S1: Hello and welcome to a special episode of Outward on the Life and Activism of Larry Kramer. I’m Brian Lauter, editor of Outward. And I’m joined, as always, by my colleagues Ramone Alarm and Christina Carter Ritchie.
S2: Hi, guys. Hey, Brian. Hey, guys.
S3: When Cramer died on May 27 of the age of 84, many described his passing as the end of an era in the history of gay life. Kramer needs little introduction and we’ll post a few events on the show page for those who want to read more. But as a curriculum reminder, he was one of our leading activists and writers for the past four decades. He is best remembered for his role in fomenting the movement to fight 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 has many speeches and essays are required reading. But his play, The Normal Heart, stands out as a hallmark work of both gay art and advocacy as much as his activism is considered groundbreaking and essential. His legendary anger and pension for alienating friends and enemies alike with his stubbornness and bile is also a key part of his memory to help us make sense of that complex legacy. We’re delighted to be joined today by Sarah Schulman, a longtime friend of Kramer’s and a queer icon in her own right. Schulman is an activist, playwright, journalist, novelist, teacher, filmmaker and historian. Among her many impressive efforts, her and Jim Hubbards Act of 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. Sarah, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for having me. So we thought we would start just with your friendship with Larry. Can you just describe how you met and what it was like to be friends with that person?
S4: Well, we didn’t start out as friends. I mean, I coexisted with him and act up. So, you know, his speech at the center was March 10th, 1987, and I joined Act up in July 1987. And I never did not interact directly with him, although I observed many of his shenanigans and activity during that time. And then we had a public debate to our conversation at Outright in 1990. Now, outright was the Gay and Lesbian Writers Conference that took place every year organized by the people from Gay Community News, which was the mixed female and male socialists, basically gay paper. They came out of Boston and that was like Urvashi that Bronsky, Richard Byrne, Sue Hyde. A bunch of those people were involved in that paper. So they organized this conference and Larry and I had a public debate. And in that debate, us the first time that we interacted. And one thing that I do recall from that conversation was there was a real gap between who was actually inact up and how act up was being represented. And 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. Let me just say that I have a book coming out in May 20 21. It is an 800 page history of Act Up New York with 60 photographs and graphics that most people have never seen before. So I am totally steeped in the history at this point. So, you know, there were there were four Latino committees. There were a lot of women in leadership. Yet at that time, every time the media covered act up, you saw white males. Now, a lot of the reason for that was because the media at the time were predominantly white males. So when they looked at archtop, they saw other white males and that’s who they would interview. And this type of thing. And it’s interesting because when I interviewed photographers like Donna Binder, an important act of photographers, they talk about the experience of trying to get diverse images to be taken by photo editors at magazines and at newspapers and how hard it was to make that transition anyway. 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 you said that, Sarah. Shouldn’t we use our best people? So that’s sort of where we started, I would say. Right. And, you know, over the years, we got to know each other better. He came to my fiftieth birthday party and I visited him a few months before he died. But, you know, we never really agreed on. One thing about Larry is that he really never changed his bias. This white male bias over time.
S2: Yeah. I in your interview with him for your oral history projects, your conversation around those biases really stood out to me where it seemed like he resented calls. For greater representation in gay men’s health crisis or in act up where he said, you know, I felt like we were being pressured to take people just because they were a certain color, a certain gender and not, you know, our best people. And thinking about today’s, you know, queer organizing groups, activist groups and the way queer communities are portrayed in media, sometimes it seems like not a lot has changed. I mean, do you feel like those biases in these extremely well publicized and extremely effectual groups are still being mimicked in the organizing we see today?
S4: It’s very complex how those things function, you know, because it’s true, Larry never evolved and never evolved on anything. So it’s not just that he never evolved on his sexism and his racism, 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 about that is that he was able to be very effective despite. And there’s a lot to be learned there know, because one of the lessons 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. And 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 know, so trying. 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. Because the truth is that it’s a psychological truth. People can only be where they’re at. You cannot make someone be in a place that they’re not. It’s impossible. So 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 milia, 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 came. He was a person who came from enormous privilege. I mean, incredible privilege. And yet he came out at 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 that you can’t achieve your total goal that way. But it does serve a function. And right now, we’re so hypercritical. And, you know, with each other that I don’t think we recognize this power of simultaneity. I also want to say that I interviewed one hundred and eighty eight surviving members of Act Up and not one considered Larry to be an important leader inside the organization. Oh, wow. However, the outside world thinks that he was the leader of act up. Yeah, we call him the founder, which he was. And they called him the leader. Even recently, I I wrote an article for the Tea Magazine in The New York Times, and the editor there tried to call it Larry Kramer’s act up. And I was like, if something with my name on the byline said Larry Kramer stacked up, I would have to leave the country like you cannot call it that. But they still felt that way. And that shows you how biased the media is.
