Eddie called himself a private detective, although all he really did was repossess cars. He would show up around 4 p.m. at the cafe where I worked after school, have his usual cup of coffee, and tell me a thing or two about what we used to call “real life.” One day he told me how he used to load his coat pockets with brass doorknobs, which he used to “put out the lights” of homosexuals. I was 16 and getting an education of sorts.
That was long time ago. America then was steeped in bigotry of all kinds, but homophobia was not even on the radar. We knew of racism and anti-Semitism and in a dim way of sexism. Yet gays were supposedly in a different category, which is to say no category at all. Whoever they were -- and wherever they were -- they deserved what they were getting. Besides, who even knew any?
Well, I did, but I was not aware of that at the time. Now I have male friends who have married other male friends and female friends who have done the same. I still have momentary vertigo figuring out who the husband is and who the wife is, but I exult in a social revolution that has shattered all sorts of arbitrary categories and recognizes the power and universality of love.
This revolution has been so long in coming -- and yet so quick in arriving. HBO on May 25 will air Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” a movie version of his play. It is semi-autobiographical and about the onset of the HIV-AIDS epidemic and the adamant refusal of some political leaders, most prominently President Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Ed Koch, to even acknowledge what was happening. An epidemic was sweeping the gay community, men were dying hideously and often at a very young age -- and no one much was giving a damn.
The HBO movie is rough on both Reagan and Koch. They earned it. Reagan had gay friends and associates and was in no way a bigot. But he was clearly afraid of alienating his conservative base. The Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell characteristically said later that “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” Reagan did not even mention the word AIDS until the disease was impossible to ignore and his friend, the actor Rock Hudson, had died from it.
As for Koch, mayor of a city hugely impacted by the epidemic, the movie flat-out declares him to have been a closeted homosexual -- afraid to acknowledge the reality of AIDS lest his own secret be revealed. Koch always put his private life off-limits. He was entitled to this -- but not at the price of ignoring a public health menace that needed immediate attention. The tendency then and somewhat still today was to blame gay men for their plight.
The proposed remedy was to deprive them of their sex life -- a remedy some felt was worse than the disease.
“The Normal Heart” is heavy on politics but heavier still on love. There’s plenty of male-male sex in it and some nudity. But by far its message is about the love the Kramer character shares with his partner who dies from the very disease they’re both fighting. AIDS mocks the poet. It’s a messy death.
This love of men for men and women for women is no different and no less powerful than the love of men for women and women for men. It can drive any of us mad, turn us into operatic cliches, cause us to endanger careers -- take long walks on the Appalachian Trails of our choice. It’s the stuff of songs. It’s the stuff of life.
It is this love that is at the heart of the same-sex marriage movement. It was an appreciation of this love that got the politically odd couple of uberlawyers David Boies and Ted Olson to defend same-sex marriage. They are both, at heart, admirably romantic.
HBO’s “The Normal Heart” has concussive power. It is a gripping drama -- some of it downright shocking -- but it is, for all of that, just another love story. That it can be seen this way testifies to how far America has come since Eddie the private eye told me it was good sport to beat up gays. See “The Normal Heart.” If you are the least bit homophobic, it will change yours.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.