Join 3,377 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Angry, Outspoken, Activist Larry Kramer
May 18, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

It begins: “Thank you for coming to see our play. Please know that everything in ‘The Normal Heart’ happened. There were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could.” The letter goes on to name some of the people on whom he based his characters (the central figure, Ned Weeks, is based on himself) and describe what became of them.

At the age of 75, Larry Kramer regularly stands outside the theater handing out a pamphlet urging people to action and continues to rage with heart. [audio interview with Michaelangelo Signorile, approx 25m] Not only has The Normal Heart received rave reviews and been nominated for 5 Tony awards, but he continues to work on his 4000 page epic, The American People, about homo sex in colonial America. (previously)

Kramer has long been a pioneer, not only helping found the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), but also AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP). (Democracy Now interview on the 20th Anniversary of the founding of ACT-UP in 2007, in many formats, approx 50m) Kramer continues to be outspoken about gay rights and gay health issues. (2008 Harvard Center For Public Leadership conversation, approx 1hour, introduction begins at 4m10s) (May 3, 2011 Gay USA interview, approx 20m, interview begins at 40m40s)
posted by hippybear (53 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Be sure to catch the filmed excerpts of the play in the sidebars NPR and NYT links. Also, Larry Kramer much more previously.
posted by hippybear at 9:09 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


God bless Larry Kramer

God bless the Cassandras

God bless the screamers

God bless those who refuse to "be nice" when that doesn't produce results.
posted by brujita at 9:19 PM on May 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


Do young gays even understand what gay life was like in the '80s? Even with trstomony like Kramer's Normal Heart?

I imagine the gap is just too profound, both in terms of the very different perception of gays by straight society, and in terms of AIDS.

I mean, I remember a time before AIDS, and how for so many years "AIDS" equaled "death sentence". People didn't really speak about "HIV", because it was axiomatic that someone got HIV, they more-or-less imediately developed AIDS, they got any or many of several exotic, out-of-left-field diseases* (Kaposi's, oral thrush, "gay cancer"), they got painfully thin and covered with lesions, and they died.

* Not really out-of-left field, in fact common diseases made monstrous by the immune deficiency.

It was this "inevitable", almost choreographed progression from sex (or needle, or transfusion) to death, and nothing was going to stop it. That's how things looked in the '80s.

And even as someone with no ties to the gay community, it was (apparently) apparent that this disease was going to just devastate the gay community, leave it ravaged and torn asunder. And it did ravage that community, but the community while reeling somehow came back stronger.

Eventually, the much stronger gay community we see today arose out of those ashes -- and I think in large part because of the anger and despair brought about by AIDS -- despair over all the men, so many of them young, lost to AIDS, anger at the Reaganesque shrug of non-response to the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

It's still a surprise to me that people now live with HIV for years and years (admittedly with side effects, but they're alive and ambulatory and working and having fun) because I'd learned of AIDS as this terminal disease that turned the virile, masculine "man's man" Rick Hudson into a raspy-voiced, parchment-skinned, skeletal wreck.

I really wonder, do you people today -- especially gay men -- "get it", understand what it was to have been in Larry Kramer's shoes, back then?
posted by orthogonality at 9:51 PM on May 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Er, Rock Hudson, of course.
posted by orthogonality at 9:52 PM on May 18, 2011


Do young gays even understand what gay life was like in the '80s? Even with trstomony like Kramer's Normal Heart?

I'd say not really, no.

But then my snotty response would be -- do middle-aged gays even understand what gay life was like in the '50s?

My even snottier response would be that the whole point of making it through the struggles of the 80s was so that we wouldn't have to be struggling in the same way in the 00s.

Never mind all that -- because if I was living in New York, I'd want to see The Normal Heart on Broadway right now. And if there was a major film/TV adaptation, I'd certainly check it out. Angels in America was fantastic (though flawed dramatically, because god-DAMN if Louis isn't an ugly protagonist).

Short answer, though -- no, I don't think we quite "get it."
posted by lewedswiver at 10:34 PM on May 18, 2011


The play is still in print.
posted by brujita at 10:37 PM on May 18, 2011


Do young gays even understand what gay life was like in the '80s?

My moment of being gobsmacked at how profoundly the world has changed came when I learned that several of my gay, male, 20something coworkers have never been to a funeral. Any funeral. How is it possible to be a gay man and not have been to a funeral.

Oh, too young. Of course they are. I'm 37, and I was still really a teenager when the death toll was mounting.
posted by desuetude at 11:02 PM on May 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


s/do you people today/do young people today
posted by orthogonality at 11:38 PM on May 18, 2011


Great post. Kramer deserves a Nobel.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:57 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can't even talk about this subject. I still feel survivor's guilt. I used to label it as anger.
posted by PapaLobo at 11:57 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw "The Normal Heart" at (I think) Circle in the Square around 1988.

Before seeing it, I was (in retrospect) an incredibly homophobic little shit. This was largely due to the fact that I had not, to my knowledge, met any gay people. I mean, of course I had, but I had no idea they were gay. I used homophobic slurs in my speech all the time, as a matter of course. I was a sophomore in college.

May 1988 (I think), I got to see "The Normal Heart" and it changed me. I left thinking "how could I have ever thought that gay people were any different from me?" I made an effort to drop homophobic language from my speech, became active with the college GSA, and became one of those annoyingly militant straight gay rights people - in the way that only a still almost entirely ignorant 20 year old college student can be. I am certain that the other members of the GSA were in constant face palm mode around me. I was a textbook "with friends like these" person.

And maybe I still am, but I hope not.

At any rate, there aren't many works of art that I can say actually changed my life, or made me a better person, but "The Normal Heart" did both and I am forever grateful to Larry Kramer for open my ignorant, homophobic eyes.

Seriously, the amazing, rich friendships I've had as a result of losing that hateful part of my personality... I want to cry when I think of all I'd have missed if I hadn't seen this play.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:30 AM on May 19, 2011 [21 favorites]


I really wonder, do you people today -- especially gay men -- "get it", understand what it was to have been in Larry Kramer's shoes, back then?

