What 'The Normal Heart' Means Today

I was interviewed for a US News & World Report article by Tierney Sneed about the new HBO production of The Normal Heart. Read the entire article here.

Tim Miller lived only a few blocks from the The Public Theater in New York City when it debuted “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s monumental play about the AIDS crisis, in 1985. He vividly remembers seeing it.

“I don’t think there’s any performance I’ve seen of any play, opera, dance, whatever, as intense as those performances at The Public Theater,” says Miller, a gay performance artist. “People were afraid to go to ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Public because they might get AIDS at the theater.”
The play, set between 1981 and 1984, was nearly contemporaneous to the place the New York gay community found itself in when it premiered: only beginning to understand the AIDS epidemic. It follows a reluctant gay activist named Ned Weeks, who served as a stand-in for the work and proselytizing Kramer was doing, which included founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group. The audience witnesses Weeks confront skeptics, not only in the political and medical communities but in the gay community as well, about what's necessary to curb a disease killing gay men in New York by the hundreds.

“Literally, the feeling of people being fearful of being in the audience and sharing air is testament to why the piece was so important,” Miller says.

His experience likely will be very different from that of a new audience soon to be introduced to “The Normal Heart” – perhaps from their couches during a long weekend – when HBO premieres its adaptation Sunday evening. The film is directed by Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” fame, who had Kramer's participation in writing the screenplay. Early reviews have praised the film for emulating the emotional power – much of it brute anger – of the stage original. But that hasn’t stopped some from asking, "Why now?"

It's taken 30 years for “The Normal Heart” to make it to the screen in part due to the legal wrangling over the play’s rights and the funding of the project, which included a notorious falling out between Barbra Streisand and Kramer. Murphy eventually bought the rights which, in his words, cost "a pretty penny."

“There's no part of this film that doesn't feel absolutely relevant to now,” says Plan B Entertainment president Dede Gardner, one of the film's executive producers. “Whether it has to do with the particularities of this disease, which I think remains relevant today as it was then, to discussion of complacency on our watch and what we do about that, to its examination of what protests really look like.”

When it opened onstage in 1985, “The Normal Heart” electrified New York audiences and became The Public Theater's longest-running production.

“It was an opportunity not only to educate the people at risk about what was going on – and we knew very, very little – but also it became an opportunity to educate audiences who were themselves afraid of the people most impacted by this terrible epidemic: gay men,” says Therese Jones, director of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado's Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She also teaches a course on AIDS and American culture. “It really in many ways accelerated what we saw was a cultural trend towards humanizing these early individuals and groups most affected by this terrible disease.”

Within 10 years, Tom Hanks had earned an Academy Award for playing a gay lawyer with HIV in the 1993 film “Philadelphia.”

But while “The Normal Heart” and “As Is” – the AIDS play that shortly preceded it – opened the door for a discussion of the epidemic in theater and the arts world at large, that discussion was not without its backlash, much of it coming from places as high as the federal government. For instance, a group of artists known as the NEA Four – of which Miller was a member – saw their National Endowment for the Arts grants pulled because the George H.W. Bush administration and other lawmakers objected to the way it dealt with AIDS and gay themes.  A Supreme Court case eventually sided with the artists.

“Tom Hanks won an Oscar 20 years ago. It didn’t mean we weren’t in the absolute peak of arts censorship in this country coming from the Bush White House,” Miller says. “The culture war is really a war on AIDS culture."

Likewise, the play itself was not always warmly received in other areas of the country. A 1989 production of “The Normal Heart” by Southwest Missouri State University drew the condemnation of state legislators, and the home of the president of the student group advocating for its production was burned down during a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims held on the play’s opening night.

Despite the anti-gay backlash, examinations of the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers became more prevalent in mainstream pop culture – but even those weren't without their flaws.

“Hollywood did what Hollywood does, and that is overly romanticize [the crisis], or to display people with AIDS as tragic victims in the most insulting way,” says Mark S. King, an activist who blogs about having HIV, which he was diagnosed with in 1985, at My Fabulous Disease. “Why that may have been well-intentioned – I am thinking of ‘Philadelphia’ – it didn’t necessarily reflect the actual lives of those of us living with HIV. It either made us pathetic victims or spiritual martyrs of some sort."

