any bitterness I harbor towards Christians, the Feds, and my fellow neighbors, who have no idea what I’ve lived through and thank God that some souls can still awake and not be haunted by memories of too many funerals and too much loss.

But around that campfire, with sparks lifting toward the stars, a person is prompted to think back on stolen youth, the struggle of meeting human tragedy head on. Words happen. Things are said. It's put out there and it's consumed by flame and in the morning, all that remains is charcoal, embers and ash. For them, it finally felt safe to say the unsayable. Once said the universe now keeps those sentiments while mortals make sure the fire remains out and embrace daybreak.

Only in the last few years, and as a result of my guest’s stories, have I really been able to start looking back, and put it all into words, this my experience. I'm 46 years old and I've lost over 400 people to HIV/AIDS. My friends who have survived other genocides tell me I must speak. Because I, like them, was there in the beginning. I am still negative, which means nothing other than a term I hear people use to quantify people like me. Survivor---Sometimes with the word guilt tacked on at the end.

How do you honor so many unfinished songs if you are the only person to remember those who once sang? I keep hearing it is better now, that there are meds, but really, I’ve come to accept that improvement does not equal done. HIV is going to be the story of my life and yet I don't think humanity ever really learns its lessons well. I recoil everytime I confront that our world is built upon demonizing entire groups. This year its public service workers and their unions. Last year it was socialists. I worry next year it will be the waste of funding drug cocktails. We seem to forget, all too quickly, that we all bleed red. Genocide happens, fairly regularly in our history and yet so much spilled red seems to matter little as memories fade and people regroup.

HIV---and its grip on history, my history, even up here in a sparsely populated county the size of several east coast states combined, and with less than 12,000 people--here the virus continues to move unchecked. Just last week, my straight roommate, an adrenaline junky snowmobile racer half my age whose stunts land him on extreme videos, told me his high school best friend recently killed himself due to an HIV diagnosis. His girlfriend is also infected.

In the middle of a blizzard, winter before last, I answered my door thinking it was the Jehovah's Witnesses, again. Instead I found a 70 year-old-woman and her husband. They'd walked in, a mile and half off the plowed county road, bearing a plate full of cookies. As I stood in the doorway, the woman asked if I was Tim? They'd heard from someone in the county about me, the work I do with truckers, and they wanted to talk to someone. About HIV. She'd just lost her sister-in-law to the disease.

Following them back into the house, I couldn't help but think that even up here, in the middle of nowhere, this virus that I hate with every fiber of my being, rages on. They'd walked in all that way, through all that fresh powder, to find someone to crush their silence because no one talks about HIV anymore. I can still hear the marchers from the 80’s chanting “Silence Equals Death” and I wonder if they knew they were prophets.

I remember trucking, trying to get to the bedsides of friends before they passed and racking up log book ticket after log book ticket. I remember a roommate who never told me he was sick, and finding out he'd passed suddenly and alone, from a phone bank in Flying J Truckstop. I remember hauling produce, and trying to fill up the truck and the sleeper with extra stuff I bought or that growers donated, once they found out why a trucker would be buying crates of lettuce or flats of strawberries. I remember meeting Chicken Soup Brigade volunteers who showed up truckside next to me at 3 am in the morning, on motorcycles, and somehow making trip after trip with their bikes and balancing all this nourishment back up to volunteer kitchens. I remember hauling the Names Project Quilt in my truck, and thinking back in 1991 that a cure was just around the corner.

I have photo albums filled with pictures of smiling trucker friends, almost all of them now gone. My Seattle physician, who I travel nearly 800 miles round trip to see, told me in August that his new HIV infection diagnosis was up 15 times over the previous year. In Spokane, 75 miles south of here, new infections are up. In Montana, 40 miles east, up. In 2006 we surveyed drivers as part of a project at a local truck stop and 10% of the drivers we spoke with were already HIV positive.

Yet no one talks about it anymore. I remember a woman heading a huge HIV charity told me back in 1990 that HIV wasn’t “sexy” anymore as she struggled to find funding to sustain the organization. I thought that it was the strangest way to note the passing relevance of a disease—I wonder, if she would have said such a thing looking into the future, if she’d seen the trajectory of a virus that has killed over 40 million people, and I wonder if she'd still mourn the loss of it’s sexiness.

And now, like bell bottoms and disco, like Tupperware parties and Pricilla Queen of the Desert, it seems looking back and going all retro on the early years of HIV is “in” again. The Normal Heart has hit Broadway. But even as documentaries and survivors talk openly about life--“back in the beginning”-- I just can’t allow myself to go all Justin Timberlake and bring Sexy back.

In the beautiful novel The Man that Fell in Love with the Moon, I think I see a better approach as voiced by one of the primary characters: The Best Stories Are True. We must keep clean. Keep our promises. But most importantly, Keep going.

And as dawn is now here and the valley below is brilliant and the beauty of the day is disarming, I’ve accepted that this is the new normal. Exhausted as I feel, I know one thing remains true. There is still plenty of sandbagging left to do.

