Larry Kramer Wouldn’t Be Quiet

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S1: Hey, everyone. As we head into another weekend of potential protest, I want to hear how you’re doing. If you’re going out to make yourself heard, how are you preparing to demonstrate in the middle of a pandemic if you’ve already been out there? What’s the moment that stuck with you when you got back? Give us a call. Let us know where at two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. Thanks. Now onto the show. When I think about Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist who died last week at the age of 84, I can hear his voice loud, urgent, filled with this righteous anger.

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S2: Plus 40 million infected people is up.

S1: And nobody. This is a clip that started making the rounds last week. It was recorded 30 years ago. Larry is expressing this frustration with the pace of HIV research and drug development.

S2: We are in the worst shape we have ever, ever, ever been in. Nothing is working. None of that you see on the screen is working.

S1: One of the funny things about Larry Kramer, though, is that until he opened his mouth, he didn’t read as particularly angry.

S3: Visually, what you can picture is a very un prepossessing looking white Jewish man with a thick set of glasses and a fringe of white hair.

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S1: Mark Harris is a journalist and a cultural critic. I heard you wear overalls a lot or overalls a lot.

S3: He wore a lot of big turquoise jewelry. So the visual does not quite match the firebrand that you might imagine.

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S1: The last time marks on Larry. It was at a benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization Larry founded to fight AIDS.

S3: Larry was winning some kind of lifetime achievement award. And the evening went on for a very, very long time. It was one of those you know, everybody gets a turn to talk benefits. And Larry was the grand finale. Of course, everyone spoke and he got up and it was this very warm, touching moment. And then he made this long speech during which he essentially he liked ripped into half the audience for complacency or their failures or laziness or ineffectuality or shortsightedness.

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S4: That was a very Larry Kramer moment. He was not going to be sentimentalized by this huge crowd into this old dear who fought in another era.

S1: Larry Kramer’s life was shaped by pandemic and protest, listening to old clips of him talking about HIV. It feels like he could be talking about the Corona virus, listening to Larry talk about his commitment to LGBT rights. His words echoed the chants that are filling American streets today. And yeah, Larry was tough, uncompromising.

S5: But Mark says there’s something else you can’t make progress without people like Larry Kramer.

S1: Today on the show, remembering Larry Kramer because his life is full of lessons for today. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Larry Kramer burned through his life as if he didn’t expect to make it to eighty four. He was a relentlessly hard worker as a writer and a satirist. He was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But AIDS activism was his calling.

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S3: Larry Kramer was an artist and he was an activist. Most times when you say that about someone, one of those things takes a back seat to the other. We have great artists who also contribute some activism to the world, and we have great activists who were also OK artists. But with Larry, you’re talking about someone who was really important in both categories as a novelist. He wrote fagots, which was a really important step in gay novels in the 1970s. And of course, The Normal Heart, which is a genuinely activist play and a genuine work of art, which is an unbelievably tough combination to pull off.

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S1: And it’s art. Like faggots pissed a lot of people off. Right.

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S3: Absolutely. Larry didn’t write or do anything in the 70s or 80s without some gay people saying you’re not helping the cause, you’re hurting the cause. I mean, the most the most famous essay he wrote a piece called Eleven Hundred and Twelve and Counting in the New York Native, which was the first really major piece to sort of sound a very, very loud alarm from a gay man to the gay community about the AIDS epidemic infuriated a lot of gay people when it was published.

S1: What was it that made people angry about it?

S3: Everyone was OK with shaking a fist at the Republican government. The Reagan administration, the scientific community, the medical community that was either ignoring this or demonizing people. Eleven hundred and twelve and counting was that. But it was also a piece that said we have to wake up. Our community is sleepwalking through this and we’re we’re walking into our own graves. Larry really, really took to task people in the gay community who he did not feel were taking the AIDS crisis sufficiently seriously. And Larry said we have to change our behavior because it’s killing us.

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S6: So he got accused of being approved of being sex negative, of being someone who hates gay people, of being someone who hates gay sex. Of being someone who was mad to be left out of the party and all the fun and wanted everybody else’s undestroyed.

S3: I mean, I think it’s when you talk about his bravery as an activist, you have to talk about the bravery of being willing to take a stand that will alienate some of the people, you know, who should be on your side.

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S1: Part of part of our Kramers outrage. To me, it seems to come from the fact that he he had this privilege. He was. He was. He went to Yale. He had class status. But the AIDS crisis revealed that that status could be ripped away. Is that the right way to understand him?

