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On Larry Kramer

Gay Liberation and His Peculiar Legacy

June 2, 2020

Larry Kramer has left us. Larry was the confusing sum of a half a century of gay politics. He was complicated and imperfect. Larry was a constant source of honesty. There is no doubt in my mind that Larry, in his very flawed and sometimes out-of-tempo way, saw himself as putting gay people first. He wasn’t very politically sophisticated. The New York Times is definitely not a friend of the gays in their use of certain words while his blood is still warm, but to call him confrontational or aggressive would not be an understatement.

Of his gift as a screenwriter, I will say that I have in fact seen Women in Love (1969), for which Kramer was nominated for an Academy Award. However, I must admit I remember very little aside from the gratuitously nude wrestling scene between two men, decades before straight people would be shocked by the pseudo-frottage of Borat and Eastern Promises. I think this is the most well-remembered historic memory of his screenwriting that we can recall. His work as a playwright is more worthy. However, it’s the Larry that would write Faggots (1978) and who founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) that left his mark where I could see it.

I think defending Faggots in 2020 is a lot easier than doing so in 1978. When the book came out, it was clear the world was not yet ready for Larry. You would be silly to think Larry could write Faggots without being from the world he wrote about. However, in 1978 the graphic detail of gay sexuality—or any sexuality for that matter—was going to be met with disgust by straight people. When this was combined with what was viewed as a sex-negative protagonist, it makes sense why this was considered a disservice to gay politics at a time when bathhouses were still being raided and gay sex was still being persecuted. People who were veterans of the gay liberation movement could not turn around so quickly and begin to see in the decadence and transgression something to be cautious of. It pissed them off—and rightly so—as they had so recently fought for their right to be transgressive, and we should continue to defend it. Straight people would hate it for the gay sex, and gay people would hate it for the attitude towards gay sex.

Forty years have passed since Faggots was released, and I fail to see how we have become more sexually liberated. I will make no apology for our magnificent system of casual sex in the fast lane and the “party hard” lifestyle adjacent to it, from the early days of cottage and public glory holes to today’s “Truvada whores.” The greatest tragedy of gay liberation thus far has been the development and consolidation of a gay ruling class. This is why the pride parades feel like commercialized, family-friendly caricatures of the wild parties that were in turn, caricatures of the wild protests we used to have. This is why gay bathhouses feel like jails, where the staff is always mad at you, restrictive signs are posted everywhere, your stuff is locked up when you leave and enter, there are few windows and high walls, a unique set of rules govern every social interaction, you should probably be careful, and no matter what brought you there, you’re bad for being there. I must say, we have been duped if we think what we’ve settled in is not alienating.

So long as the queers do not control our sexual health, clinics, bathhouses, sex clubs, etc., the entire legacy of queer liberation and of sexual liberation will remain incomplete.

Faggots is about someone burned out by the above and questioning whether our authentic selves could find long-term fufillment, and I can’t say that I don’t see his side of things. The casual sex itself isn’t a problem; it’s the managing and policing of sex in the “fast lane,” the relegation of this to our “free time.” Sexuality begins to look like work—a grind, even. We can’t truly think of ourselves as sexually free this way, and for Larry, this meant the kind of emotionally intimate partnership he couldn’t obtain. That’s not an uncommon feeling as someone who’s had enough drug fueled sex for a lifetime. I think Silvia Federici, in “Why Sexuality Is Work” speaks to this other side of sexual liberation which remains incomplete:

Sexuality is the release we are given from the discipline of the work process. It is the necessary complement to the routine, regimentation of the work-week. It is a license to “go mad,” to “let go,” so that we can return more refreshed on Monday to our jobs.

The world of anonymous and wild gay sex, which I love so dearly, still doesn’t prevent sex from being subject to what is done to our labor, chopped up into individual pieces, commodified in terms of leisure time vs. productive time, and alienating us from our truest desires.

A further completion of sexual liberation is difficult to describe in the present, but we know it will come with the transformation of our relations of labor and care, away from the “Sexuality as Work” Federici describes. I do know the first step looks like a conquest of political power. So long as the queers do not control our sexual health, clinics, bathhouses, sex clubs, etc., the entire legacy of queer liberation and sexual liberation will remain incomplete. We do not often see these as sites of rebellion or struggle, but the fact is, they are not under the control of a great deal of us, they define and shape particular moments in our lives, and we have very little say in how they are run and operated.

