A few weeks before the pandemic shutdowns cascaded across the United States, I spent seven hours sitting in a theater in midtown Manhattan watching The Inheritance.
No, that’s not a typo.
The Inheritance is a gut-punching two-part play, seven hours long in total, written by the brilliant Matthew Lopez. It revolves around a group of fictional, modern-day gay men, whose lives are indelibly, yet often invisibly, marked by the AIDS crisis. Their ignorance of history is a stand-in for our own, how all of us—queer and nonqueer—have largely forgotten that horrid past that shaped our present. The play reminds us of the underlying traumas—the lack of elders, the societal stigma that still affects our sex, our love, our longing—that course through our communities: the legacies of a virus that, because it is no longer deadly, we often forget how much it destroyed.
It was the perfect play to see at the dawn of the coronavirus.
In quarantine, I find my mind constantly slipping back to scenes from the play, not only the images of raucous dinner parties and other aspects of social life I desperately miss but to the lessons between the lines. That queer people know what it means to suffer a pandemic. And we know what it means to survive.
That’s why I laughed out loud when right-wing mega star Tomi Lahren tweeted in early May, “To the pro-eternal shutdown cheerleaders, when your favorite government pals start canceling pride parades, we better not hear a peep out of you!!!”
Never mind that pride events had already been canceled before Lahren’s tweet. The point is the broader ignorance about the history of queer pride—and in particular the struggle of a generation of LGBTQ activists: Not to fight against epidemiologists and public health, but rather to fight for and mobilize adequate government responses to scientific evidence and public health emergencies.
As former ACT-UP activist James Finn wrote in response to Lahren, “We LGBTQ people old enough to have survived the worst of the HIV pandemic . . . remember fighting for funding FOR science and FOR the US CDC. We remember listening TO the experts and working WITH them.”
Indeed, as Finn and others have pointed out, the nation’s leading public health figure during the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was also one of the most prominent government figures leading the response to the AIDS crisis a generation ago. Pushed by protesters demanding government action, Fauci eventually partnered with ACT-UP leaders and others to shape an aggressive public health response. But it was the queer community that led, in part sounding the alarm that AIDS wasn’t only a “gay cancer” but threatened everyone.
Another great playwright, William Shakespeare, once wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” While, as Lopez points out in his play, AIDS robbed those in the queer community of more than perhaps we’ll ever realize, it also forged us for this moment. We know how to mobilize to combat a virus. We know the role that each of us must play to keep others around us safe. We know the important role of competent, effective government leadership in protecting public health.
At this moment, we show our pride by staying home, staying safe, and protecting others.
This history is also our inheritance. And our pride. And this year, marching in the streets throwing glitter bombs isn’t how we show it. Nor is traveling to your favorite city in your country or around the globe to get your party on.
At this moment, we show our pride by staying home, staying safe, and protecting others. Unless, of course, you’re leaving your house to march in a Black Lives Matter demonstration, which is also taking a stand to protect lives. It’s fitting that racial justice protests have sparked during Pride Month; the LGBTQ movement owes a massive debt to the civil rights and Black Liberation movements that came before, the intersections of which are still the most radical and visionary parts of our movements today.
Yes, I’ll miss the floats and the tea dances and viewing parties of friends crowded together on streets and balconies celebrating, publicly, the full spectrum of our queerness. But even more, I would miss the friends and strangers, queer and nonqueer, whose lives would be threatened or ended if pride parades happened this year.
I feel proud of our community for tapping into the deep well of our history, mining that tragic wisdom, and fighting for our nation and our globe’s health. And reminding us all that, even after the ravaging darkness of disease, there will be bright days and celebrations ahead. With glitter.