When We Rise… and Rise and Rise

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There was a moment in this past week’s When We Rise – ABC’s 8-hour miniseries retelling the gay liberation movement through the personal and professional travails of four real life activists – where one realizes that it is only when the political becomes personal that a true activist is born. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – meaning it takes something awfully personal to happen to us before we muster up the energy to try and save the world.

8 hours well spent #chairreview

8 hours well spent #chairreview

Of course, no one can truly save a world, despite what politicians, billionaires or real estate moguls will tell you, and sometimes in the body of the same person. And moreover, that moment when it all clicks in and causes action is different for all of us.

A noteworthy screenwriter friend of mine named Anna Hamilton-Phelan once wrote a script on the women’s movement called The Big Click and it is only now – 25 plus years later – that I truly get what she was talking about. Oh sure, I’ve been politically active over the decades and understood the basic meaning of what she was saying. Who could argue with the idea that there are episodes in all of our lives when something goes from simply bothering us to pissing us off so royally that we are moved into action. Or from understanding in hindsight that unknowingly there were reasons ingrained in us from childhood that causes us to be passionate about an issue rather than merely just sympathetic towards it.

There are some parents in need of a medal for this gem #girlpower

There are some parents in need of a medal for this gem #girlpower

The gay heroes in When We Rise had many motivating factors but the commonality that clicked in for me was that at least one parent rejected them from an early age because of their sexual orientation and that these brave men and women had the strength to know that the problem was not with themselves and the temerity to devote their lives to enabling the world to see the truth. What this translates into was being a part of a movement to change the world even though, at its basic core, all they were really doing was standing up for freedom, equality and honesty.

This seems easy but it is anything but when the world at large, not to mention your close circle of friends and relatives, informs you in every way through words, deeds and general point of views, that you are wrong. As a gay person it is always chilling for me to revisit the outward hostility and rejection of gay people as any sort of normal through my lifetime by mainstream society.

When I was a boy in the sixties and a young teenager in the first part of the seventies, the notion of showing a same sex couple making love on a major network was as likely as, well….NOTHING. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone at the time who would have considered it a viable notion.

Well.. at least we had Charles

About as gay as it got on TV #thankyoucharles

Certainly no one in the early eighties could have imagined the full pandemic of AIDS or the experience of literally watching your friends and lovers drop dead all around you as the mainstream forces of government and religious institutions turned its back on you or leaned in with hateful condemnation and we told you so indifference.

Yet, like the leaders of civil rights and women’s liberation and so many other movements for social change these people remained undeterred, motivated in some part by the very injustices that they were consistently met with, and often from a very early age.

Horrific as the AIDS era was for our community (and others), I have always believed that without it the country never would realize so quickly that almost everyone in America knew and loved (or very much liked) a gay person. Compared to DEATH, or at least WATCHING DEATH, the onus of coming out began to feel almost laughable at some point.

Amen to that

#Reality

But then quite strangely and surreally this begat the slow opening of the door to what the majority of mainstream society now accepts as normal – gay marriage. How odd that our forbearers had to die in order to achieve it. And yet, when you look at the history of our progress towards racial equality – how obvious that this would be what it would take to achieve.

Of course, none of us should be fooled into thinking that as we progress we have achieved anything near equality in either of these areas – or many others. In the case of the LGBT community, there is currently an international brouhaha that the upcoming Disney release of the new Beauty and the Beast even features a gay character.

THE HORROR!

THE HORROR!

A movie theatre owner in Alabama pulled it from its schedule, publicly noting in a statement that: if I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it.

This is followed by threats to Disney that Beauty might entirely be banned from Russia for essentially the same reason. A prominent lawmaker there has publicly called for its culture minister to screen it in advance and then bar it if he finds elements of propaganda of homosexuality. 

Never mind that the gay character in question is (and has always been) named LeFou, is merely a sidekick that has a crush on the male lead, Gaston, and that the gayest thing he reportedly does is dance a little too enthusiastically with a friend. When it comes to Disney the gay thing is still sacrosanct, in several if not many more corners.

I mean.... do we not remember Scar? #letsbereal

I mean…. do we not remember Scar? #letsbereal

Certainly a gay Disney character is not the most burning issue in LGBT freedoms but with our new administration rescinding an executive order to disallow transgender students from using the bathroom of their choice, and new religious freedom laws brewing nationally and in many statewide government offices to override other existing gay civil rights rulings in other related areas, any blanket normalcy of the community seems as far as it’s ever been.

Aside from being gay I’m also Jewish and the rise of anti-Semitic crimes of defacement and violence in the US is still in line with the ongoing history of persecution we Jews have endured through the centuries. Sure, it’s been a long time since 6 million or more of us died in Nazi concentration camps (or has it?) but as everyone in any minority group knows just when you think you and yours might be primarily safe is the very moment when you need to pay attention. And this does not necessarily mean solely watching out for members of one’s immediate minority group but to those in others, be they Black, Muslim, female (even though they, like those who voted for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, ARE in the majority), Mexican and…(fill in accordingly).

Pretty much sums it up right now

Pretty much sums it up right now

I’d like to say members of my particular minority groups are already doing this (and perhaps they are) but the most recent evidence I can provide is this news story about two Muslim-American activists who raised more than $20,000 in over two hours in order to repair the massive damage done last month to more than 100 headstones in an historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

“…Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America,” read the crowd-funding webpage started by Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi

The recognition that hateful actions towards ONE of us are hateful crimes towards ALL of us feels like 21st century activism. Ever personal, ever angry but rooted in problem-solving, progress and the united hope for a better future, along with the knowledge that, like it or not, it’s both an individual AND a group journey.

