'After The Orgy, The (New) Normal Heart', by Dion Kagan

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Illustration by Ben Juers.

“After all our history, after all these deaths, we still don’t… have a gay culture… We have our sexuality and we have made a culture out of our sexuality, and that culture has killed us. I want to say this again: We have made sex the cornerstone of gay liberation and gay culture, and it has killed us.”

—Larry Kramer, The Advocate, May 27 1997.

The Normal Heart got a bunch of Primetime Emmy award nominations this year: Mark Ruffalo for his mannered and actually quite restrained lead performance as the relentless Ned Weeks; Julia Roberts for her supporting actress portrayal of furiously reasonable moral compass Dr. Emma Brookner; outstanding directing from Ryan Murphy of Glee fame (congratulations for bringing things down a couple of notches, Ryan); and, among the others, the ‘Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special’ nomination for Larry Kramer who adapted his roman à clef AIDS crisis agitprop play (1985) into the HBO drama upon which it is very closely based. In the end it only managed to claim ‘Outstanding Television Movie’, which it had also already won at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards, alongside the Best Supporting Actor in a Movie/Miniseries award for Matt Bomer.

The Normal Heart left me feeling devastated, insulted, and unresolved, so it definitely does some things right. The Liberation to Crisis narrative contains endless potential for all kinds of feelings. One of its principle fascinations is the brutal transformation of bodies from beautiful, proud embodiments of fleshy eroticism to frail, lesioned objects of suffering and sentiment, alongside resistance and rage. These images incite complex viewing pleasures and ethics, about which countless books on the politics of representation have been written. How a film handles the transformation and to what ends it serves is one of the questions at issue.

The Normal Heart seems destined to enter the pantheon of popular American AIDS movies whose version of this history will become the version that millions of people across the globe call upon for their memories of this time.

Among critics, the verdict has been almost unanimous: affecting, accolade-worthy performances from a sturdy and convincing cast; a powerful, heartbreaking melodrama of anger, resistance, compassion, and care; a vital contribution to the ever-expanding film archive of the early years of AIDS crisis in its urban American (mostly gay male) epicentres. The Normal Heart might be HBO's most important movie” reads the title of an article on Vox. Says Slate TV critic Willa Paskin: “If some of this material — scenes of lesions and deathbeds, of men being denied the right to say goodbye to their lovers — is becoming a part of the tragedy canon, so be it: It belongs.” This effusiveness may partly represent some relief at seeing a familiar gay political drama after the confusing politics of a white, male, homophobe AIDS hero in Dallas Buyer’s Club. There's a sense that this screen remake will become an essential dramatic document of the era. Alongside Philadelphia and Angels in America and Buyer’s Club, The Normal Heart seems destined to enter the pantheon of popular American AIDS movies whose version of this history will become the version that millions of people across the globe call upon for their memories of this time.

But Larry Kramer is a fraught figure. On the one hand, he’s been a hero of AIDS activism for over thirty tireless years. He was a co-founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (from which he was later expelled – the circumstances around which are dramatised in both stage and screen versions of The Normal Heart) and after that he founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Yes, the man started ACT UP – the most prominent activist organisation to emerge from the crisis; that frank, furious, and relentless movement whose in-yer-face theatrical modes of demonstration became a watershed in modern activism. That ACT UP’s signature political stylings echoed the personal and political modus operandi of people like Kramer – unable and unwilling to temper either the message or the medium to make it palatable to the mainstream – is also the stuff of endless activist chronicles. The man, almost in his eighties now, is due his place in the canon of AIDS histories.

Kramer has long been a pugnacious ambassador for a version of gay life and gay politics that privileges monogamous love above all other forms of erotic expression.

