Gay life in 1970 was very bleak, compartmentalized. You didn’t take it to work. You had to really lead a double life. There were bars, but you sort of snuck in and snuck out. Activism and gay pride simply didn’t exist. I don’t even think the word gay was in existence. We weren’t quite gay people yet, and we certainly weren’t a people. We were isolated individuals.
I think the Continental Baths changed things more than Stonewall did. The same with Fire Island Pines; everybody there was walking around half-naked and having fun. It was clean. It was a party. There was also a place called the Everard Baths, which was the bath. It was hideous, like Kafka. There were wire-mesh walls, and the floors were filthy and stank, whereas the Continental Baths were like ancient Greece. They were clean, and you could talk to people, and Bette Midler sang to you. But the Continental Baths were like a candy store. It’s hard to say no. Everybody I knew wanted to fall in love, but nobody was falling in love, or if they did, it was for ten minutes. Everybody was having so much sex that no relationship in the world could withstand all of that. We didn’t know it was bad. We didn’t know that it would be physically debilitating. And of course, drugs came along. And also peer pressure said anything and everything was okay. We didn’t have a political movement then. Sex wasn’t a political act. It was just pure and simple exuberant hedonism. Very understandable after centuries of being locked up. But I found that having so much sex made finding love impossible.
People think I’m totally anti-sex, and that simply isn’t true. I think the thing that upsets me is that a few gay men make sex their total be-all and end-all – we have so much more to our lives than just carnality. And that’s why we’ve never had strong political organizations, why we don’t have power, why we didn’t have a place at the table. I so desperately want to redefine homosexuality as something more than just sex.
My book Faggots came out in 1978. And people in the burgeoning gay political movement felt threatened by what I had to say about gay promiscuity. They’d made sex the principal plank in their platform. No one then thought it would kill you. The book was an enormous best-seller. And a bunch of very loud, outspoken people called me Judas. I had to learn to live with that. It doesn’t bother me that they think I’m crazy.
AIDS hit my little group very early on, and no one knew what it was. But it was very obvious what was causing it, and I said that if you had a brain, you should start cooling it. And that made a lot of enemies. You couldn’t say those things, then or now. Six of us started Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981, but I basically ran the organization with Paul Popham, the board president, who was in the closet. We had a lot of fights. But then it became the bureaucracy it is today. I hated it. Bureaucracy is for people to hide behind who haven’t got the guts to speak up. So I wrote my play The Normal Heart. That was my way of trying to get the word out.
I think Ed Koch is the person most responsible for allowing AIDS to get out of control. It happened here first, on his watch. If he had done what any moral human being should have done in the beginning, and put out alarms, then a lot fewer people would have gotten sick. I was introduced to Koch at a party in 1982, specifically to talk about what was happening. And the minute he knew what I wanted to talk about, I was pulled away by police. He was a closeted gay man, and he did not want in any way to be associated with this.
act up came about in 1987 because GMHC had not pressured the government to do any research for a cure. I made a speech and got everybody all riled up. And then we had another meeting, and there were three times as many people. I discovered there was a whole new generation of people who were not hung up about being gay, who were also sexually active and terrified of dying and of seeing all of their friends dying. And they had a lot of energy and didn’t give a shit what people thought. So for three or four years, act up was like molten lava. We accomplished an enormous amount. We forced the FDA to change their approval process so that new drugs – for any illness – can now be approved in one year instead of ten. We’re living today, so many people are living today, and it’s literally due to act up. We forced the drug companies to work with us. Yes, it got unruly. Yes, the wrong people took over the organization. Yes, it was hurt very much by the smart people who left or who died. An awful lot of people died. But we proved that the squeaky wheel gets the most grease. I am prouder of act up than anything I’ve done. What we did now benefits the entire world.
During act up, I had two other plays produced. And I spent ten years working with Barbara Streisand. She had The Normal Heart under option at one point or another for ten years. She had been very close to her agent, who died very early on from AIDS. And because her son Jason is gay, that part of The Normal Heart about being proud to be gay appealed to her. Working with Streisand was everything you would expect. She’s an incredible woman, and also a pain in the ass. But so am I, so we got along quite well. She came close to making the movie about three times. But I think she’s afraid. She’s very calculating about what she does and what she thinks people will accept from her.
I tend not to live in the past. I live each day for what it is. I like the openness now, seeing guys walk down the street holding hands, seeing slow advances in how we are portrayed, seeing Ellen, although I wish she had better writers. It’s certainly easier to be gay now, although it’s not easier to have sex now. But if you want to talk about the arc of gay New York, what we’re going through now is most disturbing. The people who died deserve responsibility from those who are living. But too many people think they can go right back and kill themselves all over again. I would feel so enormously guilty if I didn’t continue to remember and fight the good fight.
I have never been so happy in my life as I am now. I have a lover. We had a relationship that didn’t work out. I wrote about it in Faggots. And then I didn’t see him for seventeen years. In between, he had a lover who died and I had a lover who died. And then we met again, and this time it worked. You have no idea what it’s like going to bed seventeen years later with the person you had been more in love with than anybody in the whole world.
I keep busy. I am starting a third organization, Treatment Data Project, which will allow people to find out what combination of treatment drugs are working for others. We plan to have half a million people with HIV entering their data worldwide. I’m writing a novel that’s now over 2,000 pages. I’ve been writing it since the beginning of AIDS. I’m sort of haunted by the notion that I have been spared when everybody I know is dead. I’m one of the very few people left alive who knows everybody who’s been involved in the politics of this since the beginning. And I really feel I have this obligation to tell it. I don’t care if I have to pay to get it published myself.
Interviewed by Maer Roshan