THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW him may not believe Larry Kramer’s voice can be anything but loud. This is the man who harangued other gay men for partying on as the AIDS plague unfolded among them in the early ’80s, who heckled President Ronald Reagan’s first speech on AIDS in 1987, and who hounded the nation’s top scientists to work faster as hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the ravages of untreated HIV infection in the years before there was effective treatment. He led the formation of the world’s first organization (Gay Men’s Health Crisis, GMHC) to care for people with HIV/AIDS, as well as the influential AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Kramer is now 80. A prolonged illness in 2013 left him frail, his voice soft and raspy. But Larry Kramer’s spoken voice, for all its famous volume, is only one of the means by which he has expressed his anger and concern. The writer has been far more widely heard through his articles, books, and plays. One play in particular, The Normal Heart, his 1985 dramatization of the first years of AIDS in New York City, has secured Kramer’s place among the nation’s most important playwrights. Its 2011 Broadway revival won Tony awards for actor, actress, and best revival. In 2014, HBO released a critically acclaimed film version directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Mark Ruffalo as the Krameresque activist Ned Weeks, Alfred Molina as his brother, and Julia Roberts as his wheelchair-bound doctor.
This year is the year of Larry Kramer. First, GMHC awarded Kramer the first-ever “Larry Kramer Activism Award” — completing the circle that was broken when the organization he co-founded forced Kramer out in 1984. HBO released another film, this one a documentary called Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, directed by Kramer’s friend Jean Carlomusto. And the first volume of Kramer’s long-gestating two-volume novel The American People was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The nearly 800-page book looks at American history from a gay point of view. Kramer shines a fanciful light into the private lives of some of the nation’s most revered public figures and suggests that centuries of homophobia nurtured the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) before it appeared among gay American men in the early 1980s and killed tens of millions of people, gay and straight, in the global AIDS pandemic.
On a hot July afternoon, I sat down with Kramer in the living room of his book- and light-filled apartment just off of New York’s Washington Square for a third interview; the first was 20 years ago. His grizzled beard gone white, he wore his favored overalls and around his neck he wore a single long strand of turquoise beads that tangled with the clear plastic wires of his hearing aides. I was most struck by the soft brown eyes and surprisingly long lashes. I was awed to consider all those eyes have seen in his 80 years.
JOHN-MANUEL ANDRIOTE: What is your view of the current state of the HIV/AIDS pandemic?
LARRY KRAMER: AIDS has not gone away, and research, we’re finding out more and more, is in the toilet. So how can we relax and think AIDS is controllable as an excuse to go back to leading the kinds of lives that got us into all this trouble in the first place? Everyone is saying, “There’s PrEP [HIV medication taken as pre-exposure prophylaxis], there’s PrEP, there’s PrEP.” Well, it certainly is a useful drug for certain cases, but it also allows people to relax a little too much. And we’re discovering that cases of syphilis and other sexual diseases are growing by leaps and bounds — especially here in New York, and especially in populations that are educated and should know better.
I recently, much to my surprise, was given an honorary degree at Yale. One of the other people so honored was a government official from Nigeria [Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy]. She asked me how are things going. And I told her. And there in the middle of the Yale Library, where we were talking about this, she starts to cry. And she said, “What are my people going to do who are counting on you? And you’re telling me all this, it’s heartbreaking.” I will never forget the look on her face.
I’m a little in despair right now because of the budget reauthorization that’s going on at the NIH [National Institutes of Health], having been led to believe they were further along — on research for the cure — which it turns out they’re not. So a bunch of us asked for a meeting with Collins [NIH director Francis S. Collins], which eventually we got — a conference call along with [laughs] about 20 other people. We somehow got shoehorned into it.
We said you can’t stop researching all this. There’s money that’s being switched around and away from us in the NIH budget. The person in charge of this is in the Office of AIDS Research, the office responsible for apportioning the money. So we’ve managed to get two or three people onto the search committee for that person’s replacement. That’s the first time we’ve been able to get that close to some sort of interior presence.
HIV research has yielded immense knowledge for other diseases, and almost everything we learned about the immune system we learned from HIV.
What’s happening too is that people on drugs long term are getting more and more side effects as we get older. So you can take the cocktail — but there is a price to be paid. They can’t cure the virus because it’s all over the body, but it is possible that a vaccine will somehow appear.
The frustrating thing, when you really get into it, is how complicated the system is that it’s a part of. I don’t know how the NIH ever gets anything done. There are so many committees and oversights, permissions, personalities. If there is a war, there should be a general. But where is the general who everyone listens to because he’s a smart general?
It looks like we’re going to have a Republican Congress for some time, which is scary. That is the big problem with the NIH reauthorization — they want more money to go to NIH, but not necessarily to AIDS. It’s okay to go to Alzheimer’s, for instance, but that pits one disease against another, and it shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul.
