Life and Death

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 2.15.52 PM

Important note before reading this week’s entry:

Brittany Maynard, one of the two subjects of this blog, chose to end her life on Saturday at her home in Portland.  Little did I know that the day I was writing this entry, she was taking the very action she had fought so publicly for.  Rather than edit  what I have written to focus on her death, I think the better way to honor Brittany’s bravery is to leave the words intact and focus on the positive examples both Brittany and Nurse Kaci Hickox, still alive and well in Maine, are providing to the world – not to mention our 24/7 news cycle.

Ok – now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

No one wants to get Ebola because no one wants to die. Well, most of us that is. But on the opposite ends of the country two very different yet quite similar young women this week helped lead the way in our continuing understanding of life, death and all of the messy stuff in between.

In Maine, we have a 32-year-old nurse named Kaci Hickox and in Portland, Oregon, at least for now, there is 29-year-old newlywed Brittany Maynard. Both want to continue their lives the way they choose. It’s just that in the case of Brittany, who has advanced Stage Four brain cancer, that means having the freedom to decide when to die. And with Kaci, who recently returned from West Africa after caring for a 10-year-old girl dying alone of Ebola, it’s simply about the freedom to ride her bike in the woods rather than endure quarantine in a makeshift New Jersey medical tent sans plumbing or at an undisclosed government chosen hospital somewhere inside the Pine Tree state.

I know a good place to hide away

I know a good place to hide away

I refer to each of these young women by their first names. Which only seems fair since they have also chosen to let us get to know them in unusually intimate ways. Also, since it makes them feel more like real people rather than merely names in the news, and being I admire them both greatly, well – I figured it’s the least I could do.

Ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola. Something about the way it sounds even feels dangerous, doesn’t it? Or at the very least exotic or unknown. Which most certainly makes it scary. Well, any disease that can kill you is frightening, especially when you didn’t ask for it or even put yourself at risk for it. Not that the latter matters. Or does it? I mean, no one made Kaci go to Eboland, right? Why should the rest of us have to suffer for her nobility?

so-whats-your-point-meme_zpsa4e7e48d

Let’s get something straight about science – medical, environmental or otherwise. It is, all of it, based on facts as we know them at the time. For instance, I could have told you with all certainly that the world was flat several thousand years ago and pretty much you would have taken it for granted as true. However, all these centuries later it has been proven time and again that we live in a round world so what is true changed based on research. Is it then possible 500 years from now science will shift and prove the world is really shaped like a question mark? Well, of course anything is POSSIBLE but it hardly seems likely based on what we have learned over the last 2500 years. Although given the popularity of absolutist thinking lately, I do fear for the extinction of question marks of any kind.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community at the moment on Ebola is that it is a virus that is transmitted from one human to another through direct contact (broken skin/eyes, nose or mouth) with bloody or bodily fluids (urine, saliva, sweat, vomit, feces, breast milk, semen) with a person who is actively sick or through objects like syringes and needles. It is not airborne unless a current Ebola patient who is actively ill and who has a fever pries open your mouth and spits (or does worse) directly into it.

Ewwwww

Ewwwww

Many Republican conservatives have voiced the perils of those with the Ebola virus riding the subway or bus systems and randomly infecting the rest of us innocents just because they were too careless to stay home. Certainly, that is even what the scared, poor old bleeding heart liberal me at first thought until I took off my hypochondria hat and considered – when was the last time anyone threw up, bled or deposited their semen directly into my nose or mouth on the bus or subway? I suppose they could sneeze into my mouth or nose if I didn’t watch myself but they’d have to be actively sick and sweating with a high fever and I don’t tend to sit or even stand directly next to those people in public places, given the kind of weirdo I am. Plus, there is always Purell.

I really don't look good in yellow

I really don’t look good in yellow

Unfortunately, I remember this type of panic exactly three decades ago around a disease called AIDS. I also recall as if it were yesterday the now 20 plus years dead but then 13 year old boy named Ryan White who was thrown out of his school by alarmists for being HIV positive even as he lived six more years to infect no one. Not to mention Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. going on TV at the time and suggesting young dying gay men and IV drug users in New York, and presumably very young boys like Ryan White elsewhere, be tattooed and quarantined – sort of the way they were in Nazi Germany 40 years before that. Lovely.

