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Reza Abdoh: AIDS, Rage, Theater

I recently traveled east from Manhattan on New York City’s No. 7 subway line to the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Long Island City to see the show Reza Abdoh. A gay Iranian-American auteur of some note in his day, Abdoh died of AIDS-related causes in 1995 at age 32 in New York and is little known today. But during the 1980s and 1990s he was one of the Wunderkind writers and directors of American avant-garde theater and videos, with titles to his credit like Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, The Law of Remains, Quotations from a Ruined City, Bogeyman, and The Blind Owl, among many others.

At his death, Abdoh insisted he didn’t want any of his plays staged again. So the exhibition is a remarkable feat of curating that brings to vivid life his work in all its glory—and, for that matter, all its infamy—by means of taped videos of his work, written scripts of his plays, newspaper reviews of his plays, photographs, and accounts of his life and background.

A jumble of adjectives comes to mind when describing the exhibition: raucous, loud, moving, overwhelming, thoughtful, startling, jarring. Several words do not come to mind: relaxed, calming, peaceful. No doubt this assessment reflects Abdoh’s own life experience and personality. Born in Tehran in 1963, he had two brothers and a sister (he was the oldest). His family had money, and when the Khomeini regime came to power in 1979 his father fled first to London, then eventually to Los Angeles, taking his three sons with him; his wife and daughter remained in Iran.

This was not a happy household in L.A. Reza’s father has been described as “a total man’s man,” a business man, big in build, at one time a boxer, very macho. Early on there was trouble between Reza and his father over Reza’s wish to study violin, and eventually over the young man’s homosexuality. Then, soon after moving to Los Angeles, the father died, leaving the three sons penniless.

It was a hardscrabble life for a while for all three children. According to his brother Salar, Reza found a place to live in West Hollywood, and was heavily into a gay lifestyle. To make ends meet, he worked as a night manager at a hotel for a while, as a manager in a restaurant, even as a hustler. He never did become a violinist, but he wrote poetry, tried writing novels, then drifted toward theater. And it’s there that his true talent lay, both as a playwright and director.

By 1983 he was directing plays in Los Angeles, doing his own take on classics like King Lear, King Oedipus, and Medea. He was also doing some videos and short works of his own. But by 1990 he was writing and directing the first pieces for which he became internationally famous: Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, and a workshop of Bogeyman. He became bicoastal, living in New York and directing his plays there, as well as in Los Angeles. In the 1990s he formed his own theater company, Dar A Luz, and went international with his work, with performances in Montreal, Barcelona, Granada, Vienna, Munich, Frankfort-am-Main, Hamburg, and Paris.

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Reza Abdoh. Bogeyman. 1990. Photo by Jan Deen.

Reza Abdoh was becoming very famous indeed, at least within the avante-garde theater world. And while he wanted success, it’s clear his pieces, even toward the end of his life, were not cut from the cloth of happiness. His brother Salar said in one interview: “He worked like a madman.” The Los Angeles reviewer Charles Marowitz wrote of Bogeyman that it exhibited “the unmitigated quality of Abdoh’s inferno. It is unbelievably savage.”

And the sources of that inferno? Undoubtedly they had something to do with his encounters with a disapproving and on occasion brutal father, who found Reza unacceptable as a son in just about every way possible. Equally it had to do with the pathologies of a society he found mean-spirited and in denial of its own mendacity. But perhaps its most immediate spur was having to live so intimately with AIDS before the era of effective meds, when it was a sure death sentence. We’ve seen something along these lines elsewhere: the rage of David Feinberg in Eighty-Sixed, of Larry Kramer in The Normal Heart, of Paul Monette in Borrowed Time and Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, among other literary works. In Abdoh’s plays, however, it took on particularly brutal twists.

As Charles Marowitz wrote for TheaterWeek in his review of Bogeyman: “With AIDS as his subtext, and death as his pretext, Abdoh has looked hard and deep into his own terror and reproduced the lineaments of his own despair. He has found parallels between his own mortality . . . and the cruelty of a society that encourages a brutal psychopathology as a normal way of life.” By means of disorienting stage sets, multimedia visual and sound effects, and sensory overload, along with subject matter like BDSM, sexually and racially charged stage action, and provocative language and text elements, his productions were a form of assault on the audience intended to wake it up to the nightmarish quality common to so much of our daily life in the contemporary world that it’s mostly taken for granted.

Did he succeed in his aim? Well, people responded to his productions. Some audience members in Los Angeles, like Bette Midler, walked out of Bogeyman, while others demanded their money back. Still others threatened to call the police and/or the mayor to complain about the production. Whether they responded in the way Abdoh wanted is another question. Many times violence and assault can close us down rather than open us up.

I’m not the first to point out that Abdoh’s work is one-sided in its commitment to the horrors of modern life. In his review of Abdoh’s theater piece Tight Right White titled “Artaud You So” for the Village Voice, Michael Feingold described the play in terms of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” writing: “Abdoh apparently believes that rubbing our faces in the hidden hatreds as vehemently as possible is a step toward curing them. He certainly knows how to carry out the procedure . . . [but we] are entitled to be skeptical about the possible results: it’s hard to imagine that unconstrained negative forces, once let loose, will provide any positive spiritual results. And if spiritual results are not the point, it’s hard to see what all the negativity is for.”

It’s too late to redress the wounds of an earlier generation enraged about and eventually decimated by AIDS. But the work of Reza Abdoh, fueled at least in part by the despair he felt over his own collision with the disease, suggests a way of dealing with rage-producing situations that doesn’t alienate others but contributes to finding solutions to the underlying conditions that cause the rage. Just think how rage fueled the AIDS protests in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the medical research required to achieve the medical breakthroughs which helped alleviate the ravages of HIV to everyone’s benefit. Rage is not something to be celebrated for its destructiveness alone. Its value lies in its ability to lay bare the reasons for its existence in order to eliminate the need for it. Abdoh in his rage produced very powerful theater. Is it just possible that it might have been even more powerful if it had woven into it a thread of hope?

 

Reza Abdoh is on view at MoMA’s PS1 through September 3. PS1 is located at 2525 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101; for directions and hours, go online to moma.org or call 1-718-784-2084.

Also consulted for this blog entry: Reza Abdoh, 1999, Daniel Mufson (ed.), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, and London, UK; and the Reza Abdoh section of Mufson’s personal website danielmufson.com.

“The Boys in the Band”, AIDS: Looking to the Past, Moving Toward the Future

 

My husband Dave and I recently saw the current Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band at the Booth Theatre. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the play’s 1968 original off-Broadway run, it’s considered a ground-breaking piece of theater. First opening approximately a year before the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which itself was a direct precursor to the worldwide Gay Liberation movement that soon followed, it has been described by the Associated Press as “One of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”

To say that the play is beloved by many people gay and non-gay alike is an understatement. The night Dave and I were there, punch lines were anticipated by much audience laughter and clapping even before they were delivered, and the curtain bows by the cast were greeted by loud applause and a standing ovation. It was also a performance to love as Jim Parsons (playing Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Robin de Jesus (Emory), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Brian Hutchinson (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), and Tuc Watkins (Hank) gave it their all. If the original cast in 1968 ran some risk of ruining their acting careers by playing openly gay characters, I think it can safely be said that the members of this cast have only enhanced their own careers by these performances. As at least one small segment of pre-Stonewall gay life comes spectacularly alive for 110 minutes on stage in all its witty humor, not-so-hidden pain, overt heartbreak, and clear solidarity in the face of all the homophobia these friends confronted in the world around them (and even in themselves), one can only applaud the strength it took to live a gay life in those difficult times.

Director Joe Mantello should also be applauded. He never appears on stage, but his sure hand as a director clearly comes in part from his years as an actor, and is evident in every part of the production.

Boys in the Band

All that being said, it was surprising to me to find that the first thoughts I had when deciding I wanted to write about the play had to do with AIDS.

Did I say AIDS? The Boys in the Band, 1968 version, appeared over a decade before the outbreak of the epidemic, and has no AIDS content. How could it? Yet for me the play carried a certain, albeit somewhat elusive, relationship to AIDS in its wake. At first I thought it had to do with the fact that of the nine original cast members, five of them are known to have been gay—Kenneth Nelson (played Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Frederick Combs (Donald), Robert La Tourneau (Cowboy), and Keith Prentice (Larry)—and all five died of AIDS-related causes. But that made no sense. Just because five gay men played unhappy, in some cases even self-destructive, gay men in a play did not mean the characters they played had anything to do with their real-world selves. Indeed, all but La Tourneau went on to distinguished careers in the performing arts as actors, and/or directors, and/or playwrights. Happily, life for most of them did not imitate art.

