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‘Normal Heart’ a searing reminder of stigma

Parallels between polio, AIDS patients

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Larry Kramer, the Normal Heart, gay news, Washington Blade, AIDS, stigma

‘Normal Heart’ playwright Larry Kramer. (Photo by David Shankbone; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“When I left the hospital, no one would come near me,” my now deceased friend Sharon said to me in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. “I got polio when I was 7, and people in my small Oklahoma town were scared as hell that they’d catch it from me. They wouldn’t hug me or touch a glass that I’d had a drink in.”

William G. Stothers, chair of the board of Post Polio Health International, contracted polio at age 10.

“They knew it was a virus, but they didn’t know what caused it or how to treat it,” Stothers, a former ombudsman and city editor with the “San Diego Union Tribune,” said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “Many people didn’t know that [polio] wasn’t contagious after the initial period of contagion had passed. They were afraid to hang out with me or my family. They nearly shut down our family’s hardware store.”

Cyndi Jones, Stothers’ wife, who got polio as a child, was a poster child with the St. Louis area March of Dimes. “One day, Cyndi’s at school,” Stothers said, “and the teacher holds up a poster with a picture of Cyndi with her crutches and another picture of a child without crutches.  Underneath Cyndi, it said ‘not like this.’ Underneath, the other little girl, it said ‘like this.’”

To this day, Jones remembers the stigma that she felt when she saw that poster, Stothers said.

Why am I telling you this? Because, finally, (more than 30 years since it premiered at the Public Theater in New York City) a movie has been made of Larry Kramer’s iconic, searing play “The Normal Heart.” And the film of the same name, which premieres on HBO on May 25, reminds me yet again of the parallels that exist between the polio and AIDS epidemics (as well as between the stigma that people with polio and AIDS have, and continue, to encounter).

I’d never want to say that polio and AIDS, or ableism (disability-based prejudice and homophobia) are the same. “It’s not a perfect match,” Stothers said, “the fear factor with polio wasn’t homophobia.”

Yet, being queer and disabled (legally blind), and having known over several decades people with polio and AIDS, I can’t help but see connections in these communities. To begin with, many polio survivors and people with AIDS I’ve met have been scorned both by the culture at large and by their own groups. They’ve run up against discrimination in the workplace and in housing; been denied service everywhere from hospitals to restaurants and even turned away by houses of worship and funeral directors. At the same time, people with polio and with AIDS continue to be shunned by some within their own communities.

In “The Normal Heart,” Kramer castigated closeted gay people, including then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, who look away from and keep research funds away from people with AIDS.

Many people with polio tried to pass, Stothers said. “They didn’t want to associate with others with polio.”

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a pioneer in AIDS research in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, had polio. Laubenstein was one of only a few doctors then who treated people with AIDS.

“She is incredibly important in the history of AIDS … a real fighter for what she believed,” Kramer told “The New York Times,” when Laubenstein died at age 45 in 1992.

The character of Dr. Emma Brookner in “The Normal Heart” (Julia Roberts) in the HBO movie is based on Laubenstein. “Polio is a virus, too,” Brookner says in “The Normal Heart” to Ned Weeks, a character based on Kramer. “I scare the shit out of people …You’ve got to get out there on the line more than ever.”

Laubenstein and Kramer are among life’s few heroes. Check out HBO’s “The Normal Heart.”

Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Bruce Lambert

    May 21, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Insightful. I had polio as a child, and decades later became the first NY Times reporter to cover AIDS full-time. The connections were not lost on me.

  2. Carolyn Nardiello

    May 21, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    interesting! i will read this!

  3. William Murphy

    May 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Bruce: you were about an inch away from a Pulitzer for your AIDS coverage when something happened – if memory serves.

  4. Carol A Manning

    May 21, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I have to disagree. I got polio when I was nine months old. After over 17 subsequent surgeries, the last after college graduation, I started working in Chicago. I went on to have an extremely successful business career and personal life. I didn't feel discriminated against and in fact, believe I was deeply respected for overcoming my disability. Now, I struggle with PPS, and continue to feel the full support of my friends and family.

  5. Mary Gilliam

    May 21, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    You really are blessed I suffer from post polio people act as if their noting wrong with me. Some days I can barely make it from point one to point two.

  6. Kathi Wolfe

    May 22, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Thank you, Bruce, Kathi

  7. Bruce Lambert

    May 22, 2014 at 3:50 am

    Hi Bill – That's very kind. Randy Shilts deserved it far more but he didn't get it, either.

  8. Gloria Nardini

    May 22, 2014 at 6:13 am

    You are one tough cookie, Carol–everybody doesn't have your guts!

  9. Erica Cook

    May 25, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    polio and aids. I would have never thought of the connection, but there you go.

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Commentary

It doesn’t take a miracle

Hanukkah a time for LGBTQ Jews to celebrate full identity

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(Public domain photo)

For Jews around the world, Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small and poorly armed group of Jews who took on, and defeated, one of the world’s most powerful armies. 

Upon entering Jerusalem, the Maccabees saw that there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s eternal flame for one night. But the oil lasted eight nights — enough time for new oil to be prepared. The eternal flame remained lit, and light triumphed over darkness.

The story of Hanukkah was a miracle. While we celebrate and commemorate that miracle, we should also remember that it doesn’t take a miracle for one person to make a difference. 

The entire world is shaking beneath our feet. The climate is in crisis and our planet is in danger. A viral contagion has claimed the lives of millions, and there’s no clear end in sight. Creeping authoritarianism threatens the entire world, including here at home.

Sometimes it seems like it will take a miracle to solve even one of these problems. The reason these problems seem so overwhelming is because they are — no one person can fix it themselves.

Here in the LGBTQ community, we have made enormous strides, and we ought to be proud of them. But there is so much more work to be done.

Not everyone in our community is treated equally, and not everyone has the same access to opportunity. Black, brown and trans LGBTQ people face systemic and structural disadvantages and discrimination and are at increased risk of violence and suicide. It must stop.

These are big problems too, and the LGBTQ people as a collective can help make the changes we need so that light triumphs over darkness. But it doesn’t take a miracle for individuals to light the spark.

Our movement is being held back by the creeping and dangerous narrative that insists that we choose between our identities instead of embracing all of them. 

The presentation of this false choice has fallen especially hard on LGBTQ Jews, many of whom feel a genuine connection to and support for Israel. They feel marginalized when asked to sideline their identity by being told that the world’s only Jewish state shouldn’t even have a place on the map. And they feel attacked when asked about the Israeli government’s policies during a conflict, as if they have some obligation to condemn them and take a stand simply because of their faith.

One of the ways we can shine our light is to fight for an LGBTQ community that is truly inclusive.

This holiday season, pledge to celebrate all aspects of your identity and the rights of LGBTQ people to define their own identities and choose their own paths. If you feel the pressure to keep any part of your identity in the closet, stand up to it and refuse to choose. 

In the face of enormous challenges that require collective action, we must not give up on our power as individuals to do what’s right. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

The tradition of lighting the menorah each night represents ensuring the continuity of that eternal flame. One of the reasons the Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently in the windows of homes and in public squares is because the light isn’t meant to be confined to the Jewish home. The light is for everyone — and a reminder that we can share it with the world every day to try to make it better.

As long as we keep fighting for justice, we don’t need to perform miracles. But we do need to do our part so that light triumphs over darkness.

It is up to each of us to map out what we can contribute to create a truly inclusive LGBTQ community. This holiday season, be the light. If you can, donate to a group that helps lift LGBTQ youth in crisis. Volunteer your time to fight for the rights and the lives of trans people. And be kind to one another.

Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of no faith at all, take this opportunity to share your light with the world. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

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Opinions

Trend of banning books threatens our freedom

‘History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas’

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National Book Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

I knew Helen Keller was a DeafBlind activist. But, until recently, I didn’t know that some of her books were torched.

Nearly 90 years ago, in 1933 Germany, the Nazis added “How I Became a Socialist,” by Keller to a list of “degenerate” books. Keller’s book, along with works by authors from H.G. Wells to Einstein were burned. 

The Nazi book burnings were horrific, you might think, but what does this have to do with the queer community now?

I speak of this because a nano-sec of the news tells us that book censorship, if not from literal fires, but from the removal from school libraries, is alive and well. Nationwide, in small towns and suburbs, school boards, reacting to pressure from parents and politicians, are removing books from school libraries. Many of these books are by queer authors and feature LGBTQ+ characters.

Until recently, I didn’t worry that much about books being banned. My ears have pricked up, every year, in September when Banned Books Week is observed. Growing up, my parents instilled in me their belief that reading was one of life’s great pleasures as well as a chance to learn about new ideas – especially, those we disagreed with. The freedom to read what we choose is vital to democracy, my folks taught me. 

“I don’t care if it’s ‘Mein Kampf,’” my Dad who was Jewish told me, “I’ll defend to my death against its being banned.”

“Teachers should be allowed to teach it,” he added, “so kids can learn what a monster Hitler was.”

In this country, there have always been people who wanted to ban books from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

In the 1920s, in the Scopes trial, a Tennessee science teacher was fined $100 for teaching evolution. (The law against teaching evolution in Tennessee was later repealed.)

But, these folks, generally, seemed to be on “the fringe” of society. We didn’t expect that book banning would be endorsed by mainstream politicians.

Until lately.

Take just one example of the uptake in book-banning: In September, the Blade reported, Fairfax County, Virginia public school officials said at a school board meeting that two books had been removed from school libraries to “reassess their suitability for high school students.”

Both books – “Lawn Boy” a novel by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by non-binary author Maia Koabe feature queer characters and themes, along with graphic descriptions of sex.

Opponents of the books say the books contain descriptions of pedophilia. But, many book reviewers and LGBTQ students as well as the American Library Association dispute this false claim.

The American Library Association honored both books with its Alex Award, the Associated Press reported. The award recognizes the year’s “10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.”

Given how things have changed for us queers in recent years – from marriage equality to Pete Buttigieg running for president – it’s not surprising that there’s been a backlash. As part of the blowback, books by queer authors with LGBTQ+ characters have become a flashpoint in the culture wars.

As a writer, it’s easy for me to joke that book banning is fabulous for writers. Nothing improves sales more than censorship.

Yet, there’s nothing funny about this for queer youth. My friend Penny has a queer son. “LGBTQ kids need to read about people like themselves,” she told me. “It’s horrible if queer kids can’t find these books. They could become depressed or even suicidal.”

If we allow books to be banned, our freedom to think and learn will be erased.

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas,” Keller wrote in a letter to students in Nazi Germany.

Anti-queer officials may remove LGBTQ books from school libraries. But, our thoughts will not be unshelved.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinions

Thanksgiving is a time to share

Take a moment to think about what you can do to help others

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This Thanksgiving, many of us will once again celebrate with family and friends around the dinner table. Sadly at too many tables friends and family members will be missing. They will be one of the over 766,000 Americans who lost their lives to coronavirus. May the shared grief over lost loved ones cause us to try to bridge our differences and lift each other. As those of us with plenty sit down for dinner let us not forget the many in the world not so fortunate and think of what we can do to make their lives better.

In the midst of the pandemic we defeated a president who through his words and actions tore our country apart — a president who managed to poison relationships among family and friends. We elected a president who we felt would try to unite the nation. But we know that has yet to happen and the recent reaction to the not-guilty verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial shows us that. The use of race-baiting in the recent Virginia governor’s election shows us that. We still suffer from the implicit permission the former president gave to some Americans to once again give public voice to their sexism, homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. That didn’t suddenly end with his loss. While we cannot pretend those feelings weren’t always there it seemed we had reached a point in American society where people understood you couldn’t voice them in public without rebuke. While it will take many years to put that genie back in the bottle we need to try if we are to move forward again. Around our Thanksgiving table is a place to begin. I am an optimist and believe we can do that even while recognizing it won’t be easy.

Thanksgiving should be a time to look within ourselves and determine who we are as individuals and what we can do to make life better for ourselves, our families, and others here in the United States and around the world.

Around our Thanksgiving table we should take a moment to think about what we can do to help feed the hungry, house the homeless, and give equal opportunity to everyone who wants to work hard. Maybe even give some thought as to how we change policies causing institutional racism to ones giving everyone a chance to succeed. It is a moment to think about how we can open up the eyes of the world to understand how racism, homophobia, and sexism hurt everyone, not just those who are discriminated against.

We must renew our efforts to heal the rifts in our own families and make an effort to try to see each other in a more positive light. If we start to do that with those closest to us we might have a fighting chance to do it with others.

I recognize my life is privileged having just returned from a 14-day transatlantic cruise. My Thanksgiving weekend will be spent with friends in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and we will remember our experiences over the past year. For many it also begins the Christmas season and the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend each year Rehoboth Beach lights its community Christmas tree. So surely we will talk about what that season means to each of us.

For me each year it means thinking about which charities I can support as the requests for end-of-year gifts arrive. It is a time to think about volunteering some precious time for a cause you care about.
Wherever you live, there are many chances to volunteer and do your part to make a difference for others. The rewards of doing so will come back to you in abundance. As anyone who has helped someone else will tell you the feeling you get for having done so is wonderful.

So wishing all my friends and those of you who I may be lucky enough to call friends in the future, a very happy Thanksgiving. May this holiday find you happy, healthy and sharing peaceful times with those you love.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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