I'm not sure if that was a question or an accusation. To give it the benefit if the doubt, no, of course they don't. How could they? What generation ever understands the one that went before it? I came out at the tail end of the 90s reading Edmund White and Paul Monnette, I have positive friends, and I still don't think I really get it. Sadly, the world has moved on; AIDS isn't the bogeyman any more -- not to dismiss it, but to put it in perspective. Now I look at my generation: there are people fighting to end bullying and help kids come to terms with their sexuality; to bring about legal and social equality; to end hate crime. Maybe the ultimate sign of success is that your achievements come to be taken for granted by others.
posted by londonmark at 4:03 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


But HIV infection rates have gone back up among younger gay men (and men and women of color!). Isn't that the Scandal of Larry Kramer, that he says this over and over in public and that he says that certain types of casual sex are unsafe and foolish? I mean, a LOT of people really hate him because he's (rumor has it) very difficult and a bit controlling AND because he's seen as "sex negative".

In my sadder moments, I feel like all that happened with HIV is that things got fixed so that if you're well-off and white and insured you can carry right on; the serious work of fixing health care and teaching safety and sex-positiveness together got left by the wayside. Plus poor people, people of color, poor queers got left by the wayside too. There's a lot of kids out there still who have unsafe sex so they have a place to stay or because they feel like they can't say no.

I came into political consciousness through reading about ACT-UP and Queer Nation in the Chicago Tribune, back when I was in my teens and lived in a suburban desert. My first queer political activism was always in the context of anti-AIDS work. What a terrible time, so many losses and so much despair.

I really wonder, do you people today -- especially gay men -- "get it", understand what it was to have been in Larry Kramer's shoes, back then?

The thing is, if you don't try to "get it", if you just say "oh, that was then, the issue now is [THING]", you will always be reinventing the wheel, because you won't have any of the lessons of your community's past, you won't have any ability to identify across generations, you won't have the ability to be suspicious and cautious when the establishment gives you the usual happy talk. And you'll lose your heroes - the sainted Joanna Russ wrote about this, how women's history is important because otherwise every generation of women has to once again dig through the archives and be like "oh, wait, there were women scientists and painters! We're not the first!"

I've been doing political activism for (jesus, I'm old) better than twenty years now, and I've seen how powerful it is to have a lineage and a history. I have seen campaigns where we took stuff for granted and I've seen them fail because we had absolutely no idea of the history of our struggle. I've seen labor and civil rights work, by contrast, that has built on the past and that has succeeded.

Honestly, I think it's a bad thing when everyone gets comfortable and forgets activist history.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on May 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


Oh, I wish I was in NYC to see this. Instead, I'll have to facebook-nag my little brother to go see it for me. (And have one more thing to be jealous of him!)
posted by jillithd at 6:57 AM on May 19, 2011


When I was about 19 or so, I was sitting in a parking lot waiting for my friend to arrive so we could go to dinner. A radio program called "Queer Music Heritage" was on the radio, and the host (JD Doyle) was interviewing a woman with a thick NY accent, a comedienne named Lynn Lavner. She was nyuk-nyuk-ing about wearing leather pants to her mother's seder and they played a pretty funny little cabaret song where the Jewish mother's lament ended in acceptance. But then the tone got more serious, and they talked a lot about the epidemic and how they dealt with it and who they lost. The song that then played, "Such Fine Young Men," left me bawling as I waited for my friend in that parking lot.

In looking for a recording of that song today, I ran across an amazing page hosted at Queer Music Heritage. The entirety of a 2007 program entitled "Songs About AIDS" (full program notes) is available here for streaming (and download). Divided into three parts, it is an incredible collection of songs and interviews with performers who have addressed AIDS from a personal perspective. In the second part, at only about 5 minutes in, Lynn Lavner performs "Such Fine Young Men." The text is below for those unable to listen. (But, seriously, as I'm listening to this program, I can't more highly recommend that you actually listen to the whole huge program.)

"Such Fine Young Men," Lynn Lavner (1986)

My friend George was an ordinary man
with a sweet and rather sober way about him.
Not much more than a dimple and an unaffected smile,
and you'd trust him with your life and never doubt him.

Such a fine young man, such a good young man,
and the type you'd pin your fondest hopes upon.
Such a fine young man, like a flower in the Spring
I pinch myself to realize he's gone.

My friend Dean was a pisser from the start
with a heart as big as any you could pick.
He could cut through any bullshit with an impudent remark,
and he cut the limes and lemons just as quick.

Such a fine young man, such a good young man,
and the kind you'd pin your fondest hopes upon.
Such a fine young man, moved my piano, found my mic,
I pinch myself to realize he's gone.

My friend Rob liked to talk you half-to-death,
made you feel that he was interested in you.
Intelligent and generous he'd scarcely stop for breath,
maybe seven hundred others felt it too.

Such a fine young man, such a good young man,
and the kind you'd pin your fondest hopes upon.
Such a fine young man, found me work one thursday night,
I pinch myself to realize he's gone.

And so you see, I've known some fellows in my day,
and I've had to watch them go by one's and two's.
And I wont defer to any other woman - straight or gay -
who tries to teach me how to love and lose.

Such fine young men, such good young men,
so strong, so mild, so sure.
I'm not a praying woman yet I know that if I were,
I'd pray that they would finally find a cure.
posted by jph at 7:05 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


I haven't seen this production yet, but the milk scene in the Public Theatre production a few years ago was the finest thing I have ever seen on a stage.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:21 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm always torn with Kramer, because he is simultaneously a very, very important, hardworking figure in the last thirty years of American history and a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing told-you-so that Nellie Oleson would have found harsh and overbearing. It's not as bad as it was, but there was a long stretch where I was desperate to hear an interviewer say "Yes, Mr. Kramer, people wouldn't listen to you and look what happened, but moving on..."

It was just that drumbeat, that endless drone of "Where is your outrage? Where is your outrage? Where is your outrage?" out there back in my day, the omnipresent yellow Reagan AIDSGATE poster everywhere, the Ipecac protests, and the terrifying future that wasn't about Orwell's boot stamping a face forever so much it was the prospect of having Michael Petrelis screeching in your ear till entropy closes down the universe.

