Saturday, October 19, 2013

Repost: LGBT History Month: Larry Kramer*

*originally posted October 19, 2009

Larry Kramer is an everyman....an everyGAYman. Playwright, author, public health advocate, fighter, speaker and activist....hero to the LGBT community, whether you like him or not.

In 1953, Larry enrolled at Yale University, but didn't do well in that environment. He truly believed he was the only gay man at the school and, at one point, tried to commit suicide with an overdose of aspirin. That experience, of wanting to end his life because he was homosexual, left him desperate to explore sexuality and fight for gay people in any way possible.

Soon, there was a brief affair with a German professor, who wanted Larry to return to Europe with him, but Larry refused. Yale was a family tradition--his father, older brother, Arthur, and two uncles were alumni--and he wanted to graduate also, which he did in 1957 with a degree in English. For Larry Kramer, every drama he would write has grown out of a desire to understand the nature of love and its obstacles.

After graduation, Larry worked as a teletype operator at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. Eventually he moved to the story department to rework scripts; his first writing credit was for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a teen sex comedy. He followed that with an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love in 1969. Then Larry erred, or he believes he erred. He wrote what he now calls "the only thing in my life I'm ashamed of;" the 1973 musical remake of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon.

Disappointed in himself, Larry left Hollywood for New York City to write for the stage. He began to integrate homosexual themes into his work, his first of which was Sissies' Scrapbook--later rewritten and retitled as Four Friends--a dramatic play about four dysfunctional friends, one of whom is gay. Calling it a play about "cowardice and the inability of some men to grow up," Larry loved the play, and loved it more when it was actually produced. However, mixed reviews and poor box office, closed the play quickly, and he vowed never to write for the stage again.

His first novel, Faggots, received all sorts of attention, though perhaps not the kind Larry Kramer craved. Faggots was about the fast lifestyle of gay men of Fire Island and Manhattan; it was the story a man who is unable to find love while encountering drugs and casual sex in bars and discos.

Faggots caused an uproar in the very community it portrayed; it was taken off the shelves of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore and Kramer was actually banned from the grocery store near his home. Both the gay and straight press panned the book and Larry remembers that time as one when the "straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by."

Still, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time. The book has never been out of publication and is often taught in gay studies classes and Larry Kramer seemed on the cusp of becoming a successful, though controversial writer. He might have stayed there had it not been for that flu.

His friends began getting sick, and then dying, and Larry wanted to know why. In 1981, he invited a select group of New York's gay community to his apartment to listen to a doctor say their friends' illnesses were related, and research was needed. The Gay Men's Health Crisis [GMHC] was formed that night, becoming the primary organization to raise funds for, and provide services to, people stricken with AIDS.

Although Larry Kramer served on its first board of directors, his view of how it should be run sharply conflicted with other members. While GMHC concentrated on social services for AIDS patients, Kramer wanted to fight for funding from New York City. Mayor Koch was a particular target, as was the behavior of gay men before we really understood how HIV was transmitted. When doctors suggested men stop having sex, Kramer strongly encouraged GMHC to deliver the message to as many gay men as possible but they refused.

Larry then did what he does best: write. His essay "1,112 and Counting" discussed the spread of HIV/AIDS, the lack of government response, and apathy of the gay community. It was meant to frighten gay men, and anger them to respond to government indifference. It attacked everyone from the Centers for Disease Control [CDC], the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Larry raged at politicians for refusing to acknowledge the implications of an AIDS epidemic. While many were still talking about this flu, or this gay disease, Larry Kramer realized it was much, much more, and his harshest condemnation was directed at gay men who thought that if they ignored HIV/AIDS it would simply go away.

But many in the gay community, remembering Larry Kramer as the writer of that awful Faggots, saw him as the Gay Chicken Little, shrieking about a falling sky. Calling him too militant, the GMHC ousted Larry Kramer from the organization in 1983.

Saddened by his removal from the GMHC, Kramer left for Europe, and while visiting Dachau, he learned that the concentration camp had opened in 1933--long before the war--and that neither Germany, nor other nations, did anything to stop it. He saw a direct correlation between Dachau and the AIDS epidemic, and was inspired to chronicle the same reaction from the American government and the gay community to the AIDS crisis.

Despite his vow never to write for the theater again, The Normal Heart is a play set between 1981 and 1984. In it, a writer named Ned Weeks nurses his lover who is dying of an unnamed disease--one which has his doctors puzzled--and is frustrated at being unable to research it. Weeks is also a member of an unnamed organization of which he is eventually thrown out.

The play is considered a literary landmark. It contended with the AIDS crisis when few would speak of it, including gay men themselves; it remains the longest-running play ever staged at the Public Theater--running for a year starting in 1985--and has been produced over 600 times in the U.S., Europe, Israel, and South Africa.

Finally finding a place where his voice might be heard, Larry Kramer next wrote Just Say No, A Play About A Farce, highlighting the hypocrisy of the Reagan and Koch administrations that Larry believes allowed AIDS to become an epidemic. It is the story of a First Lady, her gay son, and the closeted gay mayor of America’s “largest northeastern city.”

I wonder who he meant?

It was not a successful endeavor, however. The New York Times hated it, and few came to see it, although one person, Susan Sontag, said that Larry Kramer "is one of America's most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice."

Published in 1989, Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist is a selection of Larry Kramer's nonfiction writings focusing on AIDS activism and LGBT civil rights. His message, the same as always, is that gay men must accept responsibility for their lives, and that those who are still living give back to their community by fighting for People With AIDS, and for civil rights for the LGBT community.

