I was a student sitting in a cheap seat at the John Golden Theatre in the late spring of 2011, watching names write themselves across the back of a simple white unit set. They were the names of people who had died of AIDS-related illness; they flowed from left to right, slowly, behind characters beginning to understand and name and fight a terrifying new plague that threatened to kill them all. By the end of the night they filled the wall. These characters spoke in words that ran me over like a truck. I had never heard such words, nor did I then know the history of the pandemic and the murderous silence and contempt with which it was handled by the political class, liberal and conservative, of its day; a political class whose grip on power has only intensified.
The play was, of course, Larry Kramer’s polemic The Normal Heart, revived in New York for the first time after its 1985 Public Theatre debut, and I was just learning about being a writer and a gay human. I was there with a friend but at the end couldn’t speak a word. Before we walked silently to the subway, as we fought our way out the theatre door through crowds, a wizened old man handed me a leaflet. It was Kramer himself, who leafleted every evening’s performance with an afterword I have kept in my personal archive.
“Please know,” the leaflet began, “that everything in The Normal Heart happened.” I began to search and read, to think about the history of this epidemic and what it had meant. I began to radicalize in terms of my identity and in terms of my politics—to think of gay rights beyond the stultifying debates of marriage and military, and to question liberal bromides about opportunity and access. I learned about the many movements Kramer, who passed away last week, had participated in and the ways in which his words had helped to make them. Eventually, I became a writer and historian; I have begun to make the questions that the play raised the center of my life.
As I began to ask these questions I, at first, trusted Kramer blindly. “Nobody with a brain,” Kramer’s stand-in Ned Weeks says in the play, “gets involved in gay politics. It’s full of the unwashed radicals of any counterculture.” I assumed that all gay politics before the AIDS movement had been as apolitical as the ones after—that gay liberation had been as toothless as the Human Rights Campaign. “If fucking kills you, doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking,” asks the play’s doctor character, Emma Brookner; I assumed that a significant problem in the spread of HIV had been gay men’s simple refusal to stop fucking. I learned the history of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, which he had co-founded, and read Kramer’s famous essay, “1,112 and Counting,” written in the New York Native in March of 1983, with its invocation to “anger, fury, rage, and action,” its insistence that “our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get,” and I swallowed whole both his righteous rage at the murderous inaction of the neoliberal state and his equivocation between gay men who refused to become politically active and gay men who “refused to give up careless sex.”
Many of these assumptions were, of course, wrong, for Kramer was wrong about almost as much as he was right. If too many gay writers have embraced sex and beauty in uncomplicated ways—claiming style and consumption as politics, hiding behind pretty things—Kramer’s wholehearted turn away from them made him both one of our politics’ sharpest critics and also someone whose anger could paradoxically serve the systems of power whose effects he could so sharply describe and against whose effects he did so much to organize.
I am overwhelmed both with gratitude to him for his participation in and instigation of movements that made my life possible and anger at his blind spots and messianic complexes; I think his legacy as a writer, though, is a good place to begin to look to his life and politics for what they can teach us. Kramer is too important to primly and politely eulogize, to shower with vague praise. Instead, I wish to address Kramer as one of his narrators addressed his stand-in in the first volume of his last novel, The American People: “You fuckster! You are so fucksome. I love you very much.”’
Faggots, Kramer’s first novel, appeared in 1978, the same year as Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, and depicts the same pre-AIDS gay Manhattan milieu in peripatetic motion between parties, Fire Island orgies, and baths, including the infamous Everard, a 1977 fire at which serves as a climactic event in both books. Holleran’s take is triste and lush, full of romantic evocations of “that long summer season,” the prose is full of “blooming” and “enveloping” and the protagonist, a mysterious and emotionally unavailable beauty by the name of Anthony Malone, breaks hearts by the truckload before vanishing into the sea as the “warm, dark night [descends].” Kramer’s text gives us this world through the eyes of Fred Lemish, “your average, standard, New York faggot obsessive kvetch”—a distinctively Jewish voice, a stand-in for Kramer himself, someone searching for meaning and love not within but despite and against the glittering world of gay beauty and sex.
These books are sometimes misremembered as polar opposites, with Holleran characterized as an uncritical celebrant of 1970s gay life and Kramer an anhedonic critic; worse still, some observers, even recently, have referred to Faggots as though Kramer had been a prophet or a Cassandra, with one of Kramer’s eulogists appallingly referring to “the novel’s prescient view of a section of society out of control,” as though the tragic epidemiological accident of HIV were a morality play with deserving victims.
In fact, both Holleran and Kramer captured complex, if different, views of this subculture. If Holleran set up scenes of sexual excess between and behind layered sentences of lush beauty, Kramer thrust us headfirst into bodily fluids and sexual economies, into “tarnished, yellowed, peed-upon” bodies and “dyke shrinks” and “one blow job given and two anal intercourses, one given and one received.” Faggots, a misunderstood and deeply felt (and deeply Jewish) satire of gay life, could evoke as wistfully as Holleran a party at which the men merged into a “massive cake of solid body… radiating enough heat to defrost Arctic wastes… so many bodies bashing and twisting and poppers passed like party favors and seven men now hold me and we swing and sway and sweat becoming One!” Kramer’s satire of the scene’s “narcotic beauty” and Holleran’s deeply critical love letter to it were similarly criticized by contemporary gay critics for besmirching the scene’s reputation by dragging it down into the hypersexual toilet.
If Faggots itself was never as uncomplicatedly anhedonic as its critics believed, Kramer’s own way of talking about the book—and positioning his work in comparison to other gay writers he felt had abdicated their political responsibility during the AIDS crisis—didn’t help these misapprehensions. Kramer utterly missed the point of Edmund White’s masterful novel The Farewell Symphony, an elegy to the AIDS dead itself as queerly enraged, in its own way, as anything Kramer ever wrote; attacking the book in The Advocate as a “parade” of “what seems to be every trick he’s ever sucked, fucked, rimmed, tied up,” describing the book as “30 years with a nonstop erection and an asshole busier than his toilet.” In the essay where he attacked White, he praised the work of “Tolstoy or Zola or Balzac or Chekhov or Dostoyevsky,” demanding that gay fiction writers “go back and pick up where they left off” in order to pursue a “greatness” he would never conceptually complicate.
This would be the same “greatness,” the same fundamentally conservative vision of achievement and morality, of inclusion in the institutions whose shortcomings against which he could so brilliantly polemicize, that led him to first help create and then to denounce a center for gay and lesbian studies at Yale University, decrying the influence of “queer theorists” and “deconstructionists” and insisting that “gay history” meant tracking a historically stable identity, “pretty much the same since the beginning of human history,” and that doing it otherwise was “stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order.” In fact, understanding the crucial differences between how same-sex-loving and gender-nonconforming people have existed and understood themselves in different places and times is one of the most liberating aspects of studying ourselves. Gay faces in high places was too often the limit of his political vision.
This, we might call a kind of gay nationalism; and it, along with an attendant respectability politics, comes across in all of his writing. For all the power and beauty of The Normal Heart and his 1980s and 1990s essays, they too are blunt objects that attacked much that was undeserving along with what was deserving. As he grew older, his accuracy continued to decrease. His 2004 speech “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” was the first piece of writing I found when googling Kramer after my stunning experience viewing The Normal Heart, and for a time, I believed every word of it. “I love being gay,” Kramer began. “I think we’re better than other people. I really do.” This love—and the assumption that “gay people” form a transcultural, transhistorical category that is better—could inspire. It inspired me, for a time. But equally, it could stifle. Kramer, speaking after the re-election of George W. Bush, painted a dark picture of the next few years of gay politics; one which has not come to fruition, even if the epidemic of murders of trans women of color and police violence against queer people, which are not mentioned in the text, and broader forms of inequality and attacks on democracy, which are, have. For Kramer, America had been a fundamentally good country—“the richest and most liberal nation in the history of civilization”—until it was turned hard right into a “classist, racist, homophobic imperial army” by Reagan and the conservative movement. But what of slavery, of redlining practices ongoing in the 1970s? What of the genocide of America’s indigenous inhabitants? Kramer’s conviction that New Deal liberalism was America’s telos, a particularly midcentury New York Jewish intellectual point of view, blinded him to the continuities in America’s history of hate.
The gay people that Kramer loved had, he said, responded to Reagan’s disciplined conservative army with nothing other than mindless sex. Responding to a crystal meth epidemic that sociologists have attributed to the closure of queer spaces and rapidly gentrifying cities, Kramer could only muster a Cosbyesque moralism: “You want to kill yourself. Go kill yourself. I’m sorry. It takes hard work to behave like an adult. It takes discipline… When are you going to realize that for the rest of your lives, probably for the rest of life on earth, you are never going to be able to have sex with another person without a condom! Never!”
