Gay history is the dominion of gay people. We create it, obviously, but more importantly, we maintain it. As long as LGBTQ history remains unsung and under-taught, it is abundantly clear that we must tell our own stories and show why they are important, in the process creating hero narratives from the stuff of our existence. And Larry Kramer, the gay activist, writer, and provocateur who died of pneumonia Wednesday at age 84, was a master of self-mythology.
His furious energy is what sold it. At least to me. I remember being a young teen knowing that I was gay and not wanting to face it (despite being called a faggot routinely by kids in my school from second grade on) but yearning for some vicarious channel for my anger. I found that Malcolm X could do the trick: His eloquent rage rendered public speaking into art, he was accessible thanks to his widely-read autobiography and the gorgeous Spike Lee movie based on it, and his cause of antiracism was socially acceptable in the early ‘90s in a way that gay rights just couldn’t be for me at the time. I could channel my anger at general inequality into addressing racism specifically.
Even after coming out over a decade later, I held onto Malcolm as the ideal symbol of righteous indignation. The thing about gay history is that if you aren’t actively seeking it out, there’s a good chance you might not learn it. It wasn’t until I saw David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague that I felt what I guess you could call my velvet rage reflected back at me onscreen by Larry Kramer.
I still think about this scene all the time, how Kramer could fiercely cut through all of the bickering bullshit in a room of activists and shift the focus to what truly mattered: The plague. AIDS. Kramer watched his friends, lovers, adversaries, and others drop dead around him and it ignited a fire in him. In a series of articles that eventually filled a book, he chronicled the disease in its earliest days. He loudly took to task the New York Times’ sporadic coverage, as well as President Ronald Regan and New York mayor Ed Koch’s apathy, which allowed the disease to proliferate. Kramer was instrumental in founding the early activist groups the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and then ACT UP, after he was thrown out of the former. Without those groups, made up of enterprising queer people who essentially taught themselves about pharmaceutical science and public health, the crisis might still be as uncontrollable as it was in the early days. We might still be in the “plague years.” The AIDS activists of the ‘80s and ’90s that Kramer helped focus and assemble were instrumental in the discovery and adoption of antiretroviral drugs that today can control HIV to the extent that it functions as chronic condition, and not the death sentence that it was initially known to be. In this endeavor, Larry Kramer was indispensable. Who knows where the epidemic, and for that matter we, would be without him.
The emergence of AIDS made Kramer look something like a prophet. His widely read and much maligned 1978 novel Faggots seemed to predict a reckoning gay men would face if they continued their liberation-era promiscuity: The novel’s protagonist Ned, understood to be a thinly veiled stand-in for Kramer himself, begs his nonmonogamous object of desire Dinky to commit “before you fuck yourself to death.” Faggots is a thorny, at times clunky novel, equal parts trashy beach read and profound meditation on connection. In his excellent history of gay literature Eminent Outlaws, writer Christopher Bram says Kramer’s book is “an erotic novel that denounces sex, which is kind of schizophrenic, but sex often turns people nuts. Kramer and his enemies would later claim the book is a uniform denunciation of gay promiscuity, but it actually revels in sexuality.” Bram adds that Faggots sold well—around 350,000 copies—and unsurprisingly, at that. “It gave gay readers the opportunity to feel morally superior to men who got laid more often than they did and to jerk off,” Bram reasons.
Even if it was morally shoddy, there was something very real about the ambivalence Kramer expressed about sex in Faggots: He knew it was thrilling and scary. He knew it could be a haven and a prison. From what I’ve read, he regarded his own sex life with similar ambivalence. (He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, years into his activism.) And besides, as Bram points out, Kramer “turned out to be right. His sexual anxiety enabled him to see things that others were not yet ready to recognize, just as a color-blind person can see patterns not immediately visible to the color sighted. And his injured pride and loose-cannon temper enabled him to say what others were slow to express.”
But as the epidemic tightened its grip on Kramer’s people, and abstaining from promiscuous sex seemed to be one of the few viable strategies to control a spiraling epidemic, Kramer’s rhetoric became more laser-focused and unforgiving of the kind of free living (and the abundance of sex that came with it) that so many gay men were enjoying just a few years before.
Reading Kramer’s regularly stated attitudes regarding sex in the decades that followed, one can get the sense that he was a crusader who wanted to save humanity while neglecting its essence. He wanted people to live, but while refraining from what people do, which is fuck. A review of his frenemy Edmund White’s autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony that The Advocate ran in May 1997 found Kramer lambasting the book’s sexual content: “[H]e parades before the reader what seems to be every trick he’s ever sucked, fucked, rimmed, tied up, pissed on, or been sucked by, fucked by, rimmed by, tied up by…. Surely life was more than this, even for—especially for—Edmund White.”
Brams said that this review marked “the first shot in Kramer’s strange new war against gay promiscuity,” which continued with a New York Times op-ed that ran December 12, 1997. In “Gay Culture, Redefined,” Kramer eviscerated a liberation-minded group called Sex Panic, which he accused of having “taken it upon itself to demand ‘sexual freedom,’ which its members define as allowing gay men to have sex when and where and how they want to. In other words, this group is an advocate of unsafe sex, if this is what is wanted, and of public sex, if this is what is wanted. It advocates unconditional, unlimited promiscuity.” Imagine this coming out today and seeing Gay Twitter melt down into two distinct pools of babble, for and against Kramer’s prude crusade. (In a footnote, Bram points out that Kramer misrepresented Sex Panic’s m.o., which was “to stop the recent demonization of sex and wave of arrests in public places. But the mere mention of sex seemed to make Kramer irrational.”)
The fact of the matter is that a hard-line attitude against sex is only bound to be theoretical. Look around and it is clear by the continued existence of our species: People are gonna fuck. The moralizing that Kramer espoused was impractical and, as such, amounts to shaming people for pleasure. It’s not that Kramer didn’t have a point or the experience to back it up; it’s that he lacked the ability to bridge his idealism and human reality. That’s hardly surprising; he wasn’t a superhero, just a hero, and only that occasionally.
Kramer ran on a fuel of piss and vinegar and it eventually pickled his ideology. In 2014, two years after the FDA had approved Truvada as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) which about as close to an HIV vaccine as medicine can be without actually being a vaccine, Kramer denounced the use of the drug. “Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads,” he told the Times in a profile. “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” A month later, he doubled down in a Times op-ed, saying he believed that taking Truvada, a drug that promised to save lives like the ones Kramer watched his brothers lose for decades, was a bad idea. His reasoning: “There is already a lot of complacency among gay men that makes the lucky uninfected neglect or reject condom use. So we don’t know the full story well enough to be raving so uncritically and warning so little.”
Thanks to educated activists like Peter Staley and James Krellenstein, Kramer turned around a year later, admitting that PrEP was an effective strategy for fighting the spread of HIV and that the exorbitant pricing of Truvada by pharmaceutical company Gilead was the real threat to the drug’s effectiveness. Given that stopping the disease seemed to be Kramer’s life work, it was puzzling and maddening that he took so long to endorse it. When PrEP emerged, many naysayers took on Chicken Little’s tenor, openly fretting about the hypothetical problems such a regimen could create (more promiscuity, more condom abandonment, the opportunity for another as-yet-unknown microbe to ravage a population that had relaxed its attitudes about sex) without paying much mind to the existent issues PrEP stood to solve. (“Condom fatigue,” for example, had been a topic of conversation amongst gay men since the early ‘90s, before the antiretroviral revolution.) Antiretrovirals work, and Larry Kramer of all people should have known that. It was as though his ideals of proper etiquette among gay men clouded his cause.
Kramer’s bluster was his trademark, as though he took to heart his own words from his acclaimed 1985 play The Normal Heart: “Don’t lose that anger,” as the dying Felix tells Ned (again, a Kramer cognate). The Normal Heart was pure, uncut Kramer, a furious and self-fellating narrative that loosely told the story of his founding of and ejection from GMHC. It is, like all of Kramer’s writing, imperfect and highly spirited. He allowed few of the characters the depth afforded to the one he based on himself, but what depth it is. Ned is a hero and an asshole and the play suggests that both of these qualities nourished each other. For all of his focus and unyielding articulation, Kramer’s creative forte was ambivalence. Through it, he transmitted to his audience the functional truth of life: It’s messy and conflicted and even at its most coherent, it barely makes much sense.
He showed that he could be measured and clear-eyed about the shortcomings of the movement that he helped start. In a 2018 interview, he proclaimed that “AIDS is worse than ever.” But behind the trademark Kramer bombast was nuance: “Most of the world remains untested for HIV. What we only hear about are the small pockets of success which lead to far too much self-congratulation.” He elaborated that those small pockets consisted of “upper and middle class areas of white men in places like NYC and San Francisco.”
In a 2018 New York Times op-ed with the pessimistic title, “For Gays, the Worst Is Yet to Come. Again.,” Kramer shrugged off credit for his life’s work because his cause remained incomplete:
I am constantly being thanked, even by people in the street stopping me, for what I have done to save my people. Such thanks make me uncomfortable. I don’t think I have done anything that any gay person could not also have done. Throughout the worst of these plague years we had at the most only several thousand of us fighting all over the country. Out of some 20 million or so of us.
Elsewhere in the piece, he reminded readers that, “I’m supposed to be dead by now.” Indeed, Kramer, who had wrestled with a number of health issues beyond HIV throughout much of the past three decades, had been effectively handed a death sentence when he was diagnosed in 1988. And yet, he lived to see the dawn of antiretrovirals and then lived decades beyond that. One of the most famous HIV-positive people to be diagnosed during the plague years, Kramer died at 84, over five years older than the average human life expectancy of 79. His death has understandably saddened the legion of LGBTQ people and their allies that his words touched, but his longevity is cause for celebration. He fought for his life and he won. That’s living glory.