Where is our outrage? It's there, but like adrenaline, you can't live on outrage. You can't love in outrage, or celebrate in outrage, or hope in outrage. That's the flaw in so much of the high period in AIDS literature, when you had these self-directed spats of blame and anger, whether it was Randy Shilts playing to the right wing fantasy of Gaetan Dugas or Kramer pointing back to Faggots as a latter-day Book of Revelation about the advent of AIDS in a population that created the perfect conditions for its arrival.

I really lost a great deal of respect for Kramer with the "Tragedy of Today's Gays," speech from 2004, which is a chaotic mess of bizarre essentialist rah-rah mixed with absurd mixtures of fact and stereotype about "today's gays" that's just evocative of nothing more obnoxious than having your wacky old uncle corner you at a family reunion to claim that WTC 7 was taken down by our own government.

To wit:

"It’s so wonderful being a gay person. I said that before. I’m going to say it again. I love being gay. And I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we’re more tuned in to what’s happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people’s emotions, and we’re better friends. I really do think all of these things. And I try not to forget them."

And:

"I fear for us as a people. Is that crazy? I am always being called crazy by somebody. I love being called crazy. That’s a sign to me that I’m on the right track. Maybe it takes a crazy person to see into the future and see what’s coming. Straight people say “my how much progress gay people are making. Isn’t that Will and Grace wonderful.” If it’s so wonderful why am I scared to death? More and more I am filled with dread. That is my truth that I bring to you today. Larry is scared. Do you see what I see? I don’t think so. Most gay people I see appear to me to act as if they’re bored to death. Too much time on your hands, my mother would say. Hell, if you have time to get hooked on crystal and do your endless rounds of sex-seeking, you have too much time on your hands. Ah, you say, aren’t we to have a little fun? Can’t I get stoned and try barebacking one last time. ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND! At this moment in our history, no, you cannot. Anyway, we had your fun and look what it got us into. And it is still getting us into. You kids want to die? Because that’s what I sometimes think. Well, then, die."

I'm not being entirely fair, I know. Like I said, he's important, and triggered, instigated, and otherwise fostered a lot of good stuff. It's just, well, he's composing with not nearly enough notes, nuance, or harmony, just banging out the same rage against everyone in the world except himself, the last true original in the world:

"Yes for one brief moment in time we got angry. Correction, a few of us got angry. Of all our many many millions of gay people in this country, about 10,000 of us or so got angry enough to accomplish something. We got drugs. We got aids care. We got enough so we could continue fucking again. That in the end is what it amounted to. As soon as we got the drugs, you went right back to what got us into such trouble in the first place."

You just want to knock the damn rake out of his hands, sometimes. Well, I do, but maybe that's just me.

It's a fine line, history. You want to keep it fresh and alive, and you need to keep it potent and relevant, but it's hard, sometimes, to balance out the good, the very good, the bad, and the flat-out embarrassments. Larry's got a place in there, both good and bad, but reading his pamphlet makes me wonder if he's capable of singing more than that one sustaining note he's kept going for years. Maybe I'm a cynic, or maybe I'm naive, but I don't know how effective it is to lecture people with a clumsy repetition of sermonish "Please know, Please know, Please know," with the implication in each line an accusation that the reader does not know, or does not care.

He's an important man, Kramer, but he's a difficult one, too.
posted by sonascope at 7:25 AM on May 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Larry Kramer is no saint. Nor is he a martyr. He is a man with a voice that he loves to listen to. He has said some courageous things. I am thankful for those words. He has said some things that are unconscionable. He lost me in 1994 with this rant.

I lost nearly everyone I knew to AIDS in the early 90s. I still work in the field as a researcher. Those who survived are my dearest friends (and my husband, thankfully). Of course kids today don't "get it". How could they, and frankly, how sad were it to be so!? Yes, people; kids and adults, are still getting infected. Some of us are also still smoking and not wearing our seatbelts. We take risks with our lives. Some of us take those risks every day. It doesn't make us horrible people. It makes us human, with flaws, as humans have.

Larry Kramer accused me and the people I worked tirelessly with of "tranquilizing the infected lest the rest of the world see or hear anything too uncomfortable or embarrassing." Bullshit. He was angry at GMHC for his own reasons and unleashed his personal vendetta on all of us, infected and not.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:28 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sonascope, it's not just you.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:29 AM on May 19, 2011


"Yes for one brief moment in time we got angry. Correction, a few of us got angry. Of all our many many millions of gay people in this country, about 10,000 of us or so got angry enough to accomplish something. We got drugs. We got aids care. We got enough so we could continue fucking again. That in the end is what it amounted to. As soon as we got the drugs, you went right back to what got us into such trouble in the first place."

I read that pamphlet! Honestly, I both recognize that it's absolutely 100% the wrong way to reach people and feel a lot of what he's talking about. Larry Kramer has always reminded me of my dad, and a bit of me too - as activists we tend to be kind of analytical in a "if we all just acted this way the whole problem would disappear! but we're not, and so we're wasting our time and more and more people will die when we know better!!! And I am really controlling and I still can't fix it!!!!" way.

I think there's particular kind of activist where we have a good, solid, analytical, informed long view (and that's necessarily a very dark, sad one) but there's something in our characters where we can't counterbalance that with the good parts about humanity, we can't see anything but the dark.
posted by Frowner at 7:36 AM on May 19, 2011


That's the flaw in so much of the high period in AIDS literature, when you had these self-directed spats of blame and anger, whether it was Randy Shilts playing to the right wing fantasy of Gaetan Dugas or Kramer pointing back to Faggots as a latter-day Book of Revelation about the advent of AIDS in a population that created the perfect conditions for its arrival.

Larry Kramer has said plenty of dumb, facepalm-inspiring things, and made a lot of silly claims, but I think that he deserves credit, along with Randy Shilts and Andrew Holleran, for being right about this. I'm hesitant to claim Faggots as a work of high art, but it was prescient, indeed it was right, about "Gay Sex in the 70s," as a documentary film on the subject is known.

The Normal Heart can also be cited for its prescience in ending with a gay marriage scene, long before gay marriage was on the radar of the appointed or self-appointed "leaders" and tastemakers of the gay community, who at the time loudly denounced gay marriage as selling out and adopting a homophobic patriarchal institutional lifestyle.

Isn't that the Scandal of Larry Kramer, that he says this over and over in public and that he says that certain types of casual sex are unsafe and foolish?

