By Jeff Walsh
Larry Kramer has been a lightning rod for controversy since his fist novel Faggots blazed into bookstores and parodied the way gay men were living their lives. The novel ended up being far too prescient, and a few years after its release the AIDS crisis would begin.
The crisis changed Larry Kramer's main role from writer to activist. He founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first agency to help gay men deal with the AIDS crisis in its infancy, and also founded The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (better known as ACT UP), which would become the height of gay activism in the 1980s, with its theatrical demonstrations underscoring the plight of a dying community.
During the 1980s, Kramer wrote "The Normal Heart," a play about the infancy or the AIDS crisis, channeling his rage into lead character Ned Weeks. The movie version of theplay has always had huge names attached to it, such as Barbra Streisand and ER's Anthony Edwards, but is still too much of a political hot potato for name actors to sign on to it.
Kramer also wrote a play entitled "Just Say No" in the 1980s which lampooned the Reagan years, but that play was savaged by the second-string New York Times theater critic. The play just began a revival run in Chicago and plays through July 4 at the Bailiwick Theater.
In a recent phone interview during rehearsals in Chicago, Kramer said the current political climate will allow for a play lampooning a presidency, which wasn't the case in the 1980s.
"The difference is that now we had Bill and Monica. In the time of the Reagan years, we weren't allowed to criticize them for all the shit they laid on everybody," he said. "And, I have no doubt that AIDS was allowed to happen because of Nancy Reagan's sex life and Ed Koch's sex life and the perception that Ron Reagan Jr. was gay. All their sexual secrets and hypocrisy."
The show has gotten a lot of attention, thanks to Greg Louganis playing the role of Ron Reagan Jr., and Alexandra Billings, a transgendered woman, playing Nancy Reagan. The couple was on the cover of The Advocate and featured on Entertainment Tonight, which is a much different role than the media played for the play's initial run.
"The New York Times critic hated it and he really creamed us," Kramer said. "He was angry and said the play was in bad taste. What was in bad taste was the Reagans and their path to suppress AIDS and try to kill us. That was in worst taste."
Kramer has rewritten the play and has made it funnier and more outrageous, in the hope that it would have a life beyond the Chicago production. There are currently offers from other cities to bring the Chicago cast to other cities after the run finishes there.
Kramer's other media blitz recently came when he spoke at a queer youth conference in Madison, Wis., and instead of writing a second speech to deliver, he decided to test out a chapter from his forthcoming book "The American People." The chapter dealt with Abraham Lincoln being gay, and a journalist in the crowd wrote a story which was then picked up by the wire services. Kramer said the story becoming a big deal (as evidenced by a recent Salon article) was never the plan.
"I didn't expect it to get out," he said. "The thing in Madison was spur-of-the-moment and I didn't want to write another speech, since I was booked to do two speeches. So, occasionally I read a section of the book somewhere just to see how it goes, and I decided to read the Abe Lincoln stuff."
Kramer said he was pleasantly surprised by the historians that have been quoted in stories questioning Honest Abe's sexuality.
"None of the historians that [Salon] talked to actually said I was wrong. They just wanted proof," he said. "No one said 'Larry's crazy' or 'He's off the wall.' They're saying, 'that's very interesting.' It's like everyone knows it's there."
Kramer had previously been critical of Gore Vidal's biography of Lincoln, which didn't mention the questions about his sexuality. Kramer found that odd, considering Vidal is openly gay.
"I was angry with him. I interviewed him in 1987 for a gay magazine and I told him, 'why didn't you put the gay stuff in,' and he made an excuse," Kramer said. "That interview is actually coming out from Clies Press in a book called Sexual Writings."
Kramer's book still doesn't have a publication date. It's at about 1800 pages so far, and he wants it to be published in one volume, despite its size. He said it will be published "when it's finished, which will probably be when I die."
"It's a history of being gay in America, and it's the history of America, the history of a plague, of disease. It's very ambitious," he said.
The other ambitious project has been the never-ending fight to bring "The Normal Heart" to the screen.
"The movie thing fell apart again. Last week, actually," Kramer said. "The problem has always been that we can't get any stars to be in it, and the people who put up the money insist on names. Barbra couldn't get anyone to be in it, and now Anthony Edwards couldn't get anyone. He's the one that had it last, and it fell through last week."
The movie has previously had stars attached, such as Kevin Spacey, Sharon Stone and Helen Hunt, but they never end up doing it.