I am 66. I am a gay man that was active thru the late seventies and into the eighties. I live in Charlotte NC..a small city that was relatively free of the "gay plague" when we first heard of it. I was closeted for a lot of the time and only had sex in NYC or DC...at the Baths or clubs or pickups. It was a totally"sex as revolutionary action" mindset. It was the right thing to do to be as sexually active as possible. I was lucky. I never was infected. Most of my local friends were straight people and so I lost almost no one to AIDS until much later in the epidemic. As I aged and matured,I came out and had long term partners that kept me out of the danger zones....the Baths and Pornshops. The reality began to hit me when it hit the rest of the country. By then,I had made more gay friends and some of them were sick. I became a major caretaker for one friend and was with him the night he died. It was an ugly death. We had days of agony and rage before he succumbed. It broke my heart. Now I do hook ups online and am surprised to find that so many men desire to bareback. Usually those too young to remember the mass deaths of the early 80's. Promiscuous sex is no longer a positive political act...though it is a widespread phenomenon. And I find nothing wrong with this as long as folks are using safer practices. As in all things,Balance must be found. The internet has opened a world of sex to men (and women) that was never available before. We are redefining sex....homo and hetero and bi no longer signify...but what has not changed is the need for caution and care. No one dies wishing they had fewer orgasms. Sometimes,we regret that one guy that infected us...but it was generally our own decision not to be more careful. I can attest that IT GETS BETTER as Dan Savage reminds us,but only if you live to see it. Be careful and have fun.

Living in the San Francisco bay area all my life, the pandemic had a substantial effect on the gay community here. From the mid 80s to the mid 90s, so many friends were dying at a rapid rate. There seem to be a memorial every month and we would see the same people from the previous service. The hopelessness and fear was prevalent. I do have to say, I lost all of my closest male friends that I met from the late 70s after coming out then. There are a few of us who knew each other socially then who have now become close friends. We have found we have all been impacted upon by our mutual loss as well as our survival. I miss my friends dearly, still. The lessons learned from the pandemic cannot be forgotten on newer generations becoming sexually active. Just because the HIV drugs are better and stronger, we can't be apathetic towards protection and exposure to HIV. Stay the course and keep the message of safe sex alive.

After reading all the recollections being submitted I want to say that they have brought back a ton of memories...the fear, the anguish, the deaths, the tears, the anger, but I have to be honest. It never really left. Seeing my friend Frank's chest rise for the very last time, the clouding over of my friend Bob's eyes as he stopped breathing, reading an obit notice in the local gay paper about an ex lover, it's as if it were yesterday. I became one of the "worried well". At the time HIV was as far as we were aware, 100% fatal. A mole or freckle that I never noticed before became another reason to panic. A cold, a bruise, the loss of a couple pounds...it did not seem to matter that I had tested negative at the time. I had sex far too many times to NOT have it! How could I have escaped it?! The tests had to be wrong. They weren't, yet I was so overwhelmed by it all that I did the only thing that I could to be sure of staying negative and that was to stay away from the bars, the clubs, the t-dances, anywhere that other gay men met. I was shell shocked. I was totally abstinent for years and to this day it happens only rarely. Having read the above accounts and thinking long before adding my thoughts, I've realized how much power the memories, and fear have had over me. Damn.

After reading all the recollections being submitted I want to say that they have brought back a ton of memories...the fear, the anguish, the deaths, the tears, the anger, but I have to be honest. It never really left. Seeing my friend Frank's chest rise for the very last time, the clouding over of my friend Bob's eyes as he stopped breathing, reading an obit notice in the local gay paper about an ex lover, it's as if it were yesterday. I became one of the "worried well". At the time HIV was as far as we were aware, 100% fatal. A mole or freckle that I never noticed before became another reason to panic. A cold, a bruise, the loss of a couple pounds...it did not seem to matter that I had tested negative at the time. I had sex far too many times to NOT have it! How could I have escaped it?! The tests had to be wrong. They weren't, yet I was so overwhelmed by it all that I did the only thing that I could to be sure of staying negative and that was to stay away from the bars, the clubs, the t-dances, anywhere that other gay men met. I was shell shocked. I was totally abstinent for years and to this day it happens only rarely. Having read the above accounts and thinking long before adding my thoughts, I've realized how much power the memories, and fear have had over me. Damn.

To say that the entirety of the younger Gay generation doesn't know or care about Gay Cultural History is unfair and untrue. Admittedly the majority of my peers, younger and the same age and older, are more concerned with their looks and body than of their heritage and culture, but there are those of us who do care, who actively research the rights and wrongs. Our freedom has only been around for 40+ years and to not know and not care about the devastating tragedy of the New York AIDs outbreak, the Stonewall Riots, the atrocities that Gay men and women experienced during the Holocaust (For the theatrical/literary I advise reading Bent by Martin Sherman) or even the Bloody Sunday of the Purple Hands is in my opinion a complete and utter selfish disregard for the lives and healths of those who fought for our freedom and further rights.
I'm glad this play touched you in such a way, I first read it at 17 and it made me so angry that it happened the way it did, it was one of the reasons I actively sought more knowledge on current affairs from within the gay community. I'm thrilled that it was a success and that it was performed so brilliantly - it doesn't deserve anything less!