Larry Kramer is a national treasure. When I had the opportunity to meet him for the first time and interview him about his new book, The American People, Volume 1, earlier this month, he insisted on changing the focus of our conversation to his current grave concern about the stall in research for a cure for AIDS at the National Institutes of Health.
So it was. Larry Kramer has never lost such an important focus, nor should he have. As a long-time admirer of his uncompromising commitment to truth, despite any cost, I adore this quality in Kramer, being a journalist dedicated to truth-telling myself.
He is a towering figure in a culture that increasingly prefers image and comfort to reality.
In 1978 Kramer “called out” the hyper-hedonistic urban culture of the 1970s in his unsettling novel, “Faggots.” It was a work of sublime prescience, sounding a loud cautionary alarm, predicting that unbridled sexual freedom would necessarily come to a tragic consequence.
Little could he, or anyone, have known that the HIV virus that causes AIDS was already spreading like wildfire, lurking in a silent manner because of its lengthy incubation period. When it began to manifest as what was described at first as “gay cancer” in the summer of 1981, the die had already been cast. But as much as Kramer could have taken an “I told you so” posture then, he instead dove headlong into the effort to stop the virus’s spread.
The result was the story he told in his 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” which was revived on Broadway in 2011, won a Tony, and became an Emmy Award-winning HBO blockbuster last year.
Only thing is, in 1985 it was reviled by the “gay establishment” which was in a horrific state of denial, seeking to avoid at all cost any interruption of what the urban gay lifestyle had descended toward.
Kramer had many great quotes in that play. In one, his autobiographical character exclaims, “I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold…
“The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there – all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth….That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?”
Sadly, the last two sentences were edited out of the version of “The Normal Heart’s” HBO version last year. But that was the essential polemic of that time. AIDS was being spread gay person to gay person and there was no realistic effort to make that stop. Regrettably, it continues to be true today.
In my interview with him last week, Kramer decried the stall in AIDS research, insisting that a vaccine is the only thing that can stem its spread, which is again on the rise, while cautioning against a new drug, PrEP, that can, if taken regularly, prevent the spread of the HIV virus during sex.
Critics have heaped on him for this with as much vehemence as they did when he cautioned about the spread of AIDS 30 years ago, accusing him of being “sex negative.” But Kramer insists PrEP escalates the now-reoccurring mass spread of the HIV virus because it encourages non-protected sex, because it’s well known that a huge threat to public health, generally, is the failure of people to take drugs they’ve been prescribed.
So, with PrEP, as gays abandon protection during sex, whatever percentage of them fails to take PrEP religiously once again spreads the deadly virus. Kramer is not now, as ever, “sex negative” so much as he is “virus negative.”