[Editor’s Note: The following interview with Larry Kramer, conducted by Elliot Ratzman, first appeared in 2004 for Heeb’s 8th print issue. This past weekend HBO aired “The Normal Heart,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, based on the Kramer’s play of same name. With renewed focus on Kramer and his work, we thought it appropriate to post Elliot’s conversation with Larry for the first time online in its entirety]
I was a college anti-war activist at Ohio University in 1991 when I discovered Larry Kramer’s book, Reports from the holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. During the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, Kramer, a Brooklyn-born playwright, was the loudest and most persistent voice on behalf of gay men. He took on New York City Mayor Ed Koch and eventually President Reagan, demanding immediate action against a condition that would end up infecting more than 40 million people worldwide and killing millions. I bought 10 copies of the remaindered British Edition, a buck each in a used bookstore, and handed them out to my young activist comrades. Even straight lefties in Ohio had heard of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the new style of social protest they invented. Their passion and pageantry inspired us and suggested that being an activist meant being committed to an urgent way of life that we aspired to as we religiously read The Nation in the rural Midwest.
Kramer is not without his activist critics who claim he is too gay-male focused, too ad hominem, and too much of a kvetcher, lowering the quality of discourse by raising his voice to a shriek. Just during our interview, his laundry list of diss included PBS, Foucault, Michael Chabon, Ron Reagan, Jr., Kafka and the states of Idaho and Montana. Despite the anger of his rhetoric, his plays—whether satirizing the promiscuity and superficiality of the New York gay scene in Faggots or dramatizing the struggle of the early days of AIDS activism in his semi-autobiographical play, The Normal Heart—have always centered on the search for love.
Over the years, I have read countless interviews that Kramer has done about being gay in America, but have never heard him discuss being Jewish. Outfitted in his signature OshKosh-and-turtleneck combo in his apartment overlooking Washington Square Park in Manhattan, the king of identity politics takes a break from writing The American People––his mammoth chronicle of the hidden history of gay and lesbian Americans—to reluctantly discuss his Jewish identity with Heeb.
So there’s this line in Brothers Karamazov: “All are responsible for everyone, and I more than all others.” That’s seems to be your slogan.
That I’m responsible? No, that we’re all responsible. I just think that being alive requires you to be responsible for a great many things. Most people aren’t. I can’t understand, I’ve given up trying to understand why. There are so few of us who fought for the drugs [the antiviral cocktails, which now allow people to live 20 years or more with HIV]. ACT UP is more responsible for getting these drugs out than anybody, and there were so few of us considering how many gay people there are. I never stop talking about it.
Could it be that people just do not know what to do?
Horseshit! You don’t know what to do, you’re not supposed to know what to do, you’re just supposed to get up and do it and find out as you go along. We made it up as we went along. We didn’t know what we had to do, but we knew there was a problem. There were a lot of people dying, lot of people were scared. So everyone showed up and said, “I can do this…” People get scared because they feel that they don’t know beforehand what they’re going to do. You get a bunch of people in the room and say, “What’s the problem today?” Everyday there was a new problem with ACT UP and AIDS. You had to deal with another idiot today that wasn’t there yesterday. You have to deal with someone in the position today different than the person you spoke to yesterday––who seems to have disappeared––and you had to give them AIDS 101 all over again. But you have to be prepared to do that. And of course most people aren’t. It takes energy, it take time. I still don’t understand why there have been so few, I don’t think that what I did was so special. And I almost resent when people say, “Thank you for what you’re doing.” I’ve told this story quite often, my first response is to say, “Go fuck yourself, why don’t you do it too?’ I didn’t ask to do any of this!
Some of us like to think that there is a unique Jewish aspect to hell raising, being responsible. In your play the Normal Heart, Felix makes the claim that Ned excuses himself by claiming that “anger is some Jewish thing, from being a New York Jew.”
I don’t know, I’m a terrible Jew. I don’t believe in God.
A lot of people I guess. Naomi Wolf’s essay, the introduction to The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, goes on about me and God, saying that he may not believe in Him, but he fights like he does.
Well, we can see you in the tradition of principled people who fight for justice. You’ve been called a prophet.