S2: Yeah. Where does that disconnect originate from?
S4: Because he had so much media coverage. That they you know, that they just made that assumption. And it’s something that they’re comfortable with. But actually within act up, he was very disruptive. I mean, I remember him at one point. He wanted to be the president of that where we didn’t have a president. So he got angry and quit. He came back in triumph, announcing they’re dancing in the streets of San Francisco because they found the cure. Compound Q which was this Chinese cucumber that turned out to be toxic. So that didn’t play out. I remember this crazy speech he gave about how we should take up arms like the Irgun, which was a Zionist terrorist organization. You know, it was crazy to tell act up, to take up arms. Nobody and act up was going to take up arms is completely irresponsible. You know, this type of thing and constantly quitting and coming back and and all of that, you know, you just never really showed leadership was there.
S5: You spoke of a sort of a widespread misperception that that Kramer was the founder or the leader of the organization. And you’ve just sort of countered that with your own your own experience in your own research for your forthcoming history. But was there resentment on the part of the players who were who could have claimed responsibility, or was there a sense that these theatrics and this kind of ability to work the press, to be able to be a white, respectable looking white guy who could control the press and get the attention was worth it?
S4: 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. Now, Vito Russo, man, I don’t know if people still know who he was, but he was a person who first identified the concept of queer content in Hollywood cinema in the history of cinema. And he did some really important we readings of basic American entertainment culture.
S3: And he was a very celluloid closet for films that want to look it up.
S4: He was a very beloved person in the community, very beloved in act up. And in fact, he was a Working-Class Italian American who died without health insurance. And I visited him in NYU. He was on the ward. He did not have a private room or anything like that when he died. It was very upsetting to act up. And we had a huge memorial service at Cooper Union. I think so many people tried to get in that they were at the door only if you had known him or visited him or something. Could you even get him. And Larry came up and gave the speech knowing that the room was only line people who had just experienced this terrible loss. And his speech was, we killed Vito. Don’t you realize that? And it was all about how Vito had died because we hadn’t done enough. Which was totally destructive and depressing. You know, it was not helpful in any way. So the same tactic internally was not welcomed.
S3: We published in the wake of his death a piece from James Crellin Stein, who’s a prep activist and in an act up as well. And he wrote about exactly this this dynamic of being so frustrated by this man who stood in the way really strongly of prop for so many years. And then sort of seemed I mean, according to the writer, like almost capriciously like changed his position without any explanation later. And it just struck me as just being so frustrating to have to sort of have to go to to him for the blessing, you know, that we that we should all get behind proud. And for him having that outsized power. So, yeah, it just seems like that extended all the way up until quite recently in the movement.
S4: Well, for example, he went to Yale with the head of Bristol-Myers, which is a pharmaceutical company. So he was able to get the meeting, Bristol Myers, you know, and he brought the very talented white men, the men he brought with him, or like a former stockbroker from a one percent family, a Harvard grad, you know, and they made a big impression on Bristol-Myers. But this was what we knew. You when you come here, all of this into larger tropes. This is what became known as the inside outside strategy that. So don’t forget that at that time, the government was almost entirely white and male. The media was almost entirely white and male. The legal system. I mean, this was a very different time in that regard. And so everyone that they were, we would anyone from act up would be meeting with white and male, with a few exceptions, like Margaret Hamberger, who was an assistant D.A. Mark. So they their counterparts, their racial and class and gender counterparts, in fact, that had a much better experience and were able to be at the table with them. And women almost entirely, not all. There were some exceptions, but on most of the white lesbians are backed up. Let’s say we’re not. It had no access to that system at that time, which now it’s hard to understand. But in the 80s, that was the case.
S5: Well, yes and no. I mean, it’s sort of like depressingly not that hard to understand, because when you when you read, Dr. Fouche, his memories of Cramer and in the few days after his death and he talked about him sort of hysterically performing overreaction in order to make a point. Right. And that they sort of had a collegial relationship. It is hard for me to imagine a woman even now being allowed to be you know, she would be called shrill. Right. It’s just different like a woman. I’m not sure even no woman could get away with going on television saying you’re killing you’re killing us in quite the same way that a white man was able to.
S4: That’s interesting. You probably right there.
S5: I mean, it’s depressing.
