I’ve always loved history. It started with memorizing the presidents when I was 8. My elementary school was named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and I asked my mom who they were.
“Why don’t you look it up,” she said.
So I did.
This was in the early 1970s, smack dab in the middle of the Watergate years, when you found your history not on Google or Wikipedia, but via the encyclopedias that were on the shelf in my parents’ house. My father was ill, and I found the encyclopedias just as fascinating as the sitcoms that were on perpetual reruns in our living room.
I’m sure my parents had to be a little relieved, given I was taking an interest in history at a time when our nation’s faith in institutions was crumbling. It’s a faith that has continued to steadily erode as we’ve become more and more polarized amid promises of not leaving children behind, of restoring dreams, of rebuilding trust.
Over the past few months, as the kids move closer to leaving the nest and as the challenges of my finding a new career remain relentlessly daunting, I’ve become increasingly aware that 50 looms. And I’ve started looking at history through another lens — the last almost half century that has been my life.
This spring, my older son, Nicholas, was asked to assist with the set design for Elon University’s production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” I had seen the production in Texas in the mid 1990s, and the subsequent miniseries on HBO.
“Angels,” like “The Normal Heart,” is set in the early days of the AIDS crisis. The latter, written by Larry Kramer and revived for a Tony Award-winning Broadway production in 2011, is an urgent call to action. “Angels” has the same impact, although the style is less documentary and more allegorical.
Watching “Angels,” which is set in 1985, and the Elon actors performing it, I was transported back to that era. As I told Nicholas, I was around the age of the actors — 20 — when the play took place, and I was reminded of how much had transpired in a single generation.
I remembered the fear and lack of understanding about AIDS and HIV, how it was first dubbed a gay cancer and the gay plague. I remembered when Rock Hudson, an actor my father greatly admired, announced on his deathbed that he had AIDS. And I remembered how uncomfortable I felt when our president — Ronald Reagan, who most in my family voted for — refused to officially acknowledge AIDS as a public health concern until two years later.
I remembered the absolute lack of understanding or compassion many people of my and previous generations had, especially living in the South. I remembered seeing people waste away in the arts district in Houston, where I lived in my early 20s. I remembered the controversy over Ryan White, the child who contracted HIV and later died of AIDS from a blood transfusion.
I remembered how, living in North Carolina several years after White’s death, it was difficult to get my former boss to support me in writing a story about a high school student who died of AIDS after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion.
That child, Brian Hare, was part of the first drug trials for AZT. When he died at age 18, he weighed just 45 pounds.
The other night, my daughter Kate and I watched “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s film about the last day of school in a Texas town in 1976. The ensemble movie, which launched what seemed to be 1,000 acting careers, is not awash in nostalgia for the era. The title fits; these kids are truly dazed and confused. Some want to grow up while others don't, but their afraid either way.
I was struck by our different reactions to the movie’s candid depiction of hazing, which is considered abhorrent today but was part of the norm in many similar towns back then. Mine was somewhat muted, even as it brought back memories of being bullied as a kid. Kate could not bear to watch.
“I can’t believe they did that to each other,” she said. “Why?”
I tried to explain that it was a combination of misguided tradition (“They did it to me so I’m doing it to you”), adults conveniently looking the other way, and the acceptance of misogyny in a small-town environment. I thought back to my own childhood, to the bullies on the football field with limited tolerance for someone who wasn’t very talented, but wanted to be accepted.
Given the snail’s pace at which change occurs, especially in the political arena, the move toward public acceptance of gay rights and same sex marriage over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable.
It’s also long overdue.
This month marked the 10th anniversary since same-sex marriage was first legalized in Massachusetts, but the movement has taken off since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that part of the reprehensible Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Since, President Obama and many other elected leaders have said they support marriage equality, and polls show the same is true among a majority of Americans.
Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in the NBA this year, and the St. Louis Rams made history when they drafted Michael Sam, who had come out to his University of Missouri teammates last summer and to the world before the NFL draft. Ironically, Sam grew up in Hitchcock, a small town only a few miles from my hometown of Texas City.
Covering Hitchcock for the local newspaper several years before Michael was even born, I knew of the Sam family. They were, in Michael’s words, “very notorious in the town that we lived in. Everyone would say, ‘There goes those damn Sams.’” Three of Sams’ seven siblings are dead; two are in jail.
Sam was fortunate. He found an extended family, thanks to a supportive football coach and a local banker who took him in and treated him as “just another son.” He channeled his anger and confusion and put it into football, graduating as an All-American after coming out to his team. Now, as he tries to make history, he has another supportive coach and team behind him.
That these developments, albeit in the form of baby steps, are taking place in the professional sports world is a welcome surprise. But they also show times are finally changing.
Gay couples now can marry in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and lawsuits have been filed in 30 others; only North Dakota has a same-sex marriage ban that has not been challenged.
My children are part of a generation that is far more tolerant and accepting than mine was in many, many ways. They are the ones asking “why?” and not accepting the pat, go-to answers.
Yes, we have bullies who take privilege in power. Yes, we have great economic disparity that continues to this day. And yes, racism is still out there, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education — another momentous event in history that marks an anniversary this month.
But thanks to this generation of teens, and the ones surely to follow them, many have stopped asking why and are starting to take action.
The best gift my parents gave me can be summed up in a few words: “We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.” My dad said that to me years ago, and it has stuck with me as a son and as a parent.
Another gift came from my second family, the couple I grew up across the street from in Texas City. They informally adopted my sister and me, later calling our children their grandchildren. They opened their doors to one and all each Thanksgiving, welcoming co-workers and friends who did not have anywhere to go.
Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday, for just that reason.
This week, as the film version of “The Normal Heart” premieres with an all-star cast on HBO, another show is being performed eight times a week in New York. It is a remarkable new play by Terrence McNally called “Mothers and Sons.”
The four-character, single act play tells the story of Katharine Gerard (a wonderful Tyne Daly), who lost her son, Andre, to AIDS 20 years before. Still angry and bitter about his death and his lifestyle, she arrives on the doorstep of her son’s lover, Cal, who is now married to Will, a man 15 years his junior. The couple has a 6-year-old son.
The play, which is the first on Broadway to depict a married gay couple, is part history lesson, part eulogy to the era so vividly depicted in “Angels” and “The Normal Heart.” It is a wonderful piece of work from McNally, who has long written about gay issues, and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.
Both believe that the crisis they went through a generation ago should not be forgotten. They believe so strongly in the show and its subject matter that they have made all tickets $30 for audience members under 30 — a steal in New York.
“First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote,” Will says to Katharine toward the end of the show. “People will shake their heads and say, ‘What a terrible thing, how sad.’ It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”
I saw “Mothers and Sons” with my friends Bernadette and Ginno, who was Ben’s guardian on the “Billy Elliot” tour and is part of our extended family. Ginno, who is gay and in his mid 20s, is part of the generation that does not equate AIDS with a death sentence. And as he gets older, he becomes more interested in what helped bring him to this place in life.
Over the past three years, we have talked frequently about the challenges we face — mine as a husband and father and his as a single man. We even shared a Thanksgiving dinner together in our (still missed) apartment in New York, complete with my entire family and friends who didn’t have anywhere else to go that year.
That’s a piece of my history that bears repeating.