An Open Letter to Larry F’in Kramer

I don’t know who did this beautiful illustration. If you do, contact me and I’ll update image credits.

Dear Mr. Larry Kramer,

I am, if not a straight woman exactly—it’s never felt a totally accurate description given my feeling, much more prominent when I was younger than now at 39, that I am in some important, core regard androgynous, more like a femme boy who desires men than a straight woman—then someone who has lived a straight life outwardly, with all its attendant privileges. But perhaps because of my early feelings of affinity with gay men, I first encountered mention of you and your work at fourteen years old, when I checked Randy Shilts’s now-classic And the Band Played On out of the public library.

At the time, I was a short-haired anorexic androgyne living in rural, conservative Texas, and when I was bullied on the bus a few years before it’d been in the language of the most ugly and virulent homophobia of that time and place. And so, although I did not personally know any out gay men or lesbians at that time, I felt that whoever these “faggots” and “dykes” were to which I was so mercilessly compared, I must have something in common with them. And so too, on the bus, when a classmate—not quite a friend, but not a bully either—casually referred to someone as a “faggot,” I politely inquired: Who are these “faggots” of which you speak? Another girl who was a friend, an outcast like me, had already sort of schooled me; she was more worldly than I was since her mom let her read Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz. A “fag” is a guy who does guys, she’d explained. And a “queer” is a guy who does both.

This other, not-quite-a-friend girl on the bus confirmed it in a half-whisper, hand over mouth. A guy who has sex with other guys, she said.

(To her infinite credit, my gentle, decent, Midwestern mother defended me against those bullies without recourse to homophobia, without suggesting at all that there was anything wrong with queerness. “They say that stuff because they’re insecure with their own sexuality,” she informed me.)

And so, although my classmate’s tone and body language made it clear that guys having sex with guys was something to be reviled, my inner response at the time was: Well, what’s so wrong with that? I just never felt the physical revulsion everyone around me seemed to feel. I couldn’t understand it; it always seemed wrong to me.

More than that, I felt sympathetic—I think in large part because of my awareness of AIDS. At seven, I’d stumbled on an article about AIDS in a 1987 issue of National Geographic, which I found in a box marked “free” and placed on the outside porch of our rural library for patrons to rummage through. I’d taken the issue and read it again and again, fascinated by the science but also the metaphoricity of immunity detailed therein. It felt like learning for the first time that you’d been living inside something gigantic, a zeitgeist or imaginary of disaster not unlike what I can only assume the threat of nuclear warfare had been for an earlier generation. I felt sad for the gay men in the magazine pictures, not only inflicted with such a mysterious virus but also shunned, and I resolved to become a doctor, a research immunologist who would help find the cure for AIDS. All of that is to explain why, at fourteen, I checked Randy Shilts’s massive history of the early years of the epidemic out of the library and devoured it. And that was where I first learned about your work as both activist and writer.

I didn’t become a doctor. Instead, having discovered I was both a writer and a feminist, I ended up an English and Women’s Studies major. At 21 or 22, I still looked like a prepubescent boy and was often read as a lesbian—but I liked boys and felt myself to be one in part, prompting a lesbian friend to shake her head over me: You like boys so much you like girls…or you like girls so much you want to be a boy. That made me laugh, but it also felt true in some loopy, roundabout way. But at that time, even in the queer circles I brushed up against as an activist and feminist academic, the concepts of gender as a spectrum, of gender fluidity and genderqueerness, were still a few years away. Still, it was my feminist schooling that led me to remember my earlier interest in AIDS history, and the summer after graduating college I checked one of your plays out of the library—The Destiny of Me—along with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t get around to reading either at the time.

Okay: fast forward now almost 20 years—a few months after the birth of my son in my late 30s, a year after my older daughter came out to me (in 4th grade!). I’d been having a lot of anxiety postpartum, and one of the primary ways I distracted myself was by watching documentary films in huge quantities. And one of the first documentaries I watched was We Were Here, a very simple but beautifully shot account of AIDS in San Francisco, particularly the emergence of queer networks of support, care, and solidarity. I was deeply moved to see men who had survived those years tear up as they recounted how lesbians, despite their political tensions with gay men, nonetheless stepped up to provide much of that care and support. I was glad my daughter was there watching the film with me, so that she could understand how era-defining the early years of the epidemic were for my generation generally and queer communities specifically—but also gain some sense that the struggles and support networks arising in response to AIDS are her history, the history of her community. That she is part of a community and not alone.

From there I went on to watch United in Anger, a documentary about ACT UP that I found less well done as a film compared to We Were Here. But as one who has spent many years in activist struggles—most recently struggles to make city policy accountable to the knowledge and experiences of those displaced by gentrification—I was deeply impressed by how effective a force ACT UP was, literally breaking down the doors of the NIH and FDA and forcing clinical trials to include people with AIDS.

Then I rewatched Philadelphia, which I saw at 14 when it came out in the theaters—and which I understand you hated—and reread And the Band Played On, revisiting these two childhood texts for the first time as an adult, this time around with a critical eye. I watched other films, both fiction and non-fiction, which portrayed more intimate personal accounts of the epidemic: Longtime Companion. Silver Lake Life. I watched Sex Positive, the story of a one-time gay S&M sex worker who, by virtue of his controversial conviction that promiscuity was the cause of AIDS, pioneered the concept of safe sex and wrote the first grassroots safe sex manual for gay men. I watched HBO’s cinematic rendering of your 1985 play The Normal Heart.

From there I learned of a documentary about you specifically—Larry Kramer, In Love and Anger—and watched that. I knew from And the Band Played On that you had co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but I’d somehow failed to realize that you also started ACT UP. I also did not realize that ACT UP fell apart in part because of its own successes: having achieved its central demands for expedited drug trials that would produce the pharmaceutical cocktail that made AIDS a chronic illness instead of a death sentence—at least for some people with AIDS in the overdeveloped world—folks slipped back into complacency.

