In Frank Rich’s elegyto his deceased theater mentor – “the most intimate relationship I’d had with any nonparental adult,” he writes – a sense of triumph over How Far We’ve Come is indivisible from the sexual and social amnesia that has befogged young gay minds:
This history is not ancient. My own concern about its preservation comes not from some abstract sense of social justice but from my personal experience. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., of the sixties, where the impact of racism was visible everywhere, front and center in my political education. But gays—what gays? No one I knew ever saw them or mentioned them. Not until the eighties—when, like many Americans of that time, I was finally forced by the rampaging AIDS crisis to think seriously about gay people—did I fully recognize that a gay man had been my surrogate parent in high school, when I needed one most. Not that I ever thought to thank him for it.
For younger Americans, straight and gay, the old amnesia gene, the most durable in our national DNA, has already kicked in. Larry Kramer was driven to hand out flyers at the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, his 1986 play about the AIDS epidemic, to remind theatergoers that everything onstage actually happened. Similar handbills may soon be required for The Laramie Project, the play about the 1998 murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard. A new Broadway drama, The Nance, excavates an even older chapter in this chronicle: Nathan Lane plays a gay burlesque comic of 1937 who is hounded and imprisoned by Fiorello La Guardia’s vice cops. Douglas Carter Beane, its 53-year-old gay author, is flabbergasted by how many young gay theatergoers have no idea “it was ever that way.”
A member of the generation that watched AIDS metastasize from a gay plague to a heterosexual crisis in the late eighties, I watched attitudes change before my eyes. Before my first group of classroom students in 1998 I could not drop one hint about my personal life; in 2004, a student confessed in an essay – which he insisted on not sharing with the class – that he’d served as witness to a friend’s commitment ceremony to another boy. Last year, after being asked how he spent his weekend, a stocky laughing journalism major recounted without a moment’s discomfort a double date with his girlfriend, best friend, and the best friend’s boyfriend. The closet’s evil rests in allowing a homosexual to hide in plain sight; now, the move towards confession created the banality of sameness — what we’ve always wanted?
On my last couple of encounters the brazenness with which trysts dismiss the rudiments of safe sex astounded me. No flippant descriptions of the discomfort of wearing condoms (and what to do with them once used), or obligatory eye rolls at the interruption of a shall we say privileged moment – the guys were dumbfounded, as if I’d asked them if they spoke Finnish. One of those assignations ended early; let’s call it coitus terminus. Like the Spanish flu or Black Death, AIDS exists as a multiple choice answer in a social studies test. Millions of American teens will mature as citizens of a country whose landscape is altered thanks to the collaborations between their forebears and straight “allies.” But crimes will persist. Surrenders to causes with more money and political will behind them remain. In Miami the intersection of race, education, and masculinity produces bone-chilling statistics. When millions of Facebook subscribers switched profile photos into a Human Rights Campaign logo in March to celebrate “marriage equality,” I balked. We’re not post-gay. We’re not even gay yet.