According to Jones, the periods of AIDS art are often divided by the first generation – which was marked by terror, loss and a need to educate (and to which "The Normal Heart" belongs) – and the second generation, which was more political, in your face, and unapologetic about one’s sexuality. After the mid-1990s, treatment for HIV/AIDS improved significantly, and there was a notable decrease in major works produced about the epidemic.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the darkest days of the early crisis. “Dallas Buyers Club” – about a Texas man’s efforts to bring to fellow HIV sufferers drugs that were illegal in the U.S. – won Oscars this year for its lead and supporting actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. In 2013, the Academy nominated the film “How to Survive a Plague,” about AIDS advocacy groups in the early years of the crisis, for best documentary feature.

“It’s almost like we’re stripping away the AIDS narrative of its romanticism and replacing it with a more clear-eyed vision of what it was like for us,” King says.

The filmmakers behind HBO’s “The Normal Heart” believe the adaptation will introduce that narrative to a whole new generation unaware of the terror surrounding AIDS at the time. Gardner says she showed a cut of the film to some of her younger friends, who came away "genuinely stunned.”

Likewise, Jones says her young medical students are “flabbergasted” when they study the play and other works from the early years.

“They’re extremely curious about this period," says Miller, who has taken young people to recent stage productions of "The Normal Heart." "It’s mysterious to them.”

One thing about the storyline that's not so mysterious now as it was 30 years ago is Ned’s insistence that members of the gay community embrace monogamous, stable relationships like their heterosexual counterparts.

“The thing that really jumps out to me now is what a marriage play it is,” Miller says. The film version also plays up this aspect of the original work.

Kramer’s views that the gay community should curb its promiscuity drew criticism, even as within the play he included characters that disagreed with Ned's views on the matter. Some chastised "The Normal Heart" for promoting a message they said ran counter to the gay liberation movement.

Nevertheless, much of the activism surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s has since shifted its heat toward same-sex marriage, and Kramer eventually got to legally marry his partner in 2013. (In a life-imitating-art moment, it was a hospital bedside wedding, just like the one between Ned and his lover, Felix, in the play.) Just this week, Oregon and Pennsylvania became the latest states where gay marriage has been legalized, bringing the current total to 19 in addition to the District of Columbia.

Even outside the context of the gay community’s struggle, supporters of the film believe “The Normal Heart” has relevance, particularly as other recent attempts to study the period have been criticized for whitewashing the hurdles advocates like Kramer faced during those years.

“The great thing about ‘The Normal Heart’ is that it shows that at the time, even the people who cared about these issues were conflicted," says Hugh Ryan, founding director of the New York-based Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and a freelance writer.

While the decision to bring “The Normal Heart” to HBO and how well it was adapted have been widely praised, there is one troubling thing about what it represents in terms of the current interest in that period of the epidemic. Those who are currently most affected by the disease – particularly African-Americans, who per the CDC saw nearly double the AIDS diagnoses of their white counterparts in 2011 – are not having their stories told.

“For those of us most involved in that particular struggle of the time, we were talking white gay men and relatively speaking, yes, we were gay, but we were also relatively privileged,” King says, adding that activists eventually got many of the things they were asking for, like the Ryan White CARE Act and other forms of government response.

But the groups now being hit hardest by HIV have not been so lucky.

“One of my real worries is that by focusing on AIDS of the past versus AIDS of today, you sidestep a lot of issues of race and class,” Ryan says. "We don’t talk enough about AIDS in this country in communities that aren’t white gay men. And we don’t get enough stories from those perspectives. When we do talk about it, it’s statistics about black women. It’s not their lives.”

There are some arts projects – like the web documentary series “Dirty 30,” which focuses on how HIV/AIDS is now affecting black women – that attempt to correct that deficiency.

“As always in our beautiful, screwed up country, it’s these giant steps forward we make at the same time we are being dragged backwards,” Miller says. “And that's the tension that’s there in the play.”