For that reason, I was struck most by the final scene of the doc, in which you marry your partner of many decades in a hospital room after recovering from surgery. “I am alive today because of [Larry Kramer],” says a friend in attendance. “Larry Kramer is the one that spurred the government, spurred the Koch administration…he was the pain in the ass that everyone needed him to be. There’s thousands and thousands and thousands of men, women, and especially children that are alive today bc of Larry Kramer.” It struck me then how important your anger—and maybe anyone’s righteous anger—had been, how necessary and ultimately life-giving it had been.

I know you’ve said in interviews that you’re heartbroken over how things turned out for ACT UP, that once a privileged segment of AIDS sufferers won effective drug cocktails, people abandoned collective struggle for an end to AIDS altogether. I know you’ve said you’re disappointed in yourself, that you failed to be the leader you saw the movement desperately needed. That only softened my heart; I could only relate to that as someone who struggles against my own bitterness and despair over the internal flaws and contradictions of movements—all the ways we fail ourselves and each other. Somehow I think our movements will only be stronger when we figure out how to integrate our bitterness and sense of failure, when we figure out how to create a post-failure form of action anchored not in fury and conviction but in brokenheartedness. Is that possible, do you think?

Finally—and this is the real point of this post—I delved into your written work, starting with Faggots and moving on to your two plays, The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me. Faggots I knew was controversial at the time of its publication, written as a caustic send up of the casual sex scene in 1970s NYC, pre-AIDS, its comedy fueled by the rage and heartbreak of unrequited love. As John Leland writes in the NYT:

[Kramer] fell in love with a man named David Webster, who did not want to settle monogamously with him. In response, Mr. Kramer wrote a devastating 1978 satirical novel called “Faggots,” which depicted a demimonde of men destroying themselves in wanton pleasure. The book sold well but made Mr. Kramer a pariah.

‘People were so angry and offended,’ Dr. [Lawrence] Mass said. ‘I don’t think there is a positive image of a gay person, not one, in the entire novel. Larry seemed to have this ridiculously outdated romantic notion of sexuality and its relationship to love, monogamy. He was this total misfit in this expanding world of gay promiscuity and the sexual revolution.’”

Other reviewers at the time hated Faggots for its writing. In a 1979 review in the New York Times, John Lahr panned its “[j]ocular, baroque style which is, sentence for sentence, some of the worst writing I’ve encountered in a published manuscript.” And Don Shewey in the Boston Phoenix wrote that “Kramer’s clunky, careless writing ultimately renders Faggots unreadable. The plentiful dialogue is overwritten and unconvincing, the artsy allusions inauthentic … . And Kramer affects a convoluted, interruptions-within-interruptions syntax that means to represent . . . what? Breathlessness? Stream of consciousness? Drug-crazed confusion? In any case, it turns his paragraphs into seas of manic, comma-encased digressions.”

Can I just say, though, that I loved Faggots? I understand the controversy, and the political stakes–but as a novel, I loved it. I borrowed an electronic version from the library, which I read on my phone’s Kindle app late into the night. I read it walking around the barrio with the baby strapped sleeping to my front. It made me LOL. It astounded me. I found the writing both exasperating and exciting. And though my milieu is a different one, I can totally identify with what it means to satirize the community you’re part of—because you are deeply a part of it, because it perplexes and enrages you, because you love it. I too wrote a novel (or maybe it’s an experimental memoir, I dunno); mine is about Chicanx community in San Antonio (among other things–including dogs, birds, and mental illness). It’s part love story, part climate change novel, part portraits of San Anto peeps I love, part analysis of postcoloniality and extraction politics, part perplexity over some of the unavoidable ridiculousnesses of organizing culture. Like you, I was driven to write it at the time by my broken heart over unrequited love (a man I later went on to marry, btw, also like you). Like you, I wrote it for the community I’m from, the community that shaped me, the community I love and which can for that very same reason be so infuriating. Writing this novel took me four years to draft and another five to revise. It’s probably longer than it needs to be. But then, I hear you wrote a two-part novel which took 40 years and in its first draft clocked in at 4,000 pages, okurrrrr?!

Why am I writing all this? Mostly, I suppose, because your work inspires me—or comforts me, maybe. I too have tried at various points to collectively force structural change and ended up sad and discouraged—tho I hold out hope that these feels can become the basis for something effective again, or at least action-oriented. I too enjoy writing long, syntactically complicated sentences—the longer and more complicated the better—and long works, against a creative writing industry that insists you must write simply and short, with nouns shorn of adjectives and verbs of adverbs. I too seem incapable of writing a damn story that is not in the end autobiography, and I have always feared this made me a lesser writer. I like that you’re unashamed to write this way. From Faggots to The Normal Heart to The Destiny of Me to The American People, it’s all essentially the same story, all your story–y qué? It makes me feel there’s nothing wrong with writing more or less nakedly about your own experiences, nor with intensity. But I’m also inspired by the way you’ve been able to weave your writing life together so seamlessly with your activist life, fiction with nonfiction with theater with meetings. I too strive for this but often feel myself to fail or at least to weave sloppily, huge gaps showing between stitching. I like that at least in your life these activities have been of one cloth.

People talk about what you’ve achieved as an activist, and that is immense and undeniable—but for me what you’ve done as a writer is just as  important and maybe more important. It’s easy to act; it’s easy to do work that by its nature is designed to be visible and audible. But writers don’t get enough credit just for writing. And so I maybe just wanted to let you know that, across decades and miles and historical milieus, I’ve been reading your work. And it’s had an impact.

Con respeto.

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