No, the connection between the play and AIDS was not a direct line, even if some of the actors in the original production later died of the disease. Instead, I’ve come to realize, the affinity I sensed had to do with the social impact of both the play and the disease. The Boys in the Band “helped spark a social revolution” because for once very public venues—in this case theater and film—took on the pain and anguish of a despised minority—gay men—and treated the subject with compassion and insight. The characters in the 1968 play were taken out of the shadows of most people’s conception at the time of what gay men are like and given real-life dimensions. It can also be argued that the play helped gay men to reshape their own feelings and attitudes about themselves by providing them with a mirror that allowed them access to an underlying anger about their social and legal oppression: hence providing one of the sparks that set off a revolution.

The critical reception of the play and movie both were for the most part positive. The reaction of the gay male population was, and to some extent continues to be, ambivalent. But seeing the play now, so many years after Stonewall, it’s clear to me the distance we’ve all traveled in our feelings of self-worth—if we’re gay men—and of respect for the experience of being gay—if we’re not. Gay rights laws, marriage equality, gay adoptions, GLBT characters on television and in the movies, GLBT figures in sports. . . . Homophobes still exist and preach their poisonous doctrines, but in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and other parts of the world their grip over social attitudes has weakened considerably in the decades since The Boys in the Band first premiered, due in large part to the social revolution the play helped to spark.

Likewise AIDS has played its part in that revolution. Ghastly as the epidemic has been—and the death and suffering it has caused has few parallels in the history of health crises—it has promoted two outcomes beneficial for the LGBT community: (1) greater visibility to the world at large of the GLBT population as tens of thousands of gay men living with the disease were forced to come out to family, friends, and work colleagues; and (2) the legacy of AIDS activism, by which I mean not just the activist pressure that led to major advances in treating the disease, but the media visibility activists offered to the public at large of the LGBT populace caring for it own, challenging the governmental, social, and medical establishments to take notice of its needs and respond meaningfully to them, and its success in getting those needs met. As former U.S. House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-MA) has commented: “That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.”

Nothing I’ve written here may be that new to many of those reading it. But in the political climate we’ve recently entered, with a regime in Washington hostile to LGBT rights and at best indifferent to the health needs of the general population, let alone those of special-needs populations like people living with AIDS, reminding ourselves about where we came from and what we’ve accomplished may well help us navigate our way through an uncertain and perhaps perilous future.

 

Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York City through August 11, 2018. Highly recommended. Crayton Robey’s 2010 documentary Making the Boys, available through various online sources, is also highly recommended for insights into the history of the play and movie.

Art, Activism, HIV/AIDS

Went recently to the current exhibition by New York City-based artist Carrie Moyer at the DC Moore Gallery in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan. Wow! Titled Pagan’s Rapture, the show’s art is abstract, playful, whimsical, wildly exuberant in its colors, voluptuous in its appeal to the eye—and apparently the opposite of what one might think of as “political art.” An interesting change in style from an artist who, with photographer Sue Schaffner, formed the activist art group Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!) that from 1991 into 2008 plastered parts of Manhattan with posters in their thousands dissecting and critiquing mainstream culture from a lesbian point of view in an effort to raise lesbian cultural visibility.

DAM! poster

Lesbian Americans Don’t Sell out!, Dyke Action Machine! poster, used with permission.

Comparing DAM!’s “agitprop” street art to the paintings Moyer has produced and shown over the last few years—including the pieces shown in the 2017 Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art—it may seem like these days she has abandoned activism in her work. But a talk with her about art and activism showed that not to be true, and provided an insight into how changed circumstances can produce the need for new ways of presenting art with an activist aim.

“This was a big question in the last century,” Moyer said. “Many, many, many artists/activists wondered about the efficacy of political art. Does art have to be political to effect change? Can art of any sort effect change? One kind of change I think it brings about is in the artist who makes it. It becomes a vehicle for a kind of expression of who we are. It also brings messages to others, in the form of posters people see at marches and demonstrations, or like those Sue and I plastered all over parts of Manhattan trying to make lesbians more visible to the world at large.”

