'You Can Never Not Fight Back!'

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

Solomon: So what should we be doing about it?

Kramer: I really am tired of that question. Everybody's got to do what they can do. The amazing thing about ACT UP and GMHC is that they made themselves. People showed up and said, "I can do this, I'm gonna do that." GMHC came along when everything was really desperate. Lawyers said, "Let me help legally." Doctors said, "We're being screwed on the epidemiology. Let me investigate that." How we got drugs is an amazing story. A straight woman showed up at a meeting who nobody had ever seen before—Iris Long—who is a scientist, and she said, "You people don't know squat about any of this. You don't know how the government works, you don't know how science is done, you don't understand how it's researched, you don't know how to get grants, you don't know how drugs get approved, you don't know the chemistry of all of these drugs." And she started a group with three or four people, the Treatment and Data Committee. They all taught themselves everything. They became smarter than the scientists.

It was the same thing with ACT UP. It wasn't me making up all those demonstrations that were so effective. It was very imaginative people who sat around in a room with a couple hundred other people and brainstormed. I didn't know what we were going to do when I said we've got to do something. You can't know in advance. You have to get together and talk. You have to find out: What do you want to do? What are you capable of? What do you dream of doing? It's all about dreams. We have to stop making it sound so clinical.

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

Solomon: I wonder if that is harder for the current generation than it was for yours or mine. I mean, we're talking about people born after Reagan. They didn't grow up with an idea that the state has obligations to its citizens, that they could be part of a meaningful collective effort rather than just strive as individuals, that some kind of safety net isn't a Communist plot—

Kramer: It's true. But I grew up nonpolitical. I was out on Fire Island laughing at the Gay Pride marches on TV. What politicized me was a couple of friends dying real fast.

Solomon: Yes. But also you were politicized into an atmosphere that still had some live radical spores.

Kramer: I agree. Those ideas are out of currency. But it's no excuse. You can list all kinds of reasons for why it's not easy, but you gotta wake up and smell the coffee. They're coming after us. Big time. Even if they're doing it under the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Nice Guy with God on Their Side. And a lot of people don't want to see it. Andrew Sullivan just wrote an article saying everything is going to be wonderful. Makes you want to puke!

Kramer in Summer 2001

Solomon: Why do you suppose he sees what you consider so dire in a more optimistic way?

Kramer: One thing I learned in GMHC and ACT UP is that after a while it's pointless to ask the question "why?" There are a million whys. You just gotta take each day and react to the pile of shit they dish you out that day. You go after it. You cope with today's emergency. That's why you can't be too much of a bureaucracy. You've got to be able to be loose and deal with the issues on a daily basis.

Solomon: But even as you're doing that, don't you also need a long-range vision—those dreams you were talking about before?

Kramer: Honey, to be free and have equal rights. You don't need any more long-range vision than that.

Solomon: That sounds good. But what about the difference between equality and justice?

Kramer: They should be the same thing.

Solomon: But are they? Take health care. One of the great contributions of ACT UP was articulating demands for universal health coverage. But as the gay movement has focused in on marriage equality, all we seem to say about health care now is that we want to be able to access our partners' health benefits—assuming we have a partner—and that she or he has a job that provides decent benefits, which is less and less the case as unions get busted and corporations get stingier and stingier.

Kramer: I agree. It's not doing us any good to make this a one-issue fight about gay marriage. That's what the Right is forcing us to do.

Solomon: It seems to me the gay movement would have a lot more allies if we were working for genuine universal health care. Is there a family in this country that isn't affected by the disaster of our system, that hasn't been gouged by health costs? I sometimes wonder why people all over America aren't rioting in the streets over this issue.

Kramer: There's my favorite line, I use over and over, from a Brazilian reporter who saw one of our more feeble ACT UP demonstrations outside City Hall, and she said, "You call that a demonstration? In my country, when they raise the bus fare we burn the buses!" I have no idea why there hasn't been more civil disobedience, guerrilla tactics. The Right uses guerrilla tactics all over the place in the guise of think tanks. What I'm slowly beginning to sniff and to encourage is that some of the richer gays with their foundations are beginning to talk among themselves about what they can do with their money. They're generous, but they're safe-generous, and it's time not to play everything so safe.

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