Those of us born in 1980 fall in that no-man’s-land between Generation X and the Millennials. We learned about AIDS as children, old enough to understand what sex was but still young enough (mostly) not to be having any. We knew it wasn’t anything you could catch by hugging or kissing; my middle school health class screened every single AIDS movie-of-the-week ever made. This awareness permeated every aspect of our culture in the 1990s, created from the fury and pain and determination of an entire generation affected by AIDS. This fury became a driving force that channeled a great deal of energy and perhaps more importantly money, into research. Research meant drugs, not a cure but certainly a way to manage AIDS and its “spectrum of illnesses,” as Susan Sontag describes it.
The other night I went to see THE NORMAL HEART with two friends. Larry Kramer had written this play in 1985 and set it in 1981-1982, following a circle of gay men in New York City who were watching their friends drop dead in waves from some mysterious illness that nobody understood. It is so full of anger and fear and pain and loss that I was shaking by the end of it. The lights came up and M. was crying, and I have never seen him cry before. I am old enough to remember the Challenger disaster of 1986 but not quite old enough to remember these early days of AIDS. Of being so in the closet that you would not dare to talk publicly about AIDS because that meant having to talk about being gay. Of doctors trying to treat any number of symptoms without knowing what they were treating. Of men reveling in the sexual freedom of post-Stonewall New York City and then finding that all this free love was actually killing them.
Between each scene various actors recited lists of names, too many to count. I could hear the occasional gasp of recognition, a few scattered sobs. I understood that they were calling the dead, but it wasn’t until afterwards my friends told me these were names of people from Seattle who had died of AIDS. One of the actors had asked several friends for the names of people they’d known. Now I understood: those sobs came from people crying out from the pain of survival, and this handing down of the names had meaning for them. A line from Eugene Ionesco’s THE CHAIRS came back to me: “We will leave some traces, for we are people and not cities.”