Celebrating Pride Month and the Evolution of the LGBT Helpline
Recently I watched the HBO original film “The Normal Heart.” The film was adapted from a play of the same name that was written by activist and playwright Larry Kramer. The play, and film, chronicle the emergence of AIDS and creation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City in the early 1980’s, founded by Kramer and others. In the somewhat autobiographical play, Ned Weeks (a character based on Larry Kramer), is a passionate but abrasive advocate for increased attention and funding for research towards a new and unnamed illness which we now all know would be the AIDS epidemic.
In the film the illness is rapidly spreading among the gay community and Weeks is losing one friend after another to the mysterious disease. And while people are getting sick all around him, all suffering from similar symptoms and always ending with the same tragic outcome, no one seems to care. The necessary research isn’t receiving sufficient funding, politicians turn a blind eye, and some hospital staff even refuse to go in the rooms of those with the disease. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, a young man dies and a funeral home refuses to handle his body, instead putting him in a trash bag and making the young man’s mother and partner pay them to handle his remains in such a dehumanizing way.
In another scene, founding members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis are organizing their office space when a young woman comes in, grief stricken by the recent loss of her friend. The character of Tommy Boatwright, (played wonderfully by Jim Parsons who steals the show in many scenes) comforts her. She says she wants to do something to help and he responds, “We need a hotline director.” The character of Tommy is based on the real-life person Rodger McFarlane, who first answered that hotline in his apartment and took 100 calls the first night it was open. In the next scenes you see this small group fielding phone calls from people asking about the unnamed disease, its symptoms, the rumors surrounding its cause, and a number of other questions that the group admittedly had few answers to at the time. Their goal was to provide people with a place they could call to receive what little facts they had about the illness and also to receive access to social workers, legal help, health care, and more.
I thought to myself about how much things have changed in the over 30 years since this group first organized. HIV/AIDS is still a very real and dangerous illness, but thanks to the work of GMHC and others, it eventually stopped being ignored by decision makers and got the funding for research that it deserved. Research led to knowledge, and over time people were educated about how it spread and how to prevent it, and there have been incredible strides in the medicine and other treatments that greatly improve one’s ability to live with the disease. There’s no doubt that we still need activism and awareness and prevention and dollars for research, but things are much better than they were 30 years ago.
And look at how much has changed for LGBT helplines. When I saw the team of people in the movie answering phones and doing the best they could to help provide information and empathy, I smiled to myself and thought, “I wonder if any of them had any idea how much things would change for the LGBT community in the following decades.” LGBT helplines started with the purpose of helping people survive this illness which no one knew anything about. The LGBT helpline has evolved so much over the years. We still have many wonderful helplines doing work on HIV/AIDS education and prevention. But helplines now also focus on bullying, discrimination, suicide prevention, and legal rights, including the right to be married. Did any of the founding fathers of the GMHC ever imagine there would be a day where so many countries would recognize same-sex marriage, including many states in the US? Where gay characters, gay couples and their children, feature prominently on TV shows and movies and we no longer even take note of this, because these lives, as they should be, are no longer seen by most as abnormal or “other”? Did they even dare dream of such things at a time when most struggled to come out, and many were dying and no one even seemed to care?
We appreciate the great work of so many LGBT helplines who serve to help people who are struggling and feeling alone, offering hope to youth who are bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity, helping them find reasons for living when times are so hard that they feel they can’t go on. All the problems are not solved and our society still has a way to go before full equality is realized. But “The Normal Heart” serves as a reminder that times were once so dark and so scary, while now they are filled with the promise of hope and love and acceptance.