Someone calls me “Amos,” “Jeremiah.” someone calls me “Job.” I’m like the who’s who of the Bible. What does it all mean? It doesn’t get me anything at the supermarket.
It gives you a certain aura. To be a Jeremiah is to say you’re the person crying in the wilderness. You’re the person who calls Israel, in this context the gay community, back to what they should be doing. You rebuke them for their failures. It’s a good thing.
So what? It doesn’t work.
So what was it like, your life before prophethood?
I was a sissy as a kid. I was scared of my own shadow at Yale. I tried to commit suicide my freshman year. I had a lot of trouble with studying, Yale terrified me. Lot of trouble being gay.
Any trouble being Jewish?
I was never Jewish… I don’t know what tradition I come from. I read a lot, I don’t think I had anyone formative…maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Evelyn Waugh, who is a great stylist.
I didn’t believe in God, and most of my friends were not Jewish. At Yale, Hillel didn’t interest me. I was interested in things like theater, was in a singing group. I don’t feel like I belong to any tradition of anything. I feel I made myself. As far as I’m concerned, no one helped me. If I got any genes it was from my father who was a coward, and that terrified me, so I vowed not to be like that. And from my mother, who was bossy, and took care of people at the Red Cross. But I didn’t have great affection or attachment to either parents. I was very happy to get out of the house when it was time to go to Yale. My brother has probably been the biggest influence on my life. Because he was out there lost as much as I was, only he was better able to cope.
I went to the offices of the Larry Kramer Initiative at Yale; it was very nice. I hear you’re in a dispute with them over the future of Gay/Lesbian studies?
I want them to teach gay history! I don’t want them to teach “queer theory.” I don’t want them to teach “gay studies” airy-fairy and all that stuff. I want them to teach that Abraham Lincoln was gay, I want them to investigate other people who were gay––George Washington, Lewis of Lewis and Clark. There are a lot of people out there who were gay, and we have to claim them, we have to reclaim our history. Why didn’t any one write that Lincoln was gay before this [C.A.] Tripp book [The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln]? The stuff was right there, he didn’t make it up.
Maybe we’ll find out some of these presidents were Jewish, that they lit Shabbos candles?
I don’t think that’s funny.
Sorry…I notice that the trajectory of your activism, your specific demands about reclaiming gay history, your analogy to the holocaust, all has a Jewish component to it. But isn’t your extended comparison of the AIDS crisis to the Holocaust too much? You’re not respecting the millions who died.
When I was growing up as a kid, my mother was always talking about how awful the Holocaust was, but I didn’t pay much attention to it till AIDS came along. The comparison was useful and convenient. I guess I knew that the analogy was probably going to make some Jews mad. When I called the book Reports from the holocaust, even though I insisted on a small “h,” oy did I get letters from Jews. “How dare you,” blah, blah, blah, and “You, a Jewish boy!”
But don’t you identify at all with other groups, beside gay men?
I identify a lot. I couldn’t tell you whose side I’d be on with this Israel/Palestine shit, they’re both meshugah. It’s not an issue that interests me. Larry Mass, a good friend who I started GMHC with [Gay Men’s Health Crisis], went crazy about this! “Why wasn’t I going out and yelling about antisemitism” he asked.
But isn’t there a sense that we Jews could…
See, I don’t consider myself a “we Jew.” I don’t identify first as a Jew. I self-identify as a gay person, which is more than most gay people do. Very few gay people identify first and foremost as a gay person, and that’s part of our problem. I don’t mind saying I’m Jewish, and of course I realize that I have certain sensibilities and responses that are more Jewish than gentile. And I prefer men who are circumcised.
The argument would go that Jews have enough power in the world that they don’t need to worry about these minor flare-ups of antisemitism.
Nobody has enough power. Period. I certainly don’t think the Jews have it now. You think you have power? Forget it?
Right now, this cabal of right-wing Christians and industrialists and conservative right. They’re all different, but they’re together, united, and they have a lot of money. It’s real. People you’ve never heard of are more important than the president.
You were accused of moralizing during the AIDS crisis. You pushed for closing the bathhouses and a moratorium on promiscuity.