On the other hand, Kramer has long been a pugnacious ambassador for a version of gay life and gay politics that privileges monogamous love above all other forms of erotic expression. Even before he wrote The Normal Heart – even before AIDS – he was writing furious polemics against the drugs and promiscuity of 1970s-era Liberation culture. His feelings about gay men and promiscuity are well known and well matured. Earlier this year, he came out with characteristically scathing comments against US federal health recommendations that certain people at risk of exposure to HIV take Truvada, the antiretroviral drug that HIV negative people can take as a preventative measure against seroconversion. His public position on treatment-as-prevention is just the latest in a long and legendary and specifically political type of slut-shaming of gay men who don’t pursue monogamy, in this instance contributing to the growing personification of men who elect to take these drugs for preventative purposes as ‘Truvada whores’. Kramer’s words:

“Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads… There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.”

Decades of radical, queer, and feminist political thought has questioned the centrality of equality rhetoric and the demand to be included in the failed institutions of the majority (like marriage).

Putting to one side the logic that a pharmaceuticals-promiscuity nexus works to (further) fatigue or demobilise gay men as an active political constituency, there is an irony in the assumption that Kramer’s preferred arrangement of intimacy – love and coupledom – would do otherwise. This irony is that decades of radical, queer, and feminist political thought has questioned the centrality of equality rhetoric and the demand to be included in the failed institutions of the majority (like marriage), arguing that it is these very institutions that de-politicise us.

This old issue of the sluts vs the suits may seem a little far away from what appears to be another fairly standard admission into the cinematic catalogue of AIDS Crisis revisitations, but in fact, I would say that it’s at the very political and emotional heart of this adaptation’s take on AIDS history. There is, in other words, a very robust argument to be made that HBO’s adaptation of The Normal Heart works to vindicate the rancorous anti-promiscuity polemics of its writer Larry Kramer.

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The promiscuity problem and Kramer’s ambivalence about it is foregrounded revealingly in the opening sequence of the film. Not yet an activist, the character of Ned Weeks (the fictional stand-in for Kramer) gets off a boat at Fire Island in 1982, on the cusp of gay Armageddon. As in so many recollections of this place at this time, it’s a writhing cornucopia of Let’s Get Physical short shorts, muscular physiques, never-ending parties, and sex. To my eyes, HBO’s version looks more like the manicured, circuit-party aesthetics of The Gay ‘90s than Fire Island in the early ‘80s, especially when Ned and co attend what appears to be a ‘White Party’. It’s a bit weird given the White Parties began a few years later as HIV/AIDS fundraisers, but whatever: the main point is that this timeless homosexual bacchanal becomes shorthand for gay paradise on the eve of the apocalypse.

Some background: before this Fire Island prelude, Kramer had already published the novel Faggots (1978), an anti-promiscuity screed dressed up as fictional narrative. Like in The Normal Heart, Faggots’ protagonist, Fred Lemish, is a version of his author. Lemish, who wants to find love but feels thwarted by 1970s ‘fast lane’ New York gay culture, spends the novel wandering through one-nighters, orgies, and glory holes in notorious bathhouses, encountering poppers, quaaludes, PCP, LSD, pot, booze, valium, coke, and heroin en route. Because Kramer’s critique of urban gay sexual and drug culture had already made him a controversial figure, when The Normal Heart’s Ned arrives on the beach at Fire Island in '82, naturally, some languid faggots tell him to fuck right off. Not only is he bad PR for Gay Liberation, he’s a pretty serious killjoy. “You made us look terrible in your novel”, his pal tells him, explaining why he’s suddenly so unpopular. “Look around you, sex is liberating!” “All I said,” Ned responds, “was having so much sex makes finding love impossible.” Cue handsome young man (Jonathan Groff, the movie’s first AIDS casualty) dropping to the sand.

This brief early exchange is one of the film's flaccid gestures to the centrality of pleasure and desire to gay men at the time, even in the increasingly fraught, devastating and politically hostile world that AIDS would soon bring about. But as a gesture it remains just that – gestural. Had the adaptation been serious about considering the implications of a liberation sexual ethos in the early years of AIDS, it might have also at the very least dramatised the ways in which intimate sexual networks formed the basis for the informal and improvised infrastructure that literally invented – and then disseminated – the life-saving message and practice of safer sex with condoms. Although it makes it clear that it's a thing, The Normal Heart doesn’t say especially much that explains the emotional and political importance of sexual freedom and experimentation among gay men at that time. Here's a snapshot from John Rechy on it in his watershed work on these politics, The Sexual Outlaw (1977):

