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The password is "gay".

Angels in America has made me a very suspicious person. I walk along the street now and suspect that every third person I see is Meryl Streep. Made-up, camouflaged, accented, she was all over the six glorious hours of Tony Kushner's once-subtitled "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" that HBO televised throughout the holidays. I wonder how many people tuned in thinking this was going to be a warm, uplifting family drama about how the angels canto to save Christmas for some poor coal-mining family. And suddenly they were in the world of Roy Cohn, a good ol' scrooge if ever there was one.

What's the matter with me? HBO audiences know better, even if they actually believe those girls on Sex and the City are real women and not the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The "Gay Fantasia" subtitle, which Angels in America employed during its Tony-winning Broadway run, disappeared from HBO's version, along with some other characters that Meryl will no doubt pick up along the way. What didn't disappear was the pitiless light shone on the period when AIDS first struck the national consciousness, back when the uncomprehending and unforgiving Reagans were in the White House.

I suspect (there I go again) that the gritty look back at those desperate and panicky times was too much for a lot of viewers who did know what they were tuning in to. The precipitous drop in ratings from part I to part 2 would seem to confirm that. For a lot of people, the onset of the plague is a period they don't care to revisit. For a generation that is too young to remember, it seems severely removed from the world they live in today, where presidential candidates seriously debate whether two guys can get married.

The play's exquisitely rendered philosophizing about what America means to mankind as the millennium approaches sounds oddly dated to younger people living on the post-9/11 planet, people for whom AIDS has become not just a manageable disease but the foundation for a structure of gay activism that has become all about launching themselves into the mainstream of American politics and culture.

To hear all that positive talk about what the plague means and what the future holds is almost retro. So much has happened to us since.

The disconnect between those of us who were witness to old-school gay society and those who have come to maturity in an age of pride is one of the many subjects of the you-can't-dam-this-stream-of-consciousness prose of James McCourt in his lavishly enjoyable book Queer Street. There's a lot of windy but pretty chuff to get through before you get his rhythm, but once gotten, it's fairly addictive. McCourt is in mourning for old-school gay society, which was predicated on the big "I'm gay" secret that each gay person shared and revealed only to another gay person at great peril.

The common experiences practiced in secret were, besides sex, bar life, cruising, camp, drag, and so forth. The common experiences practiced in public were opera, musical comedy, certain highly theatrical performers, and fashion and style.

Everything was coded, and everything was divine as long as everyone was comfortable living with the secret, which many were, because it was a fabulous secret. It was like being one of the witches in Rosemary's Baby, except younger and better-looking. AIDS, more than the old gay lib movement, changed everything and galvanized a community into getting help for itself by becoming visible. And visibility ruined everything, because now there were no secrets left, no need for codes, and how was a girl supposed to be fabulous without her stage props?

There's even an intimation of it in Angels in America, when one guy mentions that the sky looks purple and his queenier friend responds that it's mauve and asks, "What kind of homosexual are you, anyway?" The brave new kind, vaguely interested in the past and vaguely suspicious of those who cling to it. Let's see how their kids turn out.
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Title Annotation:notes from a blond
Author:Vilanch, Bruce
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Feb 17, 2004
Words:674
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