That might be one thing that hasn't changed -- that gay men in the 1970s didn't want to hear that, and people today still don't want to hear it.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2011


That might be one thing that hasn't changed -- that gay men in the 1970s didn't want to hear that, and people today still don't want to hear it.

I collect old activist/queer/movement books and magazines, so I have this small press anthology of gay men's writing from San Francisco that was published in 1978 and most of the pieces revolve around "pushing your sexual boundaries is a radical political act by which you constitute a radical community" - there's a piece celebrating rimming [pardon the explicitness] that is extremely, extremely strange to read post-AIDS. It's a terribly sad anthology to read because you realize that bam, so many of those writers and their friends are going to be dead in the next six or seven years, and here they are in the flower of their youth totally unaware of what's going to happen.

It's so difficult to know how to think of the sexual culture of the late seventies now that we're after AIDS - so many of the memoirs that I've seen are all "this was a sad time with empty promiscuity and lack of love and a sort of sexual competitiveness/body fascism", but that's all retrospective, isn't it? Some people must have been having a great time, at least I hope so. But then sometimes I think that people are awful and queer folks no different, and it probably was depressing and competitive and conformist and body-fascist, and I think about my older gay male friends who talk about how they're all ugly and unlovable now because they're not 25 and gym clones anymore.

I don't know...I suppose it is possible to constitute a radical community through radical sexual practice, but I think everyone has to be on the same page about it, not a mixture of radicals and non-politicals and people who want to be gay hedge fund managers with immoral investments.
posted by Frowner at 8:18 AM on May 19, 2011


It's so difficult to know how to think of the sexual culture of the late seventies now that we're after AIDS - so many of the memoirs that I've seen are all "this was a sad time with empty promiscuity and lack of love and a sort of sexual competitiveness/body fascism", but that's all retrospective, isn't it?

But Faggots and Dancer From the Dance aren't retrospective.

Some people must have been having a great time, at least I hope so.

And tens of thousands of men died, in their 40s and 30s and even their 20s. People who didn't deserve to die and shouldn't have died.

I don't know...I suppose it is possible to constitute a radical community through radical sexual practice, but I think everyone has to be on the same page about it, not a mixture of radicals and non-politicals and people who want to be gay hedge fund managers with immoral investments.

Look, I am very much not a fan of hedge fund managers, gay or straight, but the whole radical community/radical sexual practice thing... again, tens of thousands of men, old and young, died. THAT is the problem. Not that there are just too many damn gay capitalists.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:28 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look, I am very much not a fan of hedge fund managers, gay or straight, but the whole radical community/radical sexual practice thing... again, tens of thousands of men, old and young, died. THAT is the problem. Not that there are just too many damn gay capitalists.

But there is this narrative (that I think is Kramer's underlying narrative and which is certainly the subtext of And The Band Played On) which goes "promiscuity itself is sad and empty, the gay community created the conditions for AIDS because men foolishly and selfishly pursued something worthless and there's a moral reason to avoid promiscuity/unsafe sex and if you don't you're not just foolish but immoral"

which is different from

"promiscuity is fun but we have to deal with the spread of AIDS so sex just can't be as casual any more, and it's no more a moral thing than knowing that you can't eat really salty food if you have high blood pressure".

Purely from a historical standpoint I am curious about the lived experience of the seventies. It's always cast in this elegiac way (as in the section in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home)...I need more memoirs and original documents. It matters a lot for my politics if everyone really was having fun and making an awesome new community and everything went horrible or if it was horrible to begin with.

I also distrust my political judgment on matters like this, because I grew up in an extremely, extremely body-negative household and have all kinds of hang-ups about sex and sexuality, so I tend to project a lot of my own pearl-clutching about casual sex onto the past.

I think we're in agreement about the "unsafe sex is bad and people need to be smart about that; look at the unbearable tragedy of the eighties" piece.
posted by Frowner at 8:41 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Normal Heart Will Offer Special, Discounted Performance for Young Audience on May 26th. $30 for people under 30.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:42 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw the 2004 revival with Raul Esparza at the Public and it ripped my heart out. GO GO GO GO.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:43 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I read that pamphlet! Honestly, I both recognize that it's absolutely 100% the wrong way to reach people and feel a lot of what he's talking about.

This is Larry Kramer's methodology. It's not a mistake.

I think quite honestly that his relentless, nagging approach is the reason why he's still relevant 30 years into the AIDS epidemic.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:47 AM on May 19, 2011


his relentless, nagging approach is the reason why he's still relevant

I suspect someone would have had to grow up in my household or one like it to understand why a relentless, nagging approach often makes people roll their eyes and develop a near-perfect filter for the droning, constant nagging. Heck, my mom's been trying to nag me into losing weight and publishing my damn book for years, which has really only made me buy suspenders, carefully prepare my manuscript to be found and published posthumously, and to consider taking up smoking because I know it'll irritate her (Well, and look good with a hat. Smoking looks quite stylish with a nice hat.).

I'd grant you that nagging works for some people, while something more nuanced and subtle works for others, so there's room for all sorts of approaches. Sadly, the advocates for the relentless approach too often go on to work against any other approach, judging it unworthy, and that's where the whole potential of multiple methodologies is undermined by an unyielding tribalism.
posted by sonascope at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2011


I'm with sonascope and Sophie1 - I was 21 years old in New York in 1981. I've been to more funerals than a dozen people my age should have had to go to, and that was just before I left New York for grad school mid-decade. No, no one who wasn't there can ever really understand how overwhelming it was (and, in some ways, still is - I still have depressive episodes driven by deep guilt of the, "Why am I still alive?" variety...).

And no, no one can understand, with all the good works and well-intentioned rhetoric, how someone like me could loathe Larry Kramer with every fiber of my being. Pardon me for evaluating the man and not his actions, but he was a stuck up, self-centered, self-important asshole when I was first introduced to him, as the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, in 1980. I haven't been in the same room with him since... maybe 2001 or 2002. He hadn't changed then - he was on his "sex negative crusade" at the time; if anything, his role as self-appointed judge-and-jury of everyone else on earth, straight and gay, had only consumed what little heart he'd ever had - and it doesn't look like he's changed in the ten years since. He was and seemingly still is a vile, judgmental, guilt-consumed, self-hating little troll.