“Because our sex was forbidden harshly and early by admonitions of damnation, criminality, and sickness, sexual profligacy became... an essential, even central, part of our lives, our richest form of contact, at times the only one.“

I don’t know how these ideas might have more meaningfully evolved in the drama when the drama is Larry Kramer’s activism, but leaving them out of the story presents little opportunity for audiences three decades after the fact to make sense of gay men’s early reluctance to ‘cool it’. But this isn’t the story Kramer cares about. Instead, The Normal Heart ends with a deathbed wedding between Weeks and his lover, Felix (Matt Bomer) and this is the logic of its political trajectory.

But back to Fire Island: for Weeks, there is already something rotten about the culture gay men have made for themselves here. A couple of his friends are waxing their nicely toned chests, upon which another of his friend’s comments: “If you can’t beat them join them”. But Ned remains unconvinced. He can smell the rot of false consciousness in the air and he buttons up his shirt.

Weeks/Kramer is presented as a prescient figure – it’s as if he knows what is coming, and how best to respond. While he’s on Fire island, he drifts past an orgy in the sand dunes that is the first of two sex scenes in The Normal Heart that are shot in a dreamy, stylised way, contrasting with later scenes of tender, romantic sex between Ned and his lover Felix (Matt Bomer). The other of these is a bathhouse flashback that is scored and edited like a TV advertisement, clearly situating it in the genre of commercial flesh trade. It’s so completely weird in this otherwise realist narrative that you can’t help but feel you’re being preached to. Ruffalo’s character has to be literally reminded of this past encounter because he’s forgotten it, repressed it, like Philadelphia’s Tom Hanks did to a similarly guilt-ridden flashback to the porn cinema where he not only cheated on his partner but also contracted HIV. What we will come to understand over the course of The Normal Heart and the thirty years of gay politics that followed its events is something that Weeks/Kramer already knows: that there are two types of gay sex, one is normal, and the other is lacking in heart. After witnessing the sand dunes orgy, Weeks is back on the boat to the mainland; over his shoulder the camera shows us that he is reading the famous ‘Rare cancer diagnosed in 41 homosexuals’ article that heralded the first media account of a mysterious new disease.

If you think really hard about this moment in queer history, as many writers and thinkers and filmmakers have, it seems like the most unremittingly, unimaginably unfair that shortlived sexual freedoms would contribute to the conditions of ecological disaster. It’s kind of mind blowing, no matter how many times you muse on it. Worse still is to contemplate the fact that so many saw – or were frenziedly encouraged to see – in this disaster the horizon of a fair punishment. It’s also impossible to think about it – to really imagine that moment – without knowing what was coming next, after the orgy. This is obvious, of course, but the politics of The Normal Heart depends on this retroactive narrative logic: there is no seeing or knowing ­– of judging – that beach party without the sobering biblical story of paradise interrupted – the fall of Eden, the Genesis flood, Sodom and Gomorrah – when the ineluctable penalty for mankind’s crime against god ensues.

When that causal arc from promiscuity in one decade to AIDS in the next is drawn, it dumps the oldest of sexual moralities upon what is a historical process.

Periods of economic and cultural decline, such as the Great Depression in the ‘30s, are often similarly narrated as the inevitable consequence of the previous era’s recklessness and moral turpitude. But there have to be ways to restrain this narrative logic. When that causal arc from promiscuity in one decade to AIDS in the next is drawn, it dumps the oldest of sexual moralities upon what is a historical process.

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After sex and death come politics. The rest of The Normal Heart is essentially a series of speeches turned into people talking to each other. Surprisingly watchable, given the original play is a hectoring, strident piece of agitprop. Ned Weeks is a mouthpiece of unapologetic rage against government inaction and what was an unspoken official policy of negligence in the US under Reagan. He’s furious also at the gay community for its timidity, its fear of marginalising potentially supportive agencies with bad press, and he’s especially angry at closet cases in powerful places. His public ‘outing’ of some of the latter was one of the many embarrassments that saw him kicked out of GMHC.

