National Commentary

Larry Kramer Interview, Part 3: Love & Anger

nfbenton-mugConcluding this brief three-part series based on my extraordinary interview with the formidable and unforgettable Larry Kramer at his New York apartment earlier this month, my focus goes to two things.

First, there is his new book, The American People: Part I The Search for My Heart, a massive mix of history, fiction and stream-of-consciousness almost 800 pages in length, that makes the case for the central role that gay people have played in this history of this country.

Second, there’s the remarkable HBO television documentary about Kramer’s life and achievements that was screened at the American Film Institute’s Documentary Film Festival in Washington, D.C. last weekend. Entitled, “Larry Kramer in Love and Anger,” it is a brilliant 82 minutes directed by his friend Jean Carlomusto that will premiere on HBO next Monday, June 29, at 9 p.m. (EDT).
The documentary includes a major role for Kramer’s erstwhile but not really antagonist in the fight for a cure for AIDS, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Dr. Fauci, one of Kramer’s biggest fans in fact, was at the screening in person to answer questions Saturday night.

Dr. Fauci stated in the film, but also in his answers Saturday, that Kramer “is truly a transformative hero” in the fight to cure AIDS.

“There is medicine before Larry Kramer, and there is medicine after Larry Kramer,” Fauci said, meaning that Kramer’s activism leading the highly-visible ACT-UP protests against government inaction on AIDS in the late 1980s did, in fact, cause a profound change in the way the search for cures to lots of things now occurs at the NIAID and National Institutes of Health.

With so many hundreds of thousands of gay men dying hopeless and horrible deaths from AIDS by the late 1980s, ACT-UP protesters forced the medical research community to reconsider the way it tested promising new regimens.

Instead of only trials involving handfuls of persons, a parallel track was introduced as a matter of policy. While the formal trials went ahead, thousands diagnosed with AIDS were also permitted access to experimental drugs.

This is now standard policy with experimental drugs for the treatment of a whole range of illnesses, many lives have been prolonged and saved as a result. Dr. Fauci credits Kramer with this.
(While Fauci disputed Kramer’s claim made in his interview with me that AIDS research is stalled, he said that before a vaccine is found, progress is excelling on treatments that reduce the presence of the HIV “load” in an infected body down to almost zero.)

I remain amazed at how many people, including gays, revile Kramer because he can be angry and impolite. But the title of the HBO documentary, “In Love and Anger,” tells it all. There was never a time that Kramer’s actions have not been motivated by a deep love for his “tribe,” and a passionate conviction that looking reality and the truth in the eye is the only way something as terrible as the AIDS epidemic could ever hope to be overcome.

From his earliest days, Kramer has been like an Old Testament prophet warning that a disregard for creative potentials in favor of insatiable sex not only dims the potential for true love, but involves great risks.

In the late 1970s when Kramer wrote a quasi-fictional novel, Faggots, about this, there were already many people in urban settings showing symptoms of what would manifest as frank AIDS starting in mid-1981. Kramer’s prophetic voice was spot on from the start.

In his new novel, he shows how his “tribe” has pervaded American history. It’s fiction so, of course, he is allowed some considerable liberties.

But in its intent his novel is akin to my own book, Extraordinary Hearts, aiming to show that the creative potentials of gay men and women, their “gay sensibilities,” matter a lot more to the world and themselves than merely their sexual orientations.

A new gay self-identity and culture will hopefully arise from this appreciation, not conforming to the dominant culture, but transforming it with a constructive non-conformity.