I enjoyed Brokeback Mountain and thought it did a good job of trying to give the rest of the world a window into the joys and sorrows of men loving men (which mirror the joys and sorrows of men loving women, and vice versa).

Yet recently, a truly pioneering film about homosexuals and the world around them once again reduced me to sobbing. Philadelphia (1993) captures and preserves for posterity a time in America when, although men and women were dying by the thousands, a whole country seemed unable to weep for them, so great was its fear of contagion. When Tom Hanks, playing the young lawyer ravaged by AIDS, lowers the oxygen mask covering his mouth and says to Antonio Banderas, his character’s lover, “Miguel, I’m ready [to die],” we understand why.

Many of us who were involved with AIDS-related care in the 1980s remember our own fatalism and our uncertainty about all the possible ways the virus might or might not be transmitted. In a sense, we felt like participants in a daily crapshoot, seeking reassurance that emptying bedpans of waste and basins full of vomit would not put us at risk.

Those of us who trained as AIDS buddies (such a summer-camp name for such a serious task) virtually lived with our charges. We washed their faces, helped them brush their teeth, and when the fevers, the chills, and other dark horrors came, we held them, rocked them, and even slept wearily at their sides.

Still, they died, by the hundreds, every year. We sang, we prayed, we lit candles, and we made quilts in their memory. We warred against a government bureaucracy moving so sluggishly that, too often, the client’s first disability check arrived on the day of his funeral.

With new protocols and wonder drugs that can hold death at bay for decades, we have come far from those awful times, although AIDS remains a killer across the planet.

And the America that had taken refuge in a clinical reason for hating gays and lesbians seems to hate them as much as ever. Now that the “gay men’s disease” is manageable, bigots have moved on to detesting homosexuals for the “sin” of their wanting to be recognized as legitimate “married” couples. Though marriage isn’t contagious, too many Americans act as if “gay marriage” were a disease.

Every day, that same America is defended by gay soldiers, has its teeth cleaned by homosexual dentists, and its babies delivered by gay and lesbian obstetricians. We are well served by gay lawyers, police officers, and firefighters. Gay and lesbian grocers, plumbers, electricians, teachers, and clergy help our families thrive. We seem oblivious to our daily debt to them.

On the other hand, as they return from the front lines, step outside the OR after surgery, or lift our children onto the school bus, they might paraphrase the song from Philadelphia: “Country of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me, I want to come back home.”

Why don’t we just let them?

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