Prodded I suppose by the news of Normal Heart's revival, I've heard from the few living friends I have from that time. We've all remarked how "in character" it is for Kramer to be staging a "political action" in front of his own fucking Broadway show. At our "advanced age" - which, thank heaven we've actually lived to see - we're able now to just smile ruefully and shake our heads, and go on living what's left of our lives. As someone said, long ago, "AIDS can't kill Larry. His own inexhaustible supply of bile kills the virus before it has a chance to kill him."
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 9:37 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Purely from a historical standpoint I am curious about the lived experience of the seventies. It's always cast in this elegiac way (as in the section in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home)...I need more memoirs and original documents. It matters a lot for my politics if everyone really was having fun and making an awesome new community and everything went horrible or if it was horrible to begin with.

A book which is deeply resonant to me and which is a source document from the '70s queer scene is The Faggots And Their Friends Between Revolutions. It's pretty direct in its call to radical open free sex by the faggots as a rebellion against Warren And His Fuckpole's regime, run by the Men, who seek to cast out the Faggots and the Men Who Love Men and the Women Who Love Women. It speaks with pity about those who cannot celebrate their lives through the releasing of the wondrous sex fluids because they're too bound up in their need for tradition and ritual.

It's a pretty heady read. I keep thinking I need to contact the authors and see if they'll let me create an ebook version or something. It's such a work of its times, and yet so inspirational as it talks about the great struggle toward Revolution.

Anyway... Larry Kramer isn't relentlessly nagging anymore. He was, for many years. But he's not doing the ACT-UP thing these days. He's old and has compromised health and is working on his book. If he's doing anything at this point, it's being a noisy reminder, like a calendar alarm on your computer which goes off every 3 or 4 months to suggest you check the oil in your car, or whatever. Yes, he's been saying the same thing for 30 years. But you know, there's an entire new group of queers who have grown up and still the lessons of safer sex and playing sane and understanding that the powers that be hate the faggots need to be repeated.

I find it interesting that he's handing out that pamphlet to people leaving the theater AFTER they've seen the play. Not on their way in, not to people who haven't seen the show, but to the very audience who just sat through the historical document of The Normal Heart. It's a bridge out of the artificiality of the theater experience and into the modern day. And honestly, I don't have a problem with him doing that. There are so many 20 year old gay men I've talked to who don't even think about HIV or AIDS, all the while having unprotected sex. And they think that because they keep it within a small circle of people, or whatever, that they're somehow safe. And they're not, because all it takes is for ONE of those people in that circle to step outside it and be exposed and suddenly the entire group is rushing off to be tested.

I have a lot of respect for Kramer, but I do understand that he's pretty much an old son-of-a-bitch. But just about everything he says is truth, when it comes to what the problems were/are, and what people needed to do to help with the fight, and how FEW.... how shockingly few people stood up to fight the fight when it needed to be fought. His actions did a hell of a lot for a lot of people. I hope he lives to finish his book -- that's going to cause a major freakout shitstorm once it hits shelves.
posted by hippybear at 9:45 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


no one who wasn't there can ever really understand how overwhelming it was

I have friends who have shoeboxes full of photographs of dead people - photos taken at parties and protests, pride parades and dinner parties, and most of the people in them died before they hit thirty. For those who are in their 20s now, look around at your circle of acquaintances and friends, and imagine more than half of them dead within this year.

I've mentioned it here before, but the documentary We Were Here - The AIDS Years in San Francisco is making the festival rounds, and you should see it if it plays near you. It's a very personal look at what happened in this community at a time when AIDS barely had a name; you'd see a friend at the bars and then he'd suddenly vanish; a week later you'd see him, skeleton-thin and covered with lesions; a week after that, you'd run into a mutual friend who would tell you that the memorial service was on Saturday. It's also a portrait of a community that stepped up because no one else was interested in helping a bunch of homos who were dying. Bring a lot of kleenex.
posted by rtha at 9:58 AM on May 19, 2011


It matters a lot for my politics if everyone really was having fun and making an awesome new community and everything went horrible or if it was horrible to begin with.

Well, like a broken record I want to keep citing Dancer From the Dance. Which could dead-end this discussion really quickly if you haven't read it or just plain don't like it. You mention the section in Fun Home, which is very brief and isn't really what the book is about... there's Edmund White's stuff, I guess, though it's more about the 50s and 60s, or at least his best works are.

Holleran and Shilts (and to a lesser degree Kramer) and others make, I think, a pretty compelling case that it was horrible to begin with. The case for "everyone really was having fun and making an awesome new community" just doesn't strike me as very strong. I mean, Christ, the vagueness of it! Maybe my problem is that I'm approaching all this from a literature standpoint, and you're approaching it from a political standpoint. Good literature can't be vague, because it's a story, about a particular person or particular people.

"promiscuity is fun but we have to deal with the spread of AIDS so sex just can't be as casual any more, and it's no more a moral thing than knowing that you can't eat really salty food if you have high blood pressure".

I guess I don't really see how you make "a politics" out of treating sex like it's an issue of "damn, I wanna eat that pretzel." I understand that you're just making a comparison to make a point, but the "pleasure is good and more pleasure is better" thing -- there's nothing there. It's just empty. I think that's why, yeah, there is this narrative that that time was sad and worthless for a lot of people. Because it was. And the sadness and emptiness is inextricably tied up with the unsafeness and dangerousness of it all. I don't know that they can be untangled.

Thanks for the responses, by the way.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2011


Holleran and Shilts (and to a lesser degree Kramer) and others make, I think, a pretty compelling case that it was horrible to begin with. The case for "everyone really was having fun and making an awesome new community" just doesn't strike me as very strong. I mean, Christ, the vagueness of it! Maybe my problem is that I'm approaching all this from a literature standpoint, and you're approaching it from a political standpoint. Good literature can't be vague, because it's a story, about a particular person or particular people.

"promiscuity is fun but we have to deal with the spread of AIDS so sex just can't be as casual any more, and it's no more a moral thing than knowing that you can't eat really salty food if you have high blood pressure".

