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30 years of AIDS, and observing where we are


By Adam Bink

The Normal Heart is a play by Larry Kramer, the GMHC co-founder/ACT UP founder/longtime AIDS activist. I’m hoping to catch a production of it while in NYC soon, as it is on a limited run revival, and has already won 3 Drama Desk awards and is up for 5 Tonys. It’s a semi-autobiographical play in which Kramer takes on the institutions and individuals whom he feels are responsible for letting what was then known as “gay cancer” rage throughout the city of New York. To sum it up more aptly, here’s an excerpt of the review from Ben Brantley in the NYTimes:

When it first opened at the Public Theater, “The Normal Heart” sounded like a hoarse, relentless “J’accuse!” screamed directly at a gallery of blame-worthy individuals and institutions that included Mayor Edward I. Koch, The New York Times, the American medical establishment and the majority of gay men in New York City. Surprisingly, many theatergoers — even those at whom the play’s hectoring finger was pointed — felt that Mr. Kramer was beautiful when he was angry. A focal point for people searching for vicarious venting in those early plague years, “The Normal Heart” became the longest-running hit in the history of the Public Theater.

Many of the adjectives that were attached to “The Normal Heart” at that time still apply: fierce, angry, engaged, confrontational. But in the new incarnation of “The Normal Heart,” which opened Wednesday night at the Golden Theater, anger is only one note in a polyphonic chord.

Political outrage may be what shaped this drama, inspired (very directly) by Mr. Kramer’s early days as an AIDS activist. But what emerges so stirringly from this production — which follows the shaky emergence of a political movement among gay New Yorkers to deal with AIDS — is its empathy with people lost in a war in which they have no rules, no map, no weapons.

Kramer’s production was intended to shake people and institutions to grasp what was happening: tens of thousands were dying and no one was doing anything. Which gets me to today.

June 5th is the 30th anniversary of the discovery of what would come to be known as HIV. I’ve spent the last year doing a lot of reading up on the failure of institutions and individuals to aggressively stop the spread of the disease, including refusal of sexually active gay men to take the appropriate precautions, and refusal of the city’s health department, along with other government agencies in NYC and San Francisco, to take the appropriate public education steps.

And yet, 30 years later, we face controversies such as this (via Towleroad):

Australian Ad Company ADSHEL Reinstates HIV Prevention Ads After International Social Media Uproar

Australian ad company ADSHEL reinstated a tame HIV-prevention ad which featured two men embracing with a condom, and said it would replace them on bus shelters in Brisbane where they had been taken down.

ABC Australia reports:

In a statement issued this afternoon, Adshel said many of the complaints were part of an ACL campaign, and that it has reinstated the ads.

“It has now become clear Adshel has been the target of a coordinated ACL campaign,” Adshel chief executive Steve McCarthy said. “This has led us to review our decision to remove the campaign, and we will therefore reinstate the campaign with immediate effect.”

Earlier today the ACL said the issue with the ads was about condoms, not homosexuality. “I’ve been labelled homophobic. This has absolutely nothing to do with gay couples,” spokeswoman Wendy Francis said.”This has nothing to do with anything other than another condom ad in a bus shelter, where the children are catching buses to school and billboards where their parents are stopping at lights. I will continue to fight sexual imagery in our outdoor advertising until we can get it removed.”

An image of the fairly tame billboard is at right. A Facebook campaign started by one of the men in the ad quickly gained, as of this post, 71,000 followers pushing for public health education, outraged that saving lives is considered “sexual imagery.”

30 years later, and one realizes how very relevant Kramer’s play still is.


  • 1. Michael Adrian (SF)  |  June 1, 2011 at 3:40 am

    I don't know what the ACL is, but I wonder if they are equally vocal about "sexual imagery" in vodka billboards or perfume ads or Abercrombie & Fitch posters.

    Why do people think their squeamishness should supersede the interests of public health? "Tame" is definitely the right word for an ad that doesn't use the word condom and has sex written super tiny.

