'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.


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.

Solomon:True. But where I don't completely agree is that the Right has been putting forth anti-gay ballot initiatives of one kind or another for a couple of decades now. They can whip up anger and motivate people around homophobia no matter what we do or don't do, no matter what we demand or don't demand.

Kramer:Yes. I should have said not just marriage, but gay issues generally. They're surfacing under gay marriage now. We are now much more visible in many ways, and they're thinking we've got to be put back in our place.

Solomon:The marriage issue stirs people—both those among us who long for it, and among those who hate us and rail against it—not so much because of the benefits—

Kramer:That's why I want it. There are over 1,000 economic benefits the government passes out to married couples. I want 'em.

Solomon:—but more around the symbolic power of the state recognizing our relationships.

Kramer:I'm hoping that the symbolic stuff is beginning to fade. I think it's sentimental. I have nothing against that, but I don't think we should hold out for sentiment if we can get cold hard cash. I think we were on our way to getting the more easily obtainable civil union when the Massachusetts thing passed and marriage took its course. Then we had no choice but to fight for it, when a lot of us would have been happy to have the civil union. So when at the last minute Bush seemed to offer civil union, we weren't in a negotiating position to say, OK, we'll take that instead.

Solomon:With that possibility on the back burner, what do you make of HRC's willingness to consider supporting Bush's plans to privatize Social Security?

Kramer:Can you believe it? I can't see why people think Social Security needs to be repaired. Read Paul Krugman! Social Security is not broke. Why are they trying to fix it? It seems to be another Bush con to line the pockets of the rich.

Solomon:Yes. But isn't that exactly the problem? If HRC has a board of directors and an agenda that is being driven by people who give them a lot of money—which is to say the rich—why are we surprised when they support plans that line the pockets of the rich?

Kramer:I guess I'm naive enough to find it difficult to believe that this would be done at the expense of the rest of the gay population to such a degree. That's rabid right-wing philosophy.

Solomon:Indeed! I'd like to pursue that because, arguably, a certain kind of identity politics separates what's construed as "our interests" from a larger understanding of social and economic justice.

Kramer:What do you mean by "identity politics"? Fighting just for gay things?

"I have no idea why there hasn't been more civil disobedience, guerrilla tactics. 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:Yes. In your speech at Cooper Union, for example, you quoted some grim statistics from a talk by Bill Moyers about poverty in the U.S. and the ever widening income gap. I can imagine that HRC might say in response, "What's that got to do with us? That's not a gay issue."

Kramer:The people behind these policies are the same people who are crucifying us! If they're capable of that, they're certainly capable of destroying us, which they're attempting to do! Why do people like HRC separate it? HRC exists without any community oversight. They're not elected. We have no input into what they do. And they go and convince Congress that they represent the gay world.

Solomon:Why do we let them?

Kramer:Because, quite frankly, it's better than nothing. And nothing was what we had for so long. It's what every single speech I've ever made comes down to: Where are we? Where is everybody? Everyone is invisible. Even though so many of us are out of the closet, we're still invisible. Don't people know how to speak up?


Solomon:The whole culture has gone this way, hasn't it?

Kramer:The whole culture isn't being led to the gas chambers! And I use that analogy with full knowledge of what I'm saying. I really think they are out to completely eliminate us and to destroy us. It's becoming clearer and clearer. I finally got scientists and bureaucrats at the NIH to admit their intentionality in not doing anything about AIDS. Between 1981 and 1985, nothing was done. Every gay man who had sex without a condom got exposed. They knew it. That's hate. That's people who want to get rid of us. And we refuse to see that.

Solomon:People point to a lot of progress at the same time, to many gains on the AIDS front, for gay rights—they think you're crazy.

Kramer:I know. I'm always called crazy. And now it's "Larry's conspiracy theory."

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.

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!

image
Kramer in Summer 2001
ethanhill.com

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.

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.

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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