A Long-Term HIV Survivor on the Premier of The Normal Heart

Nancy and Jimmy at <i>The Normal Heart</i>
Nancy and Jimmy at The Normal Heart.

On Monday, May 12, I had the honor of attending the premier screening of The Normal Heart as the guest of my sister Nancy. It was a star-studded event held at the Ziegfeld Theater in NYC.

The last movie I saw at the Ziegfeld was Longtime Companion in 1990. After that screening, I got completely drunk and told my best friend Alan my deep dark secret: I was HIV+. We both cried and cried and drank some more, because that's how I handled the crisis that was decimating the gay community in NYC.

Twenty-four years later, I'm 22 years sober. And unlike most of my gay friends from the '80s and '90s, I'm still alive and healthy and well aware of how truly blessed I am!

First, I have to set the scene at the Ziegfeld Monday night. We had the most amazing seats -- in the same row as Julia Roberts (who was by far the most stunning woman there) and her super-hot husband Danny Moder. Behind us sat Kelly Ripa and her handsome husband Mark, as well as adorable Andy Cohen. Brad and Angelina had seats down front, but the real star of the show was Larry Kramer. He deserved every moment of the standing ovation he got, for it was his play and his life that was about to unfold on the big screen.

The movie opened at a scene in The Pines that was so authentic, I was transformed back to 1981 and those wild and carefree times. I had moved to NYC with my boyfriend Frank in 1981. Although most of our weekends were spent in the Hamptons, we always spent one week in The Pines with the owners and staff of the Club Pierre (a restaurant we both worked in on weekends), most of whom were gay and almost all of whom have since died of AIDS. (I mentioned Pierre and his partner Jay in my last blog, as well as my belief that my hospital visit in early 1981 with shigella was probably because I was already infected.)

The next scene took us to NYC, exactly as it was back in the '80s: filthy streets, graffiti everywhere, subways with lights that flickered on and off and shook like mad. The scenes in St. Vincent's Hospital brought me to tears as I recalled one of my many visits to a dying friend; I can't even remember which friend, but I vividly recall going into the bathroom and washing my hands over and over and looking at myself in the mirror and praying, "Please don't let me get this, please, God, please!"

<i>The Normal Heart</i> tickets
The Normal Heart tickets

But unlike Larry Kramer, I chose to ignore what was happening to gay men in NYC in the '80s. My willful disregard for myself and my community ended in 1987, when I finally relented and allowed my boyfriend Jeff to talk me into getting tested for Valentine's Day. After my positive test result, I did nothing but drink and drug until I got sober in 1992.

As I watched Ned Weeks, the character based on Larry Kramer and brilliantly played by Mark Ruffalo, I'm both racked with guilt at how little I did and in awe of how much he did. His crusade in the fight against AIDS was tireless, relentless and fierce, as was the doctor played by Julia Roberts in one of her finest performances. Julia plays Emma Brookner, a doctor confined to a wheelchair because of polio. ("A virus that almost nobody gets any more," she says.)

I also couldn't help but recall the date I had with Larry Kramer on September 8, 1991. I didn't keep a diary back then, I only know the date because I looked up the day Brad Davis died. Labor Day weekend of 1991, I was out in the Hamptons and went to the gay disco, The Swamp. Larry Kramer was there that night and through mutual friends contacted me at work the next week to ask me to dinner. I thought, "Well, he's not my type but he is Larry Kramer." I don't remember the restaurant he took me to in the Village but I do recall going back to his house where he gave me a signed copy of his book Faggots. I was thinking of a reason to leave when his phone rang. It was Brad Davis's wife, calling to tell Larry that Brad had died of AIDS. Brad had starred as Ned Weeks in the 1985 Public Theater production of The Normal Heart. Sadly, it gave me my opportunity to leave and go out to drink some more!

Happily, the after party at The Four Seasons not only gave me the opportunity to remind Larry of our date, but also to tell him that he is one of my heroes and to thank him personally for keeping me alive. The movie ends with Larry getting kicked off the board of GMHC; it doesn't cover the next chapter of his fight against AIDS when he started ACT UP. Because of the work he did, I am alive today to tell my story in The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. And to live long enough to see this important time in history come to life in this movie and in the Broadway play Mothers and Sons. It seems there is a long overdue resurgence of the attention this period deserves.

Jimmy with brothers Billy and Tom, Tom's wife Tara, my husband Brian and my first boyfriend Frank, with Marcus in the foreground.
Jimmy with brothers Billy and Tom, Tom's wife Tara, his husband Brian and first boyfriend Frank, with Marcus in the foreground.

This week, I watched the media cover the opening of the 9/11 Memorial to commemorate the 2,752 lives lost on that awful day and I can't help but wonder where is the memorial to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to AIDS in New York City alone? Maybe when Larry Kramer finally loses his most important battle there will be an NYC memorial honoring him? In the meantime, we have this "must-see" movie that honors this largely unsung hero. So, thank you Larry Kramer for fighting the fight I was unable to fight and for keeping me alive so that I could one day marry another long-term survivor, my husband Brian Mott.

The Normal Heart premiers on HBO on Sunday. May 25, 2014.

From Jimmy: This blog is dedicated to my best friend Mark Weins, a.k.a. Marcus. He died in a car accident on Wednesday, May 22, in Florida, and was the last remaining HIV+ friend of mine from the '80s. We met in 1976 and since then we spoke nearly every day. Marcus and I went to see The Normal Heart together back in 1985 so he was the first person I called when I found out I was going. I spoke of him in my blog about losing my "gay family." His partner, Eric, 12-stepped me just before dying of AIDS in Sept. 1992.