’80s firebrand calls on LGBT community to get back in the streets and “‘in their face’ to fight for gay rights
Everyone who saw him walk in could tell he was someone important even if they didn’t know his identity.
His bearing drew attention, the same way it did two decades ago when his outrage riveted the attention of the nation from one coast to the other.
The younger journalists attending the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention whispered, “Who is that?” as the distinguished-looking man wearing turquoise jewelry sat down at a table near the podium in the San Diego hotel’s conference room.
The older journalists whispered, “Is that Larry Kramer?”
Several confirmed that it was indeed the renowned AIDS activist, novelist and playwright.
Kramer, 72, arrived with his partner about five minutes before the luncheon and presentation by the publisher of The Advocate about the magazine’s new design began. The activist quietly ate lunch as every eye in the room watched him. Occasionally, he would look up, lock eyes with someone near him and smile.
By the time the program began, everyone in the room knew they were in the presence of a giant in America’s gay rights movement.
Kramer was the founder of ACT UP and the cofounder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. His novel “Faggots” is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time. His play “The Normal Heart” was named one of the 100 best plays of the 2oth Century by the Royal National Theater of Great Britain, and it is the longest-running play in the history of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater.
The Advocate’s publisher, Michael Phelps, looked a little nervous perhaps he wasn’t sure what to expect during the question and answer session.
Kramer, who lives in Connecticut, was expected at the convention, but not for another two days when he was scheduled to speak.
When Phelps finished his presentation about the magazine’s new design, he opened up the session to questions. Kramer patiently waited until the others had asked their questions first.
Then he took the microphone. Older and frailer than in the days when his words sparked headlines almost daily in the mid-1980s, Kramer set about the task of dressing down the publisher. He complained that the magazine today had too much white space, too many pretty pictures and not enough information. As the nation’s largest gay publication one that had once lived up to the nature of its name The Advocate owed more to the nation’s LGBT population, he said.
“Those really aren’t questions,” said Kramer to the amusement of the audience and to the discomfort of Heath.
The publisher and his editor had little to say, except that the magazine had evolved over its 40 years.
Kramer had set a tone for his appearance at the convention, and he continued with it two days later when he attracted a capacity crowd to an auditorium in the hotel. The tone was one of dismay with the gay rights movement today.
The activist who once roared but now almost whispers into the microphone accused LGBT people of being “passive” and “apathetic” today. Freedom cannot be won without a fight, he warned.
“If you want the freedom, [then] you have to find a way,” Kramer said. “Just don’t be so passive. We are capable of so much more.”
He lashed out at society in general and the education system for failing to teach the history of gay and lesbian people to students. Kramer called on people to get angry and resume “in their face” activism like he and others employed in the 1980s when gay men were dying daily from AIDS.
He complained that he is concerned his partner will not inherit enough from his estate to be secure when he dies because of unfair laws that penalize gay couples and reward straight ones. He lashed out at gay rights leaders, claiming their tactics are not doing enough to bring about equality for LGBT people.
As the session ended, members of the audience lined up to shake his hand and praise him. He never stopped smiling, but the glint in his eyes revealed that the anger still burns.
William Waybourn, an AIDS activist who shook up Dallas in the 1980s, said he understands where Kramer is coming from.
“I understand his frustration,” said Waybourn, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “It’s the same for all of us in that age range. You have a greater sense that the clock is ticking.
Waybourn said progress has been made in the gay rights movement, and Dallas is a sterling example of it. There was a time in Dallas not so very long ago when LGBT people had no standing, he noted.
“Look what it was when I was there [prior to the early 1990s],” Waybourn said.
“We were social pariahs.”
Waybourn said Kramer is not totally off target though.
“Things are never as bad or as good as Larry Kramer makes them out to be,” Waybourn said. “He’s right, and he’s wrong. I think we’ve made a lot of progress. Is it enough? I don’t think so. I think there is a lot more that could be done.
“Is it going to happen in our lifetimes? I don’t think so because there’s just not the fervor that existed that was not only driven by the passion for equality but also because AIDS was upon us. It created a different dynamic back then.”
Waybourn said young LGBT people do not feel threatened today the way they once did.
“They assume they have equal rights,” Waybourn said. “They may or may not have them, but they assume they have them. Until they lose them, they really do not feel like they are threatened.”
Waybourn said he, like Kramer, is concerned about the overall direction of the gay rights movement today.
“I don’t mean this to be critical of the current leadership, but I just don’t see anybody stepping up to the plate,” Waybourn said. “Everyone has their own idea about what’s the best way to accomplish change, and there’s not a cohesive structure. And there’s not this driving force right now like there was when AIDS was around, and there was a direct threat to personal freedoms.”
In the 1980s, Waybourn noted, there was a real concern among gay people that the government might step in and incarcerate or quarantine people because of the AIDS epidemic.
The gay rights movement is now in a moment of evolution, and the biggest challenge will be to motivate people, Waybourn said. But it can be done, he added.
“If you understand the civil rights struggles for the minority populations from women to African-Americans, they all have this ebb and flow,” Waybourn said. “The Clinton years helped to insulate a lot of organizations, and complacency set in. The Bush years have now sort of unsettled people, and there’s this desire to be active again and make things happen.
It took people like Kramer to make those things happen 20 years ago, and it’s time for a new, motivated generation of LGBT people to take over where he and legions of others many of them dead now left off, Waybourn said.
“I love Larry Kramer,” Waybourn said. “He’s a brilliant man, and he’s had some great ideas. He’s been able to follow through on a lot of ideas, and he’s made a lot of things happen.”
And that’s what Kramer is still doing when he tries to goad younger generations, such as the audience at the NLGLA, into action.
Some of Kramer’s last words at his appearance on the stage seem to point to that.
“I love gay people,” Kramer said. “I want so much more for us.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2007