The Pessivist
AIDS Activist Larry Kramer, Hoarse From Speaking Truth to Power

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

Who will be the next Larry Kramer?

The man himself -- AIDS activist, writer, provocateur -- doesn't know. Right now, Kramer is fighting all this noise: the cell phones going off, the cash register ringing, the 2-year-old who keeps crying whenever she drops her pink pacifier. Then there's the front door that won't shut, people trickling in and out.

Inside Lambda Rising, a bookstore in Dupont Circle, he reads from "The Tragedy of Today's Gays," his latest work.

This is not an autobiographical play about AIDS in the mode of his 1985 off-Broadway work, "The Normal Heart." It's not another "Faggots," his novel set in a hedonistic Manhattan of the late 1970s, which made him persona non grata within segments of the gay community -- how dare Kramer, a gay man himself, decry a gay man's right to have sex and lots of it? "The Tragedy of Today's Gays" is altogether something else: the work of a tireless yeller who's now dead tired of yelling.

"Tragedy" was a speech -- delivered last November, five days after the election -- that he turned into a book. It's a sprawling polemic, a call to action, angry, frustrated, passionate. It's as if he views AIDS's continued existence, despite his nearly quarter-century of unparalleled activism, as somehow his personal failing. He might as well have titled his new book "The Tragedy of Today's Larry Kramer."

"From the very first moment we were told in 1981 that the suspected cause might be a virus," he says in the speech, "gay men have refused to accept our responsibility . . . and, starting in 1984, when we were told it definitely was a virus, this behavior turned murderous."

He regrets not using the word "murder" earlier. Use condoms, he's been saying all along; don't confuse sexual freedom with sexual promiscuity. In the introduction to the book, he writes, "How long can I go on making speeches that, it is more than apparent, few people listen to?" In the speech, he adds, "There is not one single person in Washington who will . . . give us anything but [expletive] and more [expletive]." He grew up in Washington yet hesitates to call it home. He's got no political clout, no access, no power. "I'm nobody here," he says simply.

Still, at age 69, he keeps on speaking, keeps on writing, keeps on, at this particular moment, sparking fire: "I've said it many times and I'm going to say it again."

He's been known as a shouter, a screamer. But his voice, breathy and low, is just above a whisper. The crowd of about 70, mostly gay men, leans forward.

"Washington gays have always been the most docile -- "

Frank Kameny cuts him off. "That is certainly not the case." Kameny, the father of the District's gay rights movement, is standing in front, sounding fierce, defensive, robust. He's 79.

"Washington, D.C., is the political success story of the gay movement. Quietly but effectively and don't say that we have been docile."

"So why don't we have more rights?" Kramer asks, finally getting a word in. "Why aren't we further along?"

"Compare where we are now with where we were 30 or 40 years ago. We certainly are very much farther as a people than we were then, and we're moving ahead," says Kameny. "There will be backlashes, we're going through one now, and we'll pass it fine and we'll proceed and we'll declare victory."

"I guess I just don't agree with that," Kramer says.

Kameny shoots back, "Then you're wrong."

Later, outside the bookstore, on his way to a late dinner, Kramer says, "I'm tired. I'm tired of saying the same things. I've said enough. People look at me for answers. But I don't know anymore. I'm gonna be 70 soon. It's your world now. Please do something with it."

Counting the Costs

The war against AIDS, Kramer will tell you, has been lost.

"Isn't it obvious?" he says flatly, sitting in the back room of Annie's, the after-the-gay-club 24-hour eatery on 17th Street NW, Washington's miniature equivalent of San Francisco's Castro Street.

It's been a long day and a longer night. The train ride. The book reading. Now this interview.

"Some 70 million people so far are expected to die from AIDS," he goes on, which is word for word what he says in his speech. It isn't at all rare to hear Kramer quoting himself.

Is there another living American writer whose politics are so thoroughly interwoven with his art? His most noted work cannot be divorced from AIDS. The plays "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me" centered on the life of Kramer's alter ego, Ned Weeks; one of his books of essays is "Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist." Sometimes critics have focused entirely on what he's saying, his politics, rather than how he's saying it, his art.

"How are they going to save all the infected people? It's too late," says Kramer, who's dressed in his usual Oshkosh overalls and turquoise jewelry -- four bracelets, three rings. ("It's a silly superstition, but I've been told that wearing turquoise will keep me healthy," he says.) He underwent a liver transplant three years ago -- "AIDS Activist Larry Kramer Dies," read the headline of an erroneous Associated Press wire story -- and a hernia operation a year later. He has a peculiar gait, slow and careful, which you could call leisurely if it were not caused by pain, and a lot of it.