Being a Queer Writer: Talking With Hugh Ryan

I was interviewed on October 22nd, 2013 by Edge, about being a queer writer. Read the original (with photos) here.

Nearly a decade ago, Hugh Ryan needed to make a career choice between artist or writer. Wisely he chose writing. Since then he’s become one of the most published LGBT (or ’queer,’ as he prefers) writers in print and the web. EDGE spoke to Ryan about his passion for writing (and being queer).

Back in 2004, while leisurely wandering the streets of Berlin, Hugh Ryan realized that he had a decision to make. He had been in the German capital three months, and had yet to settle on his next career move. Ryan refused to entertain the notion of a career that didn’t allow him to travel or work in his pyjamas - a resolve that permitted two, rather bohemian options: artist or writer. Fast forward nearly ten years, and with numerous writing and editing credits to his name, it is clear that Ryan made the right decision. After all, he is, by his own admission, "a terrible artist."
Indeed, Ryan’s resume boasts experience in a number of genres: from travel reporting, to entertainment journalism, to ghost writing children’s books - he is a versatile, concise and engaging writer. At the heart of his work, however, is a dedication to the issue of social justice for queer subjects. Edge caught up with Ryan to discuss his blossoming career, LGBT issues and writing for the New York Times.


Hugh Ryan

Being pigeonholed?

EDGE: So let’s start with some background - how did you get started? I know you completed a stint here at EDGE early in your career!

Hugh Ryan: Yeah, it feels kind of nice to be on the other side of an EDGE interview! (laughs) And well I’d always loved writing, but I never thought it would be a viable career option! Even as a kid I was very practical. I went to school originally for human development, and then I switched majors about 19 times and ended up as a feminist studies major. And it was only after a couple of years spent working as a youth worker and social worker that I decided that type of work wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though I thought it was very important work. So I took some time away from everything - I quit my job and moved to Berlin, Germany with my friend for four months. I spent all of my days walking around the city doing nothing, and by the third month I realized that I had to start doing something! (laughs) And I realized I wanted a job that enabled me to work in my pyjamas and explore the world, and that only really left two options: artist or writer. Of course I am a terrible artist, so the choice became easy - I settled on writer!

EDGE: You are an openly gay writer, and as with any "gay writer," there is the risk of becoming pigeonholed and restricted by that label. Is the term "gay writer" something you embrace, or do you find it limiting and frustrating?

Hugh Ryan: I embrace it 100 percent. I think there is the assumption that the mainstream media’s effort to ghettoize you or pigeonhole you is always necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t agree with that. I found very early on in my writing career that a lot of my stuff was very focused on the personal side of my life, and that necessitated being a ’gay’ writer (That said, I don’t love the label ’gay’. It isn’t a bad term, but I prefer to be known as a ’queer writer’) And then from there I always knew I had an interest in queer history and queer communities, and all of that led to me writing more and more about queer issues - issues which I felt I had a wealth of personal expertise and a wealth of personal knowledge that I had gained over the years.


Hugh Ryan

Not exclusive

EDGE: What are, arguably, the common themes in your work? I notice a focus on queer social justice, and social justice in general?

Hugh Ryan: Oh definitely- I think queer social justice is definitely at the heart of it, because that is the place where I know the most, and I have the most connections. I think it is a place where I can give the most back to the conversation. That said, I don’t write exclusively about queer issues. I am also a travel writer, restaurant critic and ghost writer etc. I have also written about social justice issues concerning other minorities. For example, I wrote recently about racism on reality television, but that is more from the perspective of a viewer. With queer social justice, well that is a topic I know intimately, so the criticism comes from a more personal place.

EDGE: You mentioned earlier that you write in other mediums - you are a travel writer and a copy editor for example. Is there a medium that you prefer working in? Or is there an equal balance?

Hugh Ryan: That is a tough call! I love the personal essays, and creative non-fiction. I love issues concerning poetics and the mechanisms of language, and I think the creative pieces are the areas where I really shine. I also really love writing kids’ books! I have worked as a ghost writer on a number of children’s books.