"Kevin Spacey said he would do it, but then backed out at the last minute. We thought he would do it, because he's gay," Kramer said. When reminded that Spacey isn't openly gay, Kramer scoffs and just said: "Well, it's certainly been said enough places."
Kramer said the problem isn't unique to Normal Heart, noting that Tony Kushner's award-winning Angels in America is having the same problem.
"Tony hasn't been able to get a movie going. That's been on-again, off-again as much as Normal Heart."
Kramer said few, if any, major movies have dealt with AIDS in a realistic manners.
"If you find any homosexuality in Philadelphia, you'd have to be Sherlock Holmes," he said. "I was against that it was so homogenized. I do believe Normal Heart can be a commercial movie with two names in it, but we can't get two names."
Whenever Kramer writes an essay for The Advocate or delivers a speech, he ignites debate. The word anger is most attached to describe him.
"Why, I'm such a soft-spoken nice person?" Kramer wonders, when asked about his reputation. "The media made me into this angry person, and it suited the media and it suited me for a while, because it made people listen to me. It made people afraid of me when I had to negotiate things about drugs and clinical trials, so it served it's purpose. I'm a little bored with it now."
I then told Kramer how important his words and the words of Michelangelo Signorile shaped my coming out and activism in the early 90s, when both were columnists at The Advocate. Playwright David Drake was also touched by Kramer's words so much after seeing The Normal Heart that he later called his one-man show The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (soon to be a movie!), after the metaphoric kiss he received in the theater that night. Kramer said he does know that people support him, but the negative feedback gets more play.
"It goes like a pendulum, sometimes I hear the praise and most of the time I hear the attacks, mainly because that's what makes publicity. I'm 64, and I'm getting on here, and I'm beginning to feel it more than I have before. I'm sad that there isn't any real activism anymore, like ACT UP. I miss that a lot. I miss that constructive energy that changed things."
Kramer said he is upset by the disappearance of the activist culture in the gay community.
"I think one of the most disheartening things is everyone seems to have forgotten the plague, and not just young people, but older people who lived through it," he said. "It's almost like it didn't happen and everybody thinks it's gone away. That's hard to take. It changed my demeanor a lot. I'm not as angry as I used to be. I'm much more resigned. The only think I want to do is finish my novel, which will be my major piece of work, and then I'm ready to die. The novel will say it all.
"I'm tired of fighting the world, and I'm tired of the fights with people like Ed White and Eric Rofes and people who I just think are wrong. But, I've said it so many times, there's no point to say it anymore. My book will say everything, it will be between two covers for anyone who wants to read it, and I'll just live my life with my friends."
Kramer said he doesn't know why people are so complacent anymore.
"I really don't know what's happened, whether it just goes in cycles whereby there's a generation of activists and then a generation that's conservative and quiet," he said. "And then, you hope there will be another active one. Considering we have so many battles to fight, it's perplexing so much passivity is visible."
Kramer said the main ingredient needed for successful activism -- fear -- doesn't exist as much anymore.
"For activism to be successful, people have to be afraid and I don't think people are afraid anymore," he said. "The two organizations I helped to start were started when people were really afraid. And ACT UP was started when people were terrified."
I then asked him what kind of activism was happening in the gay community before the AIDS crisis.
"Before AIDS, it wasn't complacency, it was invisibility," he said. "A lot of people out in one way or another, you couldn't deny to yourself that you were gay if you had to deal with the potential death, so it brought a lot of people out. And it's interesting how many of the activists in both organizations must have suspected they were going to get infected and die, because a lot of them did die. They fought to save their lives."
Kramer's role in activism was recently discussed in the scholarly "We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer," a book for which Kramer has mixed feelings.
"I know it was an honor, but 'I'm not dead yet' was my reaction," he said. "Embarrassing isn't the right word, but it was strange. Some of the things I liked, some of the things I didn't like, but I'm used to that."
When asked if he has any specific advice for today's queer youth, Kramer said he would have to say "all of those terrible things that old men say to younger people -- it's your world, your future and your life out there now."
"It's exciting to see so many more people visible now, but people have to find their own ways, gay or straight," he said. "And it doesn't get easier as you get older, kids. You don't want to hear that but it's true. They don't tell you about all the aches and pains."
Kramer said he's happy with the life he's lived. But he says he's happiest now, in a relationship, quietly writing and living in the country.
"I'm happy just being a writer and a novelist in the country, where I don't have to deal with anybody," he said. "I enjoy that the most."