My Normal Heart

5.21.2014

By Jerry Portwood

How Larry Kramer’s AIDS play changed one writer’s world

Illustration by Andrew Archer

When I clicked the link and saw the headline — “Gay, Lesbian Troops Perform in Drag at Kadena Air Base” — I felt a mix of disbelief and pride. For the first time in history, in March of this year, openly gay service members were performing in lipstick and heels to raise money and awareness on a military base. That it was happening in Okinawa, the same place I had struggled to thrive as a gay teen while my dad was stationed there, blew my mind. It was as if the world had finally caught up.

Kadena was where I’d attended middle school and high school in the early ’90s. I was living there when Bill Clinton promised to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of their sexual orientation — and then signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law. It’s where I first kissed a man. And it’s where, at 15, I came out to my entire high school in a dramatic monologue from The Normal Heart. The coincidence felt freighted with importance, not least because Ryan Murphy’s movie adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the AIDS epidemic premieres on HBO this May. In a couple of decades, the world had changed for the better.

I found The Normal Heart by chance, on my drama teacher Mr. Rehak’s classroom shelf during my sophomore year of high school. The intense narrative is set in the mid-’80s, when New York City was being ravaged by a strange and deadly plague. It dramatizes how a group of men self-organized to create the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and fought for their survival. Basically, it looked nothing like my own life, as the son of a plumber who fixed water main breaks — not people’s lives.

I joined the theater kids that year, urged on by my friend Erica. “So you’re a faggot?” she’d yelled in our history class — a way to embarrass me and deflect her own issues of being overweight and “not black enough” for her family. It stung, but later we bonded over Depeche Mode and Morrissey. After I was cast in my first play, Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, I wanted to compete in the Far East Speech and Drama Festival, and that meant I needed a monologue.

Being the only gay kid on a military base on a tiny island in the South Pacific in 1992 was strange, to say the least. At the time, Kurt Cobain was wearing dresses and had told The Advocate he thought he might be gay but was “probably” bisexual. I assumed there must be other people like me, but no one had the confidence to blurt it out. Even in our American outpost, with kids of butch military moms and dads from around the globe collected on a dot in the Pacific, a sort of sexual ambiguity was in the air.

My first crush was Ryan, my best friend’s boyfriend, because she told me he was bisexual. He was a year older and not the cutest guy, but I obsessed over him, sneaking out of my house and in through his first-floor window to stay up late and confess profound secrets about the meaning of life — stuff that no one else seemed to care about. Afterward, he’d even let me wrap my arm around him and fall asleep until I’d wake up and sneak back in through my window before my parents woke for work. When he drove me the half-mile home one night, I read his tenderness as an invitation and tried to kiss him. He recoiled and admitted, “I lied. I’m a fake. I’m not bisexual. I just wanted to be different.”

I felt shattered, but it also reinforced my need to be honest. “So you’re bisexual? That’s cool,” a guy asked me while we sat at our communal science tables, waiting for class to begin. I had told a few friends I was gay by then, and rumors had begun to spread. I assumed everyone was gossiping about me behind my back, so I enjoyed the outright inquiry. But I decided a declaration was in order.

“I’m not bisexual. I’m gay,” I said, making eye contact.

“Oh, well...” He let it hang in the air and then looked down, embarrassed. I realized bisexual was OK; gay was not.

People wanted to know if I had proof, but I’d never had sex with another guy — only fantasies. So I sought support in the raw emotion of Kramer’s autobiographical play. To me, this was what it meant to be gay: to know other intelligent, successful men who wanted to change the world. The story of Ned Weeks, a Jewish, gay activist and writer in New York City, reverberated with me. The violent truth-telling in the play’s scenes — between men at the beginning of a global epidemic — attracted me. These people in this play were nothing like me, but I needed to understand them. These were my people.

A 10-minute monologue was required for the drama competition, and not knowing any better, I flipped through the pages to find a chunk of text that might work. Nothing was quite long enough, so I cheated and took a haphazard approach, deciding to suture two profound pieces by two different characters into one longish, eruptive moment of total hell-raising catharsis. This would be a mind-blowing scene — even if it required me to craft a clumsy transition and pretend it was all one gay everyman’s story.