EDGE: Are you allowed to name those books?

Hugh Ryan: (laughs) No I am not unfortunately!! But I can tell you that they are well known and cherished books! I will admit that I wasn’t the originator of that series - I was extending someone else’s vision. That said, it was certainly exciting and rewarding.


Hugh Ryan

A queer context

EDGE: You recently penned an incisive critique for the New York Times about the "AIDS in New York: The First Five Years" exhibit that recently closed at the New-York Historical Society. And I certainly agreed with you when you posited that "bad history has consequences." Indeed, it is often the case that historical narratives work to uphold the values of the dominant culture, and are therefore less inclusive of marginalized voices. So I want to ask you, if you were given license to overhaul the exhibit, what changes would you implement to make it more balanced and inclusive?

Hugh Ryan: That’s a great question! I would start by working with people who know a lot about the subject. Because, for example, so much of my writing has been inspired, influenced and enriched by talking to lots of different people. So with queer issues, it is important to start by talking to the queer community, because there is so much knowledge there concerning our collective history. It has been kept and recorded by queer people, and I think that is something we shouldn’t forget in our rush to record and present our history for a mainstream audience. It is incredibly important that we do record and make note of our history, and that it features in mainstream venues, but I think it needs to start from a queer place.

For me, also, I think there was maybe too much of a focus on the medical response to AIDS in the exhibit, and less of a focus on the personal side of the epidemic. I would also critically revise the curatorial pose: the director said they were aiming for ’neutrality’, and ultimately I think ’neutrality’ is non-existent, and I think the idea that something can be ’neutral’ is dangerous and destructive. I think we need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that AIDS is situated within a queer context.

EDGE: You are fascinated with queer history, but what are your thoughts on the current state of the global LGBT rights movement? This past summer has witnessed some monumental gains and crippling setbacks - for example the attainment of marriage equality in the UK and France was overshadowed by the enactment of anti-LGBT legislation in Russia.

Hugh Ryan: I think that the longer queer issues are in the public realm, and are talked about, the more complicated they become. I am interested in the way that "queerness," as a lived identity, has changed over time in this world, for different types of people. I think progress is measured differently for certain groups within the LGBT community. So for example, take the issue of gay marriage, I support it 100 percent and I think it is important that people have access to that institution.

However, I certainly don’t think it is the most important or pressing issue, because there are transgendered people, for example, who face violence and work place discrimination on a daily basis just for being themselves. And there is still very little, if any, legal protection for them. So I certainly think there are more significant issues that I want to see the queer community as a whole rallying around. I do think worldwide the picture varies between different countries, and I wish I had more knowledge about that. In this country, though, I would argue that the general picture is improving, despite the fact that we still have a long way to go.

EDGE: And have you encountered any struggle or discrimination in your career due to your sexual orientation?

Hugh Ryan: I may have. I have definitely had moments where I pitched articles about LGBT issues, and I have had publishers refuse because their respective publications have never dealt with queer concerns. But I like writing for publications in this niche community, because we have our own stories. To offer an example, when the Chelsea Manning story came out, and it was revealed that she was in the process of transitioning, I had people in the mainstream media ask me "wow did you know?" And I was like "of course I knew", because it was a queer story, and I had already heard about it - it was a story pertinent to our community. So I guess in other words, being in a niche community can certainly help you in this business!

For more information on Hugh, visit visit his web page.

'On The (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories': Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History's Hugh Ryan On New Exhibit

I was interviewed on October 8th, 2013 by the Huffington Post, about the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History's Brooklyn show. Read the original (with photos) here.

"On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" kicked off this weekend, a unique and collaborative art and performance show curated by The Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History. A multifaceted intersection of history lab, art space and teach-in workshops, the show sought to provide visibility, education and celebration surrounding queer identity in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Huffington Post caught up with Hugh Ryan, Founding Director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, to discuss the show's Oct. 5 kick-off, the history of the Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History, and Brooklyn's legacy of queer identity.

