“I am one of the hundreds of thousands of gay men who would not be alive today if not for Larry Kramer.” Brenden Shucart on author, essayist, playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who passed away last month.
BY BRENDEN SHUCART
Before I eulogize Larry Kramer I feel obligated to state up front that I never met the great man in person. Yet I feel intimately acquainted with him, because I wouldn’t be who I am today without his guiding hand. His activism sets the standard for all who come after, his novels shape our shared view of the Golden Age of Gay Culture, and to be Gay in this antediluvian age is to live in a world Larry Kramer built with his sweat, tears, and—most of all—his anger.
Anyone who’s heard of Kramer, knows his anger was the stuff of legends. It had the power to shame the mighty, energize movements, and change the course of history. And, speaking from first hand experience, finding one’s self on the receiving end of that righteous fury is both a memorable and unpleasant experience—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We were talking about his anger.
Kramer’s writing crackles with the stuff. In his first great novel, Faggots, (a bitingly hilarious and often quite sad satire of Gay life in the late ‘70s), his anger is a simmering frustration for the shallow decadence he perceives in Gay culture on the eve of the AIDS crisis.
In The Normal Heart, that anger burns blue hot, fueled by a grief born from the loss of literally everyone and everything that he loved and the indifference of a world that let it happen.
Together they are practically the definitive narrative of Gay life immediately before and after AIDS swept through our community.
His activism sets the standard for all who come after, his novels shape our shared view of the Golden Age of Gay Culture, and to be Gay in this antediluvian age is to live in a world Larry Kramer built with his sweat, tears, and—most of all—his anger.
That anger would act as fuel, carrying him forward as he tried to save that which was left of his shattered world. When the medical landscape proves unwilling and unable to care for his plague stricken brothers, he used it to found to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis: an institution whichwould become a model for HIV care replicated around the Western world.
Then he turned that fire on the glacial indifference of the Reagan administration, creating ACT UP to shame the federal government into action.
Larry Kramer’s righteous fury—for all of its power and effectiveness—made him few friends. The unrelenting heat caused him to be forced out of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and made him not always a welcome presence at ACT UP. Now keep in mind, I didn’t know Larry Kramer, but I don’t think he cared. History would prove him right: the hundreds and thousands of Gay men who weren’t lost to the AIDS epidemic because of the GMHC, ACT UP, and their successors is the proof.
I experienced that anger myself in 2012—as the great PrEP debates consumed the Gay community. I was the HIV editor for the now defunct Frontiers magazine, the “LGBT newspaper of record,” based out of Los Angeles. In PrEP I saw kind of a salvation for the Gay community—a pathway out of the valley of the shadow a the virus and free of the trauma it inflicted on every Gay man, positive and negative, old and young.
In an essay titled “What PrEP Means For Gay Men Living With HIV,” I wrote of my hope that PrEP might bridge the chasm of fear that AIDS had created between men living with the virus and those without.
Reading Kramer’s response I remember feeling pride that this legend of the Gay rights movement knew that I existed that was quickly washed away by his clear disdain for me and the work I was doing.
He thought that I was naïve for trusting the pharmaceutical industry, and that myself and the other PrEP advocates would bring about in the death of the Gay community. I had never been an apostle of Kramer’s, his uncompromising moralistic approach to activism was always an ill fit for my naturally diplomatic and vaguely hedonistic nature. But I respected him. I am one of the hundreds of thousands of Gay men who would not be alive today if not for Larry Kramer.
That said, I didn’t expect to be as emotional at Kramer’s passing as I find myself. And then I came across this quote from Harvey Fierstein.
“In just a few months we’ve lost Larry Kramer, Mart Crowley, Terrence McNally and Jerry Herman. The hole they leave in our culture, our community, our consciousness is almost unimaginable. But as I mourn, I also look toward the future. I wave the next generation forward. You’ve got some big heels to fill, children. Step on up and claim today!”
And I realized: I’m emotional because I’m afraid to live in a world without the benefit of Larry Kramer’s righteous fury, and afraid I can’t fit those heels. As much as I hated his moralizing and his disdain for me and my generation of activists, there was a comfort in knowing he was looking over our shoulders. Now it’s up to us.