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The Normal Heart and the Erasing of Women

The Normal Heart and the Erasing of Women

The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s critically acclaimed play that was adapted for television in a film produced by HBO, is a dramatic archive of feeling about the profound atrocities of the AIDS crisis experienced during the epidemic inception in the 1980s, when no one knew what was going on.

The HBO film is superb, absolutely stunning in its ability to capture the humanity behind the chaos, while at the same time understanding that humanity is not infallible or fearless. The fear of those living through the epidemic is only surpassed by the pathos: it was only since Stonewall in 1969 that gay people felt a community-wide pride about being gay, and the culture around the AIDS crisis made all gay people question this relatively new form of confident self-expression, which primarily manifested itself in an ethics of sex positivity. 

According to recent statistics released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, women account for 20% of HIV diagnoses, with a majority of that percentage being straight women and/or women of color. In 2010, 84% of women infected were done so by heterosexual sex, with over 60% of those women living with HIV being black.

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It is an egregious error to believe that HIV has only ever been a gay man’s disease. The “gay cancer,” as it was originally called, actually did not discriminate in terms of whom it infected — men or women, straight or gay. Earlier this year, there was even a recent report of a lesbian infecting her female partner in what the media called an “extremely rare case.”

Why are women erased from this history, particularly, in cinematic portrayals of the AIDS crisis?

In the Samuel French Acting Edition of The Normal Heart, lesbians are mentioned in one scene:

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This schism is portrayed in the HBO version, too. There is no mention of lesbians, save one scene, in which a woman enters the offices of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and cries about the loss of her best friend, a gay man named Harvey. She says that she wants to help the GMHC in any way possible, “even though,” she says to Jim Parsons’ character, Tommy Boatwright, “all my lesbians friends say ‘What have you guys done for us?'”

This is a spectacular inversion of resentment from the original playtext. Instead of gay men scoffing at the idea of lesbians being included in the movement (“I don’t believe in lesbians”), you have a woman who is only indirectly identified as a lesbian describing her lesbian friends’ disdain for gay men. The disdain is made exponentially worse by the fact of it being reactionary (“What have you guys done for us?”), as if lesbians are inherently heartless misandrists.

Julia Roberts’ character, Dr. Emma Brookner, essentially functions as the supporting stock character on behalf of all women who come to the aid of gay men when even gay men refused to accept the severity of the epidemic. In the HBO adaptation, there is also the mysterious, fictional figure of “Bella Boggs,” who does not appear in the film but whose card is removed from Tommy’s rolodex after she dies, signalling that women, too, are victims of HIV/AIDS.

In some ways the inclusion of Brookner and Boggs (well, at least the rolodex card with “Bella Boggs” typed on it) is the symbolic equivalent of a figure like Mayor Koch — there but not there. Integral but absent, and, more important, absent of their own accord, not because they have been narratively prescripted that way.

The difference is that women have been prescripted that way — women have been erased, and it’s not just evident in the recent adaptation of The Normal Heart. Most recently, this elision came in the portrayal of the HIV-positive trans female character played by a straight white man — Jared Leto — in Dallas Buyers Club, who won an Oscar for that role.

On the level of narrative and of the representation of history, perhaps there is no better example of this erasure of women than that found in the difference between two 2012 documentaries about the crisis: the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague and the lesser known United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. The titles alone illuminate the difference in scope. “How to survive a plague” means working from the inside; white, closeted-gay bond trader Peter Staley becomes the heroic protagonist once he contracts the virus, who is the change agent who works within government and the medical industry. “United in anger” means working from outside that privilege position; it means protesting in the streets, specifically through the organization ACT UP, as opposed to making deals behind closed doors.

It also means, significantly, that we as a people are united in anger, united in protest — working together. United across difference, understanding that HIV does not discriminate.

How to Survive a Plague casts a handful of gay white men as the epidemic’s saviors. As Sarah Schulman, a producer of United in Anger, suggests, How to Survive a Plague misrepresents the extent to which collation activism effected change because it depicts how “five white individuals did it all.”

