“Trying to Change Someone Like Larry Kramer Could Take Your Entire Life”

Inside ACT UP, the late activist’s tactics weren’t always appreciated. But they were a necessary part of making change.

Larry Kramer sits onstage.
Larry Kramer in New York City on Sept. 30, 2016. Brad Barket/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When Larry Kramer died on May 27 at the age of 84, his passing marked the end of an era in the history of gay life. He is best remembered as an activist, specifically for his role in fighting institutional and societal prejudice during the AIDS crisis through his seminal involvement with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, later, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. As a writer, his many speeches and essays are required reading, and his play The Normal Heart is a landmark work of both gay art and advocacy.

However, as much as Kramer’s activism was groundbreaking and essential, his legendary anger, stubbornness, and penchant for alienating friends and enemies alike are also key parts of his memory. To help us make sense of that complex legacy, we spoke with Sarah Schulman, a friend and colleague of Kramer’s and a queer icon in her own right. Schulman is an activist, playwright, journalist, novelist, teacher, filmmaker, and historian. Among many impressive efforts, her and Jim Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project stands out as an essential resource for anyone seeking to better understand Kramer and the larger impact of that organization’s activism on queer life today. Her next book, Let the Record Show: ACT UP and the Enduring Experience of AIDS, is forthcoming in 2021 from FSG.

Bryan Lowder: So we thought we would start with your friendship with Larry. Can you describe how you met and what it was like to be friends with that person?

Sarah Schulman: We had a public debate, or conversation, at OutWrite in 1990. OutWrite was the gay and lesbian writers’ conference that took place every year. And in that debate … that’s the first time that we interacted.

One thing that I do recall from that conversation was there was a real gap between who was actually in ACT UP and how ACT UP was being represented. By 1990, that was already very clear. So there were people of color in ACT UP. There were women in ACT UP. In fact, there were four Latino committees in ACT UP, which people don’t realize. There were a lot of women in leadership, yet at that time, every time the media covered ACT UP, you saw white males. A lot of the reason for that was because the media at the time were predominantly white males. So when they looked at ACT UP, they saw other white males and that’s who they would interview.

So in this 1990 conversation, I said, “Well, Larry, what if the next time the media contacts you, you pass them on to a woman or person of color in ACT UP?” And he said, “But Sarah, shouldn’t we use our best people?” So that’s sort of where we started, I would say. But we never really agreed. And one thing about Larry is that he really never changed his bias, his white male bias over time.

Christina Cauterucci: In your interview with him for the ACT UP Oral History Project, your conversation around those biases really stood out to me, where it seemed like he resented calls for greater representation. Thinking about today’s queer organizing groups and the way queer communities are portrayed in media, sometimes it seems like not a lot has changed. Do you feel like those biases are still being mimicked in the organizing we see today?

Schulman: It’s very complex how those things function, because it’s true, Larry never evolved, he never evolved on anything. So it’s not just that he never evolved on his sexism, and his racism, and his class bias, which was very strong, but his ideas did not evolve either. And his sense of being persecuted, and victimized, and that everything was terrible and all of that—that never changed either. However, what’s interesting is that he was able to be very effective despite that. And there’s a lot to be learned there.

I mean, one of the questions that people have about ACT UP is why was it successful? It wasn’t completely successful, but it did achieve a paradigm shift in very significant ways. One of the answers to that is that ACT UP was a group that did not rely on consensus and allowed for simultaneity of response. And when you have these big-tent movements where people are very, very different, trying to force everyone into one analysis or trying to change someone like Larry Kramer could take your entire life and you will fail.

So the kind of practices that we have now, where people get jumped on for using the wrong word or people are disqualified because they represent a very fixed position, those I think are not productive. If you have movements that allow people to do what they’re good at and to act in a way that makes sense to them simultaneously on all milieu, you actually have a much broader reach and can in the end be more effective. So the good thing about Larry: We know what was wrong with Larry; the good thing about him was that he was a person who came from enormous privilege, I mean incredible privilege, and yet he came out in a time when most even gay men in his position were in the closet. And certainly most people with HIV were in the closet, but he was not. And he used his position of privilege to yell at people who the rest of us had no access to. And if more people like him would do that, there would be an impact. You can’t achieve your total goal that way, but it does serve a function.

