by David Waggoner
Just as we’ve started reopening America after months-long lockdowns in response to one of the world’s newest plagues, a kind of necrosis has erupted after the heinous murder of another African-American, George Floyd, at the hands (and knees) of the Minneapolis police. Protests against systemic racism and white supremacy mean people are literally putting their bodies on the line, as it is dangerous to flout social distancing in the era of COVID-19. But what choice do some people have——if you can survive testing positive for coronavirus, as Floyd did, only to be killed by the police.
It reminds me to take stock of the desperate times of the early AIDS epidemic. People were dying and activists had nothing to lose. I was reminded of the urgency of activism, not only by the Black Lives Matter protests, but by the recent death of AIDS activist and writer Larry Kramer (read Senior Editor Hank Trout’s tribute in this issue). I have followed Mr. Kramer’s career and literary output since I graduated from Brown University in the mid-eighties; it just so happens that I was introduced to an early version of The Normal Heart at a staged summer reading of the play at Brown, a couple of years before it premiered at Joseph Papp’s The Public Theater on April 21, 1985, where it ran for close to 300 performances. Joseph Papp, the greatest theater producer and impresario of American theater, was a long-time supporter of Brown’s theater arts department; I was a wannabe theater arts and scene designer who was invited to an early workshop reading of what was to become the literary masterpiece and call to arms of the AIDS movement, The Normal Heart. Little did I know when I was reading my lines that the gentleman sitting next to me would later turn out to be one of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT UP, as well as one of the most potent agitators for medical and political change in the country. My acting abilities were limited, but fortunately I went on to study fiction with such literary luminaries as Angela Carter, John Hawkes, Robert Coover and eventually Toni Morrison at the New York State Writers Institute. I have to give credit, especially to Angela Carter, who later introduced me to the great AIDS advocate and avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman, who later died from AIDS-related complications. I had the honor of featuring Jarman in a cover story interview in the pages of A&U, the magazine I started as a forum for cultural responses to the AIDS pandemic. As Kramer modeled for me and others, the intersection of art and liberation is not only possible but vital.
Only equaled by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991), The Normal Heart all but invented political theater as public confrontation; it brought to the stage and eventually the screen the idea that politics can make great poetics. On the level of both dogma and diatribe, Kramer’s vision came out of the need for awakening in all of us the anger that is needed to effect necessary change.
Perhaps the anger has subsided a little as AIDS activists continue to be a force to be reckoned with. We have not forgotten the power of art to raise awareness and effect change, but we have a broad palette of emotional colors. Case in point, this month’s cover story subject: Canadian artist Joe Average, who, as he tells Special Projects Editor Lester Strong, has always lent his creativity to not only his personal experiences living with HIV but also to community-based causes. Says Joe Average about his art: “I want to draw people out of their own worlds into my world of color and joy, to make them happy.” In this issue, we also feature the stunning portraiture of Gene Rigler, who celebrates the resiliency of HIV long-term survivors—smiling, at peace, but still fighting to thrive. I also want to point you toward Senior Editor Dann Dulin’s article on One Heartland, whose camps might close due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic destruction. One Heartland and its camps bring so much happiness, confidence and camaraderie to youngsters impacted by HIV and other health challenges. We need to preserve these fireworks of feelings.
As cofounder of ACT UP and the inspiration for one of the most powerful activist slogans of all time, Silence = Death, Mr.Kramer was not all gloom and doom (to the contrary, he was the screenwriter for Women in Love, a big Hollywood movie that earned him an Oscar nom). The populist Kramer would have approved of the strategy of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in its ability to turn words into action.
But the anger is still with us, on many fronts. Make no mistake.
Much like the Black Lives Matter movement now sweeping America in hundreds of communities both large and small, and in areas of the country both rural and urban, early AIDS activism as branded by Kramer, was a do-or-die moment in American history. When I see the protests taking place here and around the world, I am encouraged. Rage will provoke change and someday soon maybe we can all breathe again.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.