S2: You know, I wonder if you could speak to the criticisms of Larry Kramer as somebody who was sex negative or who scolded people for their sexual behavior. And when I’m thinking about the, you know, finery of radicalism and respectability, his behavior seemed to violate that binary. You know, he was also criticized by some for the direct actions that flew in the face of respectability politics. Well, how do you. How do you conceptualize his space within that, you know, those two?
S4: Polls, let me just say that I have a long history of supporting of supporting gay male sexual culture. When I was a reporter for the New York native, when they closed the bathhouses and I covered that closure for the natives, I did support keeping the bathhouses open as a place to know that people were gonna go to have sex so that you could introduce the new invention of safe sex in that instead of driving everybody underground. So that has been my personal history in that regard. However, I think it’s impossible to say that one position or another are right or wrong. And he represents an experience and emotional perspective, but a lot of people share. So since my overall perspective on building political movements is to allow for simultaneity of response and as many opinions and experiences to be expressed as possible, I’m not sure how actually destructive Larry’s position was more illustrative of what he authentically experienced. And a lot of other people do feel that way. The problem was that, you know, promiscuity or whatever you want to call it does not do not cause AIDS and not spread AIDS. Right. Unsafe sex is what got people infected. And that’s just the reality. And those two things were conflated in a pure and simple effort to shame people and to control gay male sexuality. So at the time, you know, and of course, his book, Fagots came out before the epidemic. It was not a commentary during the epidemic.
S5: You spoke before something you said earlier on a conversation that really struck me is. Whether I’m curious whether you and the other members of Act Up, especially as you were researching your book, felt that they had accomplished their mission. The mission was so very big. And as you just said, the organization changed the lives of millions of people. The impact on the living history of people alive right now is fast. And is there ever a moment or is there ever a sense of like we did it. Job well done? Or is it just a sense of, OK. The work goes on and, you know, we must think about this.
S4: It really depends on who you talk to, because, as you know, the organization famously split. In nineteen ninety two, where the split was only twelve people, let’s be clear about that. Twelve people left ACTA and hundreds of people remained. But the key is the split, which is very complicated. And I go into it in great depth in this book. It takes a long time to explain. But ultimately it was about the issue of access because at the beginning you could be the richest man on earth and it didn’t matter. You were gonna die of AIDS because there were no treatments. So everybody was essentially in the same boat, even though the condition of their death was different if you were home. So you’re going to die in a different way, but you were still going to die. And the most wealthy, closeted privileges, white privilege, white men who died of AIDS died a terrible, terrible death. AIDS was a horrible death, you know. People had dementia. They had thrush, they had endless diarrhea. Their legs were swollen with neuropathy. It was horrible that they went blind. So as the different treatments began to evolve and the history of the treatments is that initially people were looking for one pill that you would take that would cure AIDS, that was the original idea. And they recycled all these old cancer drugs that didn’t work. With that, the companies had patents for trying to make that be the drug. And AZT is the most famous example of that. Then people realized that that was not going to work. And when they start to do was address the what was called opportunistic infections, the different kinds of diseases and infections you would get when your immune system started breaking down. And so things like pneumonia start to be addressable. Certain kinds of blindness is starting to be addressable. This type of thing, when soon as there were treatments for anything, there was a big divide between who could get them and who couldn’t. And that’s when the class differences start to come into play. So in some ways, you know, the movement was able to defeat HIV, but they couldn’t defeat capitalism. Right. So, you know, even when drugs were only available on experimental trials, women were excluded from trials because in the 60s there had been this drug called thalidomide that women had taken and they had given birth to two babies without limbs. The company had been sued and lost millions and millions of dollars. So they just banned women from experimental trials. That was actually, if you really look at it, at its greatest single achievement was the four year campaign to get the definition of AIDS changed, to include women’s symptoms so that women could qualify for experimental drug trials. So now women all over the world who are on any kind of medication are on medicines that were tested on women only because Act Up fought for four years and got that change. So that was one of their most significant victories, but there were other ones that were equally significant and active. One needle exchange in New York City, which is very, very important and active, started housing works, which is even running a Kofod homeless program right now. So there were very substantial differences. I don’t want to get back a little bit to Larry on the relational issue. I think that in my generation, familial homophobia was robust and almost everyone experienced it on some level. Many people very violently. So many of our friends who died died, you know, on a friend’s couch or something. They had no support from their families whatsoever. The fact that Larry was the age of our fathers. Really was an emotional call. And I think the same thing is true for Maxine Wolf, who was also a very, very respected and beloved older activist and actor. But they became substitute parents in a way. And we really wanted their approval. You know, and when Larry complimented you, you really felt great because we did not have multigenerational approval from our families. So I think that that played a big role, too, in terms of his his influence internally.
