The Normal Heart: Reel Life Stories

The Normal Heart is the story of the gay community’s experience at the beginning of the outbreak of the HIV epidemic in early 80s America. Here I juxtapose this moving story with real life anecdotes on being gay and positive in India in the wake of Section 377.

I met him a few years ago. He was bright, young, creative guy and a friend’s date. He was happy and gay and quite proudly so. I met him again a couple of days back. He is still bright, still young, still creative but not quite so happy. His happiness has been eclipsed behind the shadow of HIV. And he isn’t the first person I know to be in this state of trauma and stress induced by the virus; even 20 years after its discovery it is still potent enough to alter lives to an unrecognizable, unprecedented level.

Writer and Activist, Larry Krammer’s award winning 1985 autobiographical play was adapted as a television film under the same title, The Normal Heart (2014). The Normal Heart is set in the early 80s which was perhaps the worst stage for the HIV epidemic. The virus was yet to be detected, there was no treatment available and hence it spread rapidly and killed thousands of young people. It was first thought to be only affecting homosexual men and therefore, commonly known as ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay disease’. The state and society responded with inaction and apathy that resulted in the deaths of several thousand young men before research was even initiated.  

The main protagonist in the movie is Ned Weeks whose life changes when a friend falls victim to the virus.  Subsequently, several other young men he knew, also fell prey to the virus. The deaths he saw around him moved him and he was enraged when these deaths failed to generate any public concern. He observed that as the first incidents of deaths were mainly among gay men, a community that was long stigmatized and persecuted, the state and society chose to neglect it and wrote it off as a ‘gay disease’.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Ned is giving a bath to his very sick boyfriend Felix and thinking, “who thought a 45 year old man will be giving bath to a 35 year old young man who is dying and is 100 years old right now…?”  That’s the crux of this disease, especially in the early phases before proper treatments were available.

The movie is a fine balance between Ned’s rage and his sensitivity towards the vulnerability of dying and losing loved ones. His anger is directed against the state and societal neglect towards this epidemic largely killing young homosexual men as it was perceived to be only affecting them. Weeks is a humanitarian guy who embodies the grief and the fear of the dying and the loved ones they left behind; his bitterness stemmed from his experience as a homosexual man who constantly negotiates with life in a world that values heterosexuality and abhors any variation from it.

Weeks struggles for validation and acceptance in that hostile world. However, his fight is also with other homosexual men who refuse to identify as homosexuals and shy away from direct and aggressive activism to lobby for grants and support for research and treatment to stop the killer virus even when their own community is dying from the virus.

His voice is brave and honest but is often stifled by the other members of his organisation (Gay Men’s Crisis Committee’).  This tension allows the movie to explore the gray areas of struggle between the individual and the organization, between free thought and the sometimes sticky morass of regulations, by-laws and people-pleasing.

The film culminates with Weeks losing his position as Director, and being expelled from the group as he is considered too direct and too open about being a ‘gay activist’.  The others criticize his willingness to expose gay men without their consent and his ham-fisted criticism of government bureaucratic apathy.

During the course of the film, Weeks finds an unlikely comrade in a polio ridden doctor, Emma. They are different and yet similar – no-nonsense and tireless in their effort to save the dying. Neither of them knows how to sugar-coat their words; their anger and passion are palpable-their truth, too scathing, their emotions a mirror to our own hypocritical society.

Their similar natures were perhaps a result of their past experiences and sorrows accumulated since childhood, albeit for different reasons.  They reflect one another’s sorrows and life struggles. 

Ned Weeks mentions his terrible childhood in a conversation with his brother after they are back from a jog together. He also questions his brother for institutionalizing him (to cure the ‘sickness’ of his sexual orientation) despite the love between them, for failing to understanding or accepting him completely and for refusing to admit that the two of them are ‘equals’. Emma on the other hand remembers coming down with fever on a Halloween evening and contracting polio as a child. She experienced the agonizing experience of being paralyzed and the treatment that followed, being bed ridden and the sudden loss of a normal childhood. She remembers being looked at as an ‘odd’ one by other children when they came to visit her.

Emma’s loneliness and vulnerability is especially visible in a scene where Ned insists that they dance; she struggles with her crutches to rise and dance with Ned. However, he is  distracted and starts talking about Felix’s deteriorating health instead of concentrating on their dance. This angers her and she throws her clutches away and sits down in her wheelchair.

Yet the two have more in common despite their obvious differences, a gay writer-activist and a wheelchair bound doctor – the two lonesome, scarred, sensitive people whose rage is a response to the loss they have suffered or the anticipation of the loss yet to come. They are both extremely honest and outspoken people who brave all odds to fight for those dying – Emma’s most significant line in her conversation with Ned is, “after all, polio too was once a virus” giving hope and tracing the similarity in their situations simultaneously.

In another scene, while arguing with the government grants committee, Emma points out that while this disease in America has largely affected the gay community, in other parts of the world it has been found to affect purely heterosexual groups too. Once again underlying the fact that mankind is tied together in a common destiny and a problem for one also affect others, therefore, the solution for the problem will be a solution for many. This holds especially true for the HIV/AIDS epidemic as it is transmitted sexually, the virus continues to affect people worldwide and is a leading cause of death, irrespective of the sexual orientation of people.

Who else but Julia Roberts could give life to the feisty, wheel-chair bound, brave and humane doctor, Emma. Mark Ruffalo’s rendition of Ned Weeks is brilliant-a sensitive portrayal of a man seeking acceptance, outraged at public apathy, fighting to be counted, a loving man. 

A couple of days back, as I listened to the young man talk of his problems of adjusting with his positive status and the drug regimen, I was thought of the amazing progress medical science has made in treating HIV today. Even though some of the drugs used in countries like India continue to be a major concern for many people living with HIV, because of their side-effects, the benefits are definitely immense. The remarkable achievements made by the modern medicine to test and treat HIV deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated as HIV/AIDS is no longer the dreaded, killer disease that it was initially (in the 80s). It is a major achievement of mankind that across the world many people today have access to ART and are on medication, making it possible to check the disease from spreading and increasing longevity of people living with the virus.

Many countries including India has made ART available for free ensuring greater access to treatment for people from all sections of society; enabling them to live long, fulfilling and healthy lives just as anybody else with the help of the free medication available. The situation today is much more advanced and something that the people who lived and died with HIV/AIDS did not have back in the 80s, something for which they fought for and because of their fight we can live better lives now.

Yet Tommy’s speech, a young gay activist played by Jim Parson, at a funeral of yet another young gay man, sums up the attitude of the society towards the gay community, “they don’t like us”. It reminds us of Indian situation almost 30 years later and the challenges in front of gay community that still exists in the wake of the section 377.

Drawing inspiration from the movie, The Normal Heart, let us remember that spirit of activism that must not be allowed to fizzle out or slow down. This spirit is shared by the LGBTQ communities and their struggle to repeal section 377, to be treated as equals, to be given the due importance that every human life deserves; it parallels Ned Weeks emotional fight for the rights of the gay community to be treated as equals-as valuable human beings. The struggle against 377 is the same as the one Weeks fought in the movie against a homophobic society that persecuted young men for being gay, criminalizing them for the innocent crimes of getting attracted to somebody of the same sex. Most importantly, it denied them of their very existence by refusing to deal with the epidemic with the urgency that it demanded.  This allowed thousands to die before any action was taken.

In India too we can see the persecution of individuals and communities through homophobic legislations like section 377, that criminalize not only homosexuals but anyone who falls outside the narrow boundary of heterosexuality and engages in sexual activities outside penetrative-vaginal sex. This is an extremely dangerous rule under which more people can potentially be labeled ‘criminals’ creating a pathological society where human rights have little or no value.

Furthermore, to hold retrograde views that any sex outside the penetrative vaginal one, is ‘unnatural’, is to allow society to live in denial, to breed ignorance, and neglect its most important role towards generations of young people – to educate, spread awareness and socialize them for holistic individual and social development. The ignorance and lack of education will then lead to a greater increase of easily preventable diseases such as HIV among the most vulnerable communities such as young gay men. Human impulses will exist irrespective of the restrictions laid down by outdated laws such as section 377 leading to havoc caused by ignorance and the risk that follows when human nature is trapped in a mesh of legalities. 

I know more people like my young friends who wonder, despite their money and education- what went ‘wrong’? How did he fail to protect himself? Not knowing that their orientation leads society to decide to ‘doom’ them by criminalizing them and keeping them uneducated about sexual health. Accessing information on sexual health is compulsory in India as everywhere else; it is the only way people will be able to protect themselves from easily preventable diseases like HIV. The situation in India is complex as the country seems to be in denial of its heritage of ‘Kamasutra’ and Khajurao’s erotic statuary that celebrate human sexuality in its myriad forms. Instead it has embraced an outdated Victorian law (section 377) that was established by the British Raj.  This law claimed to be a reflection of Indian morality.  This is indeed a peculiar and contradictory statement which makes no sense at all!

While living a complete and long life with HIV is completely possible today, people around the world continue to live in deep social stigma and the related stress that the disease brings with it. People pray that either they never got it or are hoping for a complete cure someday.

The Normal Heart, raises several such important questions and explores what it means to be counted as an equal, which is the first step towards being considered valuable. Ned Weeks rage against the state and society, their negligence, apathy and failure to respond to a crisis killing thousands of young and innocent because of the stigma against the gay community as the disease is perceived as a problem solely affecting the gay community, is even relevant today. His story is a reminder to activists and the queer community in India to unite and demand for the scrapping of section 377 for once and for all. It is essential to be treated equality, with dignity that every human being deserves irrespective of their sexualities and orientation. Looking back at the Indian context, one can’t help but feel the rage that Ned Weeks feels in the movie.