We get a gracious break from Kramer’s endless badgering in the story of Dr. Emma Brookner, based on real-life doctor Linda Laubenstein, M.D., and played here by Julia Roberts. I have said harsh things about Julia Roberts behind closed doors, mostly concerning the film Eat Pray Love, but she is nothing if not good at acting angry. If physicians in such films, severed from traditional Hippocratic values, are often adrift in an unethical universe, here we get a doctor on the right side of history. Even if the depiction is completely hagiographic, it’s refreshing after Jennifer Garner’s Dallas Buyer’s Club doc rendered entirely helpless and desperate by the film’s slightly conspiracy-theory version of medical and drug administrative corruption and malpractice. One thing the AIDS movie tends to show us is how inhospitable the modern hospital has become, and characters like Brookner restore some of our faith in the capacity of medical institutions to administer compassion and care. The best moment in the film involves her ripping a medical research funding review board a new arsehole for not funding her research – or any research – on the still mysterious sexually transmitted disease that by then had killed hundreds. The scene is on YouTube. Watch it.

But because Brookner is another prophetic figure (she knows anecdotally that HIV/AIDS – at this stage still ‘the gay cancer’ or ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ – is almost certainly transmitted sexually), The Normal Heart has to make her into another spokesperson against rampant sex. This is in spite of Weeks’ warning to her that you simply can’t tell gay men to stop having sex: “Do you realise you are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their main political agenda? They think sex is all they have.” When the good doctor delivers the message then it’s not only rational, common sense, it’s science.

Both director Ryan Murphy and lead Mark Ruffalo have said things in interviews that disclose the politics of their sympathies with Kramer and his play. For Ruffalo, what he admired most about Kramer was that he saw in gay men more than just sex:

“Back in '78 and '79, he was saying, ‘We're more than just who we're having sex with. We're an entire culture, and we will never find happiness by just putting all our eggs in the basket of, hey, look at us and look who we're fucking.’ He knew that in '78, and he was hated in the gay culture because of it.”

Thanks Mark Ruffalo. For Murphy, the message was even more unequivocally about stressing the telos of Kramer’s thinking with the (ideo)logic of the current moment in gay politics – marriage, babies, lifestyle comforts:

“The thing that I was very drawn to with the material was that it ends in 1984, but what it’s about feels very modern to me, right now, with gay marriage in the news and people fighting to be loved and accepted for who they are… I’m married and I have a child. I feel like this movie really is a civil rights movie… that fight really paved the way for the life that I have today.”

An event, process or history is ‘teleological’ when it exists for the sake of an end. That is, a telos or final cause. In their emphasis on the telos of what is the new normal in gay culture, these two advocates of The Normal Heart express precisely why this play from the past seems so logical and so resonant today. HBO’s film ends with Dr. Brookner conducting a marriage ceremony between Ned Weeks and his lover Felix, a deathbed wedding that presages the particular passion of gay politics today and what we are all now supposedly clamoring for: marriage rights, or what we in Australia call ‘equal love’.

Modern gay history is very easily understood in terms that are moralistic, fatalistic and teleological. Gay Liberation, that carnival of erotic abandon, gave way to The AIDS Crisis, a dire ecological and historical punishment for the sin of promiscuity. In 1994, before antiretrovirals and before gay marriage swept up the western gay political imagination in its irresistible embrace, Lee Edelman wrote that the logical third act of this drama is one of “death, as a recognition of the wages of sin [,] monogamy, as a recognition of the immaturity of ‘promiscuity’… [or] ‘activism’, as a recognition of the political folly of defining gay identity through sexuality alone”.

In The Normal Heart, early AIDS history is exploited in the service of a sexual politics that chimes all too neatly with a conservative consensus in which marriage and the suite of privileges that come with it have become the sin qua non of contemporary gay politics. That few critics have thought the triumph of monogamy in The Normal Heart even worth commenting on is some kind of testimony to the widespread success and emotional reach of this logic: Fire Island is in our past and ‘equal love’ is the new normal status quo.

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Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender and cultural studies who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture.

This column originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue. Get your copy now.