Gay Men’s Health Crisis was there when AIDS was still called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency.” Gay Men’s Health Crisis showed how emergent new forms of collective care reproduce workers in new horizons of struggle. The first, most immediate task, which took years to become sustainable and self-sufficient, was to take up the health care for those who were routinely refused, left to die, possibly housed in hospitals but untouchable by staff. Survival necessitated this. It also necessitated political militancy, which Larry couldn’t find in the GMHC.

He would come to double-down on the views he put forward in Faggots in an alarming and provocative essay, “1,112 and Counting.” This was received a bit differently, given its urgent tone and no-punches-held method. It couldn’t be denied that AIDS was something to be taken seriously, and that we would need a movement if we were to survive AIDS. Larry suffered from a bit of foot-in-mouth syndrome. I think if I were around then, and especially as my younger self, I’d probably hate him. However, people listened to Larry, and I don’t know if that would be possible if he were anyone but himself. We desperately needed people to listen then.

Larry came out of years of being burned out by the very important work of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He felt held back by the need to have a Board of Directors and the lack of political freedom that being an NGO imposed. Larry wanted to take down everyone in his way. Larry was willing to go further and push for the most militant tactics possible, even if some might call it a bluff. Larry was a real motherfucker when it came to being an activist. He knew how to grapple with power. Remember what I said about Larry not being very politically sophisticated? It sort of didn’t matter. Larry was the face of desperation that was in the air, his way of doing things was somewhat indicative of this. He was a part of the reality to be dealt with. He didn’t sugarcoat anything and didn’t give a fuck what you thought, to the dismay of many. He yelled, he cursed, he didn’t mind bad publicity, he called elected officials “incompetent bureaucrats.”

The way I see it, we can’t know for sure that what we have today, or even twenty-five more years of Larry’s life, would have been possible without Larry’s threat to “shoot back” and “riot.”

Everything was on the table for ACT UP tactically, and Larry Kramer was sure to always push the envelope. The group was committed to non-violent civil disobedience, but its members were the frequent target of epithets, particularly being called “violent” themselves. Around the Sixth International AIDS conference in 1990, he infamously called for a riot. He would end up not showing up, but his “dangerous rhetoric” raised temperatures (and tactics) at that very critical moment. It was a peak, a turning point for ACT UP. The actions in 1990, a few years into ACT UPs life, were undeniably the most militant. The movement was becoming more desperate as people were continuing to die, and new tactics were increasingly considered. AIDS movement historians don’t tend to remember this moment well, or in Larry’s favor at least. The way I see it, we can’t know for sure that what we have today, or even twenty-five more years of Larry’s life, would have been possible without Larry’s threat to “shoot back” and “riot.”

The course would also change afterwards, into a period where Kramer along with Treatment and Data (T&D) committee would lead themselves out of ACT UP, and back to that with which he had previously broken: a seat at the table and his support for folding the movement into Clinton’s “Manhattan Project for AIDS.” T&D were self-educated experts, sometimes more so than the bureaucrats they would beckon, on everything from drug policy and law to virology, pharmacology, and more.; they had become autodidacts out of desperation. Clinton’s “promise” was a lie, and ACT UP had been decapitated for years by the time a proven antiretroviral regimen was found and approved. It was a tragic time for the movement; besides having capitulated politically, people began to die in greater and greater numbers.

Despite his tactical militancy, Larry wasn’t very radical. However, ACT UP would end up influencing the 90s anarchism and queer radicalism that spoke to me as an teenager angry about the Iraq War. People don’t line up to tell you about your own history, so I wouldn’t learn about Larry for a few more years. However, I am, in a lot of ways, and certainly with reservation, a product of Larry Kramer. We sometimes don’t get to pick and choose that kind of thing. My life is sustained by the shitpails he changed, the streets he forced himself onto, and the medicine for which he fought. I don’t feel a need to put the entirety of Larry Kramer on trial to realize that either. I hope to have an inkling of his audacity.

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