larry kramer

The Love and Rage of Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer, at home in New York in 1993. Photo: Getty Images

I read Faggots for the first time earlier this year — guiltily, belatedly. Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel is an acknowledged classic of gay literature, but most of the gay men I know knew of it but hadn’t read it. It was a prerequisite that no longer seemed entirely required. A picaresque about gay life in New York in the mid ’70s, the city’s own Weimar era, Faggots is nearly gory in its unapologetic pornography, incandescent in its provocations, starting with the title. (Liberated as I claim to be, I felt funny reading it on the subway.) Parts of the novel feel dated, but its boldness, its directness is shockingly modern. “There are 2,556,596 faggots in the New York City area,” it begins, which seems a fair enough estimate now. Forty years ago, Kramer had our number.

Faggots is funny, filthy, furious. It is a great book, if not always a good one, with an unwranglable cast of thousands. But its heart is Fred Lemish, who cruises the bathhouses and the Pines looking for love — a hero’s journey, or an antihero’s journey, no one could seem to agree which. “A grotesque Pilgrim’s Progress,” said the Washington Post, according to the cover of my 1979 paperback edition; “an odyssey,” in Warner Books’s own estimation.

If it is an odyssey, Larry Kramer (Fred Lemish’s puppeteer), is Odysseus. Or he is Cassandra, wailing her warnings to a deaf world. Or he is Perseus, the monster slayer. Those who describe Kramer always reach for Greek myth; that felt like his natural line. He spent decades railing at an unlistening world. He slew more monsters than any one man should be expected to. His odyssey was from an unhappy childhood and the closet to the frontlines of the bloody battleground of HIV and AIDS. Kramer wouldn’t be cowed by anyone into conformity or silence. The only thing that could do that was the inevitable. Kramer died on Wednesday at 84, of pneumonia. He had skirted death before, surviving liver disease and a liver transplant and rumors of his own demise, to go on living for many years with HIV.

Faggots is a loud book. Kramer was a loud person. He delighted in public exhibitions, finger-pointing, naming-and-shaming — not of those who were gay, but those who wouldn’t help them, wouldn’t fight for them, and those who wouldn’t fight for themselves. He was still mostly known as a novelist, as the author of Faggots (which many in the gay community condemned as moralizing), when he focused the righteous rage of Faggots on a terrible and worthy cause. In 1983, he wrote one of the signal pieces of the growing AIDS crisis, for the cover of the independent newspaper New York Native: “1,112 and Counting.” As in, deaths. “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble,” he wrote. “If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this Earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”

The author’s copy of Faggots. “No one can be neutral!” Photo: Matthew Schneier

Kramer got angry; as time went on, and the death count went up, more and more gay men (and their friends) became angry. Kramer stayed angry. It was a righteous, impatient anger, and it never let up, even as it earned him as many enemies as friends. “When it comes to being an asshole, Larry is a virtuoso with no peer,” Rodger McFarlane, a former lover of his, told The New Yorker. “Nobody can alienate people quicker, better, or more completely.’’ (Kramer did eventually find love, and married David Webster, an architect and designer.)

I like to think of Larry Kramer as a necessary asshole — I think you could even make a case for him as St. Asshole. (Hello, Vatican? You remember him, from his long, bitter siege on Cardinal O’Connor and the Catholic Church.) Kramer co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to agitate for AIDS research and funding and eventually, to minister to the community. Then, when Kramer deemed it insufficiently radical, he co-founded ACT UP, which staged demonstrations and disruptions, an activism which sometimes felt close to anarchy. He was far from the only warrior of the AIDS crisis (eulogy tends to narrow the wide field of focus to the single person) but he was a brutally effective and enduring one. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who knew Kramer during his tenure at the National Institutes of Health — they were enemies and later became friends — long before he became America’s coronavirus czar, once said: “In American medicine, there are two eras: “before Larry and after Larry.’’

We live in a world Kramer helped to make. My first HIV test, and some of my subsequent ones, were administered free, confidentially, at GHMC’s clinics, when I was panicked and terrified, knew only the family pediatrician, and had nowhere else to go. That you could speak about AIDS in the New York of my childhood — when the “Decision” comic strips appeared on the subway, the HIV melodrama of Julio and Marisol, when Rent played to packed houses every night — Kramer has a part of that. The endless insistence that the FDA and the CDC do their jobs helped spur the development of HIV drugs — he has a part of that too. Any reckoning of the essential art of the AIDS crisis — that, too. You can’t watch The Normal Heart (1985), finally made into a film by Ryan Murphy in 2014 with an all-star cast, and not be angry, still. And wonder why didn’t anybody listen to Ned Weeks, a character based on Kramer himself. “Ned Weeks” was Kramer’s personal email handle to the end.

Faggots was a pre-AIDS book, and far less tragically romantic than, say, Dancer From the Dance, which was also set in Fire Island and the baths, also published in 1978, and is far more likely to be found on the shelves of a Pines share house these days. Faggots had an agenda: He wanted to show how men treated each other. The name was a provocation and a dare but also a critique: Gay men should change your ways “before you fuck yourself to death.” Maybe because it hit too close to home, or it just came off as anti-fun, it wasn’t received well at the time. Then came the plague.

Some in the gay community continue to take issue with Kramer’s scolding about sex and its consequences, especially as the age of Truvada has helped — for those who have access to it — to separate sexual abandon from sexual risk. (He seemed to go back and forth on endorsing PrEP.) But he’d watched his corner of the world burn like the Everard Baths burned (an incident which is fictionalized in Faggots). That very recent world — 40 years, only a little more than my lifetime — is now visible to us mainly in glimpses: in the photos of Peter Hujar, Alvin Baltrop, Stanley Stellar, or Leonard Fink; in Parting Glances, Bill Sherwood’s single film before succumbing to AIDS; in the writing of Edmund White, David Wojnarowicz, and Thom Gunn. Kramer outlived most of them, and kept writing, and kept arguing, on and on. (The second volume of his years-long opus, The American People, came out just this year.) But that world forged him. And he never let down his guard.

Of course, the AIDS crisis isn’t history; it isn’t even past. That many of us are lucky to know it less viscerally than Kramer did is part of his complicated gift to us. It is a gift unequally distributed — HIV has become something more likely to affect communities of color. How much of the movement’s success was the success of sons of privilege who knew how to advocate for themselves and bend the ears of power? But fury is now our responsibility: the Kramer bequest. Larry’s legacy is assured, even if the work is not done.

The Love and Rage of Larry Kramer