Larry Kramer’s Righteous Rage

Larry Kramer’s Righteous Rage

His jeremiads against the state and those complacent during the AIDS crisis galvanized generations of activists.

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When it was his turn to address a forum on AIDS in New York in 1991, Larry Kramer took an uncharacteristic pause before speaking. He rubbed his ear and ran his hand through his thinning hair. Eyes cast down, he sat in silence for another moment. Then a syllable burst through his grimacing lips: “Plague!” Another pause. Then staccato. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague. Plague!” He pounded the table in time to his words. “Forty million infected people is a fucking plague, and nobody acts as if it is. Nobody in this hospital, nobody in this city, nobody in this world. Forty million people is a fucking plague. Every person I talk to, in every city, in every agency—gay, straight—is as despondent as they can possibly be. Nobody knows what to do next. Nobody knows what to do next.” He looked down and shuffled some papers. Sighed. Took in a breath and blew it through billowing cheeks.

At that exasperated point, Kramer had been sounding such jeremiads for a decade, and he did not let up in the nearly 30 years since, not until his death last Wednesday, at age 84. He is survived by his husband, David Webster; two generations of activists galvanized by his vision and fortitude; and untold numbers of people whose lives were saved because of his writing, the service organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (which he cofounded in 1982), and the direct-action group ACT UP (which he cofounded in 1987).

The 1991 speech (which opens Jean Carlomusto’s stirring biographical film Larry Kramer in Love and Anger) displays not only Kramer’s hallmark rhetorical style—a tumbleweed rhythm built of repetition, excoriation, statistics, and fucks—but also his keen capabilities as a performer. Having begun his professional life in the movie business and then writing novels and plays, Kramer knew well how to milk dramatic effect. That’s not to say the emotion was in any way insincere. His rage and vexation laser right through any screen all these years later, and to behold his righteous tirades in person was to feel them strike hard in your solar plexus. But he understood he was onstage and knew how to use it, and he recognized he had access to that platform by dint of being a well-to-do white man.

Kramer could afford to be relentless, spewing invective at public officials like New York Mayor Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, and New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, a triumvirate he held primarily responsible for the rising death toll, as well as at his beloved gay community when he deemed it complacent.

Crashing into the limits of his entitlement turned Kramer into an activist. “I grew up nonpolitical,” he told me in an interview some 15 years ago. “I was out in Fire Island laughing at Gay Pride marches on TV. What politicized me was a couple of friends dying real fast”—and his shock at the lethal indifference of government, medical, religious, and media institutions. As he put it in an interview with Sarah Schulman for the indispensable ACT UP Oral History Project, he was stunned to realize that “it doesn’t make any difference that you went to Yale and were assistant to presidents of a couple of film companies and that you had money. You suddenly know what it’s like to feel like a faggot or a nigger or a kike.” It wasn’t just that gay lives were deemed expendable, he concluded as the world ignored the expanding public health crisis; the world wanted gays dead. He used words like “holocaust,” “genocide” and “gas chambers” “with the full knowledge of what I am saying,” he told me. “I really think they are out to completely eliminate and destroy us.” Always a cultural nationalist subscribing to a sort of gay Zionism, Kramer in 1990 told The Wall Street Journal, of all places, “It hurts me to say I think the time for violence has now arrived. I don’t personally think I’m the guy with the guts to do it, but I’d like to see an AIDS terrorist army, like the Irgun, which led to the state of Israel.”

To convince the world of gay people’s worth required convincing gay people themselves—a moral (sometimes moralistic) imperative Kramer took on before the outbreak of HIV. His controversial 1978 novel Faggots follows a hero (based on Kramer) searching for love amid the spectacularly rendered hedonism of gay bathhouses and Fire Island parties, concluding that no relationship could survive amid a culture of promiscuity. Radical gay liberationists resented the finger wagging they perceived in the novel, and Kramer’s reputation as a sex-negative scold carried over only a few years later when he was among the first striking the alarm in essays in the gay weekly the New York Native about a mysterious disease cutting down gay men in their prime. The most influential, “1,112 and Counting,” began on the cover of the Native on March 14, 1983, warning, “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” It lashes out for 5,000 breathless words at City Hall, hospitals, the National Institutes of Health, the press, closeted gay men, and at “guys who moan that giving up careless sex until this blows over is worse than death. How can they value life so little and cocks and asses so much?”