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S3: I think it’s a right way to understand him. Yes. I mean it, Larry. As you said, he was white, he was male. He was Jewish, which was not in the 1950s, necessarily a category of privilege, but nor was it in the 1950s, something that would exclude him from Yale and exclude him from the halls of power. So, like, in some ways, I think it is useful to think of Larry Kramer as a white man of a certain generation who was comfortable with the idea of power, with the institutions of power and who expected to have it. And not only is that OK in my book, for an activist, it’s it’s necessary. I mean, you know, I’m married to Tony Kushner. And he wrote a piece about Larry this last week in The New York Times where he said that Larry was not he was not a burn it all down activist. You know, he was prepared to raise institutions of power are azy not risc if he didn’t have access to them. But what Tony wrote was the point was the access, not the raising he wanted in to the government. He wanted into The New York Times. He wanted people in powerful positions to hear him and open those doors. And he was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.

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S1: And I deserve to be here. RAICES right. My place.

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S3: Absolutely. I mean that the word entitlement is so loaded to use right now. But, Larry, maybe because of his race, his gender, the time he lived in and maybe because of his circumstances and maybe because of his personality, who he was felt entitled to that kind of access to power, that kind of entitlement, I think is really valuable. You belong there. You have you have as much right to power as anyone who has power for 35 years.

S1: Fighting for access to power is exactly what Larry Kramer did.

S3: So two years after eleven hundred and Twelve and Counting was published in The New York native, Larry did the first of the two things that were sort of perhaps his most lasting legacy as an activist, which is that he founded co-founded GMH see the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. And I believe a couple of years after that, he founded the AIDS Coalition to unleash power, which we now know as act up and which is still around, as is GMH. Say, you know, Active became an incredibly important protest group. And GMAC over the years and decades moved from being a small local grassroots organization to, you know, a major national fundraiser and sort of central point for gay activism.

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S1: I think it’s important to remember that anger that ACTTAB channeled. I wonder if there’s one scene, one protest that would do that for our listeners.

S5: Well, the one I’m thinking of is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a very famous protest where in 1989, then Cardinal John O’Connor was giving a mass at St. Patrick’s in New York City and act up and disrupted it. But they were specifically protesting was that O’Connor was fighting against teaching safe sex in public schools and fighting against the distribution of condoms. And they they lay down and in the church, I mean, and St. Patrick’s is big.

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S3: That was an incredibly important protest because the sort of mainstream reaction to it was this goes too far. I know I’m sorry for gay people, but how dare they disrupt a Catholic mass? And there was a portion of the gay community that was like, this hurts our cause. We look like extremists. We don’t have anything to gain by alienating Catholics this way. And I think that one thing Larry Kramer really understood was that not only would an activist movement survive mainstream accusations of bad taste, you know, or inappropriateness, but that sometimes you had to do that. You literally had to, like, lay down your body in an aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. You had to yell at the top Catholic Church official in New York City. You’re killing us to get people to pay attention.

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S1: I want to talk a little bit about Larry Kramer’s relationship with Tony Foushee, because she’s, of course, he’s helping to lead the response to the Corona virus right now. And he also worked in AIDS at the NIH for years and years. And I feel like their relationship is instructive because it shows how two people can respect each other even if they don’t necessarily agree and they don’t have to be nice to each other. They can push each other. Like I found the C-SPAN clip from 1993. Larry and Tony Foushee are there together and they’re talking about a new presidential AIDS task force. And Larry Kramer is just so frustrated every time Tony wants to go to the toilet.

S7: Ten committees have to vote about giving him permission. That’s what, the 12th. Why? There’s not a cure for anything.

S1: And he literally says to Tony VAO G. He says, the president is taking Tony’s balls away.

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S7: I don’t want another dime. If somebody with a brain was there right now to supervise how it was spent, you’d get a lot more bang for the buck.

S1: I wonder if you can talk about their relationship and describe it, because it seems so unique, but also very powerful.