Schulman, who, with her creative partner Jim Hubbard, established the ACT UP Oral History Project, is not exaggerating. As a lesbian born in 1980, watching films like How to Survive a Plague and The Normal Heart elicit sympathy from me, but not investment. It wasn’t until I watched United in Anger that I understood the extent to which men and women worked together to fight a seemingly invincible villain. Through footage showing how men and women of all races fought the epidemic, the film shows how it wasn’t only about women saving men, but also about men stepping up and fighting for the inclusion of women in the CDC’s definition of HIV/AIDS. “Count the women,” they chanted, “get to work!”

United in Anger, in other words, made me feel invested in all of gay history and showed me how, as a lesbian born at the beginning of the epidemic, how HIV/AIDS is a part of my history.

It is interesting to note that it’s only in cinematic portrayals of the crisis that women are overlooked. In protest literature as well as other forms of journalism, women not only have been roundly acknowledged by men but thanked by them as well. In the Winter 1987 issue of the lesbian magazine On Our Backs, the following advertisement was placed by the AIDS Project of the East Bay:


Photo Credit: Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture

The idea of the epidemic as afflicting only the gay white male community, too, seems specific to American culture. Take, for instance, this ad featured on Sydney television in 1987, which clearly states that the virus can infect anyone, young or old, gay or straight, male or female:

Underneath The Normal Heart is the message of universal humanity.

It would serve the film industry well to remember that humanity includes women.

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There is a reason that it was referred to as GRIDS. So many of my Gay male friends (I’m lesbian) were infected and it nearly wiped out 1/3rd. of the gay male population in SF. The 80’s were our hay-day. It was a different time then. It seemed so carefree and wonderful; at first. By the late 80’s it really took its toll on the gay community. The devastation to the community affected us all; gay and lesbian alike. Back in the day, we’d dance to Sylvester, go to ‘particular’ locations- designed for gay and lesbian people. We didn’t argue about marriage, republican or democrat, or any other divisive stuff. Barring the HIV, it was a dream really.

Michele Rogers

Bella Boggs was actually a man. Played by Adam Shapiro.


I don't understand your logic. Recent statistics have nothing to do with the film of The Normal Heart, save for the final title screen stating the current rate of infection. Yes, there have been many shifts in the statistics over the years, and those stories should be told. I would love for someone out there to write a play or movie about the struggles of the African American community in dealing with AIDS.

That said, The Normal Heart deals with the beginning of the epidemic when the statistics were very different. The truth of the matter is that when the virus first began claiming victims, the bulk of them were gay men and the bulk of the out and practicing gay community was white. To this day, I hear stories about how it is different and more challenging for African Americans to come out of the closet for fear of judgement, banishment, and punishment from their community. Therefore, you were not as likely to see them in the bars and sex clubs at the time. There may have been some, but not many.

Finally, I am actually somewhat appalled at your fabricated back story for the character of Bella Boggs. Had you done your research, you would have seen that Bella was in fact a MALE character who appeared in several scenes in the film (and played by New York Actor Adam B. Shapiro). I know that others have pointed out your error, but frankly, it bares repeating because it is a big error on your part. You made an assumption without checking the facts and then invented a false situation to support the point you were attempting to make. It's an insult to journalists and, frankly, an insult to Mr. Shapiro. I urge you in the future to look at the pieces for the stories they tell and not for the stories you wish they told. And do your research. That is all.


Well write a bloody play about the lesbian community's initial experience and growing participation in the early years of the AIDs crisis; or the experience of South African (SA) women in shanty towns after it first hit there when their spouses transmitted the virus upon return from mining camps where they widely used prostitutes, and the SA government refused to recognise the epidemic or provide any treatment. Don't write a boring women's studies article that goes into some obscure journal or magazine read by a few thousand fellow students and academics worldwide….