She continued: “On the other hand, thinking about the world we actually live in now, I feel one of the challenges for the next generation of artists/activists is cutting through a set of stereotypes as to what activism looks like. We live in a different world today than even a few years ago. Part of this is the Internet, which provides us with so many more ways of presenting art. Part of it is the larger number of people that participate in the art world through the Internet or smart phones or by going to museums. In making art we have a very large and mixed audience from the quite educated and sophisticated to the very ignorant. Our art has to speak to as many kinds of people as possible, not just the elite art collectors, gallery owners, or art critics.”

It occurred to me: How do these comments relate to living with HIV/AIDS today? We find ourselves in a world very different than the one that gave birth to the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s-1990s. The introduction of antiretroviral combination drug therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) have profoundly changed the medical landscape for those living with the disease, as well as those living in fear of catching the disease. This means death has retreated in the face of the new meds, at least among those privileged to live in the developed world where they are available. Even the governmental and social landscapes have changed: There is no longer the panic and hysteria surrounding AIDS, and in the developed world government funding and a legal framework are in place to supply the social services and medical care those living with the disease require. So let’s reframe the comments offered by Moyer about the challenges today for artists and activist art in general in terms of what those challenges mean for art related to HIV/AIDS activism.

AIDS has become a manageable chronic disease, and those living with it these days can live longer and with reasonable care on their part can even look forward to full life spans. It isn’t yet curable, but with the use of PreP as prescribed, no one needs to become infected any longer.

Yet the problems remaining are formidable. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, around 39,573 people in this country were diagnosed with HIV in 2016. Of that number, 67% were accounted for through male-male sexual contact, with lesser numbers through heterosexual sexual contact (around 24%) and through injection drug use (9%) (this percentage includes gay and bisexual men who inject drugs).

Gay and bisexual men, then, are obviously at the highest risk for contracting HIV in the United States—I should amend that to say still at the highest risk, just as they were at the start of the epidemic. And none of this even touches on the statistics from those parts of the world where current treatments are much harder to come by. Truly an ongoing crisis, even if we don’t hear much about it in the press anymore.

An earlier generation of AIDS activists included within their ranks art groups and individuals highly involved in the cause through their art: one thinks of Gran Fury, the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, and Keith Haring, to name only three of the groups and individuals whose work resounded around the world. All of this was produced before the introduction of the Internet, smart phones, Facebook, Instagram, and other online tools that make the transmission of visual art so easy today, but it nevertheless had a great impact on the course of the epidemic in its early days.

So where are the artists today angry enough to challenge the status quo of a crisis that seems to have no end? Where are the new symbols, images, and messages that could move the world in the direction of conquering the power of HIV once and for all? Has complacency over the progress already made won out over the outrage this virus should still be generating?

Or is there something else going on here? Carrie Moyer’s current exhibition suggested as much to Mia Locks in her catalogue essay “Hot and Sour” that accompanies Pagan’s Rapture when she wrote: “Although they portray landscapes and phenomena from the real world, Moyer’s [current] canvases are far from idyllic. Instead, they delve into latent, unexplored, or unfamiliar places . . . to evoke raw and often conflicting feelings. At a time when the so-called leader of our country is consistently trying to undermine our conception of reality, it feels apt that Moyer’s attention has shifted to interrogating the relationship between surface and depth, artifice and lived sensation.”

Elsewhere in her essay, Locks comments specifically on the painting Afterparty of the Rizosphere: “A ‘rizosphere’ is the area surrounding a plant’s roots that helps nourish and protect them . . . which suggests this party is a celebration of successful germination and impending growth.”

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Afterparty in the Rizosphere, © 2017 Carrie Moyer, courtesy DC Moore Gallery.

Could something be germinating in regard to AIDS that might just grow into a new wave of activism? I for one hope so. When nearly 40,000 people a year are still contracting HIV in the United States alone, something needs to be done, at least on the educational front if not the curative front. People need to be taught that with the medicines out today, no one needs to turn positive. And the tools we now have available for that educational effort on a very big scale are perfectly suited to the task: the Internet, smart phones, social media.