What do you think of LGBT Americans’ political successes and greater visibility?
I think the Bruce Jenner thing, Caitlyn, has been fantastic, very moving and very useful. We’re more visible and accepted. But that should encourage us to create rather than relax. I’m asking everybody: What do we do? Because those of us who are dealing with the AIDS problem are well aware of what we still lack in the way of power.
When you talk about the power that will accrue to LGBT America, what do you mean? Political power? Cultural power?
Yes, all these corporations where gays have made themselves known, have come out in support of antidiscrimination. That’s a lot of power, and power that Republicans have to respect. How can we extend that role?
We simply must have a better, stronger presence in Washington. I posited in one of my articles that we need more lobbyists, but how do we get more lobbyists? I said that if every city in America took responsibility for raising one lobbyist’s salary — either through an annual ball or party as HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] does — that way you could have 25, 50 lobbyists for antidiscrimination, for AIDS research, running faster. But I haven’t had any response to that.
The NGLTF [National LGBTQ Task Force] has never been an organization that made any sense to me. When Ginny [Virginia Apuzzo, executive director 1982–’86] ran it, well Ginny was incomparable. But where are the other Ginnys? Where are the other Larrys? I’m 80 years old and I don’t see anybody else.
I have to say that I think the [lobbying group] Human Rights Campaign is just abysmally shocking in its failures. And if that’s the best we have in Washington representing us, we’re in big trouble. They’ve been useless on AIDS all along. They’re ass-kissers; they’re not fighters.
And one thing I learned, we learned at ACT UP, is that you only get heard when you make a lot of noise. Otherwise they don’t hear you.
I wanted to ask you about your new novel, The American People. The first time I interviewed you was 20 years ago, in 1995, and I remember there was a stack of manuscript pages.
There’s volume two [pointing to piles of pages]. In the second volume, I’m writing about [HIV co-discoverer Dr. Robert C.] Gallo and Fauci [Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and the NIH. That’s been very hard to write, very painful because I think certain people involved actually were evil in what they did or wouldn’t do. Not Fauci — with whom I have a very complicated relationship [laughs]. At one point he helped save my life. We’re both very fond of each other so it’s like a love-hate relationship. But he embodied the main problem of that situation. He doesn’t really have the power to be in control. That’s part of the problem with the NIH.
So even Fauci couldn’t be the general because there was always someone above him, or second-guessing him in the NIH hierarchy …
I suspect that somewhere along the line, especially when he first arrived there as a much younger men, he realized that he had to be careful of what he said or did or he wouldn’t have a job; he’d be fired by the president. There’s no question that beginning with Reagan, they did not want certain things done. It was very hard to get money for the NIH at all, and there has never been a president who has actually taken on HIV as an issue. So how do you run the agency with all that and try to get results? In a way, he [Fauci] is a great man because he’s managed to survive. But who knows if he had been fired, we could have gotten someone who was much more inferior.
You’re describing Dr. Fauci as someone who clearly has political skills and has had to take measured steps when he might have wanted to take bolder steps. So understanding all you do about human nature and politics, what have you learned about forgiveness? Has that played into this?
I never thought of that. I look upon all this as very results-oriented, how to get what you want — and if you can’t give it to me it doesn’t mean I hate you or forgive you, it’s that I have no respect for you. It’s much too Christian a concept, and I don’t believe in God. I do believe in evil, and I do believe that AIDS was allowed to grow from an illness to an epidemic to a pandemic to a plague because of evil that has been done along the way. I will attempt to dramatize that more specifically in volume two of the novel. I’m more interested in evil than I am in forgiveness.
I think what I meant to say is that if understanding is the root of forgiveness — or perhaps forgiveness is the root of understanding or of allowing for human frailty — then you seem to have a deeper understanding of Dr. Fauci than you once did. A lot of people would find it understandable that a man in power at the top of his field, as Dr. Fauci is, would want to save his prestige and job. But what is less understandable, or forgivable, is the lengths to which someone will go to save himself. It sounded a minute ago as if you came to understood better how Fauci had to play his role.
That’s not necessarily forgiveness; it’s looking at what you’ve got and how do you understand it. I’ve put to him most of what I just said. He knows he’s had to be careful. He also has found that by not talking about gay men, he can get more money from Congress for AIDS. He could get more money because they respected him. That’s what I mean when I say it’s all complicated.
What would you say is the take-home message of The American People? Don’t believe everything you read about American history?
I want every gay person to be aware of our history — whether or not I’ve fictionalized it. A people deserves a history. You should know your history. I want gay history taught in schools. And they don’t teach it. Well, here are some of the things they can chew over when they teach it.
The second volume is not just about gay people. It is the story of a lot of people in Washington. Their own problems are mostly sexual. It’s not just gay people that are so wrapped up in sex — either emotionally or neurotically or whatever.