Larry Kramer:
"I must put back something into this world for my own life, which is worth a tremendous amount. By not putting back, you are saying that your lives are worth shit, and that we deserve to die, and that the deaths of all our friends and lovers have amounted to nothing. I can't believe that in your heart of hearts you feel this way. I can't believe you want to die. Do you?"
Larry Kramer effectively, directly, and deliberately defines AIDS as a Holocaust to which the United States failed to respond quickly. He believes this is due to the fact that AIDS initially infected gay men, and then predominantly poor and politically powerless minorities. It was the people who didn't really matter that got sick, he feels, and so now he personally advocates for a more significant response to AIDS. He implores the government to conduct research based on commonly accepted scientific standards and to allocate funds and personnel to AIDS research. Kramer ultimately feels that the response to AIDS in the U.S. be defined as a Holocaust because of the large number deaths that resulted from the negligence and apathy in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and early Clinton Presidencies.

Tragedy was first a speech and a call to arms that Kramer delivered five days after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush; he then turned it into a book. Larry Kramer found it inconceivable that Bush was reelected on the backs of gay people when there were so many more pressing issues. There was war, a failing economy, pollution, but Bush made the campaign about gay marriage. Larry Kramer feels we, as a community, were trampled on by George W. Bush in his quest for power.

I think he had something there.

See, people don't seem to understand the one thing that Larry Kramer fully gets: you can be angry at those you love; you can even hate those you love. He loves the LGBT community, he simply wants us to get what we need for ourselves instead of waiting for someone, anyone, to give us our rights. They're our rights, we shouldn't be waiting for them to come to us, we should demand them.

Larry Kramer decided the time was ripe to act.

He confronted the director of an NIH agency about not devoting more time and effort toward researching AIDS because he was closeted; he threw a drink in Republican fundraiser Terry Dolan's face during a party and screamed at him for having affairs with men, then using homosexuality as a reason to raise money for conservative causes; he called Ed Koch and the media and government agencies in New York City "equal to murderers".

Larry would not be quiet.

In 1987, Larry Kramer founded AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power [ACT UP], a direct action protest organization targeting government agencies and corporations for their lack of treatment and funding for people with AIDS. Giving a speech at one of the first ACT UP gatherings, Kramer began by having two thirds of the room stand up, and told them they would be dead in five years: "If my speech tonight doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble. If what you're hearing doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?"

How long indeed.

ACT UP's first target was the Food and Drug Administration [FDA], who Larry Kramer accused of neglecting badly needed medication for HIV+ Americans. For Larry Kramer, a man of words, now it was time for action; his primary objective was to get as many people as possible arrested to focus attention on their target. On March 24, 1987, 17 people out of 250 participating were arrested for blocking rush hour traffic in front of the FDA's Wall Street offices and Larry Kramer himself was arrested countless numbers of times while working with ACT UP. The group disrupted evening newscasts, corporate board meetings and even the New York Stock Exchange. Soon there were hundreds of chapters in the US and Europe.

Today, Larry Kramer continues to advocate for social and legal equity for homosexuals. "Our own country's democratic process declares us to be unequal, which means, in a democracy, that our enemy is you. You treat us like crumbs. You hate us. And sadly, we let you."

In 1988, as Just Say No was closing, Larry Kramer entered the hospital with an aggravated congenital hernia. While in surgery, doctors discovered liver damage due to Hepatitis B, and informed Larry that he was also HIV+. In 2001, at age 66, Kramer was in dire need of a liver transplant, but he was turned down by Mount Sinai Hospital's organ transplant list because HIV+ patients were routinely considered inappropriate candidates for organ transplants due to complications from HIV and perceived short lifespans. Out of the 4,954 liver transplants performed in the United States, only 11 were for HIV-positive people.

In June 2001, Newsweek announced that Larry Kramer was dying; in December 2001, the Associated Press claimed Kramer had died. Instead, very much alive, Larry Kramer was at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh--which had done more HIV transplants (9) than any other facility in the world.

He received the new liver on December 21, 2001.

Say what you will about Larry Kramer. He's brash. He's arrogant. He's rude. He's a troublemaker. But he marches out in front of all of us, even those who choose not to march. He stands up for us, and in our faces, at the same time. If there ever was a hero to the gay community and for the gay community, then it's a list that should include the name of Larry Kramer.

The march goes on.

On This Day In LGBT History

October 19, 1946 – Harris Glenn Milstead, better known to the world as Divine, is born in Baltimore. The queen of shock starred in Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and a raft of other films.

October 19, 1955 – Daughters of Bilitis, the first long-term American organization for lesbians, was founded in San Francisco by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

October 19, 1981- Former Toronto mayor John Sewell wins junior aldermanic seat in Ward 6 by election. It is the first time the gay issue has not played a role in an election in the mainly gay area.

October 19, 1993 – Massachusetts state education officials announced that they would use $450,000 in funds raised from a new state cigarette tax to fund programs to stop anti-gay harassment in public schools.

October 19, 1996 – Representatives of the American Psychiatric Association met with approximately fifty transgender activists who voiced their concerns about reforming the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder.

October 19, 1999 – A rape center in Vancouver organization was ordered to pay $2,030 in damages for banning a transgendered person from its drop-in center.

3 comments:

anne marie in philly said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DIVINE! a true gem and the REAL edna turnblad!

Raybeard said...

I'd had no idea (or had forgotten) about Kramer's involvement in 'Women in Love', 'Mulberry Bush' and the musical version of 'Lost Horizon' (only read the original James Hilton novella last month), so this is a timely and necessary reminder.

Read 'Faggots' back in the 80s but can't remember anything about it now.

I wrote on someone's blog (it might have been this one) not too long ago that I saw 'The Normal Heart' (with Martin Sheen in the lead) in London's Royal Court in that same decade.

In any awards for 'Lifetime Achievement' L.K. must surely have to be one of the strongest contenders.

rickbettencourt said...

What a great synopsis of Larry Kramer and a fine tribute for LGBT History Month.