Larry Kramer, who turns 80 today, remains as confrontational as ever, insisting on pushing people beyond their comfort zones. The gay writer and visionary activist’s recent publication, The American People, is an ambitious literary project—part memoir, part history, and part fiction. It vividly and angrily reinterprets the textbook versions of American history, tipping over several sacred cows, detailing the same-sex passions of prominent national figures, hitherto considered heterosexual, and indicting the nation for a genocidal intolerance of gay people. The hefty tome, the first of two planned volumes, is subtitled Search for My Heart, and it pulls no punches in tracing an unconventional history of the United States that goes back to pre-Columbian times and continues through to the middle of the last century, while also tracking, over the same period, the emergence and evolution of the AIDS virus.
Those unfamiliar with life and work of this provocative writer, who also forced a change in the government and medical establishment’s response to AIDS by co-founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and forming the activist group ACT-UP, need only turn to Jean Carlomusto’s documentary Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, which premieres on HBO on June 29. The documentary is, first, a catalogue of Kramer’s most famous artistic achievements, among them his Oscar nomination for Ken Russell’s Women In Love and the publication of his brilliantly incendiary Faggots. It’s also a celebration of a life as perpetual cri de coeur, the necessary activist chutzpah that would inform his landmark 1985 play, The Normal Heart, a devastating drama about the early AIDS crisis in New York City and the founding of GMHC.
When I had the pleasure of meeting Kramer last month at his Greenwich Village apartment, he initially came across frail and soft-spoken, a lion in winter of sorts. But as the famous firebrand reminisced about his life, in all its trials and tribulations, his achievements and his determination to complete the second volume of The American People, he evinced the same passion, and that familiar lack of hesitation at roaring in the face of anyone who stands in the way of progress, that has animated his work up to this point.
What did you have in mind when you started writing The American People?
I don’t know if I can remember back that far. I love to write, and I have written all kinds of things: plays, movies, essays, journalism. So I wanted, originally, whenever I started in 1978 or 1979, to write a long book, a big book, just as a challenge. I wanted to write my Proustian story of my life. But this was before AIDS, and the part of the book that’s called Masturbov Gardens contains a lot of what was written before. Then things changed when HIV came along and when my health had various ups and downs. Virginia Woolf has a saying that you can put whatever you want in a novel. I said, okay, that’s what I’m going to do. People keep saying, “Look at all these different things in the book.” But everything is all connected in my book. It’s the history of how gay people have been treated so awfully since the beginning of time—and the history of the HIV that has decimated so many of us. They are so interconnected.
What were the challenges of writing a book over a period of more than 30 years, and a book that spans not just decades, but centuries? Did you have countless notes and index cards to keep track of all your research?
I’ve got boxes of notes and clippings. In the end, though, it just comes forth. The well has been filled up, however it has been filled up. When I went back to go through all the many clippings and the articles that I have from over the years, there was nothing that I wanted to quote from, because I realized that I already had those bases covered [in the book]. Well, you create, you know. We haven’t got a history, so I created one. And it was a great joy to write it. I feel fortunate that I have the strength to carry on writing all this, because no one else has done it.
The notion of creating a history, how would you respond to someone who might say to you, “But didn’t you just make this all up?”
Go fuck yourself! Can you prove this wrong? Can you prove the opposite? Straight people say, “Can you prove Lincoln was gay?” I say, “Can you prove that he wasn’t?” Literally, that’s my answer.
So would you say that sometimes your best guide is your own gaydar?
So what? What does a straight historian think when he goes, “Ah, ha!”? He’s putting two together to suit his view. I’m just doing the same. What began to annoy me is that we’re not included in the real histories that are written, which they teach and use as textbooks. So a whole part of America, which is a large part, is simply not represented. And even when we do have the information about the people they’re writing about, the historians just don’t see it for what it is.
Stacy Schiff, in her book on Benjamin Franklin [A Great Improvisation], for instance, mentions that, in Paris, Franklin went every day to a boat on the Seine which was a major bathhouse basically for men. So what do you think he was doing there? Well, a straight woman doesn’t see that. Or Doris Goodwin [Team of Rivals] doesn’t see the love between Lincoln and Joshua Speed, how intense it was—and there are plenty of letters to prove it. And I think there’s enough evidence that Hamilton was primarily gay. Even [Ron] Chernow [Alexander Hamilton] indicates that “this sounds like he could be homosexual, but he wasn’t.” Well, he was. There’s enough information about the lover that Hamilton had and the passion that George Washington had for Hamilton and vice versa. It’s intensely obvious to me.
But that’s only part of my book. Really, we have been treated so bad for so many centuries—and that’s our history—and then AIDS comes along and the government, or power, or drug companies, no one pays any attention to it. So it leads to our continuing genocide. I try to dramatize that battle, mostly in volume two. I really do think that a great deal of AIDS has been allowed to happen because a lot of people hate us, especially congress, the politicians, and presidents. There’s no president yet who’s done much of anything for HIV.
Some of the incidents you recount are truly horrific, but The American People is also a very funny book. How do you keep your sense of humor about all this?
I’m so glad you see that. So many people don’t. I like to make people laugh. I wanted to be a comedy writer at one point. I love language, and the humor comes out the situations—or one of the narrators’ reactions to the situations. It makes me laugh, if it weren’t so sad. Part of me wants to make it darker than ever because we’re still being treated like shit and AIDS is worse than ever, and you don’t see anybody writing about it. I just learned that research for a cure at the NIAID [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] isn’t being done. And that’s after all this time: 35 years. It’s just so appalling that a sadness came over me. It isn’t easy to joke about that. But it’s easy to joke about the people who are causing it: the Ronald Reagans. He doesn’t come out in my book very well. No politician does.
You also go to some very dark places when you relate the story of Abraham Masturbov.
I don’t know where that came from in me. There are parts of the book that I’m amazed to read now. “Who wrote this?” And that’s what’s exciting, for me any way. As I said, most of the Masturbov Gardens part was actually was written before AIDS—not that it invalidates that. But I grew up in Washington and I knew Jewish people like that, families like that.
You note in the book that it’s no small task “to record a history of hate when one is among the hated.” How you do feel about the way the first volume turned out?
It says what I wanted it to say. There are things I wouldn’t have cut and other things I would have put in. It’s hard to know. I just want people to read it. The gay reception has been, for the most part, quite good, and the straight reception is like, “Oh, my God,” you know, like I am trampling on Christ! And some really nasty reviews. So I must have done something right! As Joe Papp would say, “If you haven’t offended somebody you haven’t done your job.” I don’t know that I would have wanted to write such a long book had I known then what’s happening now, given the energy it takes.
The HBO documentary shows just how seriously incapacitated you were when you were hospitalized in 2013.
I had some kind of an infection. They still don’t know what it was from. It wasn’t HIV. You lose a sense of reality. It was just very scary.
But there was a happy ending wasn’t there? As the movie depicts, you not only pulled through, you also got married to your true love, David Webster, while still in the hospital.
We were supposed to get married on the terrace here in my apartment, but two days before that happened, I was rushed to the hospital. We had to get an application to get married in the intensive care unit. And by the time it happened I looked like a zombie. I wasn’t all there. I signed with an X and you can see David is moving my head up and down to say yes. Very scary. All that sort of deepens whatever I want to do in volume two.
Where are you now with the second volume?
Oh, I don’t know. It changes as I grow older and more happens to me. There’s a draft of it that predates my last illness, which sort of knocked me out for about a year. Now I’m about ready to tackle it again. They want it next year and I don’t know if it will be ready by then.
And then there’s the sequel to The Normal Heart movie. It’s a continuation of the story and the ACT-UP story. I’ve written the script and they’re putting it together, but they haven’t announced it. I’m hoping that it happens, because I have a chance to work with the director, Ryan Murphy, again, and also I get paid a lot more for that than I get for the book. The audience for the first movie was extraordinary. So many people saw it. Now I’m ready to start volume two of the book at the same time as I’m ready to go to work on the movie. I don’t like basically going back and forth, but I may have to.
Looking back on your career so far, is there anything that you are most proud about?
I don’t think that way. I think I have been well used by myself and proud of things that I fought for. And if I lost some friends because of that, that’s par for the game. The only thing I’m ashamed of is that my name is on Lost Horizon. But it paid me so much money that it enabled me to write plays. So you make a pact with the devil! [Laughs]
Do you still feel that anger which gave you all that energy to fight?
Oh, yes! Oh, yes. There are a bunch of us going after the National Institutes of Health about this really shocking state of AIDS research, and by now I’m taken a lot more seriously. And Yale just recently gave me an honorary degree for playing such a part of crying out for my people. So the anger is a very important motivator—in my life anyway.