The lifetime achievement award for "angriest queer" may not come with a fancy trophy or star-studded awards show, but for sheer longevity, there is no one who comes close to Larry Kramer and his sustained anger.
This anger has been a force for both good and bad. The good includes the founding of Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982 and ACT UP in 1987, as well as writing numerous fiction and non-fiction plays and books. The bad includes alienating many of his friends and colleagues. Kramer's intensity is still very high. His play The Normal Heart is now in its Broadway debut and he is working on a several-thousand-page history of America through a gay lens.
Kramer started his career in a more mainstream environment. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for his Women in Love screenplay. However, by the 1970s the gay community became the main inspiration for most of his work. In 1973, he wrote a play called Sissies' Scrapbook. In his 1978 book Faggots, he slammed down the gauntlet on his own gay male community. He dared tear open the closet door on a sexual lifestyle he found shallow and dangerous. Little did he know that the free-love 1970s would lead to the AIDS crisis the next decade, but in hindsight he believes it was almost an inevitability. According to The New Yorker, Kramer said of the book: "The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That's what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met."
When AIDS first began to take hold in the United States, New York's gay community faced some of the highest rates of infection, even before doctors knew what was infecting their patients. Kramer's The Normal Heart deals with these terrifying early years, when people were dying within weeks of diagnosis, and no one knew how it was transmitted. The play uses fictional names for real-life heroes, with Ned Weeks as Kramer's fictional stand-in.
The play, first produced at The Public Theatre in New York 1985, has not lost any of its significance, and it is as powerful as ever. Some of the actors in the new Broadway production were not even born when AIDS was striking down people in 1981, when The New York Times first mentioned that authorities were tracking strange diseases diagnosed in a few gay men. This new production, directed by Joel Gray and George C. Wolfe, is in a limited run at the Golden Theatre. It stars Ellen Barkin, Joe Mantello, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol and Wayne Alan Wilcox.
In 1983, The New York Native published Kramer's groundbreaking speech "1,112 and Counting," a call to arms for gay men. Many ignored his call, but some were inspired. "If my speech tonight doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble," Kramer said. "If what you're hearing doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?"
Kramer was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 play the Destiny of Me, a follow-up to The Normal Heart, and he has received two Obie Awards. His work includes 1988's Just Say No, A Play about a Farce, highlighting the hypocrisy of the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Ed Koch. In 1989 some of his essays were collected into the book Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. His non-fiction work also included a book based on his 2004 essay, The Tragedy of Today's Gays, delivered soon after George W. Bush was re-elected president. Kramer said the Bush victory was caused by the continued hatred of gay people.
In 2007, he wrote yet another important and powerful essay, "We Are Not Crumbs; We Must Not Accept Crumbs," on the 20th anniversary of ACT UP. The essay was timed for the presidential primary, and Kramer was not happy with any of the candidates for president. He tried to inspire a new generation of activists to learn their history, and fight for their lives:
"One day AIDS came along. It happened fast. Almost every man I was friendly with died. Eric still talks about his first boyfriend, 180 pounds, 28 years old, former college athlete, who became a 119-pound bag of bones covered in purple splotches in months. Many of us will always have memories like this that we can never escape.
"Out of this came ACT UP. We grew to have chapters and affinity groups and spin-offs and affiliations all over the world. Hundreds of men and women once met weekly in New York City alone. Every single treatment against HIV is out there because of activists who forced these drugs out of the system, out of the labs, out of the pharmaceutical companies, out of the government, into the world. It is an achievement unlike any other in the history of the world. All gay men and women must let ourselves feel colossally proud of such an achievement. Hundreds of millions of people will be healthier because of us. Would that they could be grateful to us for saving their lives."
Throughout all of these years, starting in the late 1970s, Kramer has also been working on a massive book project: The American People: A History. Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux has acquired rights to the work, a combination of fiction and non-fiction, and the first of the books may be published in 2012.
While Kramer has been ostracized from parts of the LGBT community, he still has a passion for it that was obvious during my recent interview with him. We sat down after the May 15 matinee performance of The Normal Heart, but not before he enlisted me in helping hand out his flyers after the show.
Kramer, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1988, is still fighting back, and acting upeven if he sometimes seems like a tree in a forest, with nobody listening.
Tracy Baim: It is difficult to interview you right after seeing the play. It is still so powerful. How many times have you seen this version?
Larry Kramer: I didn't go to the rehearsals, because [ Director George C. Wolfe ] wanted the actors alone, which is fine. So I went to a couple weeks of previews, and then basically when I come in to hand out the flyers, every once in awhile I like to come in the second act, to see Ellen [ Barkin ] do what I call her [ Ethel ] Merman moment, and say hello to the actors to let them know they're still loved.
