Between Victories and Their Shortcomings: On Larry Kramer’s Sexual Politics




UPON HEARING OF Larry Kramer’s death on May 27, I was taken by a feeling of sadness at the loss of one of our elders and a deep sense of gratitude for his central, visible role in the history of white gay male AIDS activism both in the United States and globally. A relentless fighter, Kramer was able to embody political anger on the mainstream platforms from which he spoke, and was heard, for so many who did not have a voice. No doubt, this ability was due, at least in part, to those circumstances of life that often fall outside one’s control: his whiteness, his affluent class background, his education at Yale, and his early career writing and producing films that earned him an Academy Award nomination before becoming the playwright and novelist behind Sissies’ Scrapbook (1973) and Faggots (1978). When the first reports of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) syndrome — which would later be known as AIDS — appeared among gay men in Los Angeles in 1981, Kramer was already a prominent gay cultural figure, one whose public profile would develop even further thanks to his involvement in the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and ACT UP in 1987. Kramer’s unflinching dedication to AIDS activism for the remainder of his life — a cause to which he dedicated the privilege of having a personal platform — is something for which I and other younger gay men will be forever grateful.

Yet, while acknowledging the important role Kramer played in helping organizing and fostering AIDS activism, it is also important that we recognize and reckon with the shortcomings of some of his positions, namely the inflexible moralistic stance that guided his views on promiscuous gay male sexual cultures.

Famously grounded in Faggots’s moral tale, Kramer’s views on gay promiscuity had very little room for nuance. The novel rendered pre-AIDS New York gay sex cultures as driven by reckless and narcissistic pursuits of beauty and pleasure through promiscuous sex and drugs against the backdrop of the characters’ loneliness and struggle to find meaningful, monogamous love. Gay men’s lives, Faggots argues, will only improve when gay men are mature enough to realize that drugs and casual sex are only meaningless salves for a wound that will only heal once we find true love in a life partner. “You govern your emotions to fit the scene just like everyone else,” Gatsby tells his friend Lemish early in the novel.

You want to be a part of things and to go to all the parties and disco openings and Fire Island and have a lover more than anyone I know. […] All you want is Love. And if you’ve wanted love so badly, why haven’t you had it? Does not that say something about The Wanter, not his World?

Compared to Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, another landmark of gay fiction published in the same year and exploring the same New York gay scene, Faggots is certainly a more overtly political work, if by “political” we mean a work that aims to make a critical intervention in the scene with which it is concerned. Faggots denied the gay scene and its participants any redemptive qualities other than those brought about by monogamous lifelong coupledom; it denied the complexities that make a life, and the novels that represent it, rich and captivating. Where Dancer from the Dance sacrificed overt politics and critical distance on behalf of an aestheticization of eternal invincible youth, Faggots lacked the former’s ability to discern beauty, ignoring the political role promiscuous sex had played in bringing gay men together as a collective. Most importantly, it was unable to refrain from making sweeping moral judgments likely to be at least as damaging as they were certainly reductive.

Once the AIDS crisis hit the national consciousness, many people — conservatives and liberals alike — considered Faggots to be what UK AIDS activist Ash Kotak called a “prescient view of a section of society out of control.” Yet, the semblance of clarity often masks the messy and layered nature of human lives and, in the case of gay men, it falsely established a causal, moral relation between sexual behavior and the AIDS epidemic, uniting homophobes and some homophiles in a condemnation of gay male sexual cultures. As art historian and gay activist Douglas Crimp noted in his 1987 essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” — an essay that was deeply critical of Kramer’s sexual politics — making such causal connections risked reducing AIDS to a gay problem and thus ignored all the other demographics affected by the epidemic, in the process absolving institutions from their inaction on the matter. For Crimp, it was exactly the culture of sexual promiscuity so deeply criticized in Faggots that produced some of the most important and urgent achievements in the fight against AIDS during the early years of the epidemic, namely the development and dissemination of safer sex practices in the context of a dominant culture morally obsessed with heterosexuality and marriage as the only legitimate frames for sexual contact, and thus claiming monogamy or abstinence as the only two possible strategies for tackling the AIDS crisis.

Kramer’s views on promiscuity changed little throughout his life. When, in 1997, Crimp, Michael Warner, Kendall Thomas, and others formed the activist group Sex Panic — a campaign for more capacious public health measures premised on the idea that AIDS could be contained by measures other than a crackdown on the sexual lifestyles of (some) gay men — Kramer published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he argued that “most gay men live calm, orderly lives, often as couples, and they are embarrassed by what Sex Panic espouses.” According to Kramer, as gay men were “beginning to realize that it [was] time to redefine what it [meant] to be gay […] [a]llowing sex-centrism to remain the sole definition of homosexuality [was then] coming to be seen as the greatest act of self-destruction.” What Kramer failed to realize was that Sex Panic was not trying to legislate what gay men should or should not do. Instead, they were acknowledging the value that sexual sociability had for many gay men and its importance in the formation of the gay liberation movement. Ultimately, Sex Panic argued that sexual morality ought to have no place in public health discourse and approaches to tackling HIV and AIDS.

