There’s fairly explicit sex in The Normal Heart, but what you won’t see is condoms. That much, at least***, is historically accurate.
But in 1981, almost no gay men were using condoms. They weren’t worried about getting a girl pregnant, after all, and though STDs such as gonorrhea or the crabs were a fairly common experience, they were almost entirely viewed as a short-term, easily-treated consequence of sexual liberation. It was an inconvenience and maybe a cautionary tale, but unlikely to change the entire way you went about having sex.
AIDS—especially not knowing what it really was, how it could be transmitted, and how long it would be until there was a cure—changed that. There’s one scene in the film where Julia Roberts’ character, a doctor, tries to persuade a room full of gay men that they should stop having sex. Just stop. Having. Sex.
It goes badly. Take that one meeting’s explosive outrage and frustration and fear that both fleeting encounters or longterm relationships were now possibly deadly and multiply it by about 10 years—because that’s how long it took before there was something of a (still debated) consensus that sexually active people should use condoms every time they have sex.
Here’s a little more context from POZ magazine founder Sean Strub’s memoir, Body Counts:
Following decades of shame, the Stonewall riots had presaged an unprecedented explosion of gay male sexuality, which was the environment in which I came out as a gay man. Men who, only a few years earlier, might have committed suicide or stayed closeted in their hometowns had flocked to the safety and privacy of gay urban ghettos. Sex itself had become synonymous with liberation; it was the antidote to oppression, with some men seeking validation and pleasure in the arms of hundreds or thousands of partners.
By the time the first cases of disease were reported, we had elected a handful of openly gay and lesbian candidates to local offices and passed a few municipal nondiscrimination ordinances. We felt like we were on a path toward somewhere better, although there was no sense of inevitability to our struggle, particularly as the religious right emerged to push us back.
Despite the political gains, there were woefully few public venues for gay men to meet except those that were sex-oriented, such as bathhouses, bookstores, and backroom bars. These venues were defended fiercely; they were the only places where many closeted gay men could socialize safely. When public health authorities in some cities sought to have them closed as the epidemic grew, it drove numerous gay men to activism. They were protecting spaces they valued for themselves, as well as the only places where many gay men could be reached for education about HIV and safer sex.
While the post-Stonewall generation of gay men embraced their sexual liberation with gusto, most had been taught little or nothing about sexual health. The relationship between gay people and the medical profession, historically, had been contentious, mistrustful, and highly politicized. It was less than a decade before that homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder, yet many doctors clung to the idea that homosexuality required professional intervention to “cure.”
Systematic oppression, a hostile culture, and self-hatred damaged gay men, and when the ’70s presented a sexual liberation unimagined only a few years before, it resulted in sexual behaviors and environments that created the perfect storm for a sexually transmitted virus to spread rapidly. The lack of knowledge about gay men’s sexual health and access to health care that respected gay sexuality compounded the problem.
In 1983, two NYC gay activists and their doctor published a small booklet called How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which controversially did not encourage abstinence but rather celebrated all of the emotional reasons that sex plays such a huge part in anyone’s life. And though there was debate still about whether there was a single virus or multiple factors that could lead to infection, recommended condom use (and negotiation/discussion about risk).
That’s the modern foundation of “safe(r) sex”—the idea that sex is such a powerful and eternal part of human expression that simply telling huge groups of people NOT to do it is likely to be less effective than educating them and arming them with a way to do so that helps prevent new infections.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop would tackle a similar concept for all Americans. At a time when there were serious suggestions that everyone with HIV be tattooed or quarantined in order to contain spread of the disease, Koop advised:
"Many people, especially our youth, are not receiving information that is vital to their future health and well-being because of our reticence in dealing with the subjects of sex, sexual practices and homosexuality. This silence must end. We can no longer afford to sidestep frank, open discussions about sexual practices -homosexual and heterosexual. Education about AIDS should start at an early age so that children can grow up knowing the behaviors to avoid to protect themselves from exposure to the AIDS virus."
But the next year, when Congress finally appropriated $30 million in emergency funding so states could help provide AZT, they also passed an amendment from Jesse Helms, which banned funding any educational materials about AIDS that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.”
Irony alert: Here’s what then-NYC Mayor Ed Koch wrote in the NYT about the Helms Amendment:
"We have got to call a spade a spade," said Senator Jesse Helms in offering an amendment to the fiscal 1988 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, "and a perverted human being a perverted human being." Ironic comments, indeed, given the profound perversity of the policy his amendment advances….
Senator Helms may not like homosexuals. But he and those who voted for the amendment should remember that homosexuals - and intravenous drug users - are the sons and daughters of families who love them. They too deserve protection against the gravest public health threat our nation faces.
But Helms’ “no promo homo” rules had a devastating impact on American sex ed, as right wing activists on local school boards routinely attacked any teacher or organization they deemed in violation. The result in most school districts was a sex ed program that may have discussed AIDS but rarely in any meaningful or helpful way.
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***Unless I was particularly bleary-eyed with tears during that part, this poster appears in the background of a scene in the HBO film that should be set in 1983 or so, despite the fact that the poster wasn’t created by the activist art collective GRAN FURY until 1988, and was part of a larger campaign bringing attention to the growing number of infections among women. The film does not exactly have Mad Men-level attention to historical detail.
I spent two years working as the press secretary/policy director for San Francisco’s STOP AIDS Project, an HIV-prevention agency targeting gay/bi/trans men. I was supposed to be there two weeks, maybe a month, maybe two. But even though it was 2002, 15 years after the Helms Amendment passed, someone in GWB’s White House decided to make an example of us. How dare we—an organization that had been funded by the CDC to do HIV prevention for over a decade—be talking to adult, consenting men who were already having sex with other men as if they were capable of making a decision for themselves? How dare we use a single penny, a paper clip’s worth, of federal funding to help these men teach each other how to do so more safely?
Two years, three Congressional inquiries or audits or investigations. This was not in the ’80s. (This is why it matters who’s in the White House.) It’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever had. I was 24. I was so fucking angry and spent so long on the phone every day yelling about this ridiculousness that I’d lose my voice, every night. I spent a lot of time explaining to reporters why people might still need to learn about safe sex, as if the exact same type of politicians who’d passed Helms’ homophobic bullshit the first time weren’t still the ones trying to keep literal life-saving information out of the hands of young men who most needed it now. (I did, however, leave there with an engraved lucite award proclaiming me the “Spokesperson for Sodomy,” which is basically the best moniker ever.)
Just, listen to me for a second. Here is what I learned is the most important educational message of all: