by Rex Wockner
He wrote the novel “Faggots,” the play “The Normal Heart” and the screenplay for “Women in Love,” among other works. He’s been a longtime gay thorn in the side of New York Times reporters, bourgeois gay activists and his alma mater, Yale. In 1987, he launched ACT UP. And now he’s trying to do it again. Rex Wockner talks with gay legend Larry Kramer.
Rex Wockner: Speaking at New York City’s gay center March 13th, commemorating ACT UP’s 20th anniversary, you called for a resurgence of gay street activism – and the audience promptly organized a Times Square recruiting station demo against the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s recent anti-gay slurs. Do you think gay America is ready to act up again?
Larry Kramer: We’ll see. The initial response to my speech was kind of overwhelming. The room was packed, and mostly young folks, which surprised me because I thought a lot of the old ACT UP crew would show up, which they didn’t. They loved the speech, and the energy quickly turned into deciding to march two days later on the Army recruiting station. It was just like the first ACT UP speech I made in 1987. Great turnout, great energy, our first demo two days later on Wall Street. Very spontaneous both times. We’ll have to see if the energy will sustain. These are the delicate first weeks to see if the troops coalesce or drop by the wayside. Like the Sondheim song, we are “putting it together, bit by bit, piece by piece.” Again, that is how it was in the beginning. We didn’t know where we were going, we just figured it out. The needs are different now. Then it was AIDS and now it is utter sheer hate hurled at us right and left, the latest example of this being Gen. Peter Pace.
R.W.: Let’s talk about your reference to hate from the left. You took a strong jab at Hillary Clinton during that speech at the gay center. Our enemies come from all parts of the political spectrum?
L.K.: I say that hate is an equal-opportunity employer. I say over and over again that we must realize that gay people are hated. Period. And we don’t realize this. We think they just don’t like us. Or that bullshit about “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When the Supreme Court rules against us, as always happens, it is because of hate. The recent New York state ruling handed down on gay marriage contained some of the most bigoted reasoning I have ever heard.
I want this new ACT UP to be an army confronting this hate in every way we can, whether it is Hillary and her constant waffling – which, of course, isn’t hate, yet – or the judges ruling against us. Gen. Pace’s disgusting talk is hate. As I say in the speech, there is not one elected official or candidate for president who, given half the chance, would not sell us down the river. Bill Clinton was the prime example of that, with his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his support of the hateful Defense of Marriage Act. Gays at HRC and elsewhere lining up to give (Hillary) big bucks is a big mistake. We demand now, and pay off later – after they show us the beef, not before.
R.W.: I do feel hate sometimes from courts and politicians, but I only very rarely feel it living my daily life in San Diego. Some days I think they wish we’d just all disappear from the face of the Earth, but most days I feel like we’re all accepted and integrated, at least in the cities. Aren’t we, culturally, kind of in a supremely schizo phase? Also, what straight people do one-on-one with the gay people in their lives seems very different from what slimy politicians do in public. My ex and I were good friends with the fundamentalist Christians who lived next door. Perhaps they didn’t like gays, I don’t know, but they liked me and Bob, as a gay couple, just fine. In other words, schizo. Discuss.
L.K.: It is seeing your life through such rose-colored glasses as you describe that is so dismaying to me. Yes, life is better for the blinded. Leave San Diego and go to northern Idaho, or to parts of Queens in New York City, and you would not live as you describe. Indeed, I am sure there are portions of San Diego where you could get seriously mugged. I am actually kind of sick and tired of palaver – hot air – as you just passed. I am also sick and tired of those who say that everything is better now than the old days. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t; this is an irrelevant argument. It is the today that we have to contend with. Every action that I describe in my ACT UP speech is an action of hate – by judges, by our government, by our elected officials, by government bureaucrats. And until gays start facing up to this fact, that this is hate, not just, say, difference of opinion, then we continue to live in the doggy do-do that we do.
R.W.: Yes, I’ve been scolded for this hot air, or optimism, by others, too; and you’re right that we still lack equality in many, many areas and that homophobia is the reason for it. You mentioned the Human Rights Campaign. They’ve taken a lot of flak lately. I’ve seen them under attack from blogger Michael Petrelis; writers Andrew Sullivan, Paul Varnell and Chris Crain; and from others who still dare to have a controversial opinion. Has HRC become useless?
L.K.: HRC is almost worthless and has been since the day it was born. I totally agree with Andrew that it is a cash cow milking gullible gay men and women and providing scant evidence that it is money well-spent. Every once in a while they manage a minor victory in Washington but hardly one to merit their existence. I say this sadly. I’ll tell you one thing: that they are able to corral so much money every year is scary. It’s scary that so many of us believe they are doing good stuff. What are they seeing that I can’t see? We are in worse shape in Washington than we have ever ever ever ever ever been. Washington is HRC’s turf. I shudder.
R.W.: If what has been dubbed ACT UP ARMY takes off, it likely will do such things as shout down waffling presidential candidates and homo-hating senators, throw pies at homo-nasty cultural figures and such. That will drive media coverage, and media coverage sometimes fixes things. So that’s all good. Apart from that, what alternative form of activism would you suggest for people whose current style of activism is sending money to HRC and GLAAD? Besides interrupting Hillary’s speeches and throwing pies at Ann Coulter, what should gay Americans be doing to diminish the hate?
L.K.: Would that someone would only throw pies at Ann Coulter! If ACT UP ARMY takes off is a major “if.” All of this getting-us-off-the-ground-again stuff is delicate and tenuous, as I said. There is no consensus yet about anything, including the name of ACT UP ARMY. Some don’t like the army word and some no longer even want the ACT UP words, preferring something more like RAGE, which is not available for Web registration, or who knows what else. One of the suggestions that got out is the Queer Justice League, which I hate; it sounds too fascistic. So far, few of the old-time ACT UPers have showed up, which was surprising and disappointing to me. Who has appeared have been young people, which is fine but which requires new getting-to-know-you’s for us all.
Once again, forgive me if I carp but I am tired of people asking me for what suggestions I have for activism. We are a fantastically gifted population of people with strong imaginations and creative powers. What the fuck do you – meaning each individual – want to do? If you don’t want to storm barricades or boo Hillary or McCain at every whistlestop and you don’t have spare money for our gay organizations, which are not worth it anyway, please realize that it only takes one person to do an action, if you are of the mind to do it.
Donna Shalala once made a speech before a huge hall when she was Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services and I stood right beside her holding up a sign saying “Donna Do Nothing.” Sure, I felt funny, but if you hold the sign up in front of your face, no one sees it, and I sure felt good after it was over. My point is that we all have to find ways that are commensurate with our courage and belief in our validity of ourselves as equal Americans who are being dumped on royally and constantly. If you don’t feel that in your bones, then I guess you are never going to be an activist and we are all going to continue to be dumped on royally and constantly.
Please don’t wait for others to do anything! There once were ACT UP chapters in dozens of American cities. People just got together and did stuff. All across America. Do it again, for all our sakes! Just call a Tupperware party and say to your friends, “OK, what can we do this week?” It’s like Mickey and Judy putting on a show, if that reference isn’t too obscure now.