'You Can Never Not Fight Back!'

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

Solomon: Even as you look for more civil disobedience and local organizing, do you really think we have to rely on the millionaires?

Kramer: Right now, yes. It shouldn't be either-or. But there isn't any issue out there of major import that accretes less money to itself than we do—and this is a rich population. People get mad when I say that because of course there are a lot of us who aren't. But for those who are—we are letting them off the hook. It's shocking.

Solomon: Maybe you're thinking of some well-funded think tanks like those the Olin and Bradley foundations supported on the Right for so many years as they built their power. But that's so much easier on the Right—there's no contradiction between their ideology and their pocketbooks. Look at neoliberal policy around marriage, for instance, and its social engineering. From this perspective, we'd make the best common cause with women on welfare, who are being told they have to get married in order to qualify for assistance. Or one could make a similar point about immigration—that to win rights to bring noncitizen partners here, we should understand that issue within the full picture of assaults on immigrants more generally. But rich gays aren't likely to ally themselves with women on welfare or undocumented workers—some of whom, in both categories, of course, are also LGBT.

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

Kramer: I don't know how to say this without sounding like a shit: It's about money, pure and simple. That's the reality of it all. We're not going to change the world by asking everybody to think of poor people. It's never worked that way, even though that's the way it should work. And it's quite right to say all of these things because they are, indeed, true. But when it comes right down to it, it's about power, and power is money. Money buys you the power, and power gets you the rights. The hope is that will include poor people. You've got to keep your eye on the prize.

"I really think they are out to completely eliminate us and to destroy us."
Solomon: Which is?

Kramer: Which is becoming powerful. Coalition is the best idea in the world—and I've never seen it work, except maybe around the Vietnam War. It certainly didn't work with AIDS, and it's not going to work with gay marriage.

Solomon: But even without necessarily saying we have to work in coalition, couldn't we at least strive for a broader, more contextual way of thinking? Couldn't we encompass it in our vision, even if not in our meetings?

Kramer: Of course, you can do whatever you want. But I saw in ACT UP how we ended up with so many issues to attend to. It's not that you're denying the existence and relevance and importance of other issues, but you can't water down your power by having everybody fighting for their own separate interests.

Solomon: So what do we do now?

Kramer: [Long pause. Big sigh.] I don't want to start another organization as long as I live. But I say to people, you have to plug in. Somehow. In an essay I wrote in 1982 or '83 that's in Reports From the Holocaust, I talked about getting mobilized: It's really a group of people getting together and discussing an issue and then going out and doing something about it.

ACT UP changed the world: The drugs are now out there because kids, most of whom are now dead, went out and put their bodies on the line and changed history. Why can't we continue to do it?

Solomon: If you were handed the directorship of HRC or some other major gay organization, what's the first thing you'd do?

Kramer: Fire everybody.

Solomon: And then?

Kramer: Call some friends and sit down and talk. I come from the movie business. You start by pitching ideas.

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