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Commentary: 9/11, Ferguson And 'The Normal Heart'

The exterior shell of the World Trade Center south tower
FEMA | Wikipedia

Some moments in life never lose their power. There are two moments, two short hours, that I will always, ALWAYS, remember. And both came together on the  evening of Sept. 11, 2014.

One memory remains as clear as it can be: the hour watching live TV in my kitchen here in St. Louis as two planes flew into the World Trade Center in the where city I was born and raised in. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

The other moment is just as powerful but the memory is  more like a recovered dream, haunting me because at the time I had no idea it was important. I can see the room, the furniture, several people - but I can't quite even see all the faces.

My next door neighbor had invited me over to visit and talk after dinner. His boyfriend, a flight attendant from San Francisco, wanted to share his story about a day he had just experienced with 19 other gay men.  This small group from New York and San Francisco, called together by a National Institutes for Health team, all shared a rare skin disease called Kaposi’s Sarcoma, traditionally found in elderly Jewish or Italian men. It is my understanding that this was the first time doctors from the NIH had seen any patients in person.

As I drank a glass of wine, he shared how at the end of the day the doctor told them that the cancer appeared benign. He didn’t say anything that alarmed us. He just wanted us to know and “to be aware.”

This was before HIV was even identified as a virus and several years before the name AIDS was even created. It was an otherwise unmemorable evening before 68 million men, women and children would be diagnosed with this disease worldwide.

These two moments merged one night last week as I watched HotCity's preview presentation of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. The story was first produced in 1985 expressing the raw anger that the gay community was feeling as young men were suddenly dying between 1981 and 1984 and no one cared.

The HotCity set designed by Sean Savoieis is as powerful as it is simple and sparse with the actors’ space surrounded by random building beams reminiscent of the beams left standing at ground zero of the collapsed World Trade Center, a sight I saw myself only a week after those buildings were brought down. To me they invoke sudden unexpected crisis and nation-wide fear. I hope that seeing those beams will help a broad audience relate to the pain that was felt in the gay community as we were being allowed to die, witnessed by some of us attending three or four funerals in a single week.

Just weeks after the 9/11 attack, I wrote an opinion piece, published in the St. Louis Business Journal, in which I made the case that this was intended as a hate crime against citizens of the United States as a group, not against specific individuals. I encouraged the passage of the long proposed expanded federal hate crimes act to demonstrate the strength of our democracy and respond (in part) to the terrorist act. That bill was named the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Act and would not pass until 2009. Mr. Shepard was gay and Mr. Byrd was African-American; and both lost their lives to horrible hate crimes. Passage of the bill marked the first time the LGBT community was ever mentioned in federal legislation, the first acknowledgement that there even was an LGBT community in our country that deserved justice and respect.

The Normal Heart script was written with the intensity and anger of what was being felt at the time. But today here in St Louis we are not only living with the memories of the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, we are living though  issues that are coming together under that title, Ferguson. The connection between these stories is clear. The Normal Heart is a reminder of a different targeted community in our country whose lives have been minimized if not totally ignored.

Recreating those emotions 30 years later had to be a challenge but Marty Stanberry, HotCity's artistic director, achieved it. His direction was powerfully reflected in the on-spot performances provided by every member of the cast and designers. An especially incredible performance was delivered by John Flack as Ned Weeks. He is the show's central character who was a prophet of the time foreseeing an LGBT community that would be out and proud as complete people. There is even a moment when it is clear how the community understood and embraced marriage as a right we should be entitled to though they couldn’t even think to say the word then.

Take some time to go to Ferguson, have a meal, buy some products in an area store and always remember being there and then talk about it with others to help you learn and grow. And take some time to go and see The Normal Heart so you can have a glimpse of what it was like in the early 1980s in this country to be gay, pushed aside as invisible and forgotten while still being targeted for death. I hope that all of our personal and communal memorable moments lead us to try harder to learn from each other’s experiences and views as we grow together into a united compassionate community.

HotCity’s The Normal Heart  will be on stage Sept. 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 26 and 27. For more information go to the HotCity Facebook page.