Larry Kramer Had the Courage to Act on His Fear

Larry Kramer could imagine the worst like no one else. But he also believed that the worst could be staved off with action.Photograph by Catherine McGann / Getty

Larry Kramer taught me the importance of a catastrophic imagination. No one I’ve known has feared as passionately as did Kramer, who died on Wednesday, at the age of eighty-four. He feared death. He feared tyranny. He feared for himself and others. He had the courage to imagine the implications of the things he feared, to act on his fear, and to demand that others imagine and act with him.

I first interviewed Kramer in 1988, when his collection of essays on AIDS, “Reports from the Holocaust,” was published. The way he told the story, he was not interested in politics until the AIDS epidemic. He had become rich working in the film industry, as a producer and a screenwriter; he was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” for which Glenda Jackson won an Oscar. Larry had encountered homophobia, especially as a student at Yale University, in the mid-fifties, but he positioned himself as a wealthy white man who learned his first political lessons in the nineteen-eighties. In a 1993 speech, he said, “In the last twelve years, I have learned what it is like to be treated like a kike . . . like a faggot, like a piece of shit. I have learned that people are not very nice, that there is no such thing as the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that intentional genocide is allowed.” Back then, it was unusual to hear a wealthy white man speak consciously about his position of privilege and the shock of learning its limits. It was a striking sort of reflection for a founder of ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—an activist organization that was animated in large part by the outrage of wealthy white men who could not believe that the government, the media, and the public would stand idly by while they died.

But, before Larry was political as he understood it, he already felt the fear. His 1978 novel, “Faggots,” a grotesque portrayal of New York gay party life, was full of dread. It seemed evident that the author expected some sort of retribution for his community’s promiscuity and drug use. It seemed he might expect a plague. The book was panned by gay activists as moralistic and preachy. “It was a badge of honor not to have read the book,” the longtime gay activist Andy Humm said, on Wednesday, during a broadcast of “Gay USA,” a television show he co-hosts. But perhaps Larry recognized the catastrophe when AIDS arrived because he had already imagined it. “It’s difficult to write this without sounding alarmist or too emotional or just plain scared,” he wrote, in the gay newspaper New York Native, in August, 1981, when a hundred and twenty gay men in the United States had been diagnosed with a rare cancer or a strange pneumonia that no one was quite sure yet had the same cause. Thirty people had already died of it. Soon Larry stopped pretending not to want to sound scared. In March, 1983, he wrote what might be his most famous column of the period, called “1,112 and Counting.” It began, “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.”

Just about every remembrance of Larry makes note of the anger that often made him uncomfortable company. His moralism made him uncomfortable, too. He was no gay liberationist. His radicalism was of a different kind: he was a gay nationalist. He believed that he belonged to a people with a history. He was also no social-constructionist—he believed that gay people had always been around, overlooked and written out of history. He set out to set the record right in his magnum opus, “The American People,” a sprawling, two-volume revisionist history in the form of a novel, of sorts, that traces the legacy of homosexuals in American history. Larry was proud of his heritage.

“I love being gay,” Larry said in a speech last June, during the Reclaim Pride Coalition Rally (an alternative celebration to the commercialized Pride march in New York). He was frail, in a wheelchair, with hearing aids in both ears, and, clearly, very happy to be addressing the crowd. “I love my people. I think in many ways we are better than other people. I think we are smarter and more talented and more aware of each other.” On other occasions, he admonished his people, saying that “we are better than this”—better than inaction, better than the idea that gayness was merely a matter of sexual orientation. He made the case for thinking of gay people as a people not unlike the Jews, and, as a Jew and a gay man, he insisted on the political importance of using the term “holocaust” to describe the decimation wrought by AIDS. A fan and careful reader of Hannah Arendt, he admired her “hugely for having the guts to raise . . . the question of the Jews’ own complicity in their mass extermination.” He was referring not only to a controversial and often misinterpreted passage in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” but, more broadly, to Arendt’s thinking on anti-Semitism, which she attributed in part to European Jews’ failure to claim political power as Jews. In an unpublished 2018 interview with the academic researcher Gregg Drinkwater, who is currently working on a paper on Larry and Arendt, Larry said, “When AIDS came along and gays were not mobilizing in any sufficient way, she was very helpful with what she said about the Jews at that time—that they should have their own army, for instance, which is what I looked upon ACT UP as being.”

Before ACT UP, Larry started Gay Men’s Health Crisis: in January, 1982, he organized what amounted to a medical briefing for a group of his friends in the living room of his apartment on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square Park. He used his columns in the Native to put out the call for money. But he quickly got frustrated with his colleagues’ focus on services: home health care, meals, and safer-sex education. His anger and constant demands for political mobilization, in turn, frustrated his fellow board members. Two years after the founding, Larry had to leave G.M.H.C.

Most people who knew Larry for a long time spent some of that time on his list of people he was not speaking to. The day he died, the writer and ACT UP historian Sarah Schulman posted on Facebook a picture of herself with Larry with the caption, “My 50th Birthday. The next day Larry called and screamed at me and said he would never talk to me again and then a few weeks later he gave me and Jim Hubbard $10,000 for our film UNITED IN ANGER: A History of ACT UP.” I was never close enough to Larry to have him scream at me, but after he visited me in Moscow, in 2007—he and his husband, David Webster, were in town for a wedding and came over for dinner—he told me in no uncertain terms, repeatedly, that I should leave the country. Everything was his business, and everything required his action.

Masha Gessen

2020-05-28 17:09:32

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