There were a whole bunch of gay writers who were the enemy because they refuse to acknowledge what was going on, and encouraged it more and more. I got nothing but grief from all of them. They all still hate me. Foucault was big into glorifying S & M, which is fine, well, not fine, but it’s ok. But again we’re talking about safety now, and they all stuck to their guns for much too long. People like Edmund White and Felice Picano and people who to this day hate me because when they insisted that gays should be allowed to do whatever we want I said, “Cool it.” And indeed we should, but we should be allowed to do it with a condom only. So nobody makes distinctions. You know infections rates are up. They’re always up. People are writing about the glory of barebacking. Crazy. So yes I am a moralist, and proud of it. What’s wrong with being a moralist?
Do you think HIV is the issue we should be outraged about?
We should be outraged about everything! Whatever makes you mad. Take your pick.
So when we’re claiming that we want x, y, and z, is there any priority?
Of course there has to be priority for whatever your group is going to stand for. If you have too many things you’re fighting for, your mission is unclear. I’m not sure street stuff works anymore. Street stuff works only if you have a lot of people, or if you’re prepared to get arrested, which you should always be prepared to do. Or if you have a lot of chutzpah, and you’re prepared to stand with a single sign in front of somebody. That’s harder to do now. I don’t know what works anymore, that’s part of the problem. I definitely don’t think street stuff, pickets and so forth.
Well what recent efforts are you impressed with?
Well, ACT UP wrote the book, but you need a set of circumstances to bring that about. You need an incredibly committed, impassioned bunch of people who will do it everyday, because you can’t stop. You need to have people who are scared, frightened. Fear is what motivates activism most successfully. These guys were all afraid they were going to die; most of them in fact did. But they sort of knew it was coming. It gets you off your ass, you know. I don’t see frightened people any more, certainly not in the Jewish or Gay communities.
In the 1950s, the Jewish community was scared about the rise of the radical right in America. They organized groups…
So why is the right so entrenched now?
Well, that’s the thing, the Jewish community stopped being so vigilant. Got co-opted…
I don’t know where the Jews are, but they seem to be in pretty bad shape, but they don’t get dumped on as much as gays. They aren’t going to take a show off the air because there are two Jews in it. I think it’s a police state. I do not think gays are going to get anywhere. Period. We’re certainly not going to get anywhere if we don’t do anything, and we’re certainly not doing anything.
So what should command the attention of the gay community? Political action against the Right? And does this meaning putting health issues on the back burner? What is to be prioritized?
I wish you would stop with this prioritizing shit, you’re much too organized! There are so many issue that gays should pay attention to, that even just to make people aware of them they would make them go back in the closet. People should respond to things that make them angry. If you don’t know what you want to do, go look at a few organizations, not that they are any good, but see if you can plug in, but don’t sit on your ass. I’m tired of telling people what to do. We are a pathetic lot, all of us, we human beings. We don’t know how to save our own skins. It’s a terrible thing to say, [makes a fist, grits his teeth] but I just fucking knew I would have never walked into a gas chamber! I just fucking know it! It really bugs people when I say something like that, because it’s condemning everybody who did. Anyway…
You sound like the Zionist condemning the sheepish Jews for sticking around Europe.
You should be able to see it coming. Everyone is so…passive.
In you’re essays on evil, you wonder why liberals don’t want to use the word.
The times have changed. Evil is a big word with me. George Bush is evil, drug companies are evil. I had a piece in The New York Times about that, calling them so. It’s evil to have something that can save lives and not give it to people who need it. They let me say it in the Times. But who read it? Does it change anything?
Words can open a new way of seeing the situation.
I hope so, that’s nice that you say it, but I never see it and I’m wearing down now. Gays are probably in the worst position they’ve been since, I don’t know when. Every gain that we’ve made in the last 20 years is gone. And I don’t see anyone coming to get them back. We are so unbelievably unorganized and…cowardly. All of us, every gay person. And yet I love them so much.
You have a tragic sense of life––that people are corrupt, always frustrating their better natures.
I just want people to stop killing each other. That’s what this is all about. We need to save ourselves. You’d think more people would want to do it.
You’d think. We’re working on it. Every generation has to work on it.
This generation sucks.