Art by itself may not be able to effect change, but no change has ever been brought about without messages via word art and images. Artists concerned to defeat AIDS should seize the day and start working toward that goal immediately.

 

Note: I profiled Carrie Moyer in the April 2017 issue of A&U magazine. Available on the magazine’s online archives at aumag.org.

Pagan’s Rapture is on view through March 22 at DC Moore Gallery, 536 W. 22 St., New York, NY 10011. Moyer’s show Seismic Shift is also on view at Mary Boone Gallery (745 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10151), in collaboration with DC Moore Gallery, through April 22.

A Lesson Learned via Paul Monette

For this blog entry, I’d like to go personal:

Sometimes life teaches you you’ve learned a lesson without actually having realized you’ve learned it. My turn came recently when I was re-reading Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. This is a harrowing tale of time closing ominously around a gay male couple when one of them is drawing ever closer to the brink healthwise in the early days of the epidemic before the introduction of effective anti-HIV medicines in the mid-1990s.

On my first encounter with the book, I found myself enthralled from the opening page. This was not just a chronicle of an illness with all its ups and downs (including, eventually, death), but a great love story as Monette and his long-term lover Roger Horwitz contend day by day with Horwitz’s ongoing illness. On the medical side of their relationship, there is the obsessive interest in all things technical about the disease. As Monette notes early on in his account: “An offensive strategy began to emerge. . . . Together Roger and I became postgraduate students of the condition. No explanation was too technical for me to follow. . . . Day by day the hard knowledge and raw data evolved into a language of discourse.”

On the personal front, as Horwitz’s illness became worse, and friends around them died, the bond between the two increased. “Whatever happened to Roger happened to me, and my numb strength was a crutch for all his frailty,” Monette writes. He continues: “In a way, I am only saying that I loved him—better than myself, no question of it—but increasingly every day that love became the only untouched shade in the dawning fireball.” Elsewhere in the book he describes Horwitz as his “heart’s deepest core” and his “life’s best reason.”

It should be noted that Monette also penned a companion book related to Horwitz’s death titled Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. These are angry, defiant poems aimed at people and groups that too often failed to value the love between two men but instead saw AIDS as one more reason to unload homophobic hatred and vitriol in ways that condemned tens of thousands of gay men to terrible physical and mental anguish.

This was heady stuff for a younger me who was also in a long-term relationship with a much-beloved partner whose life seemed to be regularly threatened by his own severe health problems.

Let me be clear: Ted’s problems were not AIDS-related. Amazingly enough, just before the plague started—in the winter of 1978—we’d closed our relationship sexually, for reasons that had nothing to do with the as yet nonexistent threat of AIDS. But at least for the two of us, once AIDS was on the scene there was nothing like the possibility of catching a sexually transmitted disease whose prognosis in the early years of the epidemic was a quick but painful death to enforce that monogamy for many years.

When the first tests came out for HIV, Ted and I made our way to a public health clinic, and within two weeks were both told we were HIV-negative. But that didn’t stop many years of health problems for Ted, whose illness centered on heart disease.

Lester and Ted,1984
Lester and Ted, 1982

Over the two decades starting in 1984, Ted underwent two triple-bypass operations, a heart-valve replacement, and the insertion of a pacemaker, not to speak of regular doctors’ appointments, cardiac rehabilitation classes, and cardiac exercises, along with many dietary restrictions and medicines that ultimately proved to be his undoing.

No wonder Borrowed Time and Love Alone spoke to me, both the loving me and the angry me. I wasn’t the sick one, but I felt threatened by the possible loss of Ted, and angry about several run-ins I had with homophobic doctors and hospital personnel. Monette became my mentor, so to speak, in the realm of how to cope with illness as the loving gay partner of someone who needed regular medical attention.

Then I came across Last Watch of the Night, a collection of Monette’s essays written in the early 1990s, in which I learned that he’d had not just one other partner after the death of Roger Horwitz in 1986, but two before his own death from AIDS in 1995.

My reaction? I remember my exact reaction: Two new partners? How dare he? How could Monette be so callous as to abandon Horwitz, his ”heart’s deepest core,” for new loves?   With Ted still alive and my love for him in full force, I felt betrayed.

So much for inexperience with intensely personal death.

Ted died in 2006 after a collision between two of his medicines, one for his heart and the other for sleeping, which caused a breakdown in his capillary system leading to pneumonia and septic shock that his weakened heart couldn’t handle. Seven days in a hospital intensive care unit, placed in an induced coma, the ICU doctors working around the clock to fight the infection through massive doses of antibiotics, and he was dead.

Thirty years of my life came crashing down, and I do mean crashing. I’d thought the death of my mother ten years earlier and the deaths of friends from AIDS were overwhelming, but the feelings this loss caused were many times beyond that. The closest I could come to describing it was that I didn’t feel dead, but I didn’t feel alive either. For months I woke up each morning unable to concentrate on much of anything. Then the inevitable crying would begin, lasting for two or three hours before shutting down almost as if a spigot had been turned off (but not turned off by my conscious volition). A free-lance writer and editor, I forced myself to work, at least enough to pay the bills, then spent my evenings staring at TV because I couldn’t seem to read and didn’t want to socialize.

After a few months, a friend who had gone through much the same experience several years before got me involved in, of all things, gay square dancing. His words: “I know something that will take your mind off Ted for at least two hours a week.” And so it did. Slowly I began to come out of the fog of misery. Slowly I came alive again, and re-entered the world of other people.

Sometime around four years after Ted’s death, I realized I didn’t like living alone any more. I could run a household by myself all right. I had a nice home, and more space to myself than ever before in my life. I had it all my own way for the first time in a long while. But it wasn’t satisfying.

Then three months after becoming aware that I wanted a change, something wonderful happened: A new man entered my life. Dave and I already knew each other casually through square dancing, when one evening at a square dance event we found ourselves talking intimately as we had never talked before. And in short order, we fell in love.

IMG_1514
Lester and Dave, 2017

Did I feel like I was betraying Ted’s and my love? The question didn’t come up. More at issue was what felt like untangling my brain from a thirty-four-year history of living with Ted or his memory so I didn’t mistake Dave’s behavior for what had been Ted’s behavior. On the other hand, I realized quite soon that I was carrying into this new relationship from the old the know-how of giving and receiving love, giving and receiving companionship, and appreciating the give and take of emotional intimacy. We dated a few years as I sorted all this out, then in March 2014 we married and moved in together.

Returning to Borrowed Time, I picked the book up a few weeks ago for research into an article I was thinking of writing. I remembered my negative reaction to learning of the relationships Monette had been in following the death of Roger Horwitz, but to my surprise found I no longer had the same feelings. On reflection, the reasons for this were clear enough, and offered me an insight into Monette’s life choices from his perspective. To put it simply but bluntly, life makes its own demands, which the dead cannot fulfill. Ted in death could no longer give me what I needed in life. I’d had a full-bodied relationship for thirty years, and to feel fully alive and happy again I needed another such relationship. Moreover, new love didn’t mean I’d abandoned Ted any more than my love for Ted meant I’d abandoned my mother or friends I’d been close to for many years. Indeed, new love enhanced the old, allowing me to appreciate what I had with Ted in ways I’d never fully understood before.

It’s not everyday you have the chance to look back and understand you’ve made a change that deserves a pat on the back. But in this instance I can truly say: Lesson learned.

 

 

 

AIDS and the Course of Gay Rights

Here’s an invite: Is anyone interested in learning more about the views and achievements of former House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), the openly gay Congressman who did so much to push legislation relating to AIDS and gay rights before his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013? If so, read my cover article in this month’s (October 2017) issue of A&U magazine, titled “Let’s Be Frank.” No access to the magazine’s print version? Then visit its website at aumag.org.

You’ll find an amazing story there, as well as insightful suggestions about how to succeed in influencing a current regime in the nation’s capitol so clearly hostile to meeting the legitimate needs of the population it is supposed to be serving.

However, there were a few insights Frank offered in the interview I carried out earlier this year on which the article was based that didn’t make it into the piece, partly to meet a word count limit and partly because they were tangential to the article as a whole. One of those had to do with the effect AIDS had on the course of the gay rights struggle in this country.