S2: That’s really interesting.
S6: I wonder if we could pivot just a little bit. You were both playwrights and novelists. What do you think is the sort of ongoing relevance or importance of a piece like The Normal Heart going forward, such and such? I think it’s such a time specific piece. And so but we’ve had revivals and whatnot not. What do you think about it going forward?
S4: Well, I mean, first look at it when it first came out. You know, it was very successful. Off Broadway. And then it laid dormant for many, many years. And during the years that it lay dormant, other works received a lot of more corporate support and embraced and highly rewarded. And I think it’s interesting to compare because the normal heart is really about how straight people abandoned. People with AIDS and gay people and how gay people joined together to force the society to change. Now in his play, they are only white males. Nonetheless, white males, gay men had no rights at the time in terms of their gayness and were suffering and dying in great numbers. The works that ended up getting really embraced and being put on like HBO early and all that kind of thing, or Angels in America, which did not show any political movement in which gay people were abandoning each other and where there was the heroic straight person who heroically overcomes their prejudices. Right. Gay people were cowards and treating each other terrible. And Philadelphia, where this gay man needs a lawyer. So he does. He goes to a homophobic lawyer to protect him. Why didn’t he go to a gay lawyer? That’s what people would do in real life. But it was this myth of the heterosexual hero, you know, who is going to swoop down and save the poor alone, abandoned gay man who has no community. And that was the fantasy that straight people were the heroes of AIDS and that gay people were betrayers and treacherous and betrayed each other. And those fantasies were very, very highly rewarded. By the time decades later, that normal heart came back to Broadway triumphantly and went to HBO and all of that. It was like this culture was finally ready for a gay hero. And then AIDS story, except they had to be a white male. So, you know, that’s that’s kind of how I understand it.
S5: Sarah, I wonder if you see your work as a story, and especially in the book that you mentioned you’re publishing next year, whether you see it as a part of the activism itself, that sort of documenting the movement is a part of an aspect of perpetuating it, as opposed to just sort of saying, oh, yeah, this happened. You know, look, I’m curious, what’s the value in documenting it, if not to sort of perpetuate it? Is that part of it for you or.
S4: Well, let me let me break it. Break. Break it down a little bit. You’re saying a few different things. So I have, like, historically always said that writing is not activism. You know, 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. Making art is not necessarily active. That said, the goal of the book, the goal of the Act of Oral History Project that Jim Hubbard and I spent 18 years on, the goal of our film that he directed United in Anger is to demystify change. It’s not about nostalgia and it’s not even about making record. It’s about breaking down. These were the strategies like 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 does it 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 what is nonviolent civil disobedience? Where did it come from? Why did people choose it? You know, just breaking down. What are the basic tactics? So that even if somebody doesn’t want to read the next seven hundred and thirty pages, they will be able to use that as a pull out, you know, because everybody wants change, but people don’t know how to do it. And 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 inter acting 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. So that’s what I’m trying to. That’s what we’ve been trying to lay out.
S2: I know in your conversation with Larry Kramer for your oral history project, he identified one of the most successful tactics of act up as good cop, bad cop. And you sort of talked about this before when you talked about there being people on the inside and people on the outside. Do you think that that tactic was responsible for a lot of act ups success?
S4: It did achieve some very important things and it caused enormous problems. You know, again, it’s it’s good and bad. Getting people with AIDS on the inside of government decision making was very important because they didn’t understand what it was like. We were the experts, you know, active, knew more about the drugs and about how the disease manifested. Then the scientists did. And they really were able to re in terms of treatment activists, which is what you’re talking about, which is only one part of act up. Right. They were able to conceptualize new ways of approaching treatments that the government did take on and they made a huge difference. That was not the only thing going on an act. There was no housing for homeless people with AIDS. There was needle exchange. There was work with prisoners. There was work with mothers. There was work with patients. There was all kinds of work going on, an act up that had nothing to do with treatment activism. But then, you know, you get the invention of AIDS Inc.. And when when activists win changes and then it’s policy, people who put them into effect. And then you’re in a situation where people are being paid and they have to get funding and they have to be accountable to a bureaucracy. And there’s all kinds of stuff there. And that brings us to where we are now, which is that we have we don’t have a functional health care system in our country. So even if, for example, we get a Coheed vaccine, we have no way of guaranteeing that it’s going to be distributed. We have the famous statement by Nancy Pelosi saying that, you know, the vaccine should be affordable. Right. All of that kind of stuff. So if you mean treatments, but there’s and they’re not accessible, what have you produced? And, you know, one of our most important journalists is Linda Villarosa, who’s been writing these incredible stories in The New York Times in the summer of 2017. She showed that in 2017, black gay men in the US so had a higher rate of HIV infection than any country in the world. And that’s where we are. And that’s because access dropped out. And that’s really what the fight and act up was about.