I guess I don't really see how you make "a politics" out of treating sex like it's an issue of "damn, I wanna eat that pretzel." I understand that you're just making a comparison to make a point, but the "pleasure is good and more pleasure is better" thing -- there's nothing there. It's just empty. I think that's why, yeah, there is this narrative that that time was sad and worthless for a lot of people. Because it was. And the sadness and emptiness is inextricably tied up with the unsafeness and dangerousness of it all. I don't know that they can be untangled.


I think the politics is supposed to be an anti-materialistic, experiential, anti-capitalist thing - a world where physical, bodily pleasure replaces and overrides the pleasures of buying stuff and achieving capitalist glory. Also to push aside and replace a puritanical "sex is bad/pleasure is bad/ you should be working and achieving in order to be a good person" attitude. Also to exorcise shame about being queer. And also to push back against the capitalist notion of bourgeois domesticity - that the ultimate goal is a good career and a monogamous relationship, "true" love, etc etc. To push back against the idea that sexual desire itself is destructive and needs to be regulated.

But then that gets pulled back into the capitalist/growth-oriented/competitive philosophy - you're always looking for more, you need to compete with others to be the most beautiful/loved; eventually you'll lose your looks and then you'll be worthless; there's lots of money to be made running shops and spaces and so on...and desire is never context-less, there's always the self and fear and social needs.

Back before I actually knew that I was queer, I used to read abnormal psychology books that described the gay and lesbian life of the fifties and sixties - mostly in terms of bar culture and pick-ups. (Of course this was all intensely homophobic) But it made me think very consciously "oh, I could never be queer, I would have to meet people in bars and have casual sex and not get to know people before sleeping with them and I'd hate it." So I personally find it hard to imagine a world of casual sex and sexual boundary-pushing as a fun world; it's easy for me to imagine it as a road to nowhere. But then so many people have all this very plausible theory about radical sexual practice, and the kids today seem to enjoy the whole hook-up culture thing, and I tend to be kind of puritanical anyway - so what if I'm totally wrong? That's what I want to figure out.
posted by Frowner at 10:24 AM on May 19, 2011


Yeah, I just roll my eyes when I hear about Larry Kramer and his 'sex negative' attitudes from the early 1980s. He took a tremendous amount of flack for adopting what was, essentially, a survival posture. It's the opposite of what many people in the gay community wanted to hear at that stage, and they painted him as a puritanical Uncle Tom. Gay men didn't take well to being told by anyone, let alone Larry Kramer--another gay man--that they might want to rethink their sexual practices.

I always read that screeching response as an unwillingness to re-evaluate behavior that was manifestly endangering people's lives. And in many ways, I still do.

So yes, some people dislike Larry Kramer because he took a controversial stand.

God love him for it.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Larry Kramer vs. Barbra Streisand over the movie rights for The Normal Heart.
posted by PapaLobo at 10:47 AM on May 19, 2011


a world where physical, bodily pleasure replaces and overrides the pleasures of buying stuff and achieving capitalist glory.

Buying stuff/achieving capitalist glory = empty. Agreed. But having lots of orgasms doesn't strike me as inherently any better. I guess one could make a case that giving other people pleasure is nicer and more worthwhile. But even the most radical 1968-forever Jean Genet-type folks never framed things in that way. It's always been about fighting oppressors who deny people the right to experience their own pleasure. "I want this, and who are you to deny it to me?" People go to bed with people they're attracted to.

In short, why not replace empty consumerism with something that really is noble and requires self-sacrifice in some way, asks something higher of people? Because even that's "inherently" capitalist? Meh. Going down that road requires denying there's anything higher in us at all, that we don't have souls. I think we do. Ask something of our souls.

And also to push back against the capitalist notion of bourgeois domesticity - that the ultimate goal is a good career and a monogamous relationship, "true" love,

I think gay people are probably just not the best vehicle for that goal, because I don't think gay people are any more or less likely than straight people to reject "bourgeois domesticity," as you put it. Unfortunately, straight people denied it (b.d.) to us for a really long time, (and many people are still trying,) and so, in the 1970s, there was a sort of (hopefully) unique situation in which there were starting to be large numbers of (at least somewhat) out gay people, but they were very segregated, and it was the perfect cultural petri dish for this kind of radical ideology to become quite powerful.

I think it's really interesting that your vision is to replace all that yucky bourgeois stuff with something you say you'd "hate." I just don't get that at all. Why not advocate replacing it with something that you actually care about and like?
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 10:51 AM on May 19, 2011


I think it's really interesting that your vision is to replace all that yucky bourgeois stuff with something you say you'd "hate." I just don't get that at all. Why not advocate replacing it with something that you actually care about and like?

I didn't put that well at all. Let me try again: Why not advocate replacing it with something that you recognize as truly meaningful and powerful in your life?
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 10:54 AM on May 19, 2011


So I personally find it hard to imagine a world of casual sex and sexual boundary-pushing as a fun world;

I think you are chasing a phantom with this, Frowner. There certainly were many people back in the day who embraced the free love paradigm with enthusiasm. Straight and gay and bi alike. Look at the hippy culture: if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. But no era is homogeneous. There were also conservative and traditional young people in the 70s and 80s who grew up into the anti-sex old scolds of today. The social environment of 40 years ago made it easier to enjoy the clubs and bars and baths but that does not mean that they were to everybody's taste either. In short, promiscuity ever was and still is fun for some and unattractive for others.
posted by binturong at 10:56 AM on May 19, 2011


I think it's really interesting that your vision is to replace all that yucky bourgeois stuff with something you say you'd "hate." I just don't get that at all. Why not advocate replacing it with something that you actually care about and like?

I think we're miscommunicating slightly - I'm not so interested in what I'd like, because even in future-casual-sex-utopia I'm going to be home with a book. I'm interested in figuring out whether lots of people have been happy with the whole casual-sex-utopia thing, whether it has enough cohesion to withstand capitalism, whether it's different from capitalism - I think I'm pretty biased because of my upbringing, so I can't tell whether I'm right for the wrong reasons or just wrong. This is important to me because a viable theory about the body, pleasure and sex needs to inform my politics, and because one has to actively fight (as you point out) for something.

What I want isn't important, because I can easily have it under either regime - it's just a peaceful evening with the internet and a few novels.

But even the most radical 1968-forever Jean Genet-type folks never framed things in that way. It's always been about fighting oppressors who deny people the right to experience their own pleasure. "I want this, and who are you to deny it to me?" People go to bed with people they're attracted to.

