Part of the human condition

April 07, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

AT THE conclusion of the incomparable "Angels in America," a dying man named Prior Walter has the last word. Prior has seen ghosts and angels, love and betrayal, lesions blooming on his body and the deaths of many friends.

But in the end, as he speaks of AIDS, America and the human condition, some of the things that this monumental play is about, he has a kind of peace so profound that you must genuflect before its grandeur, greater than any seraphim.

"This disease will be the end of many of us," he says, "but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come."

The time has come. You can feel it, in a hundred little ways year after year. It is so certain and inevitable, that the next century will be a time in which it is not simply safe, but commonplace, to be openly gay.

The countervailing forces continue to be at work. Ikea garners a great deal of publicity by airing a commercial in which two men buy a table together. Tom Hanks wins an Oscar for playing a gay man and pays public tribute to his high school drama teacher, the genuine article.

But the bishop of Brooklyn uses the bully pulpit of his position, this Easter, to reiterate his belief that homosexuality is intrinsically evil. And in the mail come two letters, one from a gay college student who was beaten up at a bar and another from a gay couple who say they are being harassed by neighbors.

It's repulsive to have to note that a group of protesters, taking the Lord's name in vain, held up signs outside the memorial service for the writer Randy Shilts reading "God Hates Fags." It's wonderful to report that there were fewer than a dozen of them, and that they got lost fast.

"Would you say you are a typical homosexual?" a Mormon mother asks Prior Walter. "Me?" he croons. "Oh, I'm stereotypical." The mother asks because she has just discovered her married son is gay.

Wives, mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, friends: the line between stereotype and reality, gay and straight in daily life is as thin as a whisper.

Next month the novelist Robb Forman Dew will publish a book entitled "The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out."

In many ways it will be a familiar story to the parents of gay children. Ms. Dew goes over and over the questions she asked, the ones she didn't, the fears and pain she feels and feels ashamed of feeling.

Who can blame her when she blurts out: "But Steve, what about Jessica? You remember? In the seventh grade? Or Amy? You took Amy to her prom." American dreams die hard.

But in the end Robb Dew knows she has what she has always had: two good and bright and wonderful sons, one straight, the other not. "Whenever it's necessary to engage in deception in order to keep a secret," she writes, "it's a good bet that you are indulging in a bit of concealment that is damaging to the soul."

Anyhow, why should Steve deceive? "I'd like there to be a person I love who loves me," he tells his parents. Amen from any mother, every mother.

There are too many mothers and mother's sons for hatred to prevail. When Steve reads Sam Nunn's arguments against gays in the military in the paper and tells his mother, "I feel it's wrong to exist," she has precisely the reaction that any good mother would and should have: She is enraged.

And that rage, and the love that goes with it, are why things will change, have changed. As much as laws, it's love that does it.

You feel the truth of that every day, as the ice of concealment and fear continues to crack and melt.

"Angels in America" is about many, many things, from religion and politics to death and forgiveness. The most lovable character has AIDS, and so does the most detestable one, but it is no more a work of art about AIDS than "Anna Karenina" is a book about a train accident.

It is a brilliant, brilliant play about love and the human condition at a time when our understanding of what it means to be human and loving has, thankfully, expanded. The world only spins forward. The time has come.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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