Conventional wisdom has it that AIDS, as well as being a health disaster for the gay male community, was political disaster for the LGBT movement as a whole. Certainly the right-wing rhetoric at the time made it seem like a political debacle. There were the calls by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helm to quarantine those living with HIV because, in his own words, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” There was the comment by Jerry Falwell: “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” Many such quotations by right-wing political and religious bigots could be added to these, but suffice it to say that the negative attitudes toward LGBT people they were intended to foster seemed to be mighty damaging at the time, and certainly in relation to the possibility of gay rights legislation.

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But listen to Barney Frank: “AIDS was a terrible curse,” he said during the interview. “None of us wish it had happened. But, counterintuitively, gay rights benefited from AIDS. It was one of the few positive side effects to come out of that terrible disease. Let me explain.

“When I first began lobbying for gay rights [as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives] in 1972, I couldn’t get even liberal members who weren’t themselves prejudiced against gay men and lesbians to vote for the bill I was sponsoring because to do so was perceived as too great a political risk. I think that’s because they didn’t know any gay people, or at any rate didn’t think they knew any gay people. All they had were the negative stereotypes: gay people as troubled psychologically, as child molesters, and so forth. They didn’t realize that many of the people they knew, respected, admired, and did business with were gay.

“Coming out is a crucial part of dispelling the negative stereotypes. That process had started well before the 1980s, following the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in the summer of 1969 and the blossoming of the gay liberation movement in the years after. But AIDS really forced a lot of people to come out—to their families, to their work colleagues, to their communities, to the world at large. Just think of Rock Hudson. If it weren’t for AIDS, no one would have known he was gay.

“But that was only one aspect of how the AIDS crisis helped us politically. A second was how the broader LGBT community behaved so responsibly in the face of the epidemic. Studies showed that there were very few cases in American history where people exhibited more bravery and compassion toward others than the gay and lesbian community did toward those stricken with AIDS—and at a time when no one knew how contagious the disease was or how it was transmitted. Many lesbians especially were even willing to put aside their own legislative agenda to help minister physically to their gay male friends who had the disease, to join anti-AIDS pressure groups, to help raise money when needed. That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.

“A third aspect to note is that the first votes we won in Congress on gay issues came through antidiscrimination laws that were passed relating to AIDS. The AIDS phobia in the country was so great that those of us dealing in Congress with the effects of the epidemic were able to convince many of our colleagues to add AIDS to the medical conditions that one could not be discriminated against in housing, public accommodations, and so forth. Ironically, then, there was a period in American history during the 1980s where gay people couldn’t be discriminated against if they had AIDS, but had no such protections if they were gay or lesbian but didn’t have AIDS. There was also what we called the ‘No Promo Homo’ strategy of the anti-gay bigots in Congress, where amendments were added to AIDS funding bills specifying that none of the money in them could be used to ‘promote’ homosexuality. That is, they were aimed at frightening doctors, nurses, or social workers away from showing any friendly attitudes toward their gay patients. We managed to find ways to defang those rules, And you know what? Our Congressional colleagues who voted to protect AIDS patients from discrimination and helped us defang the No Promo Homo amendments went home, ran for re-election, and actually were re-elected. Those politicians then felt free to vote with us on other issues.”

As Barney Frank noted, “AIDS was a terrible curse.” No one—certainly not Barney Frank—wanted it to happen, no matter what the positive side effects it may have generated. But it seems to me there is a lesson to be learned here: Even under dire circumstances, there just may be ways to seize the moment to achieve important goals. So, in terms of AIDS and other healthcare needs, this begs the question: In these dark days, with a Republican majority in Congress and a sitting President squarely aimed at gutting the current healthcare system that serves the medical needs of so many millions of Americans, where is the person who can devise a successful strategy to defeat that threat? This is a discussion we should all be having. Our lives may very well depend on the implementation of such a strategy.

Photo of Barney Frank ©2017 Sean Black. All rights reserved.

A Musical Return to a Medical Apocalypse

Went last Saturday evening (June 10) to the New York premier of Péter Eötvös’s opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, by the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The orchestra was conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, and the singers included baritone Andrew Garland as Prior Walter, soprano Kirsten Chambers as the Angel, tenor Aaron Blake as Prior Walter’s boyfriend Louis Ironson, countertenor Matthew Reese as Belize, baritone Michael Weyandt as Joe Pitt, soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner as Harper Pitt, mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle as Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah Pitt, and bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Roy Cohn, with an added vocal trio comprised of soprano Cree Carrico, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel, and baritone Peter Kendall, whose voices were used to repeat and emphasize the characters’ words at important points.