"We told them early on, but what did they do?" Kramer asks. To be clear, "they" means "the U.S. government." To a certain degree, "we" means "I."

The Reagan White House did nothing about AIDS in its early years, Kramer says, and the White House of the second President Bush -- even with its five-year, $15 billion global AIDS program -- does an "inadequate" and "pathetic" job of dealing with it now. The White House of the first President Bush didn't do nearly enough, he adds, and the same can be said of the Clinton White House. In his speeches, in his writings, in his interviews, Kramer spews this out: There were 41 cases of "the gay plague" when he first started yelling about "whatever it was" in 1981, and there are now more than 40 million people, gay and straight, who are infected with HIV -- a figure he attributes to a 2002 U.N. report, which also said that some 70 million will die from AIDS in the next 20 years.

Those with money and health insurance -- like Kramer, who tested HIV-positive in 1987 -- can afford the expensive "cocktail" of drugs to treat it. But what about the rest of the world?

"What if, one of these days, the drugs all of a sudden stop working?" Kramer, ever the pessimist, asks.

"There's a grimness in Larry's politics -- it's not a sort of politics of feel-good exhortation," says Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." "In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry's generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry."

"Larry wanted to do things now, quickly, strongly. He's always been that way," says Tim Westmoreland, who has known Kramer since the early 1980s. A law professor at Georgetown University, Westmoreland is a longtime adviser to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

In April 1982, Waxman, then chairman on the House's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, organized the first congressional hearing on AIDS. That year Kramer -- in response to what he perceived as the government that didn't want to hear about this mysterious disease and the gay community that was reluctant to face it -- co-founded Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first and one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the United States. But GMHC's tactics weren't confrontational enough, not fiery enough, not explosive enough. So in 1987, he founded the protest group ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

ACT-UP lived up to its name -- at its height, it boasted more than 130 national chapters and Kramer, as its leader, became the most iconic figure of the AIDS movement. He was intimidating. He was outrageous. He was relentless, helping to stop trading on the New York Stock Exchange floor, staging mass "die-ins" in front of the White House, interrupting Dan Rather's "CBS Evening News" broadcast. It's hard to overestimate the impact of these protests, and Kramer, a very public face of an increasingly public disease, was in everyone's face. Some people, both gay and straight, thought he was going too far. The whole "right message/wrong messenger" concept that he heard one too many times.

"He's like the drill sergeant of the AIDS movement. Everything's too slow for him -- and that's good. God knows we need a prophet in the wilderness who's always saying what people don't want to hear," says Westmoreland. "But, at the time, if you were working within the system" -- at the National Institutes of Health, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or on Capitol Hill -- "you wanted to tell him, 'Be reasonable, it will take a while,' but he'd say, 'No, do it now.' "

Anthony Fauci, director of NIH's program on infectious diseases, couldn't escape Kramer's scorn in the early years of the epidemic. Fauci was a "criminal," Kramer wrote in a scathing open letter to Fauci published in the San Francisco Examiner. Fauci was "incompetent." In his 1992 off-Broadway play, "The Destiny of Me," mostly set in Washington, Kramer changed the name Fauci to Della Vida, "but there's no doubt that was me," says Fauci.

"What Larry did, by his provocative approach, is change the medical landscape in this country for the better. How patients talked to their doctors. How constituencies interacted with researchers at the NIH and regulators at the FDA," says Fauci, who says he considers Kramer a "close friend."

Their relationship has indeed evolved, and Fauci credits it to a long walk he and Kramer took on a spring night at an AIDS conference in Montreal years later: "I have a phenomenal amount of respect for Larry, a tremendous amount of admiration. He's been a lightning rod, no question about it."

What Could Have Been

For more than 20 years, Kramer has been working on "The American People," a history of the United States as he sees it, "a great deal of it" set in Washington. It's now some 3,000 manuscript pages, and he'll finish it when he finishes it.

"It defies categorization," he says of the book. "Some of it has to be fictionalized for legal reasons. Some of the people in it are still alive."

It goes without saying that the forthcoming book "deals with a lot of stuff that's controversial."

"Forget 30 or 40 years ago. We're not living 30 or 40 years ago. We're living in 2005," he says. "You have to look at the present situation -- what laws are in place today, not just in Washington but in the whole country, that give gay people truly equal status?"

He's disappointed -- at himself, at other gay people, at straight people, at everyone. The HIV infection rate among gay men is on the upswing in many parts of the country, with men hooked on crystal meth (who are more likely to have unsafe sex) fueling the rise, according to Randy Pumphrey, director of the Lambda Center at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. The legal battles, from "don't ask, don't tell" to same-sex marriage to gay adoptions, haven't been won. If the United States is a country of laws, he says, what does that say? If the United States is also a country of culture, he adds, is it enough to say you don't miss an episode of "Will & Grace" and you know a friend of a friend who's a lesbian?

The artist and the activist and the pessimist feels more and more bogged down. He wanted to be a Moses and lead a tribe. Instead, he could only be a Cassandra, the Greek heroine who had the gift of prophecy but was never believed.

Even that has come at a price.

"Larry is more honored as an activist than as a writer -- and I think that's a terrible thing," Kushner says. "In truth, Larry would have preferred to not have gone to war.

"How many gorgeous passages are there in 'Faggots'? How many beautiful pages of prose?" Kushner adds. He wonders, as do others, "Who knows what Kramer might have written had he not taken it upon himself to shape a whole movement -- a whole movement -- in response to the epidemic?"

Kramer would love to have been a comedy writer -- a Broadway comedy writer. Think Neil Simon, or George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart of "You Can't Take It With You" fame. He would have written more successful screenplays; his screenplay for the 1969 film "Women in Love," based on the D.H. Lawrence book, was nominated for an Academy Award, after all.

"There wasn't a casting call for Larry. When AIDS began, before we even knew to call it AIDS, he recognized a historic opportunity and he had the courage to speak the truth," says Rodger McFarlane, a longtime friend. He met Kramer in 1981, in the same Greenwich Village apartment Kramer now shares with his lover of 10 years, David Webster, the same apartment where Kramer started GMHC. McFarlane and Kramer were lovers for some time, though McFarlane considers "lover" a "reductionist term."

"We were many, many, many things beyond that, and I happen to know that Larry sincerely believes the fight, both against AIDS and for our equality, is lost for now," McFarlane continues.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Who is going to be the next Larry Kramer?' That's a good . . . question, isn't it?

"When Larry was writing" the "tragedy" speech, "he was trying to come up with a solution. We'd be on the phone together, and he'd ask, 'What do we tell them to do?' But he's exhausted. I'm exhausted. You want to kill yourselves, go kill yourself. You want your civil rights, come fight."

A Marathon Crawl

The question is whether Kramer is right in thinking that his life -- his life's work -- has been for naught. That nothing has changed.

"Look, I wish this struggle was a 50-yard dash," says Jim Graham, one of two openly gay D.C. Council members. For 15 years, from 1984 to 1999, Graham served as executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the largest provider of AIDS-related services in the Washington area. Kramer called Graham on several occasions, and it's no surprise that Kramer, true to form, advised Graham on what to do during those years. "But I've been a gay activist in a very open way since 1981 and I know that this is a long-distance run."

The District, with regard to the gay community, was a very conservative Southern town for a long time, Graham says, and in some parts of town, he continues, it still is conservative.

Graham goes on: "But things are changing. Not to Larry's speed, I'm sure, but they are changing."

Washington, with a sizable gay population, was for two weeks waiting to learn if a gay couple who got married in Massachusetts would be allowed to file a joint city tax return. Sam Brownback, a Republican senator from Kansas, would rather they did not. "I was hopeful we weren't going to be confronting this issue," Brownback, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, told The Washington Post on April 20. On Tuesday, the city's top tax official ruled that married same-sex couples may not file joint returns, but Edward G. Horvath and Richard G. Neidich, the couple involved, may decide to file suit.

Kramer, of course, is following the case.

In the late 1980s, Kramer moved back to Washington, subletting a spacious two-bedroom apartment on California Street NW, off Connecticut Avenue. He couldn't stand it. "If I lasted two months, that was a lot," he says. So much for the local boy done good. "It's easier to criticize Washington from afar than it is to be here."

On the morning after the book reading, Kramer, for the first time since he graduated in 1953, set foot in the corridors of Wilson High School in Tenleytown. Because he lived in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County, he wasn't supposed to go to Wilson, then as now considered the best public high school in the District. But his older brother, Arthur, came up with a plan. Take German. Only Wilson High offered German. "I knew that he had to go to Wilson in order to get into Yale," says Arthur, 78, also a Yale alumnus.

From the look of it, the campus has not changed at all -- "that's really creepy for the students who now go here," Kramer says -- but, inside, in ways both big and small, it has.

Three floors down from his homeroom -- Room 331, he remembers -- is a locker with a blue flier taped on it. The flier is for a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, held on Thursdays at lunch in Room L26.

Michael Garbus, a social science teacher who is openly gay, is the adviser.

He lives in Adams Morgan with his 4-year-old adopted son, Keyon, who is Korean and black and now a converted Jew.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company