Larry Kramer and the Power of Radical Self-Love (and Self-Loathing)

Last night saw the release of the HBO documentary Larry Kramer in Love & Anger — a film made by Kramer’s friend Jean Carlomusto, whose scarce but potent original footage comes from Kramer’s bedside after the activist, playwright and author had undergone a liver transplant due to complications with HIV. Though the documentary mostly offers up archival interviews about/with the man at the center of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (as well as at the center of gay representation in theater in the 80s and 90s), the occasional glimpse into Kramer’s current existence is one of sickliness, old age, and diminished communication. When the film documents his 2013 wedding ceremony — also held at his bedside — where the pronunciation of “till death do you part” reads as both victorious and crushingly tardy, what’s most notable is that the aspect of the ceremony that doesn’t seem vestigial is the society in which it takes place. There’s nothing feeble about the unabashedly kvelling reactions such an event may now elicit, or about the fact that these reactions no longer belong only to a niche group of radical liberals, but rather a majority of the country.

And so, juxtaposed against Kramer’s weakening health over the years (happily, after the doc was filmed, he was released from the hospital and is still alive and writing) is the escalating fortification of society’s acceptance of queerness. Kramer once lamented not being recognized as much for his artistry as for his activism, saying, “Unfortunately in this country you can’t be taken seriously as an artist if you’re also an activist.” But if anything, this scene shows that society itself was, for him, a found art object that he painstakingly reshaped and recontextualized until it was open to gay love, and until it could openly love back.

Such affirmative notions are easy to stomach, and speak to the uncomplicated nature of empowering activism. But the harder part of this documentary — and of Larry Kramer — is that to get to that place, his activism very openly expressed what some would consider a form of self loathing (and others would consider a heightened form of self-love) that doesn’t vibe with the fervently sex positive discourse behind much current (not to mention gay liberation era) queer activism. Kramer’s activism was more a matter of discouragement than the empowerment with which we understand the uplifting of the marginalized; it could, to a certain extent, even be categorized, if we’re putting it in today’s terms, as “victim blaming.”

But the documentary complicates the current, blanketing rhetoric of positivity by showing just how uncomfortably crucial sex negativity was to Kramer’s work during the AIDS epidemic — work that would both instill a needed fear in the gay community who didn’t want to abandon their (legitimate) activism of public promiscuity and in the government by his refusal to let AIDS remain invisible —  to let the government enact an “intentional genocide” of inaction. Indeed, early on, both gay men and the government (notably, Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan) seemed to try to ignore the AIDS epidemic for as long as possible: but they couldn’t ignore Larry Kramer’s rage.

Further complicating matters is the notion that Kramer’s repulsion with and admonishment of the Fire Island “meat rack” lifestyle — as he calls it throughout the film, his voice overflowing with a similar tone of disdain every time —  wasn’t first spurred by the need to be pragmatic and abandon pleasure in light of the plague that was spread by it. Before AIDS even emerged, Kramer had written the then relatively loathed (but now canonized… and still loathed, by some) book, Faggots, a loosely fictionalized account of his own longing for monogamous love amidst the radical political valorization of anonymous sex (a politics that conveniently fulfilled hedonistic desires) that came out of the Stonewall generation in the late 60s and 70s. The protagonist based on Kramer was also a participant in this culture, but simultaneously longed for respite from all the “cock” worship. Of that book, he said:

The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing.

At the time, the book was banned from the shelves of New York’s sole gay bookstore. Watching this documentary now, and wanting to appreciate Kramer now, means acknowledging the difficult fact that his somewhat condemnatory ideas about free “love” were not first born of his feeling the need to save a population — these ideas seem to have already existed for him, and were sadly validated by it. But through his initial self-loathing and the simultaneous self-love that could classify anyone who thinks they deserve more than the status quo, he was able to heighten awareness and save much of the gay population from the spreading of AIDS. He was also able to force the rest of the country to confront its own ignorance and bigotry. His critique came from an open place: he was more publicly “out” than most gay men, and that enabled him to navigate speaking against trends — sometimes with ugly and contemptuous language — in gay culture while advocating for equality.

It was a singular moment in activism, because at that particular time, it was a combination of the biology and frequency of gay sex that was spreading a disease so rapidly. Sex negativity was not merely an abstract matter of ideological preference. The era — tyrannized by something as concrete as disease and abstract as ignorance —  benefited from someone who could reproach both his own community and that which ignored it — even if his reproach now seems itself problematic.

Now, though numbers of new HIV cases among gay men may ebb and flow (recently, there were reports that, perhaps due to certain new websites, they’re in a flowing phase), the stakes of being gay aren’t as medically threatening as they once were. After two decades of fear within the gay community, there’s been a fortunate shift to less shame-based approaches to sex, but an unfortunate recurrence in the popularity of bareback sex. With the advent of PrEP (which is by no means a solution or cure, but is another potent prophylactic), it’ll surely only increase.

Meanwhile, the growing tolerance and visibility (and momentous legislative decisions like last week’s SCOTUS ruling) of gayness means that promiscuity itself no longer has its reactionary push. As a (not necessarily great) testament to its depoliticization, gay sex has to a large extent been privatized — and sexual courtship happens within people’s phones, dictated by specific companies’ apps, more often than in public places. In that sense, there’s both less of a communitarian need to revile sex and less of a need to flaunt it.

And though gay people can now, finally, marry, this institution (despite the fact that individual marriages may crumble less often than a couple of decades ago) is also societally being seen as less and less of a necessity as it is a crucial option. As gay culture slowly attains acceptance, it seems, it becomes more amorphous — and up to the individual to define. Watching this documentary, it’s perplexing but understandable seeing the vehemence with which a person might need to attack their own culture (a culture which itself seemed a photographic negative of the forces of oppression), and seeing when that attack might be helpful. To the country’s opposition toward gay sex, the gay population responded with excessive sex, to which Kramer responded with anger, the prizing of monogamous gay love, and safety. Kramer, it seems, helped liberate us from previous black and white notions of gayness — ultimately including his own.