Over at the New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg writes about the play "The Noraml Heart" and in that column he writes these words: "Post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, 'gay liberation' was largely about sexual freedom and plenty of it. Its black-power-inspired, yippie-inflected style of identity politics stressed difference from and sometimes contempt for the white-male-white-bread patriarchal nuclear family. (At the same time, the tiny suit-and-tie homosexual-rights legacy organizations took care not to be too pushy.) AIDS, a truly existential crisis, imposed a totally different perspective. In a seeming paradox, given that AIDS was seen as a 'gay disease,' the crisis made the movement more sympathetic in its focus and appeal (suffering and death are universal), more militant (there was no time to lose), and more practical (its agenda was highly specific and not at all theoretical or utopian). AIDS opened the closet door and brought families and friends, not just individuals, into the movement."
Hertzberg is spot-on about the role of AIDS in changing the way America views gay men and women. But he fails to note the specifically religious quality of the experience of suffering. I think this is critical to understanding how the AIDS epidemic transformed the way gay men and lesbians are viewed. During the 190s and 1990s, many families learned at virtually the same time that their sons were gay and that they were about to die. When death came, the families would turn to their churches and the deceased's gay friends would make their way to chapel too. It was there, in the church, at funerals, that gay men and straight families with gay children looked at each other across the aisle and recognized that they were both crying. And, it was there that they both discovered the secret of the Cross: The mystery of suffering is ineffable because it is the mystery of Love that animates it. Only those who love suffer. The extent of the love we have for those who died so young and whose deaths were so painful, the extent of that love was the same measure of the suffering we felt at their loss.
Still, Hertzberg's column is worth a read - indeed anything Hertzberg writes is worth a read.