S5: When you look at what’s been happening in this country in the last just the last week, even in watching protests unfold in the streets, sort of 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 octopus up experience.
S4: 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 that never would have happened without the demonstration. Now we’re seeing that Minneapolis is saying that they are going to, quote, dismantle, which actually means we imagine how they’re going to have their place. And we’ll see what happens with that. Those are concrete. But, you know, the question now is, what do we actually want? And how are we going to cohere that? I think, you know, 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. So like, you know, I teach on Staten Island and I’ve had a lot of students who are cops who are married to cops, who are children of cop. So when Eric Garner was murdered, I stopped my class and I was like, OK, we have to talk about what just happened. And in the discussion, everyone in my class, black, Latin and white, who were attached to police officer families supported the police regardless of race. You know, because in my view, the people who were in that sector are not people who are good at problem solving. In my book, Conflict is Not Abuse. I had the stats that American police officers are the profession with the highest rate of domestic violence of any profession in America, including NFL player. These are not people who you would call to help you if something is going wrong. So if we can change that concept to say that we need some kind of social sector of people who are good at problem solving, who are good at negotiating and are people that we can call on to help us when we need help. That’s something that we can start to articulate. I heard Linda Source saw this morning on Democracy Now and she was saying the exact same thing. Let’s start to say what we do want, you know, so we can figure out how to get there. Because if if if our demand is only to stop something and you have to do that when you’re in the middle of a crisis, then then what do we do?
S6: Yeah, I wonder if just by way of conclusion, there is any sort of single lesson or tactic from Larry’s life that you do think is worth bringing. You know, we’ve talked a lot about sort of the negative aspects of his of his interactions with people and with the movement. But are there any energies or lessons from his life that you think we do want to sort of carry forward with us now in this Black Lives Matter movement or otherwise?
S4: The best thing that Larry did was that he violated the behavior codes of his class and he spoke out in public and name names about power players and how their abuse of power was causing people’s deaths. And they hated him for it. And they even proved it on the day of his death. But that was his greatest contribution. And the more people who do that, the better.
S6: I think that’s a great question.
S5: Sarah, what’s the name of your. What’s the name of your book and when is it coming home?
S4: Yeah, my book is called Let the Record Show a Political History of Act Up New York, 1987 to nineteen ninety three. It’s coming out from FSG in May 20 21.
S3: That’s wonderful. I can’t wait for that.
S2: Yeah. Thank you so much, Sarah. Okay. Thank you.
S3: All right. I think that’s a great place. And this episode. Many thanks again to Sarah Schulman for joining us. You can follow her work on Facebook and definitely look out for that book. And twenty, twenty one.
S1: Thank you, as always, for our producer Daniel Shrader and June Thomas, Slate podcast. Senior managing producer. The next full episode of Outward, featuring an interview with Bob the Drag Queen about Black Lives Matter and Pride will drop on June 17th. Please subscribe and your podcast operate and review and tell your friends all about it. Until then, remember that Pride is a protest. Sustagen.
S4: Also, when we when we interviewed him in this house, this the antique store, as we called it, Jim Hubbard and James, when he and I drove up there and I asked Larry to make us some coffee because we had driven a couple of hours. So he took me into the kitchen and he didn’t know how to make coffee. And it was weird. So I made the coffee, you know, and then I met James like sugars. I said, Can James need sugar? And he went into the pantry and he took out this box of brown sugar. It was Kate, you know, the way round sugar. And you said, oh, this went bad. And he threw it. But I just thought, wow, this guy never made coffee. And, you know, in the interview, there’s some something. One of the things that, you know, you referred to, I asked him, why did you leave GMAC? And he basically says they wanted to hire women and blacks instead of people who would do a good job. I mean, that’s that’s his refrain. You know, he’s saying that to me. And it’s like already in the 2000s. After we turn the after the at that point. So he had given a million dollars to Yale. To start, a gay male studies program doesn’t right wing, it’s Yale is they do not have male only studies. They told him it couldn’t be. So he was to the right of Yale, actually, the Christian.
S3: And he famously sort of hated queer theory like as that as the the other option to that. Right.
S4: Maybe, yeah. But I at that point, I had asked him, so how’s that project? I’ll go and he goes, oh, I almost quit. You know, they put some woman on the board. I never heard of her. Judith Butler. How embarrassing. In the United States. That was Larry.