Bernard Sussman

THE NORMAL HEART is mostly about how the Gay (male) community shot itself in the foot by refusing to act sensibly when AIDS was first diagnosed. The men in the movie regard anything akin to self-restraint as (and this world was much used in the gay publications) "genocide". Even condoms got little support. And at the time, when there was no legal protection from homophobic discrimination, many of the most informed – and most influential – members of the gay community dummied up and stayed deep in the closet. But the movie distorted a bit of history: In a long-awaited meeting with some White House flunky, circa 1984, our hero is badgered that there is no evidence that women can get or transmit AIDS, that it exists only among gay men and nobody else …. In reality, by July 1982 the CDC had its first reports of a female AIDS case, and once that happened the additional cases came in hot and heavy. AIDS was "exclusively" gay men for only about a year or so of its publicized career, after that we have plenty of reports of women, of men getting it from women, of tainted transfusions and organ transplants, etc.
The NORMAL HEART exaggerates – but only a little – of the homophobic attitudes that allowed this epidemic to reach beyond the marginalized sexual minority and invade the larger heterosexual community.


You have to remember the history of the epidemic, particularly during the first few years. If you want to see a movie that will give decent documentation, watch "And the Band Played On" or read the book for even more information than the film will give. In addition, remember that The Normal Heart is a roman-a-clef of Larry Kramers life from 1981-1984, so current infection statistics are inaccurate for that time period. The earliest acknowledged cases were exclusively among gay males. The initial name for the disease was GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency before it was called AIDS. Reagan and his administration did little to help funding of research and wouldn't acknowledge or address AIDS was an issue until blood product recipients were getting the disease. As long as it was people that his administration wanted to keep low on the radar (homosexual, heterosexual IV drug abusers, haitian immigrants) they were content to let people die and let one subgroup take most of the rap for "causing" the disease, which we now know has been around far longer than 1980ish thanks to some preserved tissue samples of people dying of mystery conditions.

Don Friedman

Dear Ms. Bianco,
The character "Bella Boggs" wasn't a shadowy fictional character never seen. He was portrayed in several scenes by Adam B . Shapiro, and was most notable in the scene in which he says he has a little orgy in New Rochelle to get to after the first meeting with Julia Roberts character. An entertainment reporter should be able to Google as well as anyone else and shouldn't take for granted that a "minor" character was simply a name on a Rolodex card.


This whole article is strange and offensive. The movie was about gay men from a gay males perspective. And they did awknowledge that many lesibans volunteered. Hence that scene where they said "thank god for lesbians". I don't think all movies have to cover all perspectives.

But I will say it would be nice to hear a story about women and HIV/AIDS. Particularly black women since the infetion rate is so high. People are really stuck in this only gay men get it.


There were no women because it was the early years when it was just beginning so it was all about the bath houses and anal sex. In other words, "squirters" as it's put in "and the band played on". As the crisis worsened, the lesbian community stepped up and cared for the gays because no one else would. That was a backhanded slap at lesbians with the one lesbian offering to help and then they threw in the "what have gays done for us" just to be mean I guess. And besides, it's HBO, there aren't going to be any women unless they're naked and no blacks unless they are selling drugs.


People should go onto Netflix and request "United In Anger" in the pop-up customer service section. It needs to be widely available.
I am a heterosexual woman and was a member of Act-Up in the late 80's through mid 90's. "How to Survive a Plague" featured Garance Franke-Ruta prominently, at least. (I caught a glimpse of myself in the footage of that film a few times) Also, "How to survive a plague" shows actual meeting footage and in those shots you can see lots of women, but it is true that only white males are focused upon.


Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart after years of battling with his own community. If you read his collection of essays, Reports from the Holocaust, you get a front seat ticket to the twin slow-motion train wrecks that were his emotional state and the state of the community he loved. The Normal Heart was never meant to be an objective look at what happened in New York City: It was an outpouring of his personal sorrows, which – naturally – prioritized the sense of betrayal he felt when he was abandoned by the institutions he trusted in and by those closest to him. Asking where the women are is completely missing the point because women weren't the ones who broke him.


I feel like whoever wrote this is really confused about their timeline. She keeps comparing things from the late 80s to the movie events set in the very early 80s. Anyone that knows anything about the HIV/AIDS crisis should know that there is a world of difference in those few years. Knowledge about the cause, spread and prevention of the virus changed the perception of it. Not to mention the fact that by the later 80s we learned that it wasnt just the 4-H people getting it (Homosexuals, Haitians, Heroin addicts and Hemophiliacs) and that anyone could get it- this of course gave the cause more sympathy and the research more urgency. Women were not excluded from the movie because of some gay mans sexism or something. They were excluded because they werent on the radar for the disease during the time period that the movie depicts.


Excuse me Ms. Bianco, PhD., were you even old enough in the 1980's to understand the impact of the AIDS crisis? Were you coming of age and wondering if the person you are could kill you in the near future? The constant imagery of young men dying, huge protests, misinformation and ignorance? I doubt it since you display the same ignorance and with such demagoguery.
I do not care about your politics,what bleeding heart you place on your sleeve or your college degree. However, I give great exception to your misleading and uneducated remarks. The 80's gave birth to new conservatism and fundamentalism. Jerry Farwell and the Moral Majority spreading hateful, misguided fear. An economy that was falling into recession. Do you remember these? I didn't think so.
Nowa middle aged gay male in the South, I experienced all of these first hand. I was an active member of Act Up, Queer Nation and HRC. I was an in-your-face fag who was angry. I watched 19 personal friends destroyed by this disease. And I had to educate a very Southern Christian family on how to properly care for my cousin who had contracted HIV and was dying.
Do you want to find someone to blame? You are pointing your subjective finger in the wrong direction. You have spent too much time and energy being divisive to even open your eyes to the facts of the 1980's AIDS crisis. You should instead a write about all the wonderful Women, straight and lesbian, who were there to show compassion and bring understanding to this dreadful period .
I am angry. I am furious that you with your agenda, decided to place issue where there is none. AIDS in the 1980's was a gay man's disease. There were the odd cases of women contracting the disease, and most were heterosexual females whose male partner was closeted. I remember the loving response of the Lesbian community. Make no mistake, this was a male homosexual disease in the United States and was treated as such by misguided morals. The impact of this crisis bred ignorance and fear. You, Ms. Bianco are still encouraging this with your misinformed article.

People all over this planet are still dying of AIDS. It is no longer just a gay man's disease. The lack of response to this crisis in the beginning is why we are here now. The memory of that time period and the lives lost. The pain and fear from friends, family, leaders and lovers. You are smudging the memories of those we lost and the countless millions of lives taken by this crisis with your useless and ill informed banter. You would rather complain about the lack of one gender over another in a movie about gay men then look at the merits of this film. I am ashamed that the human race has evolved people like you.

Good day.


Lesbians do get a few mentions at different points such as when the group of social workers offer up their services. Admittedly, there aren't a lot of women in The Normal Heart, but given that it was written in 1985 by a gay man to reflect his semi-autobiographical story, it is quite possible that it lacked women in reality. Additionally, in other media, I've seen mention made to the fact that early HIV/AIDS (in the early-GRID days), it was not necessarily recognized as the same illness in women since KS lesions were such a larger indicator of infection back then and women generally experience cervical cancer as opposed to KS. It didn't diminish the story for me that it was predominantly male and white since it's reflecting an organization that from 1981-1985 was predominantly male and white. It wasn't capturing the entire HIV/AIDS experience and the cast (both on stage and in the film) is very, very small.


Just bear in mind that this "writer," Ms. Bianco, was an INFANT in 1981. Her perception of what we (gay men) experienced is only informed by academia, not personal experience or loss. She is not an authority.


Where, indeed, were all the women? Well, as I gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis I can tell you that a good number of mothers and sisters abandoned their gay sons and brothers, who ended up being nursed and buried by friends and good samaritans. Quite a few female nurses refused to tend to them as well. Yes, there were a number of lesbians who stood by their gay brothers and manned the barricades. But, frankly, I'd say their representation in The Normal Heart was close to proportional. I hope this helps.


