By John Gustav-Wrathall
I recently watched the HBO production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. It’s a powerful play about a pivotal moment – perhaps the pivotal moment – in the history of the gay community in America. The events portrayed in this play/film continue to have reverberations to this day.
The play brilliantly shows how the central problem in the early days of the AIDS epidemic (starting in 1981) was that large numbers of gay men were dying suddenly of a mysterious disease, and nobody cared. Nobody was willing to do anything about it. Even many gay men – at least initially – were in denial about AIDS. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when, shortly after the newly organized “Gay Men’s Health Crisis” opens its first office, a lesbian activist (played by Danielle Ferland) shows up at the front door. She says:
My name is Estelle, and my best friend Harvey died last night. We went everywhere together, you know? Like Broadway, and the Rockettes, and ice skating, and… He was a beautiful skater! I’m a klutz. But he didn’t care. We had so much fun! Damn it, I wanna do something. Even though all my lesbian friends say, What have you guys ever done for us? But I don’t care. This is for Harvey. Please! Tell me you can use me for something!
The truth is that large numbers of lesbians did show up and volunteer and did make a difference in fighting AIDS at a time when nobody else cared or was doing anything. And they did it because gay men were their friends and they loved them, and because they saw pain and suffering, and they couldn’t stand to do nothing.
For years, I have watched women in the Church struggling and in pain. I have watched my biological sisters. I have watched friends, my sisters in the Church. I have watched other extended family and friends, struggling and in pain. I have watched some dwindle under an overshadowing sense of their own unimportance and inferiority. Even those who have been in a good place and who have had a strong sense of self, I have witnessed wrestling with heartbreak, frustration or doubt. All have struggled to articulate their experiences in a culture that consistently tells women that speaking out is inappropriate.
And unlike Estelle’s friends in The Normal Heart, I can’t say, “What have they ever done for us?” I know what they’ve done. They’ve been there for me at every important juncture of my life and in my search for personal meaning. I’m thinking, for instance, of a sister in my ward who consistently reached out to me in the early days of my painful journey back to faith in the Church. Now she is struggling. I want to be there for her too.
I believe the pain and frustration I’ve observed is about finding meaning. It is about finding value. It is about obeying the second great commandment to love oneself as one loves others. (Somehow our culture does a good job of teaching women the latter, but really sucks at supporting them in doing the former.) I want to start by acknowledging that the pain is real. Real women are suffering. Real women are struggling and reaching out, and finding no one to take their hand.
I want to acknowledge that even though a lot of public discussion has been about psychological and spiritual impact of sexism, sexism in our culture (a culture in which members of the Church participate) also manifests itself in observable physical and social ways, that include rape, domestic violence, terroristic violence in public spaces, economic disadvantages, poverty, physical and mental health problems. The fact that so many little girls grow up believing they just don’t matter is part of a much, much larger problem in our society, a problem that casts its shadow in all of our homes and in our Church, not just in the streets, or in “other people’s” homes, in schools or in the work place.
As women in the Church have reached out lately, there has been a lot of public discussion about tactics. First, I believe it is important to acknowledge that criticizing someone’s tactics, while refusing to engage on substantive issues, is a tragic form of denial. The discussion of tactics is particularly complicated in discussions of priesthood because of how they may relate to LDS teaching about the priesthood itself (that priesthood is about submission to a higher will, and that it can only be conferred, not asked for or taken). Differences of perception in how certain tactics may or may not relate to fundamental understandings about the nature of priesthood makes this particular discussion that much more complicated. But this complexity cannot mean that we shouldn’t be there for each other, that we shouldn’t always come back to the root problem that has brought us to an impasse in the first place. We must not waver in our love or in our commitment to solve a problem, just because we don’t know how to solve it yet.
I want to be an ally. Actually, I want to be more than an ally. I want to be a brother. There’s another scene in The Normal Heart that I think beautifully portrays the complexities and challenges of being an ally and a brother. Ned Weeks, the main character (played by Mark Ruffalo), confronts his brother:
Ben, you mean more to me than anyone in the whole world. You always have. Ben, you’ve gotta say it…. I’m the same as you. Just say it! Say it!
Ned desperately yearns for his brother to tell him that he does not believe gay people are suffering from a form of mental illness, but his brother Ben is unable to do that. Finally, Ben (played by Alfred Molina) responds:
You have my love, my legal advice, my financial supervision. I can’t give you the courage to stand up to me and say you don’t give a flying f*** what I think!
There’s a lot going on in this scene. I like to think that at some point, Ben recognizes that he and his brother Ned are “the same.” But at this particular moment, even though he’s not sure, he understands something fundamental. He understands that Ned needs to find the courage to believe in himself no matter what anybody else thinks, and nobody can give him that courage.
I want my sisters to know, that in my mind, my heart, my soul, I know we are the same. I am no more nor less capable in any way that matters than you, and I have no more value as a human being or as a child of God than you do. And God forgive me, and may you forgive me, for the ways in which I have acted, out of ignorance or out of carelessness, to make you feel that you are somehow less than me. I want to be in this journey with you, somehow, though I’m not entirely sure of the way forward.
As an organization, Affirmation is bound by its charter and by-laws not to take positions as an organization on political matters or on doctrines of the Church. But we are committed to providing forums where people can tell their stories, and we encourage individuals to find their own answers to the difficult problems we face, and then to act and live according to their own best lights and their conscience. We must not be about telling individuals what is appropriate for them to say or not say, or telling them what tactics are appropriate to use or not use in their search for wholeness and love. We want to be a community, a family that expresses and lives unconditional love, and that empowers every member to live up to our fullest potential, both in and beyond the Church.
If the brothers, the men of Affirmation, don’t care enough about the needs and the pain of our sisters to take the time to listen, and if we aren’t willing to listen deeply enough to discern a way to make a difference, to make things better, we’ve failed.
Whatever I don’t know, that I do know.