If that sounds as if I’m being unfair, I am not. Yes, of course I am biased. But in this case, I am simply reporting on the facts at that time. Just like you can’t un-infect yourself from a virus you can’t change the reality of the past three or ten decades later simply because it is embarrassing. Of course, you can cure a virus with knowledge the scientific community has uncovered. Much in the way you can re-educate yourself and change your way of thinking to something a bit more rational and factual. That is if you choose to do so.

Which brings us to Brittany Maynard.

Happier times

Happier times

Here is a vibrant young California woman who was just married and by all accounts smart, happy and active, diagnosed in the late stages of a lethal brain tumor that will end her life with a barrage of unrelenting headaches, a loss of motor skills and certain death in less than a year. Numerous doctors told her that her case is accelerating rapidly and that not only is there no cure but little respite they can promise her from an extremely painful and severely mentally debilitating decline.

After some thought and consultation with her doctors and loved ones, Brittany made the decision that was right for her and she and her husband moved to Oregon where euthanasia is legal. What that means is a doctor can legally prescribe Brittany a small lethal dose of pills and, if she choses to take them, can end her life in a manner of minutes privately and painlessly.   Now that wouldn’t seem to be all that controversial, would it?

Well, it turns out that it is and that even with a debilitating brain tumor Brittany was smart enough to be one step ahead of all the protestors. So she decided to post an online video explaining her decision at some length, which, to her and everyone else’s surprise, quickly went viral and has now received over 6 million hits. Wow. That’s a lot of interest. Makes you even think some of those people actually realize that they too, like Brittany, just might be faced with a similar end of life decision at some point in their lives where they just might want to explore a similar option.

Well, that would be quite cowardly, or at least not brave, according to a 30 year-old man with a brain tumor named Phillip Johnson. A Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. who six years ago was diagnosed with a similar though not entirely identical brain tumor, Phillip came out quite vehemently and quite publicly against Brittany’s own end of life choices in a widely read though not quite as viral article 10 days ago. Here are just a few excerpts:

Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take.  As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others.  Sadly, the concept of “redemptive suffering” – that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others – has often been ignored or lost in modern times. 

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures “to support her bravery in this very tough time.”  I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave.  I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide.

I will continue to pray for Brittany as she deals with her illness, as I know exactly what she is going through.

Gee Phil, and I thought only God himself (or herself) can only really know all the true experiences of all the men, women and beasts in the world.

1295123564347_3491092

I try not to write much about religion unless it has to do with fundamentalists who are determined to bring their way of thinking into the mainstream and that is only because they leave no room for any dissenting thought. Whether it’s done for selfish dogmatic reasons or in the name of a loving God whose word you are determined to spread because part of your religion, you believe, makes it your mission, it’s never proper to order others to adhere to your way of life en masse or judge them harshly as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Still, it does puzzle me why anyone would go out of their way to so publicly object to how a terminally ill patient chooses to end their life and why that anyone would do it in the name of God. As a NY Jew who for 27 years has lived with an Italian Catholic who did quite well as a boy in Catholic school, I’m here to tell you that even God wouldn’t like it. To wit: here’s the one Bible passage my former altar boy taught me that I can actually remember.

John 8:7: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

In the name of Brittany, take that, Phil. Not that she needs my help – at least not on that score.

As for me, I choose to think about it this way. I’m not going to use Kaci for a blood transfusion or a bedmate but I would be happy to hug her in thanks for the selfless way she chose to fight a deadly virus at its source. Not to mention, if she were in town I’d happily invite her over to my home for dinner and an evening of crazy 8s. I’d do the same for Brittany if she were well enough to travel or had the strength to have me over. Though perhaps I would give her a blood transfusion if she needed it. Which might not happen since because of AIDS gay men are still forbidden from donating blood to non-family members and most certainly to those we don’t know. We are all, each and every one of us gay guys, in the high-risk category despite our HIV statuses. Yup, there are some things we as a society still just don’t grow from. But perhaps one day we will. In time. How fortunate for those of us who still have that luxury, and for those who decide to fight for it.

Grief Counseling

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 12.01.34 PM

Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal.  Not how we mourn but the fact that we do.  How we choose to do it is a whole different story.  Well, actually, many different stories.

The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death.  Which meant it was really all about life.  Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.  

No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues.  Can you imagine that?

 Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.

 If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not?  Hmm, maybe you are better than you think

OR my favorite —

Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever.  In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.

I could go on but I won’t.  Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?

___________(fill in the blank)___________

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death.  In fact, it’s necessary.

Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you.  For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it.  In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note:  Don’t fret.  I felt a lot better afterwards).

The Normal Heart hits close to home

The Normal Heart hits close to home

Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this.  It’s something different for all of us, right?  The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon.  Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice.  She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone?  Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Phenomenal Woman

Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done.  Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.

What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about.  That small connection.  Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.

You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you?  Yes, that means you.  No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it.  Or perhaps she did.

Who are you reaching today?

Who are you reaching today?

Well, none of that really matters, does it?  What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones.  It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.

How did they touch you?  Help you to understand life?  What did they inform you of?  Enlighten you on?  Entertain you with?  Were they honest?  Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both?  Or neither?  Do you?

And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you?  Not with the world but for you – yes you.  For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.

If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.

And —

that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.

Alas, it's not that easy

Alas, it’s not that easy

So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter.  Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.

One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara  – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind.  Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions.  On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:

When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening.  Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact.  I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all.  Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.

Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time.  Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime.  It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough.  And then, suddenly, they’re gone.

No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that.  Or them.

Eating pizza helps.  Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too.  You do what you can.  And then try to have some fun again.

Surviving the Plague… with Matthew McConaughey

Dallas-Buyers-Club-Poster-Header

I went with my longtime partner to see Dallas Buyers Club this weekend at the local movie theatre. This was not an easy feat.   The mere image of a very gaunt Matthew McConaughey on the movie poster stabbed me in the gut with a generalized feeling of terror and nausea that brought me back to what I imagine will be the most horrible times of life I will ever barely live through.  That would be AIDS in the 1980s

Posting a blog thirty years later on a date that also happens to be World AIDS Day is an odd proposition.   Seared in my mind forever are the faces of living and dying people I knew well, knew slightly, or only knew of as I passed by them at a party or a business meeting – people who wasted away dead or killed themselves before the inevitable ravaged outcome of AIDS happened to them.   That I survived at all is a matter of luck, timing and, well…luck.  Not to degenerate into pop culture references, but to the gay community in particular this was a kind of real-life Hunger Games where many, many more than one person per district had to fight something quite insidious, evil and amorphous in order to survive.  The primary culprit was a lethal and mysterious virus.  The secondary enemies were ignorance, prejudice, our own government and, in some cases, our own friends, neighbors and loved ones.

more than just a ribbon

more than just a ribbon

But simply remembering one’s own story discounts the power and effect of something so massive.  The story of AIDS, like the story of any worldwide plague, cannot be summed up through the experience of a single individual or even group.  I might get cards and letters for this but it would be akin to saying that The Diary of Anne Frank told the story of the Holocaust better than Elie Wiesel’s Night or William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Or that somehow Gone With The Wind covered the Civil War era in a more realistic way than 12 Years a Slave or Glory  or even vice-versa.  The larger and more tragic the event, the more stories there are to tell.  It all depends on where you were and who you were at the time– your perspective and your point of view.

There is a short remembrance in this week’s New Yorker by a reporter named Michael Specter.  He writes about a  photo that was given to him by a friend of two dying men in the Castro district in 1980s San Francisco – one confined to a wheelchair and another, tall and gaunt, bending down to help him – so he can be reminded of the actual story of those days as he wrote about the plague and gay history in the future.  He references this photo as he tells us of the current skyrocketing rates of new HIV infection in the gay community due to resumed risky sexual practices on the part of young people who were not around to see the ravages that came from the disease at a time when there were no or few effective drugs to ensure long term survival.  He also touches on the fact that by the end of this year AIDS will have killed FORTY MILLION people in total, many of them heterosexual and living in Africa.

powerful reminder

powerful reminder

Once again, who died and why and who lived and how is only part of a much larger story.  This is a medical story, a sociological story, a political story and a human story of the world community and, in no less of a meaningful way, individual lives.  That I know a few wonderful guys who continue to survive the plague 2-3 DECADES later is another story in the mix of all the others previously alluded to.   Where we get into trouble is trying to compare, quantify and draw definitive conclusions as to what is most meaningful or even noteworthy.  How do you qualify survival?  Or quantify death?  There is no way to do it and to truthfully bear witness to the actuality of the worst of what occurred.  There is, only — what occurred.