I wonder if Ms. Bianco was present during the onset of AIDS. Women were not mentioned to any degree since this disease was seen, in America, as a Gay Mans disease exclusively. It took the CDC over 5 years after establishing vague criteria to identify Symptoms of AIDS in men, for the CDC to establish even more vague criteria for women. The Normal Heart was authored prior to 1985, when societal and medical views of this disease was primarily directed towards men. Your criticism may be founded, on the surface, but lacks any real potency since this movie must be seen in the context of the age and time and cultural mileau portrayed.


This quote from the author says it all "…watching films like How to Survive a Plague and The Normal Heart elicit sympathy from me, but not investment."
Which is exactly the reason the virus was able to spread for as long as it did without any help or cooperation from the government, the health department, the mayor, etc.. If it doesn't directly involve your own struggle, why get involved?

TR Salvadori

I'm guessing the author was not present during the early years of AIDS in America. As I watched my partner die in 1985 along with the vast majority of our friends; as GRID became AIDS; those personally affected began the first groups trying to help, at least in and around Philadelphia. They happened to be 99% white and 99% male. When asking for volunteers at a lesbian bar, I got many responses similar to "what have you done for me" to "you're a man, get out". I would get a few volunteers but very few. We were fighting to not be evicted from our homes, not lose our jobs, not run out of health insurance, not be removed from our lover's lives by their angry, grieving families, and to help those who lost those battles – and while later on thousands of women would join the fight (God bless all of them!), in the early to mid 80's there just weren't that many. I lived it, I witnessed it, I will never forget it.


The, "Lesbian Feminist" in your Bio says it all.


One more thing.
That 1987 ad is absurd and shouldn't be held up as an example of good HIV communication.
It says HIV may soon kill more Australians than World War II. I checked the numbers. About 27,000 Australians died in WWII. HIV has killed about 7,000 as of 2014.
The one statistic presented was fiction.
It began by paraphrasing "First they came for the Jews…"
What an awful, awful, PSA.
The writer wanted "The Normal Heart" to stoop so low.


From the mid-80's through the early 90's we kept hearing statistically wrong rhetoric about HIV being an equal-opportunity disease.

Actually gay males have been disproportionately impacted from the start of the epidemic through the present day and into the foreseeable future.

The general population of women has been impacted less than men. White women less than black women, and lesbians least of all, by far.

No drama is obligated to represent anything with exact proportionality. Nor is any drama obligated to echo the incorrect rhetoric from 25 years ago.


I'm writing to encourage everyone to see We Were Here, a moving and ultimately uplifting documentary about the SF response to the early AIDS crisis. Using archival video and photographs as well as present-day interviews with five of the early responders, it beautifully portrays the epidemic and the heroic response of many men and women to it. I can only hope that some of the animosity shown on this page is due to our ongoing, unresolved anger and unprocessed grief over our shared losses. A new movement is growing to help people in our communities share our stories and our healing, a movement for both HIV-poz and HIV-uninfected who lived through the Dying Times. Here in the SF Bay Area, it is called Let's Kick ASS for AIDS Survivor Syndrome.


The whole article misses the point, this is a fictional play based on a certain point in history written by a gay man and from his perspective. You may find it incomplete but it's his story to tell. I find this piece dismissive and missing the point entirely. This is was a seminal play, one of the first to deal with the AIDS crisis. You are being a historical revisionist, viewing the work through the perspective of 2014. If you want a play/movie about the woman who helped in the early days of the AIDS crisis then write it and tell the story yourself, this was a story about gay men written a gay man, not very piece has to be inclusive and tell every story. I hope you get my point.