Tracy Baim: How about seeing it 25 years later?
Larry Kramer: It's surreal, I don't know how to describe it. I happened by chance to see some footage of the first production, with Brad Davis. It was so innocent, and Brad seemed so innocent, compared to what we know now and what we went thru after. Brad and Joe [ Mantello ] both give marvelous performances, of its time. Joe is sort of almost patriarchal, from the Old Testament, and Brad was sort of like a much younger version of a person who hadn't grown up somehow. [ Davis starred in the film Midnight Express; he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, the same year he starred in The Normal Heart, but he kept the illness a secret. He died in 1991 of an intentional drug overdose because of the severe pain he was experiencing from AIDS complications. ]
Tracy Baim: In writing The Normal Heart, you probably thought then that more people would get as angry as you.
Larry Kramer: I still do.
Tracy Baim: Even back then it was still only a few thousand people who acted up and fought back.
Larry Kramer: If I knew the answer to that … what's your answer?
Tracy Baim: That it always only takes a few people to make a change.
Larry Kramer: When you consider how many of us there are, you think there would be more. To my dying day I would like to find the answer to that question. I never have been able to. And you'd think that in the mid-1990s, when that was the worst of AIDS, when there wasn't anything, and everybody was really dying, that there couldn't have been more than a few thousand across the country with all the ACT UP chapters and Project Inform … considering how many of us there are, 10-20 million, it's just amazing, that people wouldn't fight to save their own lives.
Tracy Baim: Some people today think there was so much going on back then that it couldn't have only been a few thousand people. They think it's too impossible to make change. But a few core people did make changes in treatment …
Larry Kramer: I think [ ACT UP ] represents the greatest achievement that a people have ever succeeded in, in history, period. I think it's one of the greatest grassroots organizations that ever was. Every single treatment is out there because of ACT UP. It didn't come from the NIH [ National Institutes of Health ] or government, it didn't come from anybody but a lot if dying men who were scared shitless. And who fought like hell and learned everything they could and changed the system. The story has never really been told in the detail it should. … It's about a healthcare emergency, it's not about gender studies, queer studies. The women and the men worked together side by side.
Tracy Baim: So you believe men and women worked side by side?
Larry Kramer: They did here, in New York. I learned so much from the lesbians in ACT UP, I cannot tell you. About everything. Not only about lesbians, but about women, gay women and gay men. Also from Maxine Wolfe, an old activist from day one, I learned about so many of the movements that preceded us. She had been in a lot of the movements. Some of my best friends were women from ACT UP, and some from GMHC.
Tracy Baim: What about the gay men who vilified you for your controversial 1978 book Faggots. Has there ever been an acknowledgement that some of what you said was right?
Larry Kramer: They still vilify me. … I have 8 million Barbra Streisand fans vilifying me … [ Kramer criticized her for her long delay on filming The Normal Heart, which never happened. ]
Tracy Baim: Is the film now going to happen? With Ryan Murphy from TV's Glee? [ Ironically, Kramer was in the Varsity Glee Club at Yale University. ]
Larry Kramer: From your mouth to his ear. He's a man of mystery in my life. He paid me a lot of money. We have the same goals. He wants Glee as his attempt to deal with gays in school, which is a magnificent attempt, and mine is to get everybody to learn our history, so we're not that far away in our goals. But we're both difficult men and we haven't had enough time to get to know each other.
Tracy Baim: Some of the issues in The Normal Heart, like gays getting married, are now coming true.
Larry Kramer: Are they? I don't think the marriage that is happening is the marriage I want to see happening. These marriages are useless; they're just feel-good marriages. They aren't the benefits straight people get when they get marriedthat's what we're entitled to. I happen to personally think that: number one, it's taking forever; number two, it's taking much longer than it should; and number three, I don't think we should have gone state by state because we'll all be dead before we get all the states. I don't begrudge anybody getting married, and people tell me it makes you feel wonderfully … you girls married?
Tracy Baim: We don't believe in it.
Larry Kramer: There you go. I don't mean to call you "girls"… . My partner doesn't want to get married either. But I do have friends that are quite moved by the whole experience. And it changed their lives. Elton John and David Furnish are married, but in a country where they get something for being married.
Tracy Baim: You are pushing for us to learn our history. Do you think our lack of a sense of history is part of the reason LGBT youth are at risk for suicide?