What do you think about the role of the playwright — let’s just say in a democracy, going back to the earliest democracy, Greece. Haven’t you been the kind of playwright who holds up a mirror to society or to a historical moment or experience, and reflects it back in a way people might not want to see?
I don’t consider myself a playwright; I consider myself a writer. I write movies. I write plays. I write novels. I write essays. I write political agitprop. I don’t separate them in terms of my identity. The Normal Heart — my biggest success as a playwright — was written as a play because I had written a novel, Faggots, and remembered how long it took me to write Faggots, and I had to get this one out faster. I knew no one would make a movie of it. So that left writing a play.
I wasn’t terribly keen to write another play because I’d had a bad experience with several plays in New York. Painful. But I wrote it as a play and had a very hard time getting it on. Then it took on its own life. The movie was exceedingly successful for them [HBO]. Interestingly enough, two of their movies with top viewership last year were both gay — me and Liberace! [laughs] Which is interesting because no studio wanted it. It’s taken HBO to have the guts to do it. It should have been done a long time ago.
I think writers have a responsibility of one sort or another when they sit down to write. It’s not just about jerking off; it’s about answering the question that you just asked me — what do you want your readers to feel or to understand. It may be many complicated things — as will be the case for The American People.
It’s very hard to get shows on in New York that get seen for more than a few weeks. In practical terms, it’s not usually the most efficient way to get a message across. In the case of The Normal Heart, it was. You realize that millions of people watched The Normal Heart [on HBO], and only a couple hundred could see it in a theater at one time. But it had to be successful in the theater before it could be made into a movie. You’re lucky if you get both. I now have several plays that are in various stages of being prepared for production. We’ll see!
I’m wondering what you would say to a younger version of yourself?
I tried to kill myself my freshman year at Yale. Somewhere along the line I was able to work out that I love being gay, that it was the most important thing in my life and that I was a gay man more than I was any other kind of a man — a Jewish man, or a creative man, or whatever.
That raises an interesting point. The last chapter of my new book on building gay men’s resilience is going to look at aging, and at the intergenerational relationships of gay men — mentors, this sort of thing. I was shocked when I read a study of the number of older gay men who have thought of or attempted suicide — in San Francisco, the country’s most gay-friendly city. I believe we must find a way to keep our older generation engaged in building community, passing on history, mentoring younger guys.
I think it’s true for straight or gay. It’s hard when you’re old — especially when you’re alone. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for my partner, literally. Being a husband and a caregiver and trying to run a career is complicated, and a lot of pain and guilt comes with it.
It is too bad that we don’t have some kind of structural way to deal with these kinds of problems, some kind of national organization. If HRC were the kind of organization I want it to be, it would be a repository. I don’t know if what I want exists anywhere.
I’ve talked with people at foundations who are interested in building a volunteer network to provide practical care and support services for elderly people, about how the AIDS buddy model is waiting to be adapted. That, to me, is one of the most brilliant things the gay community gave the world. It really showed how friends and neighbors take care of each other.
What’s the next step? How do you concretize that? I do think, as I said, that we are entering an era that will provide a lot of power for us if we know how to direct it and cooperate with each other. I don’t know an organization anywhere that represents what I think. You gotta dream.
It seems that there exists no one organization for gay men that could rival the American Red Cross. Some groups do the politics, others the technical assistance, helping to set up programs, etc. But there has never been one big organization. That goes back to your earliest history with GMHC. You wanted it to be an activist organization instead of a bunch of nurse’s aides …
Candy-stripers. It’s interesting that GMHC, my first child, has brought me back into their fold; they gave me an award. The new head, Kelsey Louie, is a real pistol, and they are doing amazing work.
I made this note from The American People, from your character Dame Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench: “Without shocks people tend to fall asleep. I choose to think one of my missions is to wake them up.” That could be said of Larry Kramer.
Yes, it could. That’s what I discovered: The more noise, the more they listen. Anger is a very positive emotion in my life; it all depends on how you use it.
The Publishers Weekly review of The American People says, “Kramer is a singular force, furious because he cares.” That is something I’ve observed in you and wrote about in Victory Deferred, after our first interview 20 years ago. People who have only seen you as an angry public person are shocked when I’ve written or told them that you’re actually a soft-spoken man, and gentle. When I last interviewed you, five years ago, in 2010, we were sitting at the table — and you made a comment about David, your partner. You said, “He loves me!” It melted my heart because it was so pure. It was so beautiful. You’ve been together now for a long time …
We met in 19 … oh shit … 65 or something. We were very young.
Wasn’t he Dinky in Faggots [the Kramer-like main character and narrator Fred Lemish’s unfaithful boyfriend]?
Well it seems you got the last laugh because you got the boy.