I began with a diatribe by Ned, Kramer’s theatrical stand-in, about gay history that listed more than a dozen people I’d never heard of. I went to the library to do research and learned about Alan Turing, the Englishman who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code and helped win World War II. I practiced the strange, Scandinavian pronunciation of Dag Hammarskjöld. I needed to be perfect. I then segued to a pivotal scene in which Bruce Niles (Ned’s friend and foil) tells the heart-wrenching tale of taking his ailing lover home to his family in Arizona, where he dies. The hospital refuses to discharge his body and Bruce and his dead lover’s mother must wrap the cadaver in a black garbage bag and find someone who will incinerate it.

No one told me that this material wasn’t appropriate for a 15-year-old boy on a military base. No one said, “You’ve never had anyone in your life die. You don’t know anyone with HIV or AIDS. You can’t do this tragic scene about anger and grief. You’re too young.” I cried every time I performed the scene, and my drama teacher encouraged me to go deeper.

Performing it for the rest of the drama kids, I began with a slow build. As I recited my lines, I let the tears flow. I had never felt emotions like this before, and I had certainly never put them on display before. After I finished, people were silent, breathless.

“Wow,” said James, a popular jock who was also a lifeguard at the base pool. “That was amazing. So brave.” Ryan didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to; I could tell he was impressed — and scared.

I was confident that I was going to Seoul for the competition and would blow everyone away with my AIDS monologue. But first we had to perform at a schoolwide convocation. I invited my parents, but my dad wasn’t able to attend due to a work conflict, so my mom arrived alone. Although I’d already had an emotional coming-out conversation with both my parents, and they’d told me they loved me no matter what, we’d also had an explosive confrontation — after I’d returned home late from Ryan’s house one evening — that changed our relationship for years afterward.

Before the school presentation, nervousness took hold, but I was elated to be on stage. Among the other solos and ensembles, I also performed a comedic duet with my friend Erica that took place in a New York diner. Then it was my turn to go out on stage alone. I’d performed the piece hundreds of times, so I felt prepared for anything. This time, however, I knew it was different: I was shouting gay propaganda on stage in front of hundreds of people, crying in front of friends as well as complete strangers. I couldn’t be afraid.

I didn’t see my mom at first. But after the performance, as people congratulated us, she found me; she was waiting to drive me home. In the car — where we both looked forward and didn’t have to make eye contact — was the only place we could talk.

“I liked your performance,” she said. I could tell she didn’t want to cry.

“I wasn’t sure what you would think,” I replied. “It’s really intense.”

“I wish your dad could have been there,” she said. “But there were these two boys, and I don’t know what he would have done.”

She then told me about two guys, probably my age or older, who had sat in front of her and began to heckle when I took the stage. “Oh, it’s that faggot kid,” one said. She was surprised — she’d never heard anyone talk about her eldest child that way, and she reacted without thinking, tapping him on the shoulder.

“Shut up, that’s my son,” she told him, and they looked at her in disbelief. They were quiet during my 10 minutes and snuck out before the rest of the convocation dispersed.

Twenty years later, I actually met Kramer. It was during a photo shoot for this magazine in the fall of 2011. When I told the 76-year-old man, who had survived decades longer than he’d ever dreamed he would, that I’d performed segments of his play, I felt my eyes well up. He seemed moved to know that a teenager had discovered his work and been so affected.

“But I didn’t win the competition,” I confessed. In Seoul, I’d made it to the semifinals and then, after my final cathartic performance, was informed I was disqualified on a technicality: I’d somehow exceeded the time limit. I was dumbfounded, knowing how perfectly I’d timed and rehearsed everything. I pleaded with the judges, only to discover that I had been within the time but one of the timekeepers had misrecorded it. But it was too late. I was out. I didn’t know if it was a homophobic slight or an honest mistake, but I realized that it didn’t really matter; I’d already accomplished what I’d set out to do. My normal heart had already changed.

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