June 25, 1935– Larry Kramer:
“There will always be enemies. Time to stop being your own.”
His work and the way he has lived his life have informed, impressed and influenced my own life like few others. From his novel Faggots (1978) to his most recent rants, Kramer has played a large role in who I am today. As a writer, he has received an Academy Award nomination, two Tony Awards, an Obie Award, an Emmy Award nomination, a Master American Dramatist designation from PEN, an award from the American Academy Of Arts And Letters, and an honorary Doctorate from Yale University.
In April 2011, Kramer took on editor/writer Thomas Rogers of Salon, in a generation on generation debate about gay identity. I understood Kramer’s position. Like Kramer, I am certainly not Post-Gay. Before I am an American, before I am a white male, before I am a progressive, I am a Gay Man. The struggles, sensibilities and spirit that give me breath are linked directly to being a gay guy. If I was not gay, I would be a white-straight- Protestant male, I would be The Man. I have always considered being gay to be a gift from God. I would never want to live my life as anything other than as an outsider.
This month marked the 36th anniversary of the first diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS. Kramer was there and he wrote a play about it, The Normal Heart, which I have a bit of history with.
The original 1985 production was produced by Joseph Papp at The Public Theatre, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, starring Brad Davis as the Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks (Joel Grey replaced Davis later in the run). The play shocked and touched audiences and ran for a year.
The Normal Heart finally played on Broadway in 2011, winning a much deserved Tony Award for Best Revival Of A Play, along with Tony Awards for my friend John Benjamin Hickey and the terrific Ellen Barkin. Kramer was on stage to accept the award along with the producers:
“For gay people everywhere, whom I love so dearly, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that, our day will come.”
Against all odds, after trying for three decades, The Normal Heart was made into a stirring, well-acted, emotion packed film directed by Ryan Murphy with a screenplay by Kramer, starring Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina, Julia Roberts, plus gay actors Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, B.D. Wong, Stephen Spinella, Denis O’Hare, and my boo, Jonathan Groff. It was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, winning for Best Television Film.
Here is the story with my link to Kramer and The Normal Heart: Despite my reputation as a hedonist, a fellow known to swig and smoke and swallow substances to feel better, forget, or lose myself; I have never performed while anything less than stone cold sober. As an actor, I was always clean as a whistle, had my homework done, was prompt for rehearsals and performances, and made it a point to get along with the cast and crew. I had done a lot of work, a lot of good work, sometimes with some troublesome behavior swirling around me, at Seattle’s extraordinary hit-making Pioneer Square Theatre in the 1980s. I was not completely surprised when the artistic directors and the managing director told me that they had seen a production of The Normal Heart in London, and that they had secured the rights for the first Seattle production, and that they had me in mind for the lead role of Ned Weeks. I had already read the play and I was very intrigued with the idea of playing someone so close to my own personality. I usually was chosen for roles that were not anything like the real me. It was a breathtakingly good role in a powerful play. I never assumed for even a moment that the role was all sewn up. I worked especially hard at the audition and call backs, but I had a different kind of confidence, knowing that the play had been chosen with me in mind.
I didn’t get the part. I never portrayed Ned Weeks, a role on paper that haunted me with the likeness to my own persona. The role went to the artistic director himself, a straight guy, who must have realized how juicy the character was. I was offered another role and was told: “You are much too good for this part, but we would still like you to be a part of this project.” I should have been a better man and a better actor; I turned down the smaller role.
When the Seattle production of The Normal Heart opened, I had inner-dialogue where I congratulated myself on dealing with my dreams being dashed in such a grownup way. I never shed a tear. I wished the cast all well on their opening and moved on. I had read a week’s worth of press before the opening and I didn’t flinch with sadness for opportunities lost. But on the afternoon of the opening of The Normal Heart, I broke out in a serious case of the hives. Every inch of my body covered in welts and rashes. Six weeks of bottling up my feelings and putting on my proud face took a toll on my body and I was a total mess. I finally cried. I would never be Ned Weeks. My boyfriend (now The Husband) said: “The body is a powerful thing. Yours is giving you a really strong message.”
Kramer has described himself as a shy person who “gets nervous when I’m away from my computer”. He was nominated for a Tony Award for The Normal Heart. He won that Obie Award for his play that continues Ned Week’s story, The Destiny Of Me (1993) and it was also a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. His screenplay for the film Women In Love was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969.
Kramer was an accidental leader. He was thrown into action during the first days of the AIDS epidemic when his friends began to get infected. Kramer:
“I was just a New York faggot like everyone else who was gay then. I didn’t march in Pride. We used to be at Fire Island and make fun of all that.”
Kramer’s novel Faggots has been continually in print since its original publication in 1978. It became one of the best-selling novels about gay life ever written. The book is a fierce satire of the gay ghetto and also a touching story of a man’s desperate search for love. I guess little has changed since 1978. Celebrated and reviled, this gay classic is not for the faint of heart. It is a tough look at the excesses of my generation of gay men that couldn’t hear the bell tolling over the disco beat.
As the plague threatened the lives of his friends, and fueled by fear and anger at a government that was ignoring the epidemic, Kramer co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first and the world’s largest service provider to people with HIV/AIDS, in 1981. Frustrated by his own organization’s non-confrontational nature, he launched the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP in 1987, leading a grassroots effort for the approval process for drugs to treat HIV. At its height from the late 1980s to the mid- 1990s, ACT UP boasted 140 chapters across our country.
Kramer is a powerful, profound writer, and a real crank. Kramer:
“You do not get more with honey than with vinegar. You get it by being harsh and demanding and in-your-face constantly. We’re all anxious to have everyone love us. It’s difficult to maintain that if you have strong opinions.”
You can get a good look at the fiery, still combustible, but rather frail Kramer in the excellent Larry Kramer In Love & Anger (2015), Jean Carlomusto‘s affectionate documentary, available on HBO On Demand.
In 2015, his book The American People: A History, an ambitious historical look at our country’s gay life from the Stone Age to the present, raised more than a few eyebrows with Kramer’s assertion that Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and even Richard Nixon were all gay. Yesterday, it was released in paperback by Picador.
“Our lives will be filled with jeopardy, much of it quite ruthless. We have never lacked for enemies, and they are not going away.”
Kramer now lives in an apartment in NYC and in a country house in Connecticut. He shares his life with architect David Webster, the man for whom Kramer had waited for 17 years. The pair met in the late 1960’s and dated in the 1970s, but spent the 1980’s apart. Webster came back into Kramer’s life in the 1990’s, HIV negative and ready to live out his life with Kramer. The effect he has had on Kramer is said to be palpable, the calm that comes with finally being seen, finally being heard, and finally being loved. Kramer remains a personal hero to me. His anger inspires me still.
“We must battle not only against our enemies but also against the straitjackets many of us still wear, which interfere with our ability to fight these enemies in full, free, and in-your-face unity.”