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The Media Forgets That AIDS Is Still an Epidemic, But Hollywood Doesn't

'The Normal Heart' is a damning indictment of our government's negligence

At the end of his brutal, graphic movie adaptation of Larry Kramer's seminal play, The Normal Heart, premiering Sunday on HBO, director Ryan Murphy puts up some sobering statistics on the screen: 36,000,000 people dead since the start of the AIDS epidemic, and 6,000 new HIV infections every day around the world. The numbers are meant to discomfort us in 2014, almost 30 years after Kramer's play debuted at New York City's Public Theater: AIDS has not disappeared. AIDS still kills. 

Given the paucity of coverage in the media lately, audiences can be forgiven for not thinking much about the disease. After all, AIDS is hardly the scourge it once was, and the proliferation of advanced antiretroviral medication means most people with HIV who get treatment will live long with few complications. The disease is so undercovered that even last week's historic announcement that the CDC had recommended doctors prescribe Truvada, a pre-exposure prophylaxis drug, to all gay men engaging in high-risk sex was pretty much ignored by most major outlets.

It doesn't help that what was once the organizing issue for most LGBT rights organizations for decades barely gets any mention in their annual reports. Nor are these organizations doing the kind of strategic work they once did on the disease. The LGBT community, it seems, has other things on its mind—notably same-sex marriage. As the community cheers the falling dominoes of gay-marriage bans, other issues have moved to the forefront: workplace discrimination, transgender equality, bullying. In a recent Buzzfeed article, “7 LGBT Issues That Matter More Than Marriage,” AIDS or HIV aren't even mentioned once.

Not that these issues aren't important, or that the gay community shouldn't celebrate its hard-earned victories. It's certainly valid to focus on other issues, considering the gigantic strides we've made against AIDS. Once HAART medications rendered HIV a manageable condition, the number of deaths in the gay community plummeted worldwide. In 2012, for the first time in thirty years, AIDS was no longer even in the top 10 causes of death in New York anymore. With the virus seemingly under control, the LGBT community has focused its energies on other issues with broader, more uplifting appeal—ones that, unlike AIDS, aren't rife with depressing images of sickness and death, but instead feature heart-warming portraits of just-like-you-and-me couples expressing their love and raising their kids, soldiers serving honorably after the end of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and out celebrities hosting talk shows and awards ceremonies. What better way to show that the LGBT community has survived, even thrived, since the AIDS crisis, than through these testaments to resilience and pride?

But before we celebrate the end of AIDS, consider the following: New infections of HIV are on the rise among younger gay men, and remain stubbornly high overall in the U.S. at around 50,000 a year. 15,000 people a year still die here, despite the fact that effective medications are readily available and covered by insurance. As a recent New Republic article pointed out, the U.S. significantly lags all other developed countries in reducing mortality rates, as well as access to life-saving health care. 

Perhaps AIDS gets less coverage today because the face of the disease has changed. Today, Hispanic and African American populations are disproportionately affected, and new HIV infections appear to be rising in areas like the Deep South, where there's less access to adequate healthcare and the stigma of HIV remains high. These are not the faces of the gay community we see on TV, which skew overwhelmingly white, urban, affluent, and more often than not male. As AIDS now hits these less visible communities the hardest, are we all that surprised to see it follow a trend familiar to these communities: less funding, less outrage, and less coverage in the mainstream media? Activists have long complained about the dearth of coverage in the MSM around issues of poverty and disadvantaged communities, and statistics back it up: there is less reporting on poverty in America than on any other major societal issue. So it is with AIDS. 

That alone makes The Normal Heart an important film. Along with Dallas Buyers Club, it's ushering in a new kind of AIDS film, one that is finally willing to mount a damning indictment of our national and local governments' silence and negligence in the face of the growing epidemic, a silence which led to fear-mongering and homophobia so profound that a famous musician wore an “AIDS kills fags dead” t-shirt, people were afraid to use public toilet seats, and some didn't even want to be in the vicinity of the infected—in the movie, a repairman refuses to enter a room of an AIDS patient to fix the TV, saying he'd rather quit his job than come in contact with the disease.

As unflinching as these movies are, some might worry that they reinforce the myth that AIDS was only a problem in the past—that by focusing exclusively on the 1980s and '90s, they allow today's audiences to shake theirs heads at the poor policies of yesteryear while applauding how far we've come since then. But Murphy, the director, seems aware of this: The Normal Heart focuses acutely on the ways in which our public institutions failed us. We even see protagonist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) accuse the government of intentionally ignoring AIDS as part of a conspiracy to see gays die off. The movie comes across as a cautionary tale: We've come very far, but don't think this can't happen again. 

Who knows what would happen if a new, different epidemic were to hit us today? We'd like to think we're enlightened enough not to repeat the mistakes of history, but I wonder. Less than thirty years ago, the U.S. government remained silent as thousands of gay men died. Reagan didn't even mention the word AIDS until 1985, the New York Times refused to use the word “gay” in its initial review of Kramer's play, and New York Mayor Ed Koch was notoriously slow in doling out any funding. A community suffered and watched as fear and hate spread, as hundreds of thousands got sick or died, and countless others were shamed into remaining in the closet. And what community was less visible than the gay community back then? It took men like Larry Kramer to insist not only that he be heard, but that he be treated as an equal. 

What The Normal Heart may hopefully do, then, is rekindle our fear of complacency. We don't have to wonder about new epidemics—AIDS is still here. It is still killing people, particularly people without a voice or the means to get proper care. Movies like The Normal Heart remind us that we owe it to those who lost their lives to speak up for those who are suffering today. Tomorrow, there will be 6,000 more of them in the world.