Four decades ago, Louise Parker Kelley feared that all her friends were going to die. It was the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, and Kelley, a prominent and highly involved member of the LGBTQ community in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., was bereft at seeing many of her gay friends becoming sick with a mysterious and deadly illness.
Before Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” in 1983, when Kelley, a writer and educator, was living in London, she penned “Anti Body,” an evening-length drama centering on William, who has come down with a disease that has baffled doctors, until one ultimately diagnoses AIDS.
Now 64, Kelley has done a lot of work in the LGBTQ community. She is the author of “LGBT Baltimore” and served as one of the first Department of Health and Human Services AIDS educators. She was also part of the first organizing committee for D.C.’s Gay Pride Day and worked at Lambda Rising, the lesbian bookstore near Dupont Circle in D.C.
Raised in the Catholic Church, Kelley is a Jew by choice and a member of Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C.
“I’m really glad I’m Jewish,” she said. “I think my journey and my experience of being a lesbian was enhanced by the Jewish community. I got real acceptance that I know I didn’t get that in other environments and with other religious communities.”
She is in a long-term committed relationship with her wife, Jessica Weissman. The couple could not legally marry until 2013. They had a commitment ceremony in 1997, but Kelley is proud to note that she and Weissman are the first same-sex couple married at Tifereth Israel Congregation by its then-rabbi, Ethan Seidel.
Earlier this summer, “Anti Body” was revived for an online virtual performance, part of an overview of gay-focused plays.
“The purpose of my play was to ring the bell in the middle of the village and say, ‘Danger, danger, danger, AIDS is coming,’” Kelley said.
She based it on her friend Arthur Stutsman, who was dying of AIDS when she left for England.
“I was devastated. I was frightened, furious and I had to do something,” Kelley wrote in an introduction to the piece. “I wrote ‘Anti Body’ in about three weeks …. I had to … narrow the scale down, write the story of one man, William Davis, and what happens to him.”
That includes the varying reactions of his mother, brother, the doctors and nursing staff, some who wouldn’t treat him, and his close friends in the gay community. A London theater company, Consenting Adults in Public, produced the work. Nearly four decades ago, the reaction was mixed, including many in the gay community who felt it was anti-sex because of the final speech of the protagonist, who exhorted the men in his community to practice what today is called safe sex.
“At the time, that was anathema to [some] gay men,” she said. “The majority of gay men caught the idea fairly quickly … especially since there was no treatment that was effective and your immune system was shutting down. You could well be looking at a death sentence.
“Since then, there have been numerous legal and societal changes regarding same-sex couples and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
“I don’t think we can take that for granted,” Kelley said. “Number one is maintaining our civil rights as they are now. That’s why I pay attention to the Supreme Court. It does help that this coming generation, people in their 20s and 30s — just don’t have the same degree of [hatred] with regard to LGBTQ. But there are still people out there who are fiercely homophobic, so we have to be prepared to defend ourselves.”
When she considers the next generation of activists of any persuasion, Kelley sounded a bit like the elementary educator she was for many years: “There are two things we need to always do with each other: Listen and be kind.”
She continued: “I think kindness is underrated. It’s very important to be kind, especially when you’re upset, whatever it is and somebody’s sex life could upset you to the degree that you don’t use good manners, but try to be kind.
“I have that voice in my head that judges and says someone’s wrong or I don’t agree with them. And I have to remind myself to listen, because even if I don’t agree or am not interested, I have to be kind.”