    I am not a parent, but I imagine that when a kid points to this poster and asks what it's about, they aren't looking for how-to instructions with a live demo. Are people this unable/unwilling to give children just enough (age appropriate) information to satisfy their curiosity and change the subject?

  • 2. Sarah  |  June 1, 2011 at 9:10 am

    This sort of fear-based squawking reminds me of the way that we are going to start teaching our students about gay sex if tolerance is allowed into our school curricula. Umm, I don't recall being taught about heterosexual sex, just the anatomical parts and the joining of the egg and sperm, etc. But of course, perhaps I missed the day that they covered positions and the mechanics of it all? That argument makes me fume because people go along with it without really thinking about the implications.

  • 3. n.k  |  June 1, 2011 at 9:49 am

    The ACL is the australian christian lobby and you can pretty much guess everything about them from their name.

  • 4. JT1962  |  June 1, 2011 at 10:10 am

    It wouldn't matter if the ad had nothing more than the words Be Safe, Use Protection on it. Christian groups, for the most part, are absolutely rabid on the idea that people might have sex simply for the enjoyment of it. Letting children know that sex may be something to enjoy means letting them know that sex isn't to be endured merely for begetting children.

  • 5. Matthew  |  June 1, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    I know its a little OT, but my post got blocked over on the NOM blog so I wanted to share it here. I put a little too much of myself into it to let it go into oblivion, so here it is.

    If I am an intolerant bigot, then most likely I learned that behavior where I grew up. It's hard to tell since I was born and raised in the SOUTH. Tennessee, Florida, Texas are where most of my relatives live…where, incidentally, first cousins are allowed to marry each other.

    Most of my early memories are of being terrified, buried under a toxic cloud of self-loathing due to my peers telling me I was evil and that I was going to burn in hell. Being bullied in school and feeling so alone that at one point I took out one of my fathers shotguns and put the tip in my mouth to 'practice'. I can still remember the taste of the Hopes #9, almost 20 years later. I knew I was gay even before I knew what gay was, and I spent my early years trying to pretend. I remember talking to my best friend shortly before I moved away and being evasive when he asked why I was leaving. I remember him telling me that there were only a couple things I could say to him that would make him treat me any different, then saying 'And I know you aren't gay!' I remember the sting I felt. I was lucky to make it out of that place alive. Some of my other friends weren't as lucky.

    No parent should want their child to go through that. It's your job to nurture them and love them, even if God makes them gay. When people talk about how they think the world should be, you can tell who has been through real pain and who is just playing a victim. Like when someone talks about how they lost a loved one to cancer, and you let them know someone in your family is a survivor. A brief exchange of looks and a somber nod is all it takes to let them know you understand what they have been through.

    Talking about wanting to protect marriage is one thing. There are plenty of ways to do that. But desiring the option that makes children want to kill themselves. That is not righteous. Not according to my bible.

    I don't expect the people who post on this forum to understand. But I hope. I hope that maybe just maybe, one of the children who turns out to be gay sees this when check their parents internet history. So they can see that they are not alone, and that it gets better.

  • 6. Sagesse  |  June 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Good summary of a very active time in dealing with bullying and suicide of LGBT youth.

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  • 7. Sagesse  |  June 1, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    @Matthew # 5. Very well put. A message to build on for the next round.

    When NOM says 'protect the children' they are not talking about all children. The children of LGBT parents are not protected, children who are LGBT are not protected, and as for their own children who are LGBT, Darwin knows who will protect them.

  • 8. Sagesse  |  June 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    AIDS at 30: Medical Milestones in the Battle Against a Modern Plague

    Read more:

  • 9. Joe  |  June 3, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Wow, glad they put it back up. I can see how the ad could be considered very mild sexual imagery, two guys embracing one holding a condom… But nowhere near anything that should be offensive.

  • 10. Volunteering Nepal  |  February 1, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    In my country, such thing is still considered a taboo. I wish if people could change their thinking, and accept what is necessarily important. 30 years marks a milestone.

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