Which brings us back to Dallas Buyers Club.  This is the story of an admittedly racist, homophobic, white trash talkin’ Texas bull rider and electrician named Ron Woodruff who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and given one month to live.  Mr. Woodruff was a real person and, by all accounts, not a particularly pleasant one.  But like many unpleasant individuals, he is not without his charms.  The latter qualities are brought out with the sort of bold verve and definitive eye twinkle that plays perfectly into the talents of an actor like Mr. McConaughey.  He does a lot more than lose 50 pounds from his normally tan, muscular frame and paste on a bushy moustache to bring us back to the skin and bones Russian roulette days of the 1980s.  He actually manages to bring to life the kind of guy that would repulse you if it weren’t for the fact that he was sick and dying.  In all honesty, he might repulse you still.

Despicable Ron?

Despicable Ron?

At one point early on in Mr. Woodruff’s company I, a gay man, turned to my partner of 26 years and sarcastically whispered:  Why can’t they just make a film about all of this for us?  Not surprising on my part.  For all the tragic dramatic stories about AIDS that could be tackled by major or mini-major studios in the last 30 years, the only one that comes to mind that had a gay protagonist was 1989’s Longtime Companion.  Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia but the protagonist in that movie was Denzel Washington, the straight African American lawyer who defended the dying gay man in a lawsuit.  And The Band Played On was an HBO movie that chose, among all of its many characters, to star Matthew Modine as a straight white doctor fighting the good fight against the disease in San Francisco while numerous gay men stressed and played all around him.  Several years ago I Love You, Phillip Morris treated AIDS as the punch line to a sociopathic joke of a con artist we presume to be a bisexual man in the body of Jim Carrey but are never quite sure of on any level.

Among many others...

Among many others…

Owning a story, even one that you have lived through, is a very slippery slope that I began to slowly tumble down into as Dallas Buyers Club continued.  The character of Mr. Woodruff, who I do recall hearing about in real life, was bold enough to go against the accepted medical science at the time and travel down to Mexico where he found alternative drug treatments dispensed by a disbarred American doctor that, unbeknownst to him, would prolong his life for many years.  He then chose to circumvent the laws at the time, illegally transport the drugs back to Texas, and open up his own “club” to dispense these medications to members who would pay a $400 per head, per month membership fee.  Never mind that he was making out like a bandit – he was also temporarily enabling many other people to save their own lives for significant amounts of time using a model that he mentions in the film was really created by homos in New York, San Francisco and other big cities across the country.

Hmmm – in a normal movie this kind of talk would not redeem Mr. Woodruff’s character in my eyes.  But those were not normal times.  Somehow, as the movie progressed this asshole became a bit of a hero if only because he managed to take away the profound suffering of what stood in for the many young men that I knew personally at the time who would, in the end, have no such relief at all.   Well, extreme circumstances do call for extreme reactions – both in life, movie fantasy and upon reflection.  Never mind that Mr. Woodruff briefly made a personal fortune and the massive nationwide fight gay men were waging on every front, including the ones Mr. Woodruff trod in, were mostly ignored here. Despite my great reticence, as I watched the film, I found myself rooting for this egocentric ignoramus – a guy who wound up being far smarter and eventually, but not totally, a lot more enlightened than I had previously seen as being possible.

(Side note:  The movie also co-stars Jared Leto as one of the few straight actors I’ve ever seen pull off a believable drag queen on film.  Forget William Hurt’s best actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  As most gay guys will tell you, that was mostly about a straight guy showing us drag and flamboyance in a film made in the early days of AIDS rather than a straight male actor being a real character in a movie that takes place during the early days of AIDS).

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

I’m assuming that like all real-life movie heroes and anti-heroes in recent years – from Johnny Cash to Richard Nixon – Mr. Woodruff’s true edges have been softened and hardened to meet the filmmakers’ dramatic needs.  This is how it is and will always be in the creative arts.  Even documentaries are not totally real depictions of what actually happens.  They can’t help but be influenced, if only slightly, by the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events.  Ask D.A. Pennebaker. Or even that master of restraint – Michael Moore. (Note: I love MM and the latter is, um, a joke). (Note #2 – And yes, since memory is at the very least selective, even How to Survive a Plague probably missed a few things).

As for Dallas Buyers Club it might be at turns clunky, thinly developed, or lacking in an overall broad historical perspective. Most movies are, or do, in parts.  But what it does extremely well is evoke an important era and tell yet another story about a human plague that seems to have no end for those of us lucky enough to have survived it.  It will also do this for others new to the fight who will now, and in the foreseeable future, find themselves navigating the waters if the gasps I overheard from several young people around me in the movie theatre are any indication.  And, additionally and in particular, it might slightly sway one or two or more of those others who don’t really care about this fight at all.

If Mr. McConaughey’s portrait of the sometimes off-putting Ron Woodruff enlightens even one small-minded jerk about all of this it will have been more than worth the effort.  And even if it doesn’t, it has every right to stand along all of the stories of that time.  No one owns The Plague Years – even those of us who were fortunate enough to live through them and bear witness to our own individual stories of hell from that time.

Straight Talk

Rule of thumb:  If something that’s said publicly bothers you for more than a day, and worse, is inaccurate, you have an obligation to do something about it.

If you disagree at the very least you have to write a letter, tell someone else, or run for office.  If it’s untrue and the person telling it to you is mistaken or, as my Mom used to say – a liar – you have to do even more.  And not be afraid to do it because in the long run you always win when you express what’s true.

So –  here’s what director Adam Shankman said last weekend publicly in a Q&A session at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences when discussing his new film “Rock of Ages” – a musical set in 1987 Los Angeles.

Oh god.

“The year the movie takes place – 1987 – was a great time, a different time  – so free, really.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  Really.”

Really?

Here’s what you have to know because facts and statistics don’t lie:

1987

  • 41,027 persons are dead from AIDS.
  • 71,176 persons are diagnosed with AIDS in the US.
  • Randy Shilts’ investigative journalism book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, is published chronicling the 1980–1985 discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, government indifference, and political infighting in the United States to what was initially perceived as a gay disease.
  • AZT (zidovudine), the first antiretroviral drug, became available to treat HIV.
  • Williamson, West Virginia closed its public swimming pool following an incident involving a local resident with HIV/AIDS. The Oprah Winfrey Show broadcasts a town hall meeting during which local residents express their fears about AIDS and homosexuality.
  • In August, 1987 the Rae family, including HIV+ hemophiliacs (Ricky Rae and his two brothers) living in Florida, are barred from their church and school. After they successfully sue to enroll the kids back in school, their house is burned to the ground.
  • The first known AIDS death at the time was in 1981 but actually occurred in the mid-seventies.
  • An Early Frost, TV’s first prime time AIDS film, was broadcast November 11, 1985 (two years earlier) on NBC.
  • In April and October of 1987 President Reagan finally uses the word “AIDS” in public. He sided with his Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives who said the Government should not provide sex education information.

Artwork from 87.

Good times?  Oh yeah.  Especially for someone like Mr. Shankman who is openly gay and in 1987, was turning 23, and already a professional dancer/choreographer having attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School of the Arts.   If I take Mr. Shankman at his word, this last statement (“good times”) is not at all sarcastic.  If I report to you what I think is the real truth – that he is either forgetful, exaggerating to sell his movie, or was indeed somehow personally and callously unaffected by a tragic, international pandemic affecting a lot of people who looked a lot like him (which I can’t imagine is the case but, then again no one can be the best judge of character 100% of time), then his statements are even more egregious.  Because he should know better.

The ignorant and the callous piss me off.  Am I being too personally sensitive?  I don’t think so.  Because pick a tragedy, any tragedy, any tragedy at all,  and substitute an appropriately analogous amount of facts (if you could indeed come up with them) and the result would be the same.  Worse yet – no matter how you try to slice, dice, parse or analyze what was said in defense of that dangling quote, it just gets worse and worse. But let’s try anyway…

Argument #1 — This was an unintentional public misstatement made for no other reason than to sell a movie set 25 years ago.  All our memories fade at some point and years tend to jumble. 

