Receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the wunderkind age of 24 could have ensured Larry Kramer gay literary lionization, but having earned a place at the table he didn’t sit quietly, hands folded, napkin neatly in his lap. Instead, he engaged in a conversation, still ongoing, that rarely makes people comfortable. “I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met,” he once famously said.
As the 1970’s ran aground onto the hard shoals of the 80’s, Kramer’s first novel was published and the backlash was swift and extraordinary. “I loved writing Faggots,” Kramer recalls. “I loved playing with the style, and I just assumed everyone would like it too.”
He was in Italy when he read the first review of his book. “I sat in this beautiful little square in Florence and opened a copy of Body Politic,” he recalls. “It was awful. It said basically ‘This is a horrible book and you must tell all your friends not to buy it.’ I sat there, so far from home and just absorbed it.”
The problem with Faggots was not that it was a bad book. By 1987, the gay world Larry Kramer described so vividly in these hauntingly prophetic words, “Later, it would be recollected as the False Summer. Everything had bloomed too quickly,” was gone, and his much hated novel was increasingly seen as handwriting on the wall. The problem at the time was that he offended his hosts. A gay novel was not allowed to be critical in its portrayal of an emotionally immature gay culture obsessed with status and appearance, and engaging in a post sexual-liberation pendulum swing of hedonistic excess. It shocked straight readers, but infuriated gays. Things got so ridiculous that Kramer was not allowed inside the grocery store on Fire Island.
Kramer could have flipped off his critics and walked away, but as history would prove, he doesn’t leave the field of battle while the bullets are still flying, and the decade just dawning brought with it the gay community’s first epic battle.
In 1981, before AIDS even had a name, a group of men gathered in Larry Kramer’s apartment and formed the first community-based response to the epidemic. Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) provided assistance and support to men who were becoming infected. Kramer was vocally critical of the apathetic response from both the government and the gay community and, seen as being too loud, he was ousted from GMHC two years after its formation. But he didn’t shut up.
In 1985 Kramer’s landmark play, The Normal Heart, eviscerated the response to AIDS on the part of New York City, the medical establishment, the Federal Government, and the media. Some of his harshest criticisms were directed at the gay community for not looking to itself and its own behavior for solutions. Larry Kramer was getting even louder.
In 1987, he founded The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Wall Street was effectively targeted, and the price of AIDS drugs came down. Blood was splashed on the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in protest of the Catholic Church’s stance against AIDS education and condom distribution. The urgent issues were the focus for ACT UP, and they attacked them with creativity, vigor, and something new in the gay community: militant aggression.
He continues to write and speak with passion and anger and the response continues to be passionate anger. He says what he believes to be true, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, and no matter what the personal cost.
Receiving the Pioneer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation is interesting to Kramer. “I’ve never been taken seriously by the gay literary set. I was never invited to join the Violet Quill, and I think that is partially because I wrote political stuff and was so involved in activism. This is not a country where major writers are political. It’s a sad commentary that we don’t have a Günter Grass or a Roberto Bolaño.”
His two-volume, 4,000 page leviathan of historical reclamation, The American People, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and will be satisfyingly inflammatory. It emerges from a perspective his own history taught him “Because of AIDS, because Ronald Reagan hated gay people, we were punished. I learned that when that term, The American People is used it doesn’t include me. But even though you’ve treated us like shit, we’ve been here since the beginning. We are the founders of this country.”
He is using his place at the table once again to urge his hosts to do more. “I don’t think we reach for the moon and stars enough, we don’t challenge ourselves enough. We have an incredible history, and no one is writing about that. Our lives are about more than what we do with our cocks. Writing is about astonishing people.”
—— Photo: Donna F. Aceto