Ten years later, in a New York Times interview, he called people taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis against HIV infection, available since 2012) “cowardly,” arguing that they had taken “a drug that is poison…that has lessened [their] energy to go out and fight for anything.” This was after multiple peer-reviewed studies had established the safety and efficacy of these drugs, which he would eventually come to endorse after years of decrying them and people who used them. Referring, in the 2004 speech, to antiretroviral HIV treatment as “daily chemotherapy” and insisting that the treatments would imminently stop working—an insistence with no support from medical research—he said, “you cannot continue to allow yourselves and each other to act and live like this!” By “this,” he meant the partying and sex that, he insisted, indicated that gay men had “brought the plague of AIDS on ourselves.” The sad irony of his love for gay people is that it led him towards an echo of his archenemy Ronald Reagan, who, as his Surgeon General C. Everett Koop later reported, insisted that gay men and intravenous drug users who contracted HIV were “only getting what they justly deserved.”
This worldview ultimately limited his anger. It kept it moral, rather than political. I do not mean here that Kramer was not a political writer or that he did not make political change—it is difficult to imagine a writer whose words did more. What I do mean is that his anger’s targets were often either too broad or not broad enough. He attacked gay people he thought should have done better, according to his standards, without interrogating his standards and their implication in broader social systems that produced many of the evils he decried. He saw the awful effects of structures but could only describe their workings in the personal. Upon his death, many of the representatives of the shadowy networks of evil he so passionately described began to absorb his work and legacy. His anger was, upon his death, warmly praised by Reaganesque political figures like Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg and Bill DeBlasio, who made his statement about Kramer and the importance of angry protest just in time to start tear-gassing Black Lives Matter marches in New York City.Kramer’s anger, which had sustained him from Faggots through his AIDS activism, was fundamentally an anger that gay men could be better, and were refusing to be.
Kramer’s final novel, The American People, a sprawling effort across two volumes, takes readers from gay orgies led by George Washington to monkeys swapping AIDS before the dawn of human civilization, from a Jewish family outside Washington, DC to secret Nazi camps in North Dakota. Kramer’s American history, story, and people are drenched in blood and shit and piss. They fight and fuck and use one another, they struggle for dominance over land and other peoples. The book is narrated by a rotating cast of fantastically-named individuals: Dame Hermia Bledd Wrench and Dr. Sister Grace Hooker, Dr. Bosco Dripper and Dr. Israel Jerusalem. At its center sits Fred Lemish, Kramer’s literary stand-in, slapping down historians and institutions and naming dozens of presidents and historical figures as gay. Underneath it all, as a metaphor for the dark heart of all American history, AIDS (called “The Underlying Condition”), the voice of which occasionally takes over narrative duties.
Here, all of Kramer’s limits and potential as an artist can be found. His anger is entirely justified but its targets are too often wrong. He continued to insist that gay men, white ones, had always existed in the same ways and had always been both at the pinnacles of power and at the bottom of the social pyramid: uniquely and innately advantaged and persecuted. A gay writer like Gary Indiana, someone who similarly refused the winsome lyricism with which gay voices and stories (at least the ones accepted into the canon’s periphery) have often cloaked themselves, could, in a book like Three Month Fever, strike out with deadly precision at the ways in which gay men were complicit in social lives of unrelenting shallowness, in which status achieved through having the right look and having competed to consume as much as possible—sex, drugs, bodies—had become more important than any possible comradeship or solidarity.
This angered Larry Kramer too: this anger, which had sustained him from Faggots through his AIDS activism, was fundamentally an anger that gay men could be better, and were refusing to be. This anger inspired me and many others to the conviction that these questions matter. But The American People attacks sex and drugs themselves rather than their commodification, and refuses to see, as Three Month Fever does so clearly, that there is no particular reason why identity category of “gay” should make anyone any better or worse. Different, maybe. But not better or worse.
Despite the limits of his moral rage, Kramer did more than most writers ever have or will to make political change. Maybe this suggests a final thing we can learn from him, something important in this age of self-consciously political art. Those of us whose lives are not daily at risk, whether from pandemics new or old or from murderous police or lack of healthcare or housing or food, can learn from what Larry Kramer was able to achieve and address ourselves to the unglamorous work of changemaking—work which demands much of our time, and our bodies, and our ability to listen, and to which fugues of prosodic debate between and about white men, gay or not, are mostly irrelevant.