The Huffington Post: What does "On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" as a project stem from? What are you trying to provide visibility to in regards to queer identity?
Hugh Ryan: “On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories” was a show long in the making. We knew we wanted to return to Brooklyn –- Pop-Up began in 2011 as a one-night-only event in my loft in Bushwick, and although I’ve since left the borough, almost all of our core committee live in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. More than that, though, we felt that Brooklyn has a long and illustrious queer history all its own, which is too often lumped into New York City’s queer history. We wanted to look at Brooklyn as a place with its own specific queer history –- in part because it has such a thriving queer present.

Can you explain what The Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History is? What kind of work does this organization do?
The idea for the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History came to me shortly after the conservative attack on the "Hide/Seek" exhibit [at the National Portrait Gallery] forced them to remove David Wojnarowicz’ piece “A Fire in my Belly” from the show. I was frustrated that the Republican establishment and the whims of governmental funding could so easily play political football with both art and history. I wanted some way to both protest the removal, and provide an alternative venue for queer histories.

Around the same time, a group in New York City called Queers Organizing for Radical Unity and Mobilization (QuORUM) put out a call for events. They were organizing a week of queer workshops in queer homes, and they were looking for a space big enough to hold the kick-off. At the time, I lived in a large industrial loft in Bushwick, and I proposed a one-night only museum show. I put a call out for exhibits over Facebook, not really knowing what kind of response I would get.

I was floored when more than 30 people – many whom I didn’t even know – wanted to create exhibits and performances. They ranged from the whimsical (ex. a gingerbread scale replica of Stonewall) to the meticulously researched (ex. a talk about and performance of the works of composer Jean-Baptiste Lully). A curator and artist named Buzz Slutzky stepped up to co-curate the show, and dozens of other people volunteered to help install the works.

Our one-night engagement was scheduled for the evening of Jan. 14, 2011. It was freezing cold that evening, but more than 300 people showed up for the show –- including 14 police offers, who shut us down for fire concerns shortly after midnight. They also gave me a ticket for disturbing the peace when I refused to let them into the apartment without a warrant. I guess it wouldn’t be a real queer historical event without a police raid…

Even as the cops were forcing us out of the building, people were asking when the next museum would pop-up. Queer people were hungry for our history, told by our community and to our community. Buzz and I quickly realized that this wasn’t a one-time event, but rather the beginning of an organization. Creating a nonprofit was different from creating a one-night show, however, and we needed help. Graham Bridgeman joined us as our development expert, and the three of us formed the nucleus of the organizing group that has created the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History as it exists now -– along with dozens upon dozens of volunteers, artists, historians, archivists, and committed community members, without whom we could not exist.

What different components does the show incorporate?
"On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" is a scatter-site-specific investigation of the queer histories of the beloved borough where the museum got its start. Our kick-off event, on Oct. 5, was a queer history block party, which had music, performances, tabling by queer community organizations and archives, walking tours of the queer history of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, and workshops on how to archive your things at home, and how to make queer art out of queer history.

Throughout the rest of the month, we will also offer a night of experimental films produced in or about Brooklyn (co-hosted by MIX NYC and Union Docs), a panel discussion on queer communities and gentrification (co-hosted by the Brooklyn Community Pride Center), an open discussion between Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller and queer sideshow impresario Ward Hall, and the premier of a new work by playwright and nightlife star Justin Sayre, based on the life of Hart Crane.

October is LGBT and Queer History month -- what do you hope this show contributes to the way we know and understand LGBT history?
It is our hope that this show will contribute to an understanding of Brooklyn as a place with a queer past. We are not merely interlopers newly washed up on Park Slope’s shores, but queer communities and people have flourished in these neighborhoods for as long as queer identities have existed.

But more than that, our goal for every Pop-Up is threefold: To show queer people as a valid public, worthy of speaking to; a valid subject, worthy of speaking about; and a valid authority, worthy of speaking on our own terms. What makes Pop-Up unique among the many fantastic queer history projects that have sprung up in the last few years is that we put a focus on our community teaching each other, which is why we offer workshops on how to “do” queer history on your own. We believe that when and where queer history has been preserved, it has been preserved by queer people ourselves, and this is a strength to be celebrated. Instead of one dominant, top-down narrative of our history, which would leave out the things that are awkward or hard or just simply commonplace. We have a million strains of history passed down from queer elders – and we celebrate that.

