“The Normal Heart”: A Memorial and a Manifesto

If you haven’t yet seen HBO’s The Normal Heart, you should.  Immediately.

I say this for two reasons.  One, the film serves an essential function as a memorial for all of the many gay men who died in the early days of the AIDS pandemic, as well as the gay women who came to their aid when no one else would.  In an era in which many young gay people have forgotten about what happened in those bygone days (if indeed they ever knew) and in which condom use and other safe sex practices seem to be on the decline, it is increasingly important, indeed, necessary, to remember our queer past.

The Normal Heart fulfills exactly this function, drawing this generation’s attention to the struggles that gay men faced in that period, both from the institutions that persistently ignored them as well as with each other, as they struggled to conceive of what would be the most effective way to battle this health crisis.  Again, it is increasingly easy to forget these early struggles in the face of the increasing acceptance of LGBT people within the greater culture of the United States, but there was a time, and not that long ago, where we were literally treated as second-class citizens.

The powerful performances delivered by the film’s phenomenal cast imbues this memory with an intense affect that will (or should) leave few unmoved.  Whereas a film like The Dallas Buyer’s Club served to partially evacuate the queer presence from the early days of AIDS, The Normal Heart keeps that presence front and center.  Just as importantly, it serves as a rightfully scathing indictment of the unwillingness of government officials at all levels to do anything meaningful to investigate the virus or help those who became infected in those early days.

Furthermore, the film highlights the ways in which AIDS highlighted both the benefits and the limitations of gay liberation in terms of the form it took during the 1970s (namely promiscuity).  It is important to remember that gay promiscuity was (and to some extent still is) a political statement as much as it is a lifestyle.  The Normal Heart forces us to continue thinking about the role that sex can or should play in a potential gay politics, something that has been largely sidelined in an era of gay marriage, assimilation, and a new form of heteronormativity.

However, The Normal Heart also serves another important function for contemporary queer viewers, as a manifesto and a reminder of the importance of standing up and rebelling against oppression.  There is a danger in assuming that just because we have made many gains in terms of gay marriage and other rights that the battle is over.  In fact the opposite is true.  As Ned adamantly states throughout the film, assimilation and working within and with the institutions of oppression carry with them a great danger.  Ending oppression in all of its forms requires constant vigilance and resistance.  It is not easy to adopt this stance, as the film abundantly shows, but so long as we live in a world where gender and sexual oppression continue to exert a material and very real force on the lives of individuals, such a position is necessary.

Once again, as they have done time and again, HBO has shown the immense hold that the AIDS crisis continues to exert on the contemporary culture and society.  The Normal Heart also shows us the power that it held for the formation of a new kind of queer politics, one that can still have a great deal of relevance for queer activists today.  We just have to let it.

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