“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!...”
“Sleepers wake, the voice is calling us
Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;
Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!...”
J.S. Bach Cantata 140
I recently watched The Normal Heart, and while the waterworks were on and off for various reasons (anger, sadness, despair, remembering…) I started to think what messages the film had for poz people these days.
It’s a powerful movie based on the play by Larry Kramer and a work that paints a stark picture of life during the early days of AIDS. The main character, Ned Weeks, sees the way gay men with this new strange “cancer” are being ignored – by New York City, the federal government and gay men themselves. His anger focuses his efforts to create something that addresses the needs of gay men; starting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis with only determination and a handful of closeted colleagues.
In those early days, even in my small city of Victoria, there were a lot of whisperings about gay men getting sick. Most often those people just disappeared. Most often, no one really wanted to talk about it. It was something that happened “over there”. Being on an island, there was this sense that we were somehow immune to the plague that was happening in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
But we weren’t.
More and more men were getting sick and dying as the early 80s became the mid-80s and the late-80s. Some decided to take their lives rather than submit to the ravages of Kaposi’s Sarcoma or Pneumocystis Pneumonia; others deteriorated, wasting into skeletons and passed in hospital or hospice.
Ned Weeks' message to the community then was “Wake up! Why aren’t you angry?!” The message for positive people today is much the same. The complacency of the early days, the turning away of heads, and the sleeping in the wake of tragedy persists today, only under different circumstances.
When there were no medications, and in an era where closet doors were firmly shut (people were still being fired for being gay), the drowsiness may have been a mantle of protection – what we don’t talk about won’t hurt us. And the genocide in the gay community went on.
Now, with medications, we sleep in a haze of comfortable complacency. HIV-positive people live longer, fuller lives and the pandemic seems “manageable”. In the placidity of our Sunday quiet we are no longer angry, and the power of our voices is co-opted by professionals and health authorities who know better than we do what needs to be done and how we need to be treated. Poz people are mute, deaf and blind – three monkeys that turn away from the continuing tragedy that swirls around them.
The tornado isn’t that bad when you live in a brick house. Until the roof tears off, but by then it’s too late.
If we don’t pay attention to the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. Trite perhaps, but the movement that has given us so much and brought us so far, was brought about by the Ned Weeks of the world: the angry, dedicated, loud and strident – not by those who chose to live in the shadows locking their closet doors from the inside. The movement was not born in acquiescence but in resistance and struggle. I fear that if we don’t regain that sense of resolve we will fade away like water colours in the sunlight.
As T.S. Eliot wrote “This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a whimper.”