Larry Kramer Talks Gay History, PrEP, and more at the New Yorker Festival

Larry Kramer attends the Larry Kramer In Love And Anger New York premiere on June 1, 2015.

Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Larry Kramer, the noted gay advocate and writer, is infamous for his indignant, often furious style of activism, especially on issues related to HIV/AIDS. So the rather subdued Kramer who joined Calvin Trillin in a discussion as part of this past weekend’s New Yorker Festival offered an uncharacteristic change in tone. Indeed, much of the hour-and-a-half-long conversation was relatively boring—an outcome likely encouraged by Kramer’s long friendship with Trillin and the latter’s seeming contentment in facilitating something of a “Kramer’s greatest hits” survey rather than truly pushing the icon on any of his more controversial positions or claims. (According to Kramer, the U.S. government has never done much of anything to fight HIV/AIDS, and the NIH is willfully stalling a cure.) In any case, the “American gadfly”—dressed in his signature overalls and jade jewelry—did offer a few observations of note, particularly on the subjects of gay history and PrEP/Truvada, the pill-a-day HIV prevention treatment.

Kramer is currently at work on the second volume of his epic gay take on American history, The American People, in which he sweeps up a slew of figures from Alexander Hamilton to Abraham Lincoln in a sort of alluring but ultimately ahistorical identity net. (Even if Hamilton liked to get it on with other dudes, calling him “gay” many decades before the concept of “the homosexual” was even invented is a clear category error.) Though the book, the first volume of which was released to cool reviews back in April, is classified as a novel, Kramer revealed that he thinks of almost everything in it as being accurate, particularly the ascriptions of gay identity to historical celebrities. The “novel” thing was due to publisher pressure, he claimed.

Of course, Kramer is not alone in wanting modern gayness to be a transhistorical phenomenon—not least because a “gays since the beginning” interpretation of history has the potential to enhance our sense of community lineage. But that desire seems in conflict with Kramer’s contention, early in the program, that there “really isn’t a gay community … we should be called the gay population.” One wonders how gays can have as precise and rich a history as Kramer imagines without being a community in the present—or, perhaps better, to whom that history should matter if there’s no real community to claim it? But then, Kramer didn’t seem overly concerned with conceptual rigor. “How do you know [Hamilton and George Washington] were in love?” Trillin gently probed at one point. “How do you know they weren’t?” Kramer replied with a self-satisfied sigh.

Regarding gay life today, Kramer was his dissatisfied self. Asked to comment on the rapidly growing embrace of Truvada-as-PrEP—an HIV prevention strategy he has decried on moral grounds in the past—he initially seemed to conflate it with Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), an often physically stressful emergency treatment generally reserved for medical professionals or those with known accidental exposures. While Kramer did not dismiss Truvada out-of-hand, and rightly pointed out that it does not protect against other STIs, he did note that it “seems most used by people who are still partying … and don’t want to use condoms.” Of course, since the 1978 publication of Faggots, his scathing critique of gay sexual culture in the 1970s, Kramer has been on record as being judgmental of those who “party”—often to the sober nods of sexually conservative (straight) people. If the room at Saturday’s event was any indication, he’s still reaching that audience loud and clear. The gay community (or “population”) he says he loves so much? That’s another question.