Larry Kramer's legacy: Author, playwright, ACT-UP cofounder

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 23, 2020
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Larry Kramer at his New York City home in 1989
Larry Kramer at his New York City home in 1989

Through the years, documentaries about the late Larry Kramer or featuring interviews with him in retrospective AIDS films, would run in theaters and inevitably after the screening, one would hear comments, "I know he helped our community, but I still can't stand him!"

Yet, with the exceptions of Alfred Kinsey, Harvey Milk, and perhaps Frank Kameny, Larry Kramer was the most significant gay man of the 20th century. This is not hyperbole or eulogizing praise.

Not only did his writings/protests save millions of lives by shifting national health policy on AIDS enabling effective treatment to reach PWAs, but the transformation in consciousness produced by his works and actions such that previously insurmountable institutional change became possible, LGBTQ people were emboldened to fight for their civil rights, culminating (but hardly ending) in less than two decades later previously unattainable marriage equality.

Larry Kramer at his New York City home in 1989  

It is not accidental that these four men were disliked by colleagues during their lifetimes, considered at times nasty, arrogant, and offensive. All played prophetic roles. To be a prophet, you must force people often against their wills to question the status quo or see unpleasant realities one would rather avoid and then suggest remedies that are often difficult and time consuming.

Certainly Kramer with his single-minded righteous fury made many long-lasting enemies, yet without his relentless even bellicose persistence, the revolution both in thinking and policies he sought, probably couldn't have occurred.

Yale to Hollywood
Perhaps the Rosetta stone of understanding Kramer's life was his search for love and to be loved, ironic since publicly he projected unlovableness. Kramer suffered early on a dearth of love in that his father recognizing his son was gay, rejected and emotionally abused him, constantly calling him sissy. Larry's first sex with a seventh-grade friend ended with that guy's betrayal by calling him a faggot in front of his classmates.

At Yale, Larry had an affair with a professor, but feeling he was the only gay student, attempted suicide. It took years of therapy before Kramer could accept his homosexuality. Many would argue there was a residue of shame and internalized homophobia about being gay that he never quite resolved.

There is little doubt Kramer was emotionally wounded, always looking for the validation his family never provided him, eventually pursuing a career in that land of artificial affirmation, Hollywood, as a screenwriter, with his first project, Woman in Love (including its famous homoerotic male nude wrestling scene) resulting in him being nominated for an Oscar. However, his celluloid vocation was short-lived because his next screenplay, a /musical version of Lost Horizon, was a critical and financial career-ending flop. He then began focusing on writing for the emerging gay literature movement.

Kramer's novel 'Faggots'  

Despite his revolutionary inclinations, Kramer harbored traditional ethics, undoubtedly influenced by his (secular) /Jewish upbringing, promoting monogamy and long-lasting relationships. His first novel, Faggots, published in 1978, was a lightning rod satire condemning men who used each other as sexual commodities both in and out of bathhouses and other excesses of gay life such as drugs.

Critics, straight and gay, eviscerated the book. Some gay bookstores refused to carry it because it painted a negative portrait of the community, fearing the novel would be used as ammunition by its enemies. He was viewed as a traitor for disowning the sexual freedom gay men had fought so hard to win.

In many ways, Faggots (never out of print) set the template for the rest of his life in that his creative artistry and activism were inseparable, because for him words spoken or written, were useless unless they produced demonstrable behavioral changes. Faggots also gave birth to his calling as an 'I told you so' moralizer and contemporary Cassandra warning of the catastrophe ahead, since the bathhouse culture Kramer deplored would become the breeding ground for the HIV virus a scant two years later. Behind all his unyielding truculence, was Kramer's love for his fellow gay compadres, imploring them not to dissipate their lives and talents.

Larry Kramer at an ACT UP protest, donning a Malcolm X T-shirt  

It was AIDS that ignited the firebrand Hebrew prophetic intensity in Kramer. It is useful to recall that while centuries later the Jews venerated their prophets, most of them had been killed by their ancestors because they were reviled for their unbending honesty. Kramer began publishing incendiary articles in The New York Native, urging gay men to refrain from sex until the cause of the disease was found, as it was likely they were spreading the infection to each other.

His most famous volatile writing was his 1983 invective, "1,112 and Counting," with its chilling apocalyptic introduction: "If this article doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble. If this doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men have no future on this earth."

Again, his explosive words were meant to unnerve and propel gay men to get the most up-to-date medical information and seek/advocate for potentially life-saving drug treatments.

Kramer claims to have co-founded in his apartment, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a service organization that circulated the little available medical information and caregiving for the early patients sentenced to death often in a matter of weeks after their diagnosis. However, that assertion is questionable, according to some of the surviving early members, especially gay writer pioneer Felice Picano.

In an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Picano wrote, "This is what I told William Goldstein, who was doing a bio of Kramer one month ago in a two-hour phone interview: Paul Popham asked some fifteen of his friends from Fire Island Pines to meet at his East 11th apartment to discuss what to do about HIV still not named. Over that previous summer of 1980 it had become clear to us that it was sexually transmitted, but we didn't know how. Many had sickened in that summer.

"Fourteen of us showed up, and Kramer came in late. He said, 'I can't be here with that Nazi,' meaning Enno Poerch, whose lover Nick Rock and whose housemate Rick Wellikopf were the first known east coast gays to die of AIDS. Enno was our friend, so Kramer was booted out and we had several organization, policy, set up meetings without him.

"A decade later I was out in Fire Island Pines and John Rodriguez, our recording secretary, said Kramer had asked for the GMHC records because he was writing a book. John sent him an invoice for photocopying but Kramer wanted the originals. John said "not even over my dead body." Kramer flat out lied about his role and how it happened. And I assume he wanted to doctor the secretary notes to rewrite history and self-aggrandize his role."

Collaboration was never Kramer's strong suit.

Kramer's play, 'The Normal Heart'  

Our Cassandra
Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government point man on AIDS (and now COVID-19), whom Kramer labeled an incompetent idiot and murderer for years (they later reconciled, especially after Fauci arranged for him to get an experimental drug to save his life after a liver transplant in 2001), two weeks ago on The PBS Newshour, recognized Kramer's historic achievement:

"His passionate, loud, iconoclastic and theatrical way of doing things changed the afflicted community with a given disease and the scientific/regulatory community that has such a great impact on them," said Fauci. "He said we can't be separate, you have to keep us in the tent. We've got to be there with you," with patients of most diagnoses involved in research through formal advisory boards. Other diseases, most notably breast cancer, followed the model set by ACT UP.

In a New York Times article by David France, who wrote a book and directed a documentary on ACT UP, France said that ACT UP principles influenced the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Like ACT UP, it brings together people tackling a waterfront of disparate issues: everything from voting rights to gender justice, health care, decarceration and immigration," says the Columbia law professor Kendall Thomas, whose ACT UP bona fides date to 1987.

"The movement for black lives would look very different if its thought leaders —many of whom are self-identified black queer people— hadn't been able to draw on the example of ACT UP, " he says. "Black activists and their allies now understand that the struggle for black freedom has to make connections across many different constituencies and concerns that used to be seen as different and disconnected."

'Reports From the Holocaust'  

ACT-ing Normal
All his frustrating experiences with GMHC and the despair of seeing so many friends die in the early years of "the plague" were channeled into his play, The Normal Heart, one of the first artistic productions to focus on the AIDS crisis. The Normal Heart and his subsequent dramas can all be interpreted as documentaries disguised as fiction, meant to motivate people to work to find a cure or get the federal, state, and local governments to help PWAs.

Again, for Kramer, there was no separation between his writing and activism; each bled into the other. The Normal Heart is often viewed as Kramer's highest literary achievement, though a similar argument can be made for his essays and speeches compiled in his book, Reports from the Holocaust, which functions as a journalistic first-draft-of-history document of those agonizing beginnings but also a textbook on stirring people to action. Regardless, both inventive works saved lives.

Perhaps his greatest artistic co-creation was the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP), a civil disobedience group, formed in 1987 to pressure the FDA to streamline approval of new drugs/treatment with patient involvement during this process, through the use of bold, confrontational, campy theatrical demonstrations on Wall Street, die-ins and kiss-ins to stop traffic. By 1989, ACT UP members most controversially disrupted a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral since Archbishop O'Connor at the time opposed the use of life-saving condoms to stop the spread of the disease.

A Kramer speech meant to motivate protestors proceeded accordingly: "Plague! 40 million infected people is a plague and you act like this. Until we get our act together, all of us, we are as good as dead."

If LGBT people were going to save their lives, they had to do it themselves. Kramer boasted, especially after the severely criticized St. Patrick protest, "We are no longer limp-wristed effeminate drag queens usually put on television. Our image has changed overnight."

Indeed it was a new image of LGBTQ people taking charge of their lives, willing to be proactive, rather than reactive, to secure their rights, the most basic one being survival. For mainstream straight society, the impassioned rights warrior replaced the flamboyant hedonistic party-goer.

'The American People'  

American homo history
After the introduction of the protease inhibitor drugs in 1996 transformed AIDS into a chronic condition, Kramer began focusing on LGBTQ people securing their civil rights, especially marriage. In 2005, one of his speeches was transcribed into a book, The Tragedy of Today's Gays, a screed maintaining that younger gay men were killing themselves with drugs (i.e. crystal meth), unprotected sex, reverting back to pre-AIDS hedonism, remaining ignorant of LGBT history, and unwilling to fight against the powerful for their rights. Both critics and the reading public largely ignored it.

During this period, Kramer began work on his magnum opus, The American People, a massive two-volume novel in which many prominent figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, among scores of others, were pronounced gay. It was dismissed by critics as an insufferable mess, but here again it was meant as an alternative documentary-like rewrite of American history in which LGBT people's roles and true influence was restored and recognized.

It never would have been received as history, but by fictionalizing it he could get away with some rather dubious interpretations of who was gay. Yet the real message of this work is that gay people are not invisible and must not be ignored. They have special gifts and talents society has disregarded or dismissed. Their important contributions to history must not be forgotten.

Throughout the novel, Kramer alerts LGBT people against the dangers of assimilation, warning them not to disappear into the larger culture and deny their originality to their detriment. Yet Kramer was an avid supporter of marriage equality, our culture's most assimilationist institution.

Still, without the bold-faced life-saving activism unleashed by his writings and ACT UP, as well as his promotion of stable long-term relationships, same-sex weddings would probably never have occurred so quickly in the last two decades. Kramer married his long-term partner in 2013 while in the hospital recuperating from bowel obstruction surgery. He seemed to have finally found the love he had been searching for his entire life.

Larry Kramer in 2017  

The right man
History will probably be kind to Kramer, especially considering the praise he received in the final decade of his life, culminating in a standing ovation when he appeared to receive the Outstanding Television Movie Emmy for the Ryan Murphy 2014 HBO production of The Normal Heart, which he wrote.

Despite savage appraisals of The American People, most critics paid homage to Kramer's activism. He spent the last few years repairing relationships with people he had cut off, such as playwright Tony Kushner or ACT UP fighter Peter Staley. His anger, never gone, did mellow.

Although, as suggested by Felice Picano, Kramer's memory and interpretation of decisive events will differ from historians, one fact is undeniable: that Kramer was the right man at the right time.

Gay men needed a fiery rabble-rouser in its darkest hour, a role Kramer had been preparing for his entire life. His plays, novels, essays, and speeches held up a mirror to the LGBT community and many didn't like the image they saw, but he did so out of love for them.

Tact and diplomacy weren't Kramer's virtues, but he didn't care if he was liked, only that his life-saving message was enacted. Kramer wasn't a great writer, but he was a brilliant polemical provocateur and at heart a social reformer, always urging queer people to be better than they were, even if at times it meant forcing them to do so against their will.

For this reason Larry Kramer deserves to be remembered and celebrated as the screaming brash visionary whose jeremiad soapbox changed the world.

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