Larry Kramer on Where We’ve Been and Where We Go From Here
by Steve Desroches
On an impossibly beautiful June day Larry Kramer walks into a naturally bright sunlit room far in the west end of Provincetown with a big, bright smile. Just about a week before his 80th birthday on the 25th, Kramer may be aging and his health fragile, but his resolve is as strong as ever, as is evident by the black ACT UP baseball cap he is wearing. But there’s more than that. As is often the case with giants of history, he exudes an energy with such a strong vibration that if your back were to him as he entered the room you would feel his presence before hearing or seeing him.
In town for the annual film festival, which is screening the new documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger as well as to promote his new book The American People: Volume 1, the writer and gay rights and AIDS activist legend sits down and a little black dog lays quietly under his legs, which are stretched out on the nearby coffee table. He smiles again.
“Getting old is a bitch,” says Kramer, not joking, but still smiling.
He sighs and then begins to talk about the times we live in, and though his fists may not be clenched and his voice is soft and gentle, he is still the same Larry Kramer whose thoughts and words can register on the Richter scale.
Just about the time of his landmark birthday the Supreme Court will be releasing a decision that could very well bring marriage equality to all of the United States. While there is an air of optimism that indeed the court will rule in favor of gay rights, Kramer is ever the fighter, with his eyes on the prize: full and lasting equality.
“If we get marriage from the Supreme Court—let’s hope—it’s not going to be out of the courts for years,” says Kramer. “Our enemies will not rest, much as they did with Roe vs. Wade, which is a shadow of its former self with all of Congress’ interference. We must not relax.”
While the backlash to the advancement of LGBT equality is already well under way, with the passage of various, so-called “religious freedom” laws, Kramer sees progress for what it is, just as he sees opponents of equality for who they are, fully aware of what they are capable of doing. Advancements in civil rights can be intoxicating, but they must never distract from the work that will always be at hand. Hate and bigotry grow best in the shade of indifference. In a recent Time magazine interview Kramer said, “we don’t have people as frightened as we were” referring to those days in the 1980s. So what is it that will mobilize gay people to continue fighting, even after achieving so much?
“I had hoped love would galvanize us,” says Kramer. “I love being gay. I want us all to have all that we are entitled to. It needs constant vigilance. I don’t know how many people are prepared to make that commitment. Also, we have to be responsible to each other, too. To not be so careless with sex and more responsible for showing the world how extraordinary we are.”
Kramer’s activism shares a place in history with his writing. Author of the comfort-shattering 1978 novel Faggots, as well as the landmark plays The Destiny of Me and The Normal Heart, Kramer released his latest novel, The American People: Volume 1, this past winter. It has made waves, as most everything he writes does. While classified as fiction, Kramer insists that the gay history within is true, something he feels is of vital importance as the history of gay people has largely been ignored, or purposefully buried. Since the beginning of time, and certainly since the beginning of America, gay people have been treated “abominably,” says Kramer. The scholarship on gay history suffers from a lack of historians able to adequately research and write about the role of gay people throughout time. It’s a DNA code missing from the strand of historical understanding. And just like the ACT UP protests outing the late New York City mayor Ed Koch, Kramer names names in his latest novel.
“Alexander Hamilton: he had a very passionate love affair with George Washington and a fellow soldier,” says Kramer. “The country became Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian because of it. That’s a big deal. But you don’t find that in any history book.”
Kaboom! While there is nothing radical about equality, it’s Kramer’s approach that pulls no punches and seeks to disrupt. He points to the University of Massachusetts at Boston professor Charles Shively who first wrote about poet Walt Whitman being gay, something that is now accepted as fact in academia. How many more were similarly kept in the closet of history? Kramer also points to the public health history that shows a huge spike in syphilis cases after every war.
“It never occurred to anyone that the soldiers were sleeping with each other,” says Kramer. “There were never any women around and yet they blamed it on women!”
Kramer and his husband David Webster have been coming to Provincetown for many years, and Kramer adds he finished a draft of The Normal Heart in Wellfleet. They even thought of moving here for a time, and kind of wish they did back when they could have afforded it. Nevertheless, he loves the safety and camaraderie of gay people in Provincetown, noting that while oases like these are important, it is just as crucial to remember it’s not the real world. The authenticity of gay people, as a people throughout time, is a vital part of achieving equality. We have to know where we came from to know where we are going.
“I think we must know all that I write about,” says Kramer in regards to the hidden history he reveals in his novel. “I want every gay person in America to read my book. Please learn from it. It’s long and there are parts that may be boring, and a lot of it is funny. But you’ll learn a lot.”