The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part play that’s come to Broadway following its lauded West End bow, asks many questions of its audience: How do generations of queer men connect, what is modern gay life like following the height of the AIDS crisis, and how do millennials born in the shadow of that holocaust, like myself, grasp the gravity and activism of that era? To start the conversation, the play’s characters turn to the crucial and dwindling cohort of gay men who both survived that era and are still seeking community three decades later. Now in or approaching their twilight years, their testaments are as vital as ever.
In reading and watching Lopez’ ambitious piece, I was reminded of something that made coming out difficult: I did not have any queer mentors, and still today young people are deprived of an entire generation of LGBTQ foreparents. Until only a few years ago, I don’t think I knew more than a handful of out folks over age 50. Luckily, two of those are John McDargh, a mentor, writer, and HIV/AIDS educator who I met at Boston College, and his husband Tim Dunn, a longtime education reformer and AIDS-education advocate. Unscathed by the epidemic but still acutely aware of the friends they’ve lost, John and Tim have dedicated their lives to the LGBTQ community, teaching others of our history and hosting meals with students to foster a rich sense of siblinghood. Their acts, as intimate and epic as Lopez’s play, are ones to amplify and echo.
I invited Tim and John to come see The Inheritance, and as the play primarily focuses on the present-tense action of young gay men’s friendships, loves, and careers, I asked John and Tim about their work—in education reform, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and more—that is a direct ancestor to the lives people like me and Lopez’ characters can now easily take for granted. What follows is excerpts of our conversation over dinner between the work’s two parts.
Observer: We just finished Part One—what are you guys thinking?
John McDargh: I’m thinking of my friend Bob. I was asked to preach his funeral sermon, and I referenced Longtime Companion, the movie that takes you to the beginning of the epidemic. At the end of the movie, the characters who found community during that period are on a beach at Fire Island. One of them is walking down along the shore and says, “I want to be around when they find a cure.” They go over a sand dune and there is this disco party, and everyone who’s died is there dancing.
Tim Dunn: John [has long worked in religion], so his guidance and spiritual direction at that time was a form of activism.
I’ve heard you recount stories like these, where you two acted similarly to Walter in the play, who took care of dying friends when their partners or hospitals or families wouldn’t.
TD: I think of my college roommate who helped me come out. Rick eventually got sick and started to die at home in Florida. And because John’s mom lives in Ft. Lauderdale, we got to visit her but also see our friend. We went down a number of times to see him, and John again did the funeral.
JM: It’s such an example of what happened in those days. Rick died, but no one knew [it was] from HIV. He was diagnosed and had been dating a man, Don. And he told his partner, “I have AIDS, and we’ve only been dating for three months, and I totally understand if—well, this is going to be a slog.” And Don said, “I’m not going anywhere.” We saw Rick in the hospital a few times.
TD: I was a school psychologist for a number of years, and I ended up working at the state house, but they didn’t have any person in the state Department of Education doing psychology services that weren’t academic-based. Then HIV/AIDS came along, and the public was hysterical. Literally hysterical. There were kids who were getting blood transfusions and there was a panic around the unknown. It was so encouraging that the primary lawyers at the state’s Department of Education who knew I was gay said, “Tim, we need to deal with this. We need to get the state Board of Education and state government to put out a policy on this. No kid or teacher should be prevented from going to school because of their HIV status.” It started a whole movement. Before that, a kid would get sick and you’d clean it up, whatever. But from that point on, you’d wear gloves for everything. The only way we were going to convince people of how AIDS is spread is to use the science. And that meant coordinating public meetings not only with parents, but also with kids. So it meant we were working in AIDS education; we were trying to make people aware.
It spilled over into every aspect of your life; at work and at home.
TD: In those first five years, the early 80s, and obviously up until 1990, it was, “You got a positive test, you’re going to die.”
JM: It was a death sentence.
TD: We had close friends who just decided, “My life is over.” And went back into their houses to die.
JM: Tim and I decided to get tested together. We got out of the center at Fenway and shared our results and just started weeping. This was no “reward” for good behavior; we dodged a bullet.
And you were both involved with the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt is not mentioned in the play, but there is certainly a stunning homage to the lives who were lost and remembered from that era.
JM: You can’t underestimate the power of the quilt. We’re going to see parts of it on World AIDS Day [which just passed, on December 1]. A friend of ours is a gay artist in Boston and for at least 30 years he’s done a 24-hour, midnight-to-midnight artistic and spiritual event in the Cyclorama. It’s always different rituals.
TD: Lots of families still come.
JM: We saw the quilt in its entirety in Washington. There was a national march where they laid out the quilt on the mall. It just went on forever. We never made a quilt but we decided whenever it was in DC we’d go to be guardians. Meanwhile, my younger sister Susan, who was involved in filmmaking in Hollywood—all of her closest friends were gay men. And it turned out that she started working with the quilt project in L.A.
TD: She could sew; she was the doyenne of this project. She came in, and we were going into St. Margaret’s, the headquarters.
