Frank Rich worries that rapid advances in gay rights are obscuring the discrimination faced by the gay community in the recent past:
For younger Americans, straight and gay, the old amnesia gene, the most durable in our national DNA, has already kicked in. Larry Kramer was driven to hand out flyers at the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, his 1986 play about the AIDS epidemic, to remind theatergoers that everything onstage actually happened. Similar handbills may soon be required for The Laramie Project, the play about the 1998 murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard. A new Broadway drama, The Nance, excavates an even older chapter in this chronicle: Nathan Lane plays a gay burlesque comic of 1937 who is hounded and imprisoned by Fiorello La Guardia’s vice cops. Douglas Carter Beane, its 53-year-old gay author, is flabbergasted by how many young gay theatergoers have no idea “it was ever that way.”
It’s particularly remarkable given the extreme trauma of mass death that the gay world experienced as recently as a decade and a half ago. But for today’s young gays, that’s not just another country; it’s another continent.
I have to say I feel very mixed feelings about this. Having struggled a quarter of a century ago to stop marriage equality from being treated as a joke by straights and as a neo-fascist plot by gays, it’s staggering now to realize that many young gay kids take their right to marry almost for granted – even though it still isn’t granted fully anywhere in the US yet (because of no federal recognition).
So yes, it’s oddly alienating to feel that one’s entire life has now been rendered moot. But also, exhilarating. One of the key reasons I always believed marriage and marriage alone could turn the gay-straight chasm into a bridge is its generational impact. When I figured out I was only virtually normal, I was around seven. And all I really knew about sex and love was that mummy and daddy were married and I never could be. That’s a huge psychic wound in the souls of gay kids. From that wound, often nursed alone and in private, comes a panoply of pain, pathology, self-destruction, and lack of self-worth. Few can afford the kind of intensive therapy required to get past this – because the wound is so deep and inflicted so young.
But today, that seven-year-old will know, simply if he or she watches the TV, that marriage is an option for him or her. They will know in a way my generation didn’t that they have a future in the society they live in, like their siblings. There are still wounds inflicted by misguided religion or panicked families. But the ur-wound is gone. And the generations of gay kids I meet today are simply way less fucked up at their age than I was, or may ever be. In that sense, I celebrate their amnesia and look up to them. I want the struggle of the past to be flooded by the normality of the present.
But we gays are also crippled in terms of communal memory. Ethnic minorities beget ethnic minorities; and parents are able to tell the stories of their past communal struggles, whether they be Jewish or African-American or even simply immigrant stories that link us to the past. But the parents of gay kids are, by and large, straight. They never went through the gay struggle. They have no gay history to share with their kids, who are born de novo, and required eventually to go outside their own families to find out about the history of their kind.
Most don’t. And I sure wouldn’t want them indoctrinated in any way. But can you imagine Jewish grandchildren of Holocaust survivors never being told about it? Or African-American kids never knowing fully about slavery?
We have no permanent national monument to commemmorate a plague that killed five times as many young men in the same space of time as the Vietnam War. Only now are we seeing the beginnings of memory – the revival of “The Normal Heart”; the documentary “How To Survive A Plague“; or the one-night revival of David Drake’s “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.” Which is not surprising, if you have studied the end of plagues. The first sentence in my own plague memoir, Love Undetectable, is the following:
First, the resistance to memory.
That is understandable at first, as Camus noted, but it is becoming increasingly unforgivable. We need as a community to honor the veterans of that war, to hold them up and keep them close, and to retrieve the unimaginable agony of those days of psychological terror and excruciating physical pain. And if that makes me sound like a bitter war veteran, please know that bitterness is the very last thing I feel.
We lived for this moment, these years when we would finally see our freedom. Many of us doubted we would ever get to this mountaintop and were fully prepared to die somewhere in the foothills. But if we do not ever look back, and see the trail of corpses along the way, and the ocean of grief and pain we overcame, we will never fully grasp the dimensions of the victory. Or its real and deeper meaning: a spiritual awakening about the dignity of all human beings; about their universal need, above all other things, for love; about how Christianity, at a key moment of testing, sided against love and lost a generation.