A Normal Heart Viewing Party: Two Generations of Gay Men Watch the Past Turn Into the Future on HBO

By Avram Finkelstein
27 May 2014

Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons in The Normal Heart
Photo by Jojo Whilden

Dan: You know who wasn't in the room for me? Marsha P. Johnson [the late, Black transgender artist and rights activist]. At least, not until that scene where Ned proposes to Felix on the piers, and a bunch of Black women in the distance start cheering them on. That felt like a major Ryan Murphy moment to me — the kind of tone-deaf identity gag I'd been dreading, where women and people of color become accessories to the white gay man's primary narrative. Like: it's the piers in the 80s, so we're meant to believe that these women are trans, or drag queens, and here they are applauding these two white guys who want to move into a nice apartment together. That's when I thought about Marsha and Sylvia Rivera [the late bisexual and transgender activist who was a contemporary of Johnson], and how trans women of color were a catalyzing force for gay liberation, but then got kicked to the sidelines through the present day. I get that these women weren't part of Larry's story, but I thought it was tacky and insulting to throw them in as window dressing in that scene, particularly in light of the history of the piers, and the past 15 years of activism by queer youth of color in that neighborhood to resist police harassment and bullying by white gay residents.

Which kinda brings us to the thing you're always saying about how "history is turf," and how the past few years of AIDS historicization has been fraught with battles over who's story gets told by whom, and who is missing from the narrative. But at the same time, I was very aware that this is just Larry's own story. It can't be anything other than Larry's story, and it would be weird for me to expect otherwise.

Which is why the ending felt so strange to me — and we were talking about this as we watched it. The tags at the end tell us about what happened in AIDS history after 1984, but they completely skip over ACT UP, which is really the logical next step in Larry's story — that he gets kicked out of one group and then plays a pivotal role in the creation of another. Instead, we just get these depressing statistics, with no sense that the queer community actually rallied together and made a difference in between depressing 1984 and depressing 2014.

The credits started rolling and I thought to myself: What is this movie telling people? What's the effect of this story being told today, in this manner, with these absences?


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