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A Rainbow of Emotions

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In a moment where the nation reels in our own yin and yang versions of pain and pleasure – from the continued assassination of innocent Black people by White racists or the passage of marriage equality by the Supreme Court that ensures LGBT people can now legally tie the knot in all 50 states – it seems reductive to compare life to a Pixar movie. Yet it feels like no karmic coincidence that Disney has just released Inside Out – one of its most thoughtfully psychological animated films ever – not to mention one that in particular deals with how our upbeat innermost emotions must always co-exist with the ever present darker feelings not so way down deep in our soul.

Of course, none of us have the vivacious voice of Amy Poehler to personify our Joy (Note: Perhaps not even Amy herself) nor do we have the gleeful rantings of Lewis Black to substitute for our own virulent misdirected Anger at the world. Or even the pathetically depressing tones of Phyllis Smith, a former assistant casting director who we know as the frumpy, humdrum, monotone-voiced Phyllis on The Office, to so brilliantly express our own inner Sadness.

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

What we do have is real life – which is never as entertaining as the best or even very good Pixar movie. But it can be if we think about it just a little more than we indulge in our own pity or happiness parties (depending on our moods) without a thought to the karmic realities that comprise what we like to refer to as the rest of the/our worlds.

Full confession – I’m more guilty than most of not following the strategies I’m putting forth here for Living Your Best Life (Note: Trademark Oprah).

Say what now?

Say what now?

Not to be a giant buzz kill but on the day SCOTUS ruled on marriage equality most of what I thought about were gay friends who contributed to the struggle but didn’t live to see this day. This was due, in no small part, to the double whammy of the ruling coinciding with the nationally televised funeral for Clementa Pinckney, the senior pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston who was one of the nine assassinated last week by a 21 year-old White supremacist after the latter had spent the previous hour in a Bible study class praying with them in their own aforementioned house of worship.

Pres. Obama eulogized Pastor Pinckney, also a state senator representing Charleston, and led the mourners in his own very compelling acapella version of “Amazing Grace” – certainly a first in POTUS history. Previously he and others have talked about the idea of reaching a state of grace and spreading that out into the world to others. Presumably this includes the forgiveness of those who have done a person wrong and nowhere were those teachings more apparent than from the mouths of the next of kin of the recently slain who only days before faced the accused murderer of their loved ones. Without exception they all forgave him to his face, or at least chose not to dwell in the bile he had elicited by looking backwards at the loss of all their relative or forward to all the blessings that would never be in the future.

This idea of grace, the ongoing struggle, the bright future – no matter what has happened to you and where it lands on the fairness scale – it’s a wonderful and noble thought, one that is an undeniably positive and useful goal. But full confession: It works for me only some of the time, and even then barely. Part of my personal fight is also fueled by anger and the quest for fairness – the idea that one is not roused to action until one – okay, me – is more personally impacted by the issue at hand.

This was a reason to think about all of the dead of the LGBT community, most especially the thousands from the AIDS epidemic, when marriage equality was announced. For, and this is my own personal belief, the movement would not have gained the steam that it had if not, in great part, due to the AIDS epidemic. Certainly, it wasn’t the only motor but just as certainly it clearly sped things up.

What would Vito think of today?

What would Vito think of today?

To be clear: we would all trade marriage equality in a nanosecond if we could wipe away the Plague and bring back those that fell – meaning died – in its wake. Clearly, we can’t. But what we also can’t do is to deny that the fact that this awful pandemic forced gay people to make themselves publicly known, many times against our own will or perhaps choice, and this inadvertently contributed greatly to forcing people to know us – the real us – rather than the sanitized version groups usually choose to present (or not present) to society at large. And that – along with a lot of grass roots work – is primarily what accelerated change and led us to where we are today.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – or Aunt Ruth as I like to call her – said as much in an interview last week – and I immediately surmised, in a moment of total self-indulgence, that these thoughts must ‘run in the family.’ Though I (and perhaps she) have been thinking this for years it’s hardly an original idea. I heard the filmmaker/novelist Clive Barker say pretty much the same thing about gay rights five or 10 years ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time (or perhaps it was Politically Incorrect – who can remember which fabulous liberal spewfest it was) – and clearly he is no relative of mine. The hair, the body, the horror – not a Ginsberg in his gene pool, let’s be honest.

Not a Ginsberg (but he's welcome anytime)

Not a Ginsberg (but he’s welcome anytime)

Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t clear that brother Clive (who has been out and proud for years), Aunt Ruth, myself and perhaps many of you don’t share something. And that is the recognition that the world is very much about the good and the bad each informing the other – the yin and the yang. That just as it seems one’s world is going to end, and perhaps in some ways it does, it is simultaneously the birth of something else.

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‘nough said

One supposes this is just our mutual human condition – one of many aspects of humanness we have in common, though so often we don’t want that to be the case. Still, it’s important to remember when the next big civil rights issue arises – that civil rights of all kinds for all people are intertwined. Charleston, Stonewall, Israel, Iraq, and ad infinitum back and forth through time. How often one writes about this (or performs it or films it) and how even more frequently the message is ignored, the world goes on and we continue with our days as if it’s all new to us or, even worse, in that particular case it doesn’t really apply. Bitchy, twitchy, witchy, kitschy and all else in between.

It’s important to recall our collective history and our mass behavior when one is feeling down – or perhaps even too hopeful. Not in so much a fatalistic, sad way but an inevitably accepting, understanding and eventually life-affirming way. Dark and light, light and dark, dark and light – neither of them lasts – certainly not forever – nor would you probably want either of them to on their own. If you really think about it. The folks at Pixar obviously thought about it for the six years it took to bring Inside Out to the screen and simplified it so even a CHAIR could make sense of it and use it to understand the current events of the day.

Go figure.

Surviving the Plague… with Matthew McConaughey

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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.