S3: You know, I think as we watched Anthony Foushee over the last three months, we’ve seen that he is an incredibly patient person who, you know, we have decades of evidence to point to the fact that Anthony Anthony actually can withstand a lot if he thinks the public health goal is worth it. Worthless standing that steps. And I think when you talk about the relationship between Larry Kramer and Foushee, you have to give Foushee credit for never walking away from that relationship. He is someone who is willing to be excoriated, willing to be yelled at and doesn’t stop listening. The lesson of his career is is really different than the lesson of Larry Kramer’s. And it’s not a lesson for acting. This is a lesson for the people who activists are yelling at an angry at, which is don’t prioritize your sense of personal injury or your hurt feelings. You know, if someone is yelling at you angrily, don’t make the most important part of your feelings, the fact that they’re angry and you don’t like being yelled at. Listen to what they’re angry about and see if they have a point and be honest with yourself about whether they’re right. And if they are right. Figure out how to work with them. So she kept coming back. And Larry Kramer did not give up on having that fight. You know, he kept that relationship going privately because he knew it was important. He knew it was important to him, to the cause, and maybe he also liked it. You know, I mean, I think there’s no question that Larry Kramer had respect for him.

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S1: Yeah. You mentioned that that Foushee memorialized Larry Kramer in this past week.

S8: He attacked me. He called me a murderer. He called me an incompetent idiot. I mean, publicly. But then as I got to listen to what he had to say and realized that he was making some very important points that we in the establishment needed to listen to.

S1: Were you surprised by anything he said?

S3: What surprised me about what he said was how warm it was about about Larry Kramer. It wasn’t the way he memorialized Larry Kramer was not in a tone of sort of the grudging respect of an adversary. He clearly really liked him and respected him.

S1: I found this other moment of Larry Kramer talking and he is talking about what change looks like. It’s from back in 1993. He’s telling the audience, you have power, your power is your voice. But just before that, he says something else. When he talks about red ribbons and he says, I’m sick of them and I don’t wear them anymore because instead of wearing a ribbon, he wants people to do something. And it stood out to me because this moment we’re in now. I think a lot of people are struggling with what they can do. How can the how can we be allies to the people around them? Like just this week we had this Instagram blackout. People just parading black squares. Like, I wonder what Larry Kramer would have thought of that.

S3: I would never want to speak for Larry because I still believe that he has the power to yell at someone forgot to get wrong. But I don’t think that Larry Kramer would a have been a big fan of the empty gesture or a visual gesture, whether it was a red ribbon or a black Instagram square that stands in place of actually doing something. I especially don’t think he would have been a fan of the point of that particular protest this week, which is everyone should stop talking.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, act up theme was silence equals death.

S3: Right. Right. Like gestural activism. And I’m not disparaging this for for people who want to do it. Like, in some ways, I think on a personal level, it is better than nothing. I think there are probably some people who freak out members of their own family by doing that. You know, like as a meaningless gesture for a corporation can be a meaningful gesture for one particular person. So we shouldn’t we shouldn’t imagine that, you know, you know, the impact of someone in a small red state town in 1993 wearing a red ribbon and being the only person in his community to do it, that would have been real much more real than, you know, every single celebrity on the Golden Globes doing it. It’s not a one sided activism and forms of activism are not a one size fits all thing. But he was certainly not a big fan of empty gestures.

S1: Kramer, Larry Kramer had the singular devotion to LGBT liberation. But the moment we’re in now is about so much at once, like there’s a health crisis and protests against police violence and this economic devastation. I wonder if that complexity makes replicating what Cramer did, which was so focused harder.

S3: Yeah, I think I think it’s really hard. But I also think it’s it’s important to remember that what Larry Kramer did was not a completely worked out, preplanned strategy that started in nineteen eighty three with eleven hundred probably counting an anticipated every single thing that would unfold. It was it was full of fits and starts. It was full of organizations that he started and then had a bitter rift with. You know, it was it changed along the way as the world changed, as the plague changed. And so, you know, if there’s a lesson for today for activists, it’s it’s probably that you have to wake up. Like, you have to keep your eye on the long term goal, but you also have to wake up every day and think, OK, where are we right now? What circumstances have changed since yesterday? How do I need to respond to this moment? And I think that is the great challenge, in my opinion, for for for activists right now to be both far sighted and extremely short term, to be both idealistic and pragmatic, to think about, you know, today and to think about the horizon.

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S1: But those are not to get discouraged by mass along the way because the work is messy.

S3: Yes, I think that’s a great point. Don’t get discouraged by mass because it’s been like to put it very, very, very mildly, a messy week, you know, and a messy year.

S4: And when there is mess, there will always be people who are ready to say, well, it’s just a shame that the whole point of the protests was ruined by blah, blah, blah. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

S1: Mark Harris, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. You can find Mark Harris’s cultural criticism in New York magazine. And that’s the show. What next is pretty spry, Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewitt. As always, we have help from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Lizzie O’Leary is going to be back on your feet tomorrow with what next TBD. And I will catch you right back here on Monday. Have a safe weekend.