By then, Kramer’s confrontational style was clashing with the efforts of GMHC to win support from the city, and he was pushed out. His response was to recount his experience in a barely fictionalized play, The Normal Heart, an electrifying work that meshes narrative realism and agitprop and that made a tangible impact before it even opened Off Broadway at the Public Theater in April 1985: As a courtesy—or to stave off hostility or even charges of libel—the producer Joseph Papp contacted Koch and the Times’ culture editor Arthur Gelb to let them know that the play criticized them for their inaction. The mayor responded with a press conference on the day of the first preview performance, announcing “a comprehensive expansion of city services” for people with AIDS. The Times ran a defensive paragraph alongside Frank Rich’s mixed review of the play, asserting (against all evidence to the contrary) that it had been doing a fine job covering the epidemic.

By conventional standards, The Normal Heart is not a good play—it’s stuffed with speechifying and didactic hectoring on the part of its hero, Ned Weeks—but it is a great one that cares little about convention. It gathers urgency through the mounting desperation of its characters as they confront dying men, an unresponsive city, and an uninterested press and fight among themselves over the minutiae of letterhead and the enormousness of their task. It’s the only play I know that dramatizes the nitty-gritty grunt work of organization building as if lives depended on it. And they did. The production challenged audiences to become involved, not only by providing info brochures and sign-up sheets in the lobby but also through the very structure of our viewing: Seated across from one another, with the action playing between us like on a tennis court, we observed other audience members and knew we were being observed as we watched recent history unfold and roll into the demanding present. I remember being riveted by a ritual-like engagement with those around and across from me, who were living the terrors the show portrayed. When a character early in the play, set in 1983, declared that AIDS had already claimed 41 lives in New York City, I saw a man across the way drop his head into his hands and shudder. By 1985, as we sat in the theater, the walls festooned with texts showing numbers of diagnoses, deaths, and other up-to-the-minute data, that figure had increased a hundredfold.

There was no way the play could provoke with the same immediacy when it was presented for the first time on Broadway in 2011 (followed by a film version on HBO in 2014), despite a stellar company of actors, though it still stung emotionally and incited my rage. By then, we had a vocabulary and framework, thanks to ACT UP, for describing the sociopolitical dimensions of an epidemic that exceed the biological, even if Kramer, ever the single-minded gay tribalist, focused most on pressing for drug treatments. Others drawn to the call for fighting back that he issued in a blistering speech at New York’s LGBT Community Center in March 1987 (many of them with backgrounds in radical organizing that was foreign to Kramer) built ACT UP into an international, scrappy, horizontal movement that won health care, housing, insurance, and other rights for people with AIDS and that forever changed how medications are developed.

But AIDS rages on, and Kramer, all by himself, waited outside the John Golden Theatre after every performance of the 12-week Broadway run of The Normal Heart, distributing flyers to playgoers to let them know that the story they had just seen was essentially true and that AIDS was not over. But in place of scathing command, he entreated gently—a change wrought perhaps by age or his frailty, as he had undergone by then a liver transplant, not to mention survived for decades with HIV. There he stood, in his typical overalls and talismanic turquoise jewelry (at least on the night I saw the show), handing out a list of about a dozen items, each introduced with the phrase “Please know”: that there was still no cure, that “all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure,” that “pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What ‘research’ they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, god forbid, cured.” And so on.

Meanwhile, Kramer was pouring what energy he had into his 1,700-page, kaleidoscopic, two-volume magnum opus, The American People, seeking to reveal the queer underpinnings of America in every era. Setting the American record everything but straight was a campaign he considered inextricably tied up with fighting the homophobia at the heart of much unresponsiveness toward AIDS. While he and I maintained a cordial acquaintanceship over the years, I never knew Kramer well enough to enjoy the deep personal concern, support, and warmth—or suffer the reproach—described in remembrances by those close to him. He did, however, amiably chide me in an e-mail for failing to mention, when I reviewed Hamilton, that the founding father was gay and a lover of George Washington’s. “How are we ever going to get our history out when it’s even erased for Broadway?” he implored.

Last June, Kramer was a featured speaker at the Reclaim Pride Queer Liberation March. Orating from his wheelchair, his voice thin but his connection with his audience as thick as ever, he sounded his old themes—gay men were chasing pleasure and shirking their duty to end AIDS—but now in a heartbreakingly funereal rather than martial mode. He said that we had failed, that he had failed. He urged the new generation to pick up the fight, first by learning their history and taking pride in it.

It made me think of one of Ned’s arias in The Normal Heart. “I belong to a culture that includes Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Alexander the Great, so many popes and cardinals you wouldn’t believe,” Ned tells an anxious, closeted friend. Ned goes on to describe how “an openly gay Englishman,” the code breaker Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II. “That’s how I want to be remembered,” Ned says. “As one of the men who won the war.”

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