It is thus no surprise that, when antiretrovirals were approved by the FDA as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis of HIV infection (PrEP) in 2012, Kramer joined a chorus of conservative gay columnists and activists in condemning what some saw as a “party drug” that simply contributed to gay men’s irresponsible promiscuous sexual lifestyles. For Kramer, not only did the men taking PrEP “have rocks in their heads,” those same drugs would also be responsible for lessening gay men’s “energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” This view missed the fact that PreP was not merely handed down to gay men, but was the result of decades of activism and lobbying by activists who continue to fight for free and universal access to those drugs as a strategy to end the global AIDS epidemic.

Despite Kramer’s views on promiscuity and calls for a decentering of sex from gay men’s lives, the incredible drop in new HIV diagnoses in sexual health clinics across the world where PrEP is available was not due to gay men having chosen monogamy over promiscuity, but rather realizing that such a choice did not have to be made. Promiscuous sex is so much more: it is an affirmation of life, intimacy, and human contact, and it is central to the sense of self for many. As such, it should not be a cause of shame or reduced to a vehicle of AIDS-related deaths. Kramer seems to have eventually changed his views on PrEP when, after hosting a dinner party at his apartment with different generations of AIDS activists in 2015, they released a joint statement declaring their agreement that PrEP is an “essential public health tool” and rightfully condemning “Gilead’s abusive pricing of its near monopolies in [sic] drugs that treat and prevent HIV.” Yet, only two months earlier, Kramer had told the Slate that PrEP seemed to be “most used by people who are still partying … and don’t want to use condoms,” therefore suggesting that while he had come to recognize the value of PrEP in the fight against HIV and AIDS, his views on promiscuity had not changed much since the 1970s.

The characterization of sexual promiscuity as irresponsibility, carelessness, immaturity, or an unhinged lifestyle does not fit either my own experience as a gay man nor the results of the research I’ve been conducting over the last two years in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In researching how the introduction of antiretroviral drugs for both the management and prophylaxis of HIV infection has, alongside developments in gay pornography and its online dissemination, affected the sexual behaviors of gay men and their understandings of masculinity, I have encountered many gay men for whom sexual promiscuity is inseparable from practices of care and risk management. Explored in both my upcoming academic monograph Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig and in OINK!, the short experimental documentary I produced, gay men involved in contemporary promiscuous sexual subcultures not only tend to be literate in sexual health, but they also show a high degree of self-reflection. The men I encountered as I researched my book had a variety of personal stories. Some of them had struggled with loneliness, rejection, trauma, or financial problems. Yet, they had also developed strategies to feel more at ease with themselves and to care for one another, rejecting feelings of guilt or shame for the pleasures they enjoy. They were also very aware of risk-management and harm-reduction practices, which they regularly employed on behalf of both themselves and others. As such, they appeared to me to be no different from most other people trying to forge a meaningful, fulfilling, and caring life in the troubled early decades of the 21st century.

As a leading voice in the fight against HIV and AIDS, Kramer (along with many others) was responsible for major victories against the virus and the systemic homophobia that long prevented it from being addressed by top government officials as a national and global crisis. And yet, despite the respect I have for Kramer’s work, I cannot but acknowledge the shortcomings of his sexual politics and of the sexual morality that seemed to underpin his lifelong AIDS activism. Kramer aligned himself with the unethical view that gay men were responsible for the plague that had taken over our communities and killed so many of us, contributing to the wrongful (and harmful) reduction of AIDS to a problem that only concerned gay men and our sexual “lifestyle.” That is a pill I find very hard to swallow. Even after HIV research and public health strategies moved beyond reductions of the epidemic to certain populations and their behaviors and started instead to focus on targeting the virus itself, Kramer still appeared resolute in perpetuating the idea that gay men would never be able to end AIDS if we remained unwilling to first change ourselves and let go of promiscuous sex. Yet promiscuity has never been synonymous with irresponsibility or lack of self-care, as attested to by the millions of people around the world who now take PrEP daily as a strategy to avoid HIV and to manage not only their own health but also the health of those with whom they enjoy rich and life-affirming sex.

Notwithstanding the sadness many of us rightfully felt upon hearing of Larry Kramer’s passing, may we also remind ourselves of the flaws in many of the positions he upheld throughout his life. May we acknowledge that, as the humans that we are, we don’t always get everything right; that we must learn to acknowledge our own failings as much as our victories as a way of humbly remembering that our histories weren’t made by individual agents, but by movements and collectives as invested in a shared political project as they were filled with internal conflict and disagreement. Queer history ought never to be written with such straight lines.

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João Florêncio is senior lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, researching visual cultures of the body, sexuality, health, disease, and nature.

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Featured image: “Larry Kramer spring 2 by David Shankbone” by David Shankbone is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

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