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The Normal Heart and the resilience of the AIDS generation

By Perry N. Halkitis


On 25 May 2014 and nearly 30 years after first appearing on the stage, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart will be aired as a film on HBO. This project, which has evolved over the course of the last three decades, documents those first few harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. The Normal Heart debuts at a time when much attention is being cast upon the early days of AIDS and the lives of gay men, who survived the physical and emotional onslaught of this disease in a society that often shunned us because we were gay and because we were afflicted with this disease.

Now a generation of gay men, my generation—the AIDS Generation—stands proudly as testament to our individual and collective resilience which has brought us all into middle age. Certainly there have been huge hurdles along the way—too many deaths to enumerate, the havoc that the complications of this disease wreaked on our bodies, the lack of support. Even today, darkness and disrespect lurks in every corner, and no one is immune. For some in our society, identifying what is wrong with us as gay men comes to easily. We are reminded of it daily as right wing zealots fight against marriage equality, as young boys take their lives. Despite these conditions, despite the inaction of our national and local politicians, and despite a large yet ever-shrinking segment of our society that continues to view us as weak and sick, we stand together as a testament to the fortitude of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

The theme of resistance or resilience permeates the words, the thoughts, and the actions of the protagonists in The Normal Heart and many depictions of the AIDS epidemic.

Taylor Kitsch as GMHC President President Burce Niles in HBO's The Normal Heart. (c) HBO via thenormalheart.hbo.com

Taylor Kitsch as GMHC President President Burce Niles in HBO’s The Normal Heart. (c) HBO via thenormalheart.hbo.com

Behavioral and psychological literature has attempted to delineate sources of resilience. Dr. Gail Wagnild posits that social supports in the form of families and communities foster resilience in individuals. I also adhere to this idea. Although the sources of resilience are still debated in the literature, there is general agreement that resilience is a means of maintaining or regaining mental health in response to adversity the ability to respond to and/or cope with stressful situations such as trauma, conditions that characterize the life of the men of the AIDS Generation.

For many of the men of the AIDs Generation, grappling with their sexuality was closely tied to the development of their resilience. In other words, resilience developed in their childhoods as young men grappling with their sexuality as stated by Christopher: “I also think that wrestling with my own sexuality and trying to navigate through that in my teenage years taught me how to just ‘keep pushing’ and to do what needed to be done.” Some, including myself, found support among our families. Even if parents were loving and supportive, this did not ameliorate the burdens experienced being raised in a heteronormative and often-discriminatory world in which men were portrayed as weak, effeminate, and sickly.

As we watch The Normal Heart, we will be reminded of those dark, confusing early days of the epidemic. And while we must celebrate the resilience of a generation of gay men to fight this disease, we must also be reminded of our obligation to create a better world for a new generation of gay men, who despite our social and medical advances, need the love and support of their community of elders as the navigate the course of their lives.

Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH is Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Health (Steinhardt School), and Population Health (Langone School of Medicine), Director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies, and Associate Dean (Global Institute of Public Health) at New York University. Dr. Halkitis’ program of research examines the intersection between the HIV epidemic, drug abuse, and mental health burden in LGBT populations, and he is well known as one of the nation’s leading experts on substance use and HIV behavioral research. He is the author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. Follow him on Twitter @DrPNHalkitis.

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