Rumaan Alam: Was there resentment on the part of other ACT UP players at Kramer, or was there a sense that these theatrics and his ability to work the press, to be able to be a respectable-looking white guy who could control the press and get the attention, was worth it?

Schulman: It’s a mixed bag because when he yelled and screamed on television, it actually was effective. But when he yelled and screamed at us, it was not effective. For example, when Vito Russo died, it was very upsetting to ACT UP. And we had a huge memorial service at Cooper Union. And Larry came up and gave the speech knowing that the room was only front-line people who had just experienced this terrible loss and his speech was “We killed Vito.” Which was totally destructive and depressing. It was not helpful in any way. So the same tactic internally was not welcomed.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Larry Kramer
The Lessons of Larry Kramer’s Loud, Confrontational Activism
As a Young HIV Activist, I Hated Larry Kramer. Then He Invited Me to Dinner.
The Normal Heart Was Addressed to a Specific Crisis. But Its Insights About Anger and Love Are Timeless.

Alam: I wonder if you see your work as an historian, especially in the book that you’re publishing next year, as a part of the activism itself?

Schulman: So I have historically always said that writing is not activism. Activism is working communally to produce a paradigm shift. And sometimes you do that so that you can have space to have an individual voice. But just doing what you like is not necessarily activism and making art is not necessarily activism. That said, the goal of the book, and the goal of the ACT UP Oral History Project that Jim Hubbard and I spent 18 years on, is to demystify change. It’s not about nostalgia and it’s not even about making a record. It’s about breaking down the strategies. In my book, the first 70 pages are an introduction where I just break down the basic strategies. What is direct action? What is its history? How do you do it? What is simultaneity of response? What happens when you have a movement that allows people to be different and have different strategies? How do you orchestrate that? What is nonviolent civil disobedience? Where did it come from? Why did people choose it? I’m just breaking down the basic tactics so that even if somebody doesn’t want to read the next 730 pages, they will be able to use that as a pullout. Because everybody wants change, but people don’t know how to do it.

One of the most important things about making change is building campaigns. You need to have a demand or a goal that is winnable, reasonable, and doable. And then you need a series of interacting actions that are designed to build towards that goal. Otherwise you end up with people wasting their energy. So if you’re having one-time-only demonstrations or things like that, and they’re not building to anything, you’re not bringing people into the process of change.

Alam: When you look at what’s been happening in this country in the last few weeks, in watching protests unfolded in the streets in cities large and small, as somebody who is a veteran of that kind of protest and that kind of action, I wonder if you feel optimism? I wonder if you feel that there is a lesson that has not been heeded from ACT UP’s experience?

Schulman: I feel very optimistic. I think it’s amazing. People have won some very concrete gains. Keith Ellison was made in charge of the investigation in Minneapolis, and he raised the charges and arrested those men. That never would have happened without the demonstrations. Now we’re seeing that Minneapolis is saying that they are going to “dismantle,” which actually means reimagine, how they’re going to have their police. We’ll see what happens with that. Those are concrete. But the question now is what do we actually want and how are we going to cohere that. I think it’s best to put forward your vision of what you actually want as concretely as possible so that once you say it, you have something to work towards.

Lowder: I wonder if, by way of conclusion, there is any sort of single lesson or tactic from Larry’s life that you do think is worth bringing forward. We’ve talked a lot about the negative aspects of his interactions with people and with the movement, but are there any energies or lessons from his life that you think we should carry forward with us now in this Black Lives Matter moment or otherwise?

Schulman: The best thing that Larry did was that he violated the behavior codes of his class. And he spoke out in public and named names about power players and how their abusive power was causing people’s deaths. And they hated him for it. And they even proved it on the day of his death [by calling him “abusive” in the New York Times], but that was his greatest contribution. And the more people who do that, the better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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