Is it better or worse than any other generation?
They sucked too. We’ve come this far and we’re nowhere.
What’s the worst-case scenario?
It’s happening right now. Everything is being taken away from us. Bush is putting up wall after wall. The AIDS budget across the board has just been cut by 5 percent.
Well, you sure know how to put the good face on the situation.
One thing that Jews do is make jokes about it. Go ahead, make jokes right into the gas chamber! Laugh your way into the crematoria.
It’s a thing you do when you don’t have any power, or when you think you don’t have any power.
Make jokes? Doesn’t do a lot.
Well, ACT UP raised the bar not just for militancy, but for spectacle. There was a lot of humor there. And the aesthetics were really inspiring. I hate all the amateur hand-written signs of today’s left. ACT UP’s sophisticated signs were much better.
We had a lot of artists. We had a lot of talent then, and we mobilized and utilized it. There are a lot of other things we did besides that. Meeting with drug companies…
The anti-globalization movement was inspired by ACT UP tactics. When I was starting out doing activism…
Well thank you! You’re making me blush.
What, for calling you cute?
You were such a figure for me growing up in Ohio.
I’m always freaked when anyone knows who I am, especially you straight people.
Do people stop you on the street and say nice things?
New York is a fickle town, they don’t stop you on the street. A lot of maitre d’s are gay in New York, so every now and then I get a good table without a reservation. My mother was always afraid someone would shoot me. As I get older and say more awful things, I wonder if someone will do it.
Why do you wear all this turquoise?
I wear turquoise because when I was 22, I came to NY, I went to a fortune-teller and she said that I should always wear something turquoise, that it will look after you, will take care of you. So I always wear something. So when I got sick, I increased the ante and… this is nothing! I was really loaded for awhile. I never got sick.
Some studies claim prayer helps heal people. Maybe someone was sending you secular prayers?
Maybe they don’t conflict, science and superstition. But God is just superstition.
Also a reality for many.
I don’t deny it, and I think it’s wonderful they have it, especially poor people who need it.
I think a lot of Jews don’t believe in God, but believe in Judaism.
I don’t know my way around the synagogue, or the prayers. So…
Who does? We go to synagogue to see our friends, or to focus, or to pick up. There are gay synagogues.
Hmm, gay synagogues, I’m sure they’re busy…. I guess that’s all valuable. I just think that I’m too much obsessed with time. I don’t like wasting it. There are specific things that have to be done, and we don’t have time to do it. In my case I have to finish a very long book before, my mind or my body or my liver gives out. I got another lease on life when I thought I wouldn’t, and I still have a lot of work to do.
Is all your energy from this new liver? Maybe kvetching is good for your health.
I have the liver of a 48-year-old man. Now it’s 51, so I feel 51, but I don’t know for how long. I feel a little guilty, because I was very lucky to get a liver. I wanted to be more of a transplant activist, I’ve done a little, but not nearly as much as I did for HIV. That’s another stupid situation in this country that need not be as bad as it is. Transplants, the availability of organs. I was very lucky. I came along at a time when they wanted people, literally wanted people, who were co-infected as I am with HIV and Hepatitis B to see if we would survive a liver transplant. Nobody wanted to go on this NIH study, basically because they’d afraid they’d die which indeed some of them did. But I was told I had only six months to live so I didn’t have anything to lose. And it worked spectacularly. So, that’s how I got my liver. People think I got it because I knew Tony Fauci or something like that. Ever wonder why other countries aren’t screaming about organ shortages like America is? They have “presumed consent.” In a country like Spain, a Catholic country, the organ shortage isn’t as bad as here because everyone is deemed a donor unless they register otherwise. So when you’re in the hospital, if the nurse or doctor sees the end is coming, they don’t wait for the parent or guardian, they see he’s kicking the bucket, they don’t wait, they go ahead and do it, and no one is protesting.
I have been lucky. Since the day all this started I never got sick. I never got an opportunistic infection, I never got AIDS, I’m still only HIV positive. I’ve never had to take the drugs, till I had the transplant when they wanted me to start taking it.
All those prayers.
All this turquoise
Maybe all the curses of bad people turn into prayers.
Really? Then I’m golden.