Larry Kramer: I don't know that it's anything new; I just think we're hearing about it [ suicides ] more. It's always existed. I tried to kill myself my freshman year at Yale, that didn't make the papers, partially because I didn't succeed. But I think it's been here forever. I think that the knowledge base is different. But I do think the fact that we don't have any opportunity to learn our history is very harmful to us. I don't think what they teach in schoolthe queer theory, the gender theoryis gay history. I attempted to do this with Yale, and they closed me down because I screamed too much about what they were doing that I didn't think was right. And they wouldn't do what I wanted, which was to teach that Abraham Lincoln was gay, George Washington was gay, let's find out who was gay, let's name them. Black people began to be taken seriously, as a discipline to study, the minute that Thomas Jefferson's Black mistress was validated academically. If we could do the same for Lincoln and Washington, who were both gay, among many, many others, maybe they would take us more seriously.
Tracy Baim: Your 2007 speech, "We're Not Crumbs," was during the presidential primary. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were running and fighting it out for the LGBT vote. You were saying both of them were not the solution. What do you think of Obama now?
Larry Kramer: I think Obama is a very careful bureaucrat who says the right things and then doesn't do them. And he has this way of pacifying the Human Rights Campaign and all the people who are fighting for us in D.C. to shut them up, and it's not satisfactory.
Tracy Baim: What about on AIDS?
Larry Kramer: On AIDS he's bad. I don't know if you saw how far behind they are on funding international AIDS commitments, and the Ryan White money is really bad in so many states. I don't think we face up to the fact sufficiently that we are hated, and I use HATED in capital letters and urge everyone to consider that that's what is going on. I am not talking about dislike or discomfort, I'm talking about hate. … The things the Tea Party and these Republicans are saying, saying in public about us, you couldn't say about Jewish people, about Black people … hateful words, that is hate.
Tracy Baim: What about low self-image? Is that contributing in unsafe sex?
Larry Kramer: That's another question like why isn't everybody fighting for their lives. Why isn't everybody taking better care of themselves? What's the big deal about using a condom. I think they're sexy myself. I don't know.
Tracy Baim: Is it an internalized hate?
Larry Kramer: I don't like these jargonese expressions. "Internalized homophobia." Nobody likes themselves, whatever they are, gay straight, fat, thinyou're never happy with yourself. Or you're always aware that you could be a better self. I don't know. They think all these drugs [ are a solution ] … anybody who has been on these drugs for any length of time will tell you, they're not always so easy to take as everybody thinks, not to mention the cost.
Tracy Baim: I wanted to ask you about a few folks we lost and your memory of them. Including Stephen Gendin. You did a great memorial tribute to him when he died in 2000.
Larry Kramer: Stephen and Mark [ Aurigemma ] were both fresh-faced kids … they became this beautiful couple. Stephen was exceedingly gutsy, and put a lot of effort into ACT UP. …
Tracy Baim: Chicagoans Danny Sotomayor and Scott McPherson?
Larry Kramer: That was a very moving experience, I have a vision of them dying side by side in the hospital … Lori Cannon is still the keeper of the shrine.
Tracy Baim: There is a new book about Vito Russo, co-founder of ACT UP, as well.
Larry Kramer: Vito was among our great people. He just took what he believed in and fuck you if you didn't agree with him. Which is what activism is all about.
Tracy Baim: What about your American history book. Is it coming out next year?
Larry Kramer: I am meeting with my publisher next week, and that's the same thing he's going to ask me! I try not to think about what I got myself into. After Faggots came out, around 1978, I, like so many gay writers, decided to write my Proustian life. So I started writing something, when I had the chance. I just kept writing. In the [ 1980s ] , when the shit hit the fan, I didn't have quite the time. But I wrote a lot of ancillary stuff, like The New York Native articles, then I wrote The Normal Heart, and I began to realize I wanted to write the history of America, and I wanted to write a really long book. And I have no idea why. Like I was going to build the Empire State Building.
It had to do more … with an intellectual challenge. I love writing a lot, I love to write, I'm miserable when I'm not in front of my computer. But everything I've written has had a different form. Every play has had a different form. Screenplays are different. What I'm writing now is not the same as Faggots. I like trying new forms. Because I don't want to write another play like Normal Heart, or Destiny, which has another structure. So it's the technique of it all that's interesting to me. What makes a person read a long book, what makes a person turn the page? … It just kept getting longer and longer and longer.
Then one day Jonathan Katz told me Abraham Lincoln was gay. And I started to say if he was gay, why, and you begin to get into history and you realize we've been here since the beginning. Man has had a dick since man has been on earth. Don't tell me he didn't know what it was or what to do with itexcuse me if I just talk about menor whatever. To maintain that all this didn't happen, and that homosexuality or sexuality or whatever you wanted to call it because it didn't have a name, back then, is any different than it was back then.
