'You Can Never Not Fight Back!'

A conversation with Larry Kramer about the current state of gay activism

In a blistering speech at Cooper Union on November 7, his first in over a decade, author and activist Larry Kramer told a packed crowd that "as of November 2, gay rights are officially dead."

The founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis and of ACT UP, Kramer, 69, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, bestselling novelist, and author of the plays The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me and of a collection of essays, Reports From the Holocaust. He spoke with Alisa Solomon about the current state of the gay movement.

Loud and clear at the march on Washington in 1987
Loud and clear at the march on Washington in 1987

Alisa Solomon: Since the election, the national lesbian-gay-bi-trans groups have been regrouping and asking what went wrong. All 11 state ballot initiatives defining marriage as between a man and a woman passed—and some of them even deny civil-union protections for gay and lesbian couples. Last week, people in the country's biggest gay lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), reportedly said they thought the movement needs to temper its demands and slow down. They even said they'd consider supporting Bush's plans to privatize Social Security if it would help advance LGBT rights. What do you make of the suggestion that we need to be more moderate?

Larry Kramer: It's a disaster! You can never not fight back. You can't give them an inch. So what if they're attacking us? You don't run back into the closet. I was appalled when I heard the idea dribbling out that we should pull back instead of carrying on or pressing even more. My favorite expression is: You do not get more with honey than with vinegar! What I'm hoping—and it looks like this may be developing—is that this may finally be, if not the downfall of the HRC, at least putting them in their place. I never saw an organization exist so long, raise so much money, and do so little. Their annual budget is $25 million! I think they get a lot of money from rich people in the heartland. I want to ask those people: What are you getting for it? This election is a real slap in the face to HRC and their complete ineptitude. And now they want to make deals!

"I don't know how to say this without sounding like a shit: It's about money, pure and simple."
Solomon: But isn't making deals what all lobbying groups do? Can we really expect this type of bureaucratic institution to do the kind of on-the-ground organizing it takes to defeat local ballot initiatives? In one of your essays years ago, you noted that the automobile industry had more lobbyists than the gay rights movement, and you called for our building a Washington-based lobby. Is this a case of needing to be careful what we wish for?

Kramer: There's lobbyists, and then there's lobbyists. A good lobbyist is not an ass kisser. HRC seems to be more and more devoted to ass kissing. That way lies disaster. We've got to teach them: You don't suck up. There's a great deal of feeling that all they do is pay to go to parties in Washington, to be on the circuit, to be seen, as if that amounts to much.

Solomon: I wonder if there might not be a problem built into the very structure of this kind of lobbying model. If your whole orbit is the offices and the parties of the Hill, and your work is to go bargain with them and be cozy with them in the same social circles, then you speak their language, share their perspectives—

Kramer: If that's what lobbyists across-the-board do, then we're in trouble. It seems to me lobbyists are there to represent the people, not sell out the people. "Bargain" is the wrong word. If you have power, you go in and say what you want. They listen to you or not. You go in and be angry. If they don't like it, tough. What are they going to do to you? They can't do anything worse than what they're already doing. But if you represent as many people as they say they do—500,000 or 600,000 people—that's a lot of votes.

Solomon: Well, they do claim some achievements, don't they?

Kramer: HRC takes credit for keeping the marriage amendment from getting anywhere in Congress. Yet it is generally agreed that it would never have gotten anywhere anyway, with or without them. Still, I don't know why everyone is so intent on pouring cold water on the notion that it was gay marriage that lost the election, which I firmly believe. I have no doubt that if not the major, it was one of the major reasons that we got dumped on.

Solomon: Don't you think it's more complicated? The war, fear of terrorism . . . ?

Kramer: I do and I don't. I think when it comes right down to it, there is a lot of hate out there that we refuse to face up to. It sometimes reflects itself in subtle ways. Talking to straight people about gay marriage, you can just hear the anger that comes into their voice. That's something deeper than just being against gay marriage.

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