It’s easy to take for granted how far gay-straight relations have come in the past 30 years. It’s so easy, in fact, that David Carr published a piece in the New York Times last week wondering “What if Gawker tried to out an anchor at Fox News and no one cared?”—the implication being that the culture had "moved on" from caring about someone's sexual orientation.
The bored tone of the piece, and that of Alex Williams’ virtually identical later piece, pissed me off. A straight man can pretty easily decide that no one cares if you're gay. He never had to care in the first place. He can believe that we’re enlightened to such an extent that openness don’t matter, because he's never felt the sting of anti-gay bigotry or known the importance of standing up and being counted. Of fighting for recognition as a minority that up until five years ago was treated like dog shit on humanity's shoe.
The Times, as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart reminds us, reported on AIDS only seven times during the first 18 months of the epidemic, but 54 times on the Tylenol scare of 1982, which lasted three months and claimed a total of seven lives. The paper's indifference to gay people was a key component of the political and cultural negligence that helped AIDS spread to uncontainable proportions by the time anyone actually gave a fuck. If Carr were aware of the irony of his arm's-length attitude toward homosexuality ("I have no certainty or interest in what Mr. Smith’s sexual orientation is"), he didn’t let on.
In 2013, depending on one’s status and inherent politics of his work affiliation, such apathy can be interpreted as benevolent. This is how Carr would have it. In 1985, the year in which the opening scenes of Jean-Marc Vallée’s terrific Dallas Buyers Club are set, disinterest—feigned or not—doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt. "I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker. I don’t even know no faggots," says heterosexual cowboy Ron Woodroof when he's diagnosed with HIV early in the film. You get the sense that he isn’t lying. It was a time when closet doors were locked from the inside, especially outside of New York and San Francisco. Rock Hudson had just died from AIDS—Randy Shilts’ exhaustive history of the plague, And the Band Played On, calls Hudson’s diagnosis “a demarcation that would separate the history of America before AIDS from the history that came after.” Inflicting a beloved figure brought AIDS home. “Suddenly, in the summer if 1985, when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease and the newspapers couldn’t stop talking about it, the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere,” wrote Shilts.
Woodroof was an actual human being whose spirit is exhumed by Matthew McConaughey in what might be his best work ever. His emaciated appearance is as severe as his performance. He's at once repulsive and pitiful, as a homophobe who contracted HIV through unprotected sex with an I.V. drug user and who finds himself slumming it with the "faggots" he despises. When he desperately attempts to purchase the drug AZT from a doctor played by Jennifer Garner, she suggests a support group and he snarls, "I’m dying and you’re telling me to go get a hug from a bunch of faggots."
But soon he finds that in the eyes of his fellow homophobes, he’s no better than one of those faggots—he’s humiliated in a bar, shut out of work, and his house is vandalized with the words “FAGGOT BLOOD.” His quest for treatment leads him to Mexico, where he procures Peptide T and DDC in bulk and begins selling it to stricken members of the gay community. His proximity to the culture—the cruising, the poppers, the Amanda Lear Euro disco blaring on the sound system of the gay bar he visits—does nothing to endear his customers to him. “Thank you,” says one. “Fuck off,” replies Woodroof.
But then a funny thing happens through prolonged exposure: empathy. By experiencing the cruelties of homophobia, misplaced though though they are, Woodroof becomes culturally gay, and he furthermore shares, in some sense, a bloodline with several local gay men, who are also HIV positive. He sets up a subscription service (the titular buyers club), essentially forging a guerrilla treatment center for hopelessly sick local gay men. His business partner is AIDS-stricken drag queen Rayon, who’s played by Jared Leto in the performance of his career, too. It might be even better than McConaughey’s—instead of just a quip-spitting clown, there’s so much empathy and humanity that pours out of him in between cunty barbs. It’s a full and beautiful performance. There's a scene in which Woodroof defends Rayon against a homophobe in a supermarket that is one of the purest expressions of compassion that I’ve ever seen on screen.
That compassion works both ways. Dallas Buyers Club is rounded out with a meditation on the FDA’s sometimes infuriating regulations and seemingly contradictory attitude toward treatment, but the heart of this story is one man’s development from bigotry to compassion. That’s standard stuff we've seen several times by now, no matter how realistic and enthralling the performances. But Dallas Buyers Club also asks for a sort of reverse compassion, to see the human behind the bigotry and flaws. Ron Woodroof had to learn acceptance in a way that ultimately cost him his life. We in 2013 are so fortunate that our inroad to exposure is so much less brutal.