I always cry during AIDS movies, even the bad ones. It’s not just the death scenes that get to me. I think there’s a kind of orphanage that comes with being gay, and I feel that orphanage most sharply during these films.
Since most of us don’t have queer parents, we have to seek out elders and mentors outside of the nuclear household. These people are necessary influences, but locating them is especially challenging because of the U.S. government’s criminal neglect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By 1996, nearly 361,000 people in the U.S. had died. (Keep in mind the trans-generational cost of ignoring deadly diseases.)
Many of the people who survived the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic carry the trauma of attending horrifically repetitive funerals, changing the bedpans of twentysomethings and transporting trash bags — trash bags — full of people they danced beside only a short time prior.
I don’t know about all this from being there, and I certainly didn’t learn it in school. I’ve learned it from the powerful art and activism that emerged from the collective trauma of that generation. Ever since I landed in New York, I’ve gotten lucky enough to get dragged to shows and handed books about people who wanted similar things to what I want, about my lineage of desire. This sense of queer lineage is as close as I have ever come to spirituality. Larry Kramer is part of that lineage.
Kramer, a lifelong HIV/AIDS activist and gay playwright, died Wednesday at 84. While his death was unrelated to COVID-19, his passing amid another mismanaged pandemic came as chilling news to me. I never considered him a personal hero, but my encounters with his work as an ever-enraged gay boy left an indelible impression on how I view writing and activism.
I first read Kramer’s work in 2011 when the Broadway powers that be decided to revive The Normal Heart at The Golden Theatre. I didn’t feel like spending money on a ticket, but enough people around me were grumbling about Kramer’s polarizing legacy that I felt I had to read his work for myself.
I started with his 1978 novel Faggots, plunging myself into the wonderland of 1970s gay New York. The murals he painted of gay nightlife and sex over the decade following Stonewall excited me so much that on a few occasions, I had to put the book down to jerk off. I still randomly recall passages in which the jaded narrator describes optimizing his body for different boyfriends before eventually realizing he was just doing it for himself.
Perhaps the satire went over my head. In the book’s grand finale, all the decadence and glamour of Kramer’s world come crashing down as the narrator delivers a tirade against partying and promiscuity, both of which I happen to condone. This anxiety about empty-headed liberation was later considered a prescient, Icarian warning of the consequences to come.
It pissed me off that the narrator’s reproaches could be called prophetic, or that Kramer would allow anybody to regard his work as such. Gay people didn’t die in droves because we were bad at holding down committed relationships or overly fixated on sex. We were mass murdered by state neglect. Between the lines of Kramer’s vivid writing about gay sex, he seemed to see sex as politically useless. I understand his fatigue a lot better now, but I still disagree. Many of Kramer’s contemporaries objected to the book as well, for undermining the gay liberation movement. In fact, Manhattan’s only gay bookstore at the time banned the novel.
The more I learned about Kramer’s views, the more ambivalent I felt toward him. He co-founded ACT UP, one of the most inspiring and direct-action-centered grassroots movements in the past century. But the ideological foundations of his activism were solely focused on our collective survival. Unlike other ACT UP members such as Sarah Schulman, he didn’t ground his work in feminism, anti-racism or Marxism to produce a radically better society. Kramer was a fighter grounded in a sense of gay tribalism, driven plainly by intolerance to our extermination.
If anything, beneath his powerful criticisms of the system was a formidable amount of moralizing toward his own people. It didn’t help that he was a white guy, a common criticism leveled at the first organization he founded, Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I decided I was much too radical for Larry Kramer, from my high horse of an undergrad program that taught me what “intersectionality” meant.
Three years later, in 2014, my head was still pretty far up my own ass, but by this point I’d had my heart broken, my depression diagnosed and my escort ad approved. The Normal Heart had also returned to the gay zeitgeist as a film adaptation on HBO directed by none other than Ryan Murphy, a titan of assimilating gay characters and stories into mainstream TV programming. But in comparison to David France’s How To Survive A Plague and Jim Hubbard’s United In Anger, a glossy HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart seemed like a pandering, capitalist plot to strip ACT UP’s story of its intersectional values and revolutionary visions.
Worse yet, just days before the film’s release, Kramer expressed skepticism toward PrEP by calling it “cowardly” to resort to pharmaceuticals rather than condoms. These comments confirmed to me that the man had grown clueless about how to reach people. (In fairness, he later changed his mind and advocated fiercely against Big Pharma to make PrEP accessible.)
Suffice to say I had no plans to watch The Normal Heart. I had work scheduled the night it aired anyway.
That work, though, happened to be with my one regular escort client at the time. We typically spent most of our sessions talking about vintage gay porn. He had a decent VHS and DVD collection and shared stories with me about gay sex in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. (To this day, I’m amazed and grateful that he lived to tell these tales.) When I showed up at his apartment that night, he was in his living room about 20 minutes into The Normal Heart. I don’t think he meant to get caught up in the movie, especially not during our session, but it was clear that the trigger had been pulled on painful memories. He offered to turn it off, but I sat and watched it with him instead.
We became very emotional together, and I stopped keeping track of the time. This is highly inadvisable if you’re a sex worker — that is, losing track of time and getting emotional. But, you see, there’s this part in the movie where Jim Parsons’ character Tommy brings out a Rolodex detailing the names and addresses of everyone he knows who’s died from the epidemic.
My client rushed to his bedroom. He came back with a stack of notecards held together by a brittle rubber band. We held each other very tightly and cried. We cried about all the things you cry about during an AIDS movie — the melodrama, the death, the brutality of the past. But we cried about us, too. About the extraordinary distance in time between him and me. This lineage is what brings us so close — be it in Kramer’s story or gay porn VHS tapes.
I still didn’t think it was a good movie, but my experience watching it knocked me down a few pegs. The problem I had with Kramer was his voice’s dominance over how we remember the AIDS crisis and resistance to it. Over the years, I hungrily sought out and gobbled up more gay writing from every era: Samuel Delany, Andrew Holleran, John Rechy, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, David Wojnarowicz, Edmund White, Felice Picano, Alexander Chee, Roland Barthes, Gore Vidal.
But Kramer was the first writer to shine a lavender light upon the ghosts in my life and the first writer to show me how writing can be activism. I resented him for that. Not because he opened these portals, but because he showed me the urgency of opening my own. He created immortality through his work not out of vanity but out of necessity. In my silly, superior way, I resented him for the same reasons I admired him.
The legacy of Larry Kramer is quite clear to me now. It’s not enough to sit around and talk about what’s wrong. We have to get angry. We have to make sacrifices and fight. My encounters with Kramer’s work, though, left me with another lesson: Our lineage is sparse and severed by closets, criminalization and AIDS. We as queer people are orphans of experience. We have an uncanny ability, however, to suture ourselves back in, to learn and teach across generations the way families do.
Through art, through activism and even through sex, we fill the gaps that death has left behind.