The history of liberal culpability in such government-mandated discrimination should not be locked in a closet now. To forget any history is to risk repeating it. To forget this particular history is to minimize or erase the struggles of gay men and lesbians whose lives and fundamental rights were trampled routinely for decades in America, with cruel and sometimes deadly results. Many of those eyewitnesses to that ugly history are no longer around to tell it. It’s a measure of how much amnesia persists that the relatively recent nonfiction events recounted in The Normal Heart, the breakthrough drama of the AIDS crisis, came as news to so many in the audience at its 2011 Broadway revival. That work’s indefatigable author, Larry Kramer, felt compelled to stand outside the theater after the final curtain and hand out a flyer imploring ticket holders to “please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened.”
And Kramer’s play, first produced in 1985 and covering events in New York City from 1981 to 1984, captures only the early days of what would keep spiraling into a systemic national failure to respond to a public-health catastrophe as the body count kept rising. The reason for that failure is one that polite people don’t want to talk about anymore: Because the first conspicuous victims of AIDS were sexually active gay men—a minority lacking civil rights and often regarded as morally defective or worse—too many Americans across the entire political spectrum could easily justify looking away, and did. Remembering what happened is essential if politicians, particularly liberal politicians, are to be prodded or, if need be, shamed into bringing the unfinished tasks of equality to the finish line.
One relevant chapter of this often-obscured past unfolded during the not-so-distant year of 1977. That was when the hero of New York’s same-sex-marriage law, Andrew Cuomo, then 19, made his political bones as an aide to his father Mario’s unsuccessful race for New York mayor against Ed Koch. That campaign was indicative of the political climate around homosexuality, even in theoretically enlightened New York City, that would allow AIDS to rage out of control once it hit four years later.
The Cuomo-Koch contest played out just as explosive battles over gay rights were being joined around the country. It was in 1977 that Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming California’s first openly gay official—a victory that would end with his assassination the following year. It was also in 1977 that Anita Bryant, a pop singer and onetime Miss America runner-up, mounted her “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a Miami ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination in jobs and housing. Bryant called gay people “an abomination,” but such invective didn’t prevent her cause from winning the endorsement of the Dade County Democratic Party—or of Florida’s governor, Reubin Askew, a Democrat so progressive that George McGovern had offered him the vice-presidential slot on the 1972 ticket. The anti-gay rage whipped up around Miami by this crusade inspired the bumper sticker KILL A QUEER FOR CHRIST and the beating and hospitalization of a gay man. Once Bryant’s referendum won, by more than a two-to-one margin, thousands of New Yorkers marched from Sheridan Square to Columbus Circle in protest. But repeated efforts by New York activists to get their own City Council to extend the city’s Human Rights Law to include gay citizens had died in committee two years earlier and would not be passed until 1986.
What most New Yorkers did not know about gay people in 1977 could—and did—fill a five-column article in the Times (albeit relegated to page 41). It breathlessly reported that “increasingly, the homosexual community is very much one of lawyers, physicians, teachers, politicians, clergymen, and other upper-class professional men and women,” many of whom “tend to live like their heterosexual counterparts.” This account was actually a bit above par for the Times news pages of that period. The executive editor, A. M. Rosenthal, banished the word gay in the paper except in quotes and radiated a homophobia that intimidated gay employees to stay in the closet rather than risk being banished to career Siberia. “There wasn’t a single openly gay reporter or editor in the newsroom,” says Charles Kaiser, a former Times reporter and the author of The Gay Metropolis, and there wouldn’t be for the rest of the decade. Not that other ostensibly liberal publications of the period always had higher standards. In 1970, Harper’s had devoted eleven pages, replete with photos of pouting male mannequins, to the essayist Joseph Epstein’s tortured explanation of why he “would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth.” Speaking of his sons, Epstein wrote that “nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.” In 1978, The Village Voice published a front-page polemic arguing that gay civil rights shouldn’t be a matter of public concern.