Linda Grant

OK, so the blog writer is angry and saying that the representation of women in the film is poor-to-non-existent, and some of the guys answering this post are angry because in the 80's it really was almost entirely gay men (of all ethnicities for sure) and some low-profile IV drug users who were dropping like flies, the virus didn't discriminate but it wasn't 'evenly distributed' either. So here's my two-pen-orth. I'm a lesbian and I spent over twenty years running an HIV Charity in the UK. I spent a month in San Francisco in the 80's with my best friend and co-worker, a gay man (who died exactly twenty years ago tomorrow. And I'm still grieving, by-the-by). We visited every HIV organisation in the city and met dozens of gay men who were ripping whole sections out of their address books – all the A's had died, all the S's had died…yes, the gay male communities were indeed decimated. Both in California, and in the UK, an unusually high percentage of lesbians did become involved – right from the very beginning – in running HIV organisations, in volunteering, in buddying, in pet-sitting, in fundraising, running foodbanks, giving blood, and on the front lines of political activism, holding those banners, shouting for political recognition, for accurate information, for safer sex education, for equal rights, for drug development. I haven't seen the film, but if there really are no lesbians shown as 'involved' then that's quite a significant failing in more ways than one. I did see the stage play at the time however. I saw it with my then best friend (yeah, Warren, who died 29 May 1994). Even now it brings tears to my eyes when I remember us hearing the line "it keeps getting bigger and it won't go away". So, for my part, I'd like us to work together a bit more and show some respect for each other's hurt. It won't help any of us if we just yell at each other about feeling invisible, or erased.

Chris Danen

The author has made a huge error. She says "there is also the mysterious, fictional figure of Bella Boggs, who does not appear in the film but whose card is removed from Tommy's rolodex after she dies, signalling that women, too, are victims of HIV/AIDS. Bella is portrayed by Adam Shapiro, the bearded, heavier chap who is seen helping Taylor Kitsch moving furniture into their offices. I wonder what else she f^^ked up?


So you couldn't "invest" in The Normal Heart or How to Survive a Plague because you didn't see people like you represented on screen? That is a failure–and not a failure of the movies. How to Survive a Plague in particular is a remarkably accurate representation of the politics and activism of the time that doesn't begin to suggest that "five white individuals did it all." That is glib point-scoring masquerading as criticism, and does a disservice to the serious discussion of gender in movies and Hollywood.


Roberts'character mentions women in Africa being infected.


You can't use 2010 infection rate data to justify women's inclusion in a play set in 1981. Track down the infection rates and deaths of women in the early years compared to gay white men. It's practically a fraction of a percent. Would you prefer tokenism or historical accuracy?

Also Bella Boggs was the male character with the dark hair and beard, played by Adam Shapiro.


Well, if we're going to play this game, then there should be more cinematic portrayals featuring black men struggling with the disease, since black men are more affected than white men. Where's the outrage over that?

The author made some good points. And yes, perhaps The Normal Heart is not the right place to put them in. But there are a lot of movies on AIDS which neglect lesbians and minorities. To reduce questioning that to fake outrage is insulting in itself.

Also a woman again

Also nice job downplaying Staley's impact. Yeah, he was just a white guy (you forgot to write the obligatory "cis" as well though), that's the only reason he was featured in How To Survive A Plague. Nothing to do with him being one of the most tireless and dedicated AIDS activists of the time.

Also a woman

Wow. What an unbelievable ego this writer has. I almost cannot believe this article. Is it a parody?

I agree with the other poster, this is insulting.


The Vagina Monologues needs men!

For Colored Girls needs Inuits!

JFC, shut up with the dimwitted, manufactured PC outrage every time I piece of work fails to include EVERY gender, ethnic, racial, religious group and sexual orientation.




In the documentary "We Were Here", about SF in the early AIDS years, one of the narrators (gay, male, health activist) recalls walking by a poster from a lesbian organization calling for blood donations "for our boys" — and speaks very movingly about its impact on him, this gesture of solidarity in the middle of all the grief. You can have the drama and be historically complete at the same time.


Seriously? You're bitching about the lack of representation of women in a period piece about a disease that DECIMATED the gay male community? Really? Your faux outrage is not only ridiculous, but it's insulting.

I guess the next time I see any kind of program, drama, or documentary regarding breast cancer I should be outraged and blog about how they didn't include any men. Cause, y'know, men get breast cancer too and are never represented. I mean, they account for 1% of all breast cancer cases, so by your logic they're being "erased" every time no one mentions how it affects men, and the struggle of men with the disease.

You should apply for a position at Jezebel. I think you'd fit right in over there.

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