Uh, well – he also said a similar thing in the L.A. Times about that time period and broadened it to include the entire decade of the eighties.  To quote: “It was endless sex with endless partners with no threat of AIDS, seemingly.”

What was it that former Bush president once said?  Ah yes, here it is:

“Fool me once — shame on you.  Fool me (twice?) – you can’t get fooled again.”

What am I looking at here?

Argument #2 – This is just a film director who wants audiences to remember 1987 that way because he’s trying to sell a movie set in an imagined 1987.  So rather than mistake or misstatement here is a huckster making a callous calculation no one can call him on because he can always answer back:   “Come on, we’re talking about a movie that is pure entertainment, a fantasy — and anyone who takes what’s said literally is too PC and has no sense of irony or humor.”

Problem is in 2012 we’re all too hype weary and too savvy as a society. Annoying people with nothing better to do than call you on inaccuracies (those people used to be called journalists) then come forward and confront you publicly with what your literal words were.  Hype can, in essence, quickly become backlash (ask The Octomom).  To put it more plainly — We might expect to be lied to but when it’s found out and it’s credible we really, really, really don’t like it (or your product) or even you for trying to pull one over one us.  (To put it still more plainly: BUSTED!!).

ARGUMENT #3 – He really doesn’t know he’s “talkin’ smack” and believes what he’s saying is true.  People in show business tend to live in bubbles.  He concentrated on his art – dancer; choreographer; and budding director – and perhaps was not affected the way you were.   

Right.  You mean like the story that used to make the rounds for years about show business legend Ann Miller.  Reacting many years later to news of the death of John F. Kennedy she was purported to have said:  “He died?  What do I know, I was touring in “Sugar Babies.”

Oh, Ann.

Yes, of course that story is a fake.  As is argument #3.  People who are super successful in show business are especially aware of what’s going on culturally.  The ability to take your talents and apply it in a timely fashion to the world around you, whatever that happens to be at the moment, can often be the very talent that pushes you into major success.  Think of it as learned serendipity.

But —  as counterintuitive as it might be to a successful career in show business and even though our present reality might be a quite bitter pill to swallow — it seems to me there is still a human obligation to tell the truth, especially as any kind of artist.  To twist facts in your work for the sake of a good story is one thing — but to take that story and pass it off as some kind of reality when the cameras are off and you’re in the presence of real life with history and facts and people who can actually breathe – that’s another.   It just means that some things that fly in the face of logic can’t be debated.  For instance, you can no longer claim the president wasn’t born in the U.S. when a state (yes, Hawaii is one of the 50) produces a birth certificate in hard ink that says he was.  In the same way two plus two equals four no matter how much you want us to believe under the rules in your own personal idealized new world it is, indeed, five.  Yes, I suppose it could even be seven if you redefine terms and definitions and laws.  But by those standards, I can also proclaim a rhinoceros is a cat and a dog is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, or perhaps one-legged owl.  I mean, anything is possible in a society where only 1% of us make the rules and the other 99% are required to play by them.

Of course, some lies are bigger and more offensive than others, especially when they deal with sensitive issues of the past.  For example, if I were a Jewish man of a certain age from eastern Europe and not a Jewish man of the age I am now living in Los Angeles with grandparents who lived and died in eastern Europe, I could never recall the carefree, lovely casual days in Germany and Poland in 1942 – where things were so much simpler and different than they are in the complicated times we must endure in Germany now.

(Note:  For those of another religion, ethnicity, or even, um, sexual persuasion, substitute another time and place in history and you might get the idea.)

Bottom line:

You don’t get to just throw untruths out there and rewrite history, even in the smallest way, and call it perception, opinion or even hype.  It’s misconception at best, and a blatant total calculated lie, at worst.  And it should not go on the public record unchallenged. Young people especially should not be afraid to speak or shout out when something bothers them in the public discourse, or is, frankly, untrue or something they vehemently disagree with.  Yes, a few people might go running or you might bruise a couple of egos right now, perhaps some of them belonging to peers or elders who could possibly be of help in the short term.  But in the long run the majority of many others will offer you respect and probably many more unforeseen opportunities than you could ever imagine because you had the courage to speak and stick up for what you know in your heart of hearts is true.  Most importantly, you’ll respect yourself for setting the record straight on something that matters to you.  This, in itself, is never a bad thing.