Where does the inspiration and overarching philosophy for the show come from? Is it a collaborative effort? Who all is involved?
Pop-Up is a volunteer, collaborative, non-hierarchical labor of queer love. Our organizing committee is permeable, but has a core of five members who have all been working on Pop-Up for at least a year. We dream of some day being able to pay our staff. After our first two shows, we set an organizational priority of always "stipending" our artists, even if only a little bit, as part of our commitment to strengthening the community of people interested in queer history. We use an intersectional model of queer history that is deeply indebted to and concerned with feminist studies, anti-colonial studies, critical race theory, without going to a purely theoretical and academic place that could turn off many viewers. We believe that history is exciting and beautiful and liberatory.

My Remarks At Visual AIDS "(Re)Presenting AIDS" Forum

Transcribed by Visual AIDS, September 2, 2013. Read the original here.

On August 22, 2013, Visual AIDS along with the Pop Up Museum of Queer History and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, held a public forum entitled, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability. The event was recorded and transcribed. Panelists we invited to present a short statement about their work related to AIDS, art, and representation. Below,Hugh Ryan talks about the New York Times op-ed he wrote about the New York Historical Society's AIDS exhibition, and shares his thoughts about the power of history.

Hi, I'm Hugh Ryan. I’m the founding director of the Pop Up Museum of Queer History. And I just wanted to start by saying—thank you to everyone for being here because one of my biggest answers to the questions is engagement. I think we have to engage with each other, we have to engage with the generations before us, the generations after us, the institutions that support us, the institutions that scare us. It’s about engagement. It’s only when we’re talking to each other, sharing our stories, and sharing what we know and have experienced that we actually can move forward with any of this.


I recently wrote an editorial about the New York Historical Society’s show, and I was very critical. And I regret that the one thing that I did not say was: please go. I want everyone to see that show. I want everyone to see every one of the shows that we’re talking about and to talk about what is good, and what isn't good, or what we did like, or didn't like, or did understand, or didn't understand because we don't really move forward without doing that.

The Pop Up Museum of Queer History works around the country with organizations to create community-sourced displays on queer history. What I think differentiates us, or what we try to accentuate in our model is, we believe when and where queer history has been kept, it’s been kept by queer people ourselves. And this is a virtue; it’s not a problem. It’s not something we need to solve.

It’s not to say that we don't believe in authorities or in experience and in learning but, you don’t need, necessarily, to go through some institutional practice to have that and that, by valuing the authority that we have in the room and by sharing it we actually learn from each other. What we, as a museum, try to do is to work with individuals to create exhibits. So, our shows will have 30 exhibits created by 30 different people, some of whom may consider themselves artists, some of whom may consider themselves historians, many of whom have never thought about making an exhibit for a museum before. Our shows tend to be over lapping, they tend to be a little messy because of it. We believe that interplay is where we really learn the most, so we believe that one of the most important things in terms of how should AIDS be represented, is that we should all be representing it ourselves.

History is a tool we all have access to and we’re in this really odd moment right now, around queer history specifically, where it’s going from a “for us / by us” model of history to one that is more concerned with mainstream recognition and straight audiences. We’re suddenly interesting to people. And that’s not a bad thing. And that’s not something to be afraid of, but it’s something to note and something to remember when we engage, we shouldn’t give up what we had before. And what we had before was a model of history where we kept our history because no one was going to give it to us. And when we had it, no one could take it from us.

Download the full transcript at: (re)Presenting AIDS transcript

HuffPost Live Discussion: Giving Men A Voice In The Abortion Debate

Originally aired on HuffPost Live on July 22, 2013.

I was invited to be part of a discussion about the role of men in the abortion debate on HuffPost Live. Watch the full segment below.

<a href="http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/should-we-engage-men-in-reproductive-rights/51e720472b8c2a354600019e"><em>Originally aired on HuffPost Live on July 22, 2013.