JM: And we walk in expecting, as the gay men, to introduce her to folks. We walk into St. Margaret’s, and everyone shouts, “Susan’s here!” Everyone knew her. [Laughs] You had to have amazing geometric intelligence to work on this thing, plus it’s 5 o’clock in the morning. So we’re down there, and none of the guys can figure it out. And my sister Susan, as the sun is coming up, is putting all of the quilt pieces together. Then they finally open it up [revealing the names of the deceased] and you read the names all day. And your job as a quilt guardian—and they give you a big box of Kleenex—is to be unobtrusive and just be there for others who are mourning. I remember at one point I had noticed that over the three days it was on display, from the time it opened to the time it closed, there was a man sitting by a particular quilt. He never left.
Finally I asked one of the other guardians if she knew this man’s story. And she said, “When his partner died of AIDS-related complications, his family took the body and did not permit him to go to the funeral or know where the body was buried.” The quilt was the only tomb he had.
The Inheritance explores, among other themes, older gay men like Walter, who is a giver and provider, and his real estate businessman husband Henry, who has selfish and adverse reactions to taking care of the dying. What was the spectrum of activism and care like in those days?
TD: If you lived in New York, and were a gay man worth his salt, you got involved with Act Up, which is fantastic. But I always wanted to work at institutions and make changes within. Having done that work with the Department of Education, I was all of 32, but I said I want to do this, so I got involved in Democratic politics at a time—well, let me go back a step. During the first two national showings of the quilt in DC, I can’t remember if it was when Reagan was in, or if it was H. W. Bush, but both times the quilt was shown and thousands of people were in town, people would point at the helicopter leaving the White House taking away the president, pointing and shouting, “Shame, shame!”
The play also laments the disappearing number of gay bars. Boston only has a few, and we’ve moved forward in many ways over the years, so I imagine it perhaps used to have even fewer bars?
JM: No, just the opposite. There was Chaps, there was Styx, which is now a high rise. There was The 1270, which is now being torn down, but that was right down from the Ramrod, which is a leather bar by Fenway. Now that’s Machine, which also does performances with the Gold Dust Orphans. There was the Napoleon Club—
TD: Which was where young gay men could go to find older gay men. There were piano bars—
JM: There was a really rich culture. There’s this book The Hub of the Gay Universe by Russ Lopez, outlining the gay social and arts culture of Boston and Provincetown, much of it under the stewardship of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Gentrification really did a number on these establishments.
JM: Gentrification and social media. They make a joke about Grindr in The Inheritance; it’s the ways guys connect. But in the old days you had to meet face to face. You went to a bar, you could cruise somebody.
TD: That’s how we met. We met at a bar on the night before New Year’s Eve, 1979. We moved to Jamaica Plains in 1981, and that eventually led to me going to the Massachusetts state Democratic Convention where I saw the Stonewall Democrats [founded in 1986 as the first and only citywide LGBT Democratic organization in New York City]. To show you how retrograde the Democratic Party was—this is when [Michael] Dukakis was governor—the state didn’t want to touch the gay issue at all. But we had created lavender hats that said “Gay Rights,” or “Vote Gay.” There were thousands of people out voting in Springfield, Mass., so a friend and I walked around [to campaign] and we had probably 20 to 30 people spit at us, take our hats off and throw them on the floor, stomp on them. We went back to our delegation and our peers said, “That didn’t happen.” So we said, “Why don’t you try?” Same thing happened to them. Working politically was important, and that meant being out.
TD: Right. The first time [Bill] Clinton won, I was purposefully invited to the stage at Massachusetts’ celebration because they wanted an ostensibly gay person with our hat on to come and be seen.
JM: In its depiction of the 2016 election, The Inheritance reminds us history is not necessarily moving in a progressive direction. It’s helpful to remember that Germany in the 1920s had this really burgeoning gay culture, the Magnus Hirschfeld Center for Sexuality in Berlin…if you looked across Europe and asked where were gay people starting to claim an identity, it was Germany. And of course it all went backwards. Already, Trump has done body blows to a lot of things: the removal of protections for trans people in the military for one. Things don’t always move forward. And there’s this soliloquy in the play about the need to claim our history to move forward.
I’m very moved by the line, “I think your lives are beautiful,” spoken by Morgan to the younger men in the play. It makes me think of you and your work in conservative and Catholic institutions, and how you’ve both smoothed the path for generations of queer youth.
JM: This generation is doing wonderful things. At Boston College, some of us changed our email signature to list our preferred pronouns. We then got an email about the need for “uniformity” in our signatures, which was insane. Then the alumni magazine did a feature on student formation, listing the retreats students can go on—Kairos, 48 Hours, Halftime. Spectrum [a retreat for queer and questioning students] was not included. One big step so far has been officially recognizing a LGBTQ Alumni group. But older alums are still hurting, and they ask what’s being done for the students now?
A few years ago a student, Joe Maimone, said what was missing on campus was anything to do with trans issues. So he organized the first Trans Solidarity Day and he got Janet Mock to come in and speak at this day-long event. The auditorium was packed. It’s very clear around the world and on campuses that if the faculty is not leading the charge, the students will.