National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 57: ‘Life, Liberation & Happiness,’ Part 2: Prophetic Anger

Gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer, interviewed in advance of a reading in Washington, D.C. of his 1985 AIDS era play, “The Normal Heart,” has changed little over the years.

He remains like an Old Testament prophet, an image he first adopted in the gay movement writing the controversial “Faggots” in 1978. That novel warned presciently that sexual excesses within core urban gay subcultures of the 1970s was headed toward some form of disaster.

Only three years later, AIDS manifested. Kramer leaped to action in that summer of 1981, founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. When he pushed his colleagues harder than they wanted, they voted him off the board of his own organization. He left town to write about it all, creating “The Normal Heart.”

Kramer exhibited the same fire in an interview with the Metro Weekly magazine last week that fueled his play and his leadership of the ACT UP organization he later founded that is universally credited with spurring the government to find a way to keep AIDS victims alive.

Uneasy gay leaders today, still feeling the abrasive heat of Kramer’s stridency, have chosen a single word to blunt, if not dismiss, his message: “angry.” Kramer is almost universally called “angry,” “too angry,” as if that’s a bad thing.

In particular, they are irritated by Kramer’s insistence that nothing has really changed in the gay community since the 1970s. He claims advances in laws and social attitudes favoring the LGBT community are due to factors outside the community, while levels of apathy and complacency remain as endemic within it as before.

First, people must face the unpleasant fact that Kramer, despite his allegedly off-putting manner, has been right, historically, when everyone else was wrong. He was right to place the blame for AIDS flatly onto the behavior patterns of gay men, themselves. It made everyone uncomfortable, but was true.

(He’s like the French. Reviled by Americans when they refused to join in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – many changed “French fries” to “freedom fries” – they turned out to be right for eschewing the invasion, but they’re distrusted still.)

Second, as he said in the interview, Kramer insists that there is no real leadership in the LGBT movement. While there are important organizations providing for needs in our community, everything in terms of advocacy is geared toward incremental gains in equal rights laws and after-the-fact protests against incidents of harassment and prejudice. No one is out front demanding full enfranchisement.

Throwing bones to well-behaved advocacy groups leave LGBT persons, those who can afford to be, comfortable and unthreatened. While they mimic straight society in their outward appearances, they enable the same patterns of anarcho-hedonistic behavior that led to the excesses of the 1970s, in the first place, to persist within the community.

That’s what Kramer meant about the lack of real change. The internal mental state of the gay community remains the same.

I concur. It has been my effort over the course of these “Gay Science” installments to cause some phalanx of gay people to take seriously what the natural role of gay people within the wider society means for us. The gifts homosexuals bring, taken as a whole through history, include natural propensities toward heightened sensibility, alternate perspectives and constructive non-conformity. They lead us to constantly strive for the transformation of social orders toward justice, compassion and progress.

We cannot be content with our own so-called “equality.” Equality with what? Equality in a society that is as unequal as ours requires far more than equal rights laws for homosexuals, alone.

Those laws will come. But in a society where the average income of the top one percent is $1.4 million a year, and for the remaining 99 percent is $30,000 per year, there is a structural inequality that will take enormous courage, and the full exercise of our collective creative power, to set right. A new, menacing wave of hateful reaction is rising to not only threaten us, but women, workers and immigrants, as well.

Equality? Gay people historically have stood staunchly for the enfranchisement of all persons. We demand and claim our enfranchisement only to empowers us to extend that claim universally. African-Americans in our society received full equality under the law 47 years ago. Do they feel equal, in fact, today?

Smug, comfortably self-indulgent, apathetic cynicism are symptoms of a suffocated gay soul. The hopelessly jaded homosexual is a sad sight to see, a visible setback to the aspirations of humanity as a whole.

We will never be “equal” in the sense of some hypothetical societal equilibrium. We will never be “equal,” except in an inadequate legal sense, because we are not “equal” with the prevailing structures and mores of a brutal, straight-male dominated society. We should be deeply thankful for that.

“Equality” and “liberation” are two fundamentally different things. Liberation is our biggest challenge.

To be continued.