Manuel Betancourt

The Importance of Being Angry, or How HBO’s The Normal Heart hits home

May 27, 2014 · in Queer

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“And every gay man who refuses to come forward now and fight to save his
own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us.” — Ned Weeks, The Normal Heart

The anger that fuels Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is the one thing I kept going back to as I watched the HBO adaptation starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons. I commented as much when I read this dead-on reading of the film:

@ActuallyPJH And anger. Though that, as Kramer’s work shows, is hard to harness, harder to deploy, and hardest to incite. #TheNormalHeart

— Manuel (@atweetnextdoor) May 27, 2014

Anger fuels much of The Normal Heart and the play/film’s ability to showcase such raw and seemingly useless feeling is one of the more extraordinary things to come out of Kramer’s life and work. Curmudgeoney as Kramer and Ned Weeks may come off, their anger is not only justified but necessary. It makes for a tacit and probably unintentional meta- nod to have the Hulk himself play him; Ruffalo so quickly turns a limp hand into an exasperated wrist that characters and audiences alike are bound to recoil in fear (of what that fist and its accompanying loud mouth can do) and shame (for what one’s own fist and mouth refuse to do).

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Indeed, it is that type of anger which seems to have evaporated from the LGBT community. The rage and subsequent outrage that fueled ACT UP and the activism of the 1980s seems now only to bubble up over language policing (witness RuPaul’s latest “tranny” kerfuffle). This is not surprising given the way in which normality (oh how ironic Kramer’s title looks from the vantage point of a, ugh, 2014 “post-gay” landscape) and complacency has settled into our ranks, as we seek for a place at the table, at the altar, at the barracks, seldom critically looking at what those places demand of us as a community. Too often we have merely asked to be acknowledged; tolerated even, something Kramer himself stages in one of the most heartbreaking moments (and oh there are plenty) of the piece:

Ben: My agreeing you were born just like I was born is not going to help save your dying friends.
Ned: Funny – that’s exactly what I think will help save my dying friends.

When Weeks pleads with his brother to recognize him as his equal the issues of citizenship, marriage licenses, DADT, discrimination, and harassment are clearly in the back of his mind, but the pressing issue was never solely that tacit acceptance. It signaled the start of a movement, not its end-point. There’s still plenty to be angry about; one need not look far to find that while The Normal Heart was premiering, Twitter was aflame with endless #YesAllWomen tweets that aimed to counter the growing media narrative surrounding the latest “Men’s Rights Activism”-fueled shooting.

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Audre Lorde, a towering figure when it comes to discussing issues like these, here might offer us a way to see how critical Kramer/Weeks’ anger and issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia may still be productive bedfellows:

Women respond to racism. My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my vision to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.

I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt your feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can’t be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”

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Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart may wear its eponymous organ proudly (if strategically) on its sleeve, but it is in its pulsating anger that it stages a necessary and harrowing cry for help, for awareness, for solidarity, and above all, for love.