But then it's kind of a negative fight, right? The right for everyone to be free from constraints? And it seems to leave out the whole duty-of-care/situatedness of desire.
posted by Frowner at 11:00 AM on May 19, 2011


I'm not so interested in what I'd like, because even in future-casual-sex-utopia I'm going to be home with a book.

Yeah, I realized after I posted that I hadn't framed things well, which is why I amended my comments in another post. Again: Why not advocate replacing it with something that you recognize as truly meaningful and powerful in your life?

It's very odd to me to approach, heck, Human Society from a perspective of "it doesn't matter what I've found to be true from my own personal experience of the world." What else do you have to measure against people's various claims about the good life? A preponderance of the evidence? Social science? I pretty much think social "science" should come with mandated scare quotes, so that's where I'm coming from on the issue, but I'm curious about how it is for you.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:19 AM on May 19, 2011


In the early days, we didn't know what caused AIDS. IIRC, Larry Kramer was there screaming about closing the bath houses (where we could hand out condoms and try to educate people, once we found out how it was spread) and calling for outrage.

I was too stunned to be outraged. That came later. I was scared. Kramer and the other ACT-UP people kicked my ass a bit, and probably got me out of my deer-in-the-headlights phase sooner, but he's still a difficult man. Reagan and the other pols wanted us to die (who cares about faggots, junkies and Haitians?). Kramer was right that we had to save ourselves. He was wrong, in hindsight, about how to do it (but that hindsight isn't fair, either).

I'm glad today's young gays and lesbians don't know what it was like back in the mid-80's to mid-90's. I'm also horrified at the spread of HIV in the barrios and ghettos. It never seemed possible we'd learn to live with HIV.
posted by QIbHom at 11:24 AM on May 19, 2011


But then it's kind of a negative fight, right? The right for everyone to be free from constraints?

I don't think the people involved saw it as negative (if you're still talking about the radical gay movement of the 70s.) A general catchphrase of the time was to drop out; to reject social norms not just in a reactionary way but as a first step to reconfigure a new and better society starting with fresh ideas. A combination of anarchy and utopianism. Another catchphrase was "the personal is the political" -- so I echo fugitive's comment that personal experience informs the drive to make any social change -- and also to reject change if you are personally more invested in the status quo.
posted by binturong at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2011


In the early days, we didn't know what caused AIDS.

If memory serves, the first hypothesis for the cause of GRID was poppers being used in discos.
posted by hippybear at 11:29 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's very odd to me to approach, heck, Human Society from a perspective of "it doesn't matter what I've found to be true from my own personal experience of the world."

1. I feel differently when a choice has to be made - my experience can be ignored if no possible outcome is negative for me. If I like Thai food and pizza but you can't eat dairy, you get to pick the restaurant.

2. I don't really trust any individual account when it's proscriptive - I think you need a bunch of accounts and you need to figure out some ways to weigh them, if there's conflicting goals. If I'm middle class and my job doesn't give me back strain, and someone else is working class and their job does hurt their back, and I think people who apply for workers' comp are just a bunch of skivvers....well, we need to accumulate more accounts and figure out who has the most expertise. I know only too well that my perspective is limited; I have some broad ideas about the things that limit my understanding (some inevitable, like having just the one brain; and some cultural/personal), so I try not to point to my preferences as a justification for things that affect a lot of people.

As far as the sex-positivity thing goes - there are a lot of social policies and practices that either support or discourage - on purpose or as an externality - casual sex. Partly because I am the type of person who always, horribly, has an opinion, and partly because I do some social justice work, I need a theory.
posted by Frowner at 11:31 AM on May 19, 2011


IIRC, Larry Kramer was there screaming about closing the bath houses (where we could hand out condoms and try to educate people, once we found out how it was spread) and calling for outrage

Wasn't there a lot of pushback from bathhouse owners against doing education and making condoms available? Like, either direct refusal or total marginalization of the efforts?
posted by Frowner at 11:33 AM on May 19, 2011


I think that part of my frustration with Kramer stems from my personal experience of the eighties. I was a sexually precocious kid, starting to play around at ten with a friend and continuing to play with that friend and a couple others until I was of legal age. We're not supposed to even acknowledge that such things exist, but it was fun. Suddenly, though, I'm this emergent "gay" entity hatching into the rest of the world in the middle of the eighties, in the middle of the disaster. I was seventeen, recently kicked out of school and having left home to see the world, and what a world it was.

Sex wasn't joyous in the eighties. We weren't allowed to want it, to crave it, to live it. The clumsy "safe" sex of the time was humiliating—awkward episodes of trying to give a little tongue through fucking powdery, latex-tasting dental dams. Condoms broke and you ended up terrorized for weeks, thinking every freckle was a goddamn lesion. New theories rose and fell, new things would kill you or save you. Better yet, just don't do anything at all.

You're going to die if you have sex. Every little mistake will kill you.

We brought it on ourselves, said the Moral Majority and Larry Kramer both. We have it coming to us. We're better, we gay people, but we're culpable. We made this happen.

Me—I was living hand to mouth, getting by. When I'd have a little money to spend, I'd drive down to DC to stand around a gay bar wearing enough Drakkar Noir to make my eyes burn, pretending to smoke Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100s like the cool kids, and nursing a syrup-sweet Bartles & James all night because I really just don't like to drink. Sometimes, someone would get past my panicky eyebrows, my whuffed-high mullet, and the cologne stench and talk to me, and sometimes we'd go to his place, and that tension would kick in, the fear of it, of what could happen.

If I have sex, I might get AIDS.

It was all out there, too, the Kramer paradigm, the angry advocacy to close down those damn dirty bathhouses and stop all the promiscuity and empty sex...except all those things were foreign to me. Never set foot in a bathhouse in my life, except for once being in an infamous place in NYC with a friend of my sister, who managed to sneak my sixteen year-old ass into a place I clearly didn't belong.

"Why are there bathtubs in the floo—OOOOHMYGOD WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY DOING!? WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO DO THAT!? FUCK THIS HORRIBLE PLACE, I'M GOING HOME!"

All gay people need to stop what they're doing, Kramer told us, but I was just some kid from some little nowhere town caught between two smallish cities. I didn't do those things. Sometimes, I met someone and had sex, wrapped up in latex and a perceptibly present layer of doubt. It was promiscuous by the standards of, say, a nun, but are we really not allow to fuck at all in the new world, even with rubbers and dental dams and Agent Orange and whatever the hell else was needed for the task?

I lost a generation of elders in the eighties, but only one friend, a mentor and confidant from my years as a leadership camper, and later, counselor. I made him a panel for the Names Quilt, but never sent it in, after walking around on that endless, wretched field of defeat. It's under my mattress, still, a place so much less anonymous.

They talk about survivor's guilt, but I don't have any. I survived because I went from being a kid with a playful, lusty, joyous experience of the glorious ecstatic potential of two human bodies to a man who's still trying to unwind the knots and tangles of doubt and the mildly phobic response to sexual intimacy that was hammered into my skull like a rusty nail in the Reagan years. Larry taught me well, and so I'm safe today. What a triumph, right?

I sometimes feel like my experience isn't much of a guide. People just older and just younger than me seem not so traumatized by it all, and maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones, finding myself in one of the epicenters of the disease in the worst time to be there. I can't blame people for the flailing, panicked response to an epidemic like no other, but I'm still hurt by that time, and still nervous in the manner of all animals that have been beaten into submission. I do right, fearing the lash of the whip, but it's not always because I want to do right. Sometimes, it's just the old shock collar doing its job—don't you know what could happen if you put that there?

Results are results, however. Heck, we're on the verge of getting marriage!

Well, some people are, at least.
posted by sonascope at 11:35 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's important to remember that the rampant sex-having was happening at a time when there wasn't simply a vague air of homophobia floating around: It was Briggs, and Anita Bryant, and Moscone and Milk. No famous pro basketball players were on national television saying that they didn't care if their teammates were straight or gay, as long as they could play. There was no It Gets Better video from White House staffers. At a time when most of visible society was telling you that you were bad and sinful and perverted and should go away, or be killed, it must have seemed like a miracle to a lot of men to be able to walk into a place (a bar, a coffeeshop, a bath house) where you were seen as beautiful and desirable. The men I know who were around in those days - and there aren't many left - talk about how incredible it was to escape from the small town, the oppressive family, and find a community. It wasn't just sex (is it ever?) - I mean, the sex itself wasn't "just" sex, even when it was. That probably doesn't make much sense, but I don't know how to explain it better.
posted by rtha at 11:37 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if that was a question or an accusation. To give it the benefit if the doubt, no, of course they don't. How could they?

No, it's not an accusation, it's really a question. Is there a continuity of institutional memory? I mean, in many ways, I don't think kids today can easily understand why so many of us were so shocked when the Berlin Wall fell in '91. To them, what is history and thus static, unchanging, inevitable was at the time an incredibly unexpected and shocking change.

Similarly the difference between the image of gay then and image of gay now. From pervert in bathhouse to soldier, husband, father. And the image of AIDS: what was in 1984 the end of the gay world (and for many, it was the end), an all-confusing plague, is now a chronic disease that while worse than diabetes is nonetheless something that can be lived with.
posted by orthogonality at 11:41 AM on May 19, 2011


(the stories are great.)
posted by Frowner at 11:41 AM on May 19, 2011


It wasn't just sex, it was love and feeling beautiful and desired and understood and more than anything, SEEN. Seen for who you were despite everyone telling you that you might have poison shooting out of your dick. Terrified of dying or of everyone around you dying and being the only one left standing. Who wants to be the only one left standing?

Michael Callen took a controversial stand too (bless his sweet soul) but he wasn't in denial about the fact that men wanted to fuck and that the fucking was sometimes not just a fuck.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:45 AM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I feel differently when a choice has to be made - my experience can be ignored if no possible outcome is negative for me. If I like Thai food and pizza but you can't eat dairy, you get to pick the restaurant.

I've been thinking about this and can't really come up with more than, I can't imagine a vision of human society or of what to stand for in life that doesn't involve possible negative consequences. Just think of what we're talking about -- all these tens of thousands of people died. Jesus. The stakes are high in life, for all of us.

It wasn't just sex (is it ever?) - I mean, the sex itself wasn't "just" sex, even when it was.

First of all -- "is it ever?" Yes. I don't disagree with your larger point, but this just strikes me as naive. One can be cognizant of the incredibly difficult time it was for gay people, and the absolutely rotten horribleness of the way they were treated at the time, without making this assertion about sex, which would seem to require that gay men collectively transcended their human status and became angels. Yeah, it's sometimes just sex, and many people have made pretty convincing arguments that there was too much "just sex", dangerous and unsafe, in the 1970s. It's possible to believe this and not be a member of the Moral Majority, although I see that there are those among us who wish to continue playing the rhetorical tricks that conflate the two.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:59 AM on May 19, 2011


If memory serves, the first hypothesis for the cause of GRID was poppers being used in discos.

Yes, and that gave me quite a scare.

Not all the bath house owners were against education.

sonascope, yes. I remember trying to use a dental dam, and it was just so awkward. There were rumours that saran wrap would serve as a barrier, or maybe only the freezer grade stuff, but we didn't know.

There was, and is, a very fine line between blaming the victim with HIV and educating him or her. Those of us who lived through the hate, inside and outside of the gay communities, who went to the funerals, stood on the corners trying to hand out little bottles of bleach and sterile needles we'd smuggled from Vermont and who tried to figure out how to have sex safely without sucking all the fun out, well, we can be a bit touchy. The scars will always be there, and the guilt for surviving.
posted by QIbHom at 12:14 PM on May 19, 2011


Yeah, it's sometimes just sex, and many people have made pretty convincing arguments that there was too much "just sex", dangerous and unsafe, in the 1970s. It's possible to believe this and not be a member of the Moral Majority, although I see that there are those among us who wish to continue playing the rhetorical tricks that conflate the two.

I agree that it doesn't make one some sort of Anita Bryant nut to view the casting off of sexual shackles as problematic in a lot of ways. But I don't know that I agree that some or all of the sex being had in the 1970s by gay men could ever be "just" sex, given the political and social climate.

I don't know. I remember so many arguments in the late 80s and early 90s about closing bath houