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Lab Theater Drama Tackles AIDS/LGBT Issues

Jessica Meszaros, WGCU-FM
Gilberto Perez, Sharon Murphy, Arlene Goldberg. Dr. Derek Dewitt and Annette Trossbach at the Laboratory Theater's 'Talk Back' following a recent performance of "Mothers and Sons."

The Laboratory Theater of Florida ends it’s run of the 2014 Tony-nominated Broadway play “Mothers and Sons,” by Terrence McNally, this weekend.  The production tells the story of a woman who visits her late son’s former partner. Her son died from AIDS decades ago. The play’s broader themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are universal, but the backdrop of the fight for LGBT acceptance and the AIDS crisis hit close to home in Florida which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks number one in the nation when it comes to new rates of HIV infection.  Local experts led an interactive audience ‘talk back’ after the Jan. 12 performance.

In the play we meet Katharine Gerard played by Brenda Kensler. She lost her son Andre to AIDS two decades ago and never came to terms with her son’s death or his sexual orientation.  The story encompasses her visit to Andre’s former partner Cal, played by Jason Drew.  Cal is now living with his husband Will, played by Joseph Yazvac.  Will is 15 years younger than Cal and they have a six-year-old son, Bud, played by River Reed.

The audience talk-back explored the play’s contextual themes regarding HIV treatment and prevention and LGBT acceptance.

Sharon Murphy served on the panel. She is a nurse and founding director of the McGregor Clinic in Fort Myers. The clinic provides primary care for about 1,100 Southwest Floridians living with HIV.  She said medical treatments have changed dramatically since the days when AIDS was first emerging.

“In the early days it was a death sentence,” said Murphy.  “I saw my first patient in 1983.  He was 23 years old.  He didn’t make it to 24 and that was the expectation.  We didn’t have a test for HIV until ’84.  We didn’t know.  We just knew people were wasting away.”

Murphy said the age difference between the play’s character Cal and his husband Will demonstrates a generational divide between those who lived through the crisis of the late 80s and 90s and those who have always lived in a world in which AIDS was a reality.

“Young people have known AIDS and HIV all their lives,” said Murphy.  “They’ve never known a time before there was a diagnosis of AIDS and have become complacent.  ‘If I get it, I’ll just take a pill a day and I’ll be fine,’ because it’s now become a chronic manageable illness which is wonderful, but it loses the urgency for the prevention message.”

According to the CDC, Florida ranks number one among states in the rate of new HIV infections per capita with about 60,000 new infections a year. In 2013, the CDC ranked the Fort Myers-Cape Coral region 16th in the nation.

Dr. Derek Dewitt is medical director of the McGregor Clinic who also sat on the theater’s panel. 

“The national rate for new infections has held steady for several years, but it hasn’t gone down,” said Dr. Dewitt.  “And they’re seeing a rise in young men who have sex with men between the ages of 13 and 24.  That’s when they see it the most.  There’s actually an increase in infections in that age group.

Murphy says the difficulty she has in providing AIDS education to local students is a particular frustration given the trend of higher new HIV infection rates in young people.

“When we come into the schools, we’re invited by a particular teacher and that’s the level we get in at,” said Murphy.  “And for a while we were invited to a particular school by a teacher every year.  These were eighth graders and the questions that they were asking; they’ve been hearing a lot of things and they needed a resource.  They needed someone to tell them the truth because they weren’t getting that.  That teacher retired.  We’ve never been in that school again.”

Dr. Dewitt says the need for better education extends into the medical community as well.

“Even as a doctor in training, it’s not something they teach us about.  They don’t teach about HIV,” said Dr. Dewitt.  “You would hear the CDC recommends testing everyone for HIV, but people still don’t test for it.  Primary care doctors don’t test for it even though everybody should be tested. I think a lot of doctors don’t test for it because they’re not going to know what to do if they get a positive result back.”

The age difference between the play’s character Cal and his younger husband Will illustrates another aspect of the generational divide.  Cal grew up never imagining he would be able to have a husband and a child of his own.  Will never grew up imaging he could not have those things.

Gilberto Perez is a marital and family law attorney and a magistrate with Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit who also sat on the ‘talk back’ panel.  He said broader recognition of the LGBT community in Florida’s legal system has happened rapidly in recent years.

“The obvious one from the play is the fact that now a man can have a husband and a woman can have a wife which that is now true in Florida as of just two years ago,” said Perez.  “So that’s a big change in the legal community.  The fact that a gay person can now adopt a child is a big change Florida just since 2010...It doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of other issues out there that still haven’t changed, but at least those have changed.”

Fort Myers LGBT activist and co-founder of the Visuality LGBT youth center Arlene Goldberg also sat on the talk back panel.  She was also a plaintiff in the 2014 lawsuit that won LGBT Floridians the right to marry. She pointed out that in Florida it is legal to deny someone employment, housing and public accommodations based on their LGBT status and she’s working to change that at the local level.

“We’re working with the county to change their charter for their employees, the employee handbook, to include sexual orientation and gender identification which would include the LGBT community being protected against harassment and being fired,” said Goldberg.  “So we intend to do that through all the cities as a group.  We have a committee for that and it looks like Cape Coral is already on their way.”

Indeed, Magistrate Perez says the Cape Coral City Council has already passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination of public employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Goldberg says Lee County leaders tell her they’re working on it as well.

At the state level, lawmakers like Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, have championed workforce protection measures for LGBT people for years, but so far his bills have not passed the GOP-controlled legislature.

The Laboratory Theater’s final performances of “Mothers and Sons” take place Jan. 20 and 21 at 8:00 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 2:00 p.m.