So it slowly became a history of America. And the AIDS stuff became the end of the book. As so often when you write a book, you don't go forward, you go back, and the further I went back the further I went back, until I got to the monkeys in the jungle, who were gay, literally. Then I fell into stuff, and people gave me stuff. We've had wonderful gay historians, who no one ever paid attention to. That fact that George Washington was a big queen is not original to me. There was an incredible historian, Charley Shively, who wrote all this stuff in the 1950s. He's the first historian who wrote about the gay Walt Whitman, which is accepted now. But no one would ever publish him. It was finally published in something called Gay Sunshine, which was a San Francisco publication, a rag, and no one saw it. Not only that [ Washington ] was gay but that he was a raging queen. Isn't that wonderful? And that this other man wins a Pulitzer Prize for writing 2,000 pages on George Washington and doesn't mention that the guy was anything gay makes me ill. These are the fights I had with Yale … which led them to shut my gay studies thing down. I still have very painful feelings about that.
So I kept writing this book, and the more I wrote and the more I found out, who were the gay presidents, who were the enemies who had a great deal to do with hating us through the years. All of this really leads to AIDS. You can see where AIDS came from. AIDS is a disease that was caused by us being hated for so many centuries. That's really what the book is about. But it is also … when I finished the first draft it was 4,000 pages. It's a pain in the ass just to read it, re-read itfor me! My friend and editor Will Schwalbe said polish up 300 pages and see what happens. … The very first person he showed it to was Jonathan Galassi, who is Mr. Publishinghead of Farrar Straus, the class act in publishing. When all the gay "literati" saw I was being bought by Farrar Straus, suddenly I was being paid attention to. Hypocrisy, be thy name. … So Jonathan said "I must have this book." He had not read the 4,000 other pages. So I found myself at age 75, about to be age 76, editing a book that is so long. I still have the mental ability, I hope it doesn't evaporateand with HIV you never knowbut it would have been easier to edit it all 20 years ago than it is now. It's an enormous chore … but I'm aware it's got to be just right.
Tracy Baim: It is more of a novel, not an academic book?
Larry Kramer: I didn't want to call it a novel, because while there is some fictional stuff in it, it's basically both. I would like to call it "novel" in quotes. But Jonathan thinks we should call it a novel, and there is some advantage in thatI don't have to prove it, I can just say it. Some of the stuff quite frankly is no more provable than proving that a person is heterosexual. You don't know. The fact that most history is written by straight people, they just assume everybody is straight. That begins to grate after awhile. … I don't want to publish it until I finish the whole thing. It's slowly taking shape and here's hoping I can finish it before I die.
Tracy Baim: I wanted to ask about The New York Native. It was such an angry publication, around HIV and AIDS, but it had such an influence. Publisher Charles Ortleb went off on some strange direction near the end [ it closed in 1997 ] .
Larry Kramer: When I wrote '1,112 and Counting', and Chuck Ortleb named it, it was the longest piece they ever published. And he allowed it to be published by any paper in the country, just to run it. About a dozen or so gay papers ran it. That was like a network that covered the country. It got the word out. It's a great loss we don't have that anymore. You can get stuff out, we have the Internet, but it's not the same. More people see it, but more people throw shit on it too.
Tracy Baim: What more do you want to say about The Normal Heart?
Larry Kramer: Elton [ John ] claims he wants to take it around the world. He's, by the way, a very great man. I can't tell you what a nice person he is. … [ With the Tony Awards ] it would be nice, I very much want Joe Mantello to win; he's unfortunately up against the strongest competition of everybody. It would be nice, it's never happened before. … The fact that the play was even nominated for a Tony, the fact that a play is on Broadway, means that European theaters will pay attention. They don't care about off-Broadway, or London; they care about Broadway. I've already had offers from markets, including Spain. It didn't make any difference that it was the longest-running play at the Public; that was off-Broadway. The fact that we moved a couple blocks is ridiculous, but there you go.
A letter from Larry Kramer:
The following is the flyer distributed by Larry Kramer and members of the cast and crew after some of the performances of his play The Normal Heart, now on Broadway in NYC.
Thank you for coming to see our play.
Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best as I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr. Linda Laubenstein. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me ( we'd not spoken since our last fight in this play ) and told me to never stop fighting.
Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid so very intent on becoming a fine actor, which he did.
Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.
Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged it as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.
Please know that there is no cure.
Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.
Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the worldRussia, India, Southeast Asia, Africathe numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.
Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.
Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?
Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan ( who would not say the word "AIDS" publicly for seven years ) , every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn't do them.
Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanely expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.
Please know 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.
Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.
Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.
I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.
Signed, Larry Kramer.
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