While nubile gays of the present dance blithely to the tune of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me,” they would do well to look to a “granddad” of yore: Larry Kramer. As one of the gay community’s most underrated writers considering his breadth of work, his death will perhaps bring him back to the forefront of study (move over, Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud). Or, it might be the gay community’s new opportunity to casually bury (by ignoring) his work for good. After all, Kramer was accused of homophobia himself time and time again, notably when he released one of his most candid masterworks, 1978’s Faggots. An apt and scathing title for a “sect” of gays he felt were rightfully classified as “degenerates.” The sort who brought the AIDS epidemic upon themselves, as he was not shy about pointing out in the midst of being one of the first advocates for getting gay men the health treatment they needed in the early days of the disease. Like corona at first being billed as a contagion that could only harm “olds,” AIDS was initially falsely labeled as something that could only affect gay men. And, admittedly, it was more prevalent within their community thanks to, as Kramer was not shy about pointing out, the recklessness of the average lifestyle of the gay New York male.
Taking the caricature of the sex-crazed gay man who can only seem to think with his cock (even more than a straight man) to Fire Island, the narrative of Faggots is replete with derogatory sentences that even a less uppity gay could take offense to. Nonetheless, Kramer’s aim was to “de-kike the word ‘faggot,’ which had punch, bite, a non-nonsense, chin-out assertiveness, and which, at present, was no more self-deprecatory than, say, ‘American’.” Kramer was never quite successful in re-appropriating faggot the way blacks did with the N-word or women did with bitch, but the book was a landmark moment in gay culture regardless–even if retroactively.
A relentless sober face in the sea of dancing queens, another notorious move of Kramer’s occurred in 2004, after the re-election of George W. Bush. Kramer gave a speech in response entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” damning those in the community willing to so comatosely ignore that their rights were continuing to be systematically eradicated on the basis of “morality”–the primary reason the Republican party won that year (and almost always wins against a Democrat). Reminding those in attendance at the Cooper Union speech that it was the gays themselves who were more to blame than anyone for their fate and reputation thanks to carelessness and a commitment to fast fucking, he seethed, “I do not understand why some of you believe that because we have drugs that deal with the virus more or less effectively that it is worth the gamble to have unprotected sex. These drugs are not easy to take. There are many side effects. Not life but certainly comfort threatening. I must allow at least one day out of every week or two to feel really shitty, to have no sleep, to be constipated, to have diarrhea, to require blood tests and monitoring at hospitals or in doctors’ offices, and to have the shakes. The shakes, which come often, are not useful with a mouse or reading a newspaper or with a lover in your arms. And I don’t enjoy eating anymore… We are all probably taking too much or too little of every single one of our drugs. Doctors don’t want to test for this; tests are not readily available. You have to do a lot of homework yourselves on these drugs. Is a fuck without a condom worth not being able to taste food? Obviously for too many of you it is.”
Again, Kramer lambasted his own for their concern with only the most superficial aspects of “what it means to be gay.” So much of it consisting of the trappings of parties, drugs, pop culture and preening. All things that sickened Kramer enough to propel him to write Faggots. Not from a place of homophobia or being self-hating, but from a place of knowing that his brethren was and is capable of more than what they’re settling for: comfort in a stereotype. One that has been profitable for many “mainstream” gays including Andy Warhol (undeniably in the more self-hating gay category), Dolce & Gabbana, John Galliano, RuPaul, the Will & Grace cabal, Michael Patrick King, Leslie Jordan (arguably part of the Will & Grace cabal), Andy Cohen and any number of similarly middling TV and internet “personalities” (here’s looking at you, Benny Drama). All seeking to capitalize on what the straight folk have cultivated for them (in addition to re-grafting) as the “fag’s custom.” And so, resigned gays seek to monetize the limiting mold as best as they can, ultimately transcending into a sort of homo version of the Sambo character. Pandering and catering to the point where someone like Kramer just wanted to shake them and say, “Yo, you don’t actually have to talk or act this way if you don’t want to.” That “being gay” connotes much more than a sexual preference so much as a “lifestyle choice” is part of where men get in their own way about it. Which is precisely what Kramer iterated throughout his entire career.
Calling them out consistently on their narcissistic bullshit (which is perhaps an inherent symptom of never having children other than “dog children”), Kramer wrote of the Daddy complex and selfishness in Faggots as well, most glaringly in the summation, “There are three roles one can play as a homosexual: one involving being the daddy to someone who is the son, another, therefore, being the sonny to that pop, the third involving looking for yourself in someone approximately identical to you.” Though, to some degree, all variants of the gay male adhere to the latter category.
His tireless damnation of the hedonism associated with homo existence (which is why he chose Fire Island as such a deliberate backdrop for Faggots) reached one of its many apexes in the aforementioned 2004 speech, equal parts diatribe, cautionary tale and all-out railing against both the government itself and the gay community’s continued naivety in believing any help would ever be had from them. He went on to say, “This is where we are now. Nowhere. And you expect me to cry for you if you get hooked on meth or can’t stop the circuit parties or the orgies. OK, I feel sorry for you. Does that change anything?… Most gay people I see appear to me to act as if they’re bored to death. Too much time on your hands, my mother would say. Hell, if you have time to get hooked on crystal and do your endless rounds of sex-seeking, you have too much time on your hands. Ah, you say, aren’t we to have a little fun? Can’t I get stoned and try barebacking one last time. ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND! At this moment in our history, no, you cannot. Anyway, we had your fun and look what it got us into. And it is still getting us into.”
Of course, comments such as these got him branded as being as conservative as the Republican zealots that hate gays in the first place, including such reactions as, “He recycles the kind of harangues about gay men (and young gay men in particular) that institutions like the Times so love to print–that they are buffoonish, disengaged Peter Pans dancing, drugging and fucking their lives away while the world and the disco burn down around them.” Well, so be it. It’s not like Kramer has ever been a stranger to ostracism from “his own kind,” with pretty much every gay bookstore in New York refusing to sell Faggots as it did not adhere to their own brand of “liberalism,” and was interpreted to be a tome designed solely to sell them down the river to those already looking for any cause to despise them. And all because he held up an unvarnished mirror to them showcasing themselves in a light they did want to see (that is to say, a fluorescent one instead of a disco one–it all smacks of Blanche DuBois indeed–a character created by a gay man).
As Kramer described his “crime,” “I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met.” Even his own affluent lawyer brother, Arthur, notoriously written as a callous character in one of his most acclaimed plays, The Normal Heart. In the end, he succumbed to pneumonia, still working on material (namely something called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die) through his weakened health condition. Still a staunch if polarizing advocate for the gay man. Unlike, say, his great nemesis, Ed Koch.