To say that the music and singing were magnificent doesn’t quite give full credit to their combined effect, which approached apocalyptic in creating an atmosphere both tense and menacing, and wholly appropriate to the early years of the AIDS crisis when skin lesions, weight loss, and night sweats for gay men were but the early symptoms of more devastating illnesses to come caused by an unknown agent and leading to a quick death.

Those early years of AIDS are long over, as is the panic the disease created in the gay and non-gay populations alike and the homophobic backlash it unleashed among bigoted antigay American politicians and right-wing religious figures. All the more remarkable, then, that Eötvös, Hungarian-born in 1944 and a resident of Europe for most of his life, was able to capture the nightmare mood of an era long past these days even for those of us who lived through it in the New York City of the 1980s (the setting of both the opera and Kushner’s play).

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According to The New York Times reviewer Zachary Woolfe, the two-hour Eötvös opera, necessarily slimmed down from the seven-hour Kushner play, is “like a skeleton: elegant, chilly, a bit otherworldly, ultimately unnourishing.” And yet that last word seems to me to miss the whole point of the story. No apocalypse ever nourishes. Apocalypses always devastate. No one in the early years of the AIDS crisis had any knowledge of the medical breakthroughs to come that would eventually save so many lives, and everything—everything—from a gay point of view, an AIDS point of view, seemed hopeless, and very, very scary. The opera’s Stage Director Sam Helfrich gets it exactly right in a program note included in the Playbill when he writes that the opera calls forth “a world of uncertainty . . . wherein characters faced with some of life’s most difficult questions have no clear answers and no idea what’s coming next.”

The time is short to see this opera in this incarnation, there being only four scheduled performances, on June 10, June 12, June 14, and June 16. But for those who have seen it, or will see it, it is an uncanny recreation in modernist music and bare bone stage settings of a time none of us loved living through and no one in his or her right mind would care to see again.

Note: This is the first production of an ongoing series of LGBT-focused work by the New York City Opera scheduled for Gay Pride Month in June of each year aimed at celebrating LGBT contributions to opera. June 2018 will see a production of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain.

 

Photo of the Angel (Kirsten Chambers) revealing herself to Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) at end of First Act of Angels in America. © Sarah Shatz; used with permission.

blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts

 

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A blue moon makes itself known astronomically when a second full moon appears in the sky during a single calendar month.

A blue sun makes itself known mentally when one wants to shed a different kind of light on a particular topic.

blu sunne will reflect on topics from a different angle in a different light.

How does one start a new blog? Perhaps by introducing oneself.

My name is Lester Strong. I’m a writer and visual artist, with extensive writing credits in the journalism, essay, and scholarly fields and art credits in a number of genres including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, collage, and assemblage. I’ve been published all over the United States, been translated into French, Portuguese, and Czech, and consider myself primarily a writer. I’ve been in a number of art exhibitions, but have always viewed my visual art as more than a hobby but less than a vocation. This blog will, over time, include examples of nearly all the types of writing and art I’ve engaged in over the years, including fiction. I’ve published one short story, and completed a novel (alas no publisher yet) along with a novella (no publisher for this either). Doubtless the problems locating publishers for fiction will be thrashed out in more than a few of my blog entries.

Professionally in my journalism and scholarly writing I’ve been fortunate to interview many individuals who have done very interesting work. A sampling of the bigger names: Edward Albee, Reba McEntire, Dennis Haysbert, John Rechy, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Linda Stein, Judy Chicago, Duane Michals, Quentin Crisp, Mondo Guerra, Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein, Lea DeLaria. With more to come. References to these and other individuals I’ve written about will crop up from time to time in these blog entries.

I’ve written about novels, visual art, fashion, movies, history, and for many years now about AIDS and AIDS activism. Aspects of the AIDS crisis will be a recurring theme in this blog.

So there we are: writing, art, people I’ve interviewed, AIDS. My pop-up life in the arts has been and continues to be quite a journey, raising many questions and providing some thought-provoking insights. Welcome to the world of blu sunne.