National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 36, This Week: The Extraordinary Heart Of Larry Kramer

Marking an amazing turn of events Sunday, veteran gay activist Larry Kramer took the stage to accept a Tony Award for the “Best Revival” of his gritty AIDS-themed 1985 play, “The Normal Heart.”

Marking an amazing turn of events Sunday, veteran gay activist Larry Kramer took the stage to accept a Tony Award for the “Best Revival” of his gritty AIDS-themed 1985 play, “The Normal Heart.”

Kramer stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest as a prophetic champion of the cause of full enfranchisement for LGBT persons, even as he has faced a barely relenting cascade of criticism from among those very persons over his many years of tireless involvement.

Sunday’s Tony Awards, which brought him not only before a capacity crowd at New York’s Beacon Theater but before millions worldwide, was a small reward for his strivings, hardly adequate to the magnitude of his contribution, but something.

Kramer has always been a passionate truth-teller, as the autobiographical content of “The Normal Heart” demonstrates. So unwilling was he to play by rules of civility while pressing for governmental action to address the raging epidemic of AIDS in the early 1980s, Kramer was booted out of the very organization he founded to fight the contagion.

In those earliest days of the outbreak, no one knew what AIDS was. All anyone knew was that gay men began suddenly getting very sick, very fast and in very big numbers. And they were dying like flies.

Kramer, to his everlasting credit, wasted no time taking action. When the first public reports of the syndrome surfaced the summer of 1981, Kramer and a small contingent organized the “Gay Men’s Health Crisis,” and began sounding alarms within the community. They put a table at the dock on Fire Island on Labor Day Weekend 1981 to raise money and awareness to “Fight Gay Cancer” (the best anyone could call it then). But as 18,000 gay men walked past them to the beaches that weekend, they absorbed nothing but ridicule and indifference, raising only $124.

I presume most of those 18,000 gay men, coming to Fire Island because of their proclivities for sexual promiscuity, wound up dying from AIDS themselves.
When Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart,” he’d been forced into exile by his own community. Leaving New York, he wrote the play starting in 1983 as a form of personal therapy, to unload his burden through his art.

What he wrote captured the urgency, the frantic hysteria, pain and bewilderment that attended the outbreak of the crisis.

In it, Kramer blamed not only government inaction, but also what had devolved through the 1970s into what had become the urban gay community’s normative, dizzying descent toward egregious sexual excess. With a notable prescience, in 1978 Kramer had sounded the warnings of not only the emotionally numbing effects, but also of something yet unnamed, unmanifested that would become some terrible consequence of such behavior.

That was the subject of his novel, Faggots, written in 1978 even as the HIV virus was raging silently and yet-undetectably through the bloodstreams of thousands who passed their blood multiple times nightly in the back rooms, the truck trailers, parks, bath houses and sex clubs of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere.

That novel elicited anger and bellicose outcries from leaders of LGBT officialdom, who insisted on silence about such matters from its gay and pro-gay politicians, social and religious leaders. But Kramer insisted on truth.

Yes, as much as anybody, he saw it coming.

But he spent little time blaming gays once the epidemic broke out. He pleaded for them to stop their excessive sexual habits, but more angrily demanded the Koch and Reagan administrations mobilize to address it.

Finishing “The Normal Heart,” Kramer went back onto the streets of New York and elsewhere, founding ACT UP from among the swelling legions of new LGBT activists taking up the cause through peaceful civil disobedience.

A leader on the government side of the AIDS fight, Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently wrote that Kramer’s efforts had, indeed, made a crucial difference in eventually bringing the federal government to its senses.

The ruling elite’s right-wing efforts to undermine the gay movement in the late 1960s by flooding it with anarchistic, hedonistic calls for “sexual freedom” was critical for pushing gay behavior toward the excesses that invited AIDS.

In “The Normal Heart,” Kramer mentions a rumor widespread in that era of a sinister right-wing conspiracy hatched at Fort Dietrick, Maryland, to develop and spread the HIV virus into the gay scene. He doesn’t endorse or deny the rumor, he just mentions it. To my mind, even if such forces didn’t conjure up and spread the deadly pestilence, they would have if they could.

Characteristic of his extraordinary heart, in his acceptance speech Sunday, Larry Kramer said, “I could not have written it had not so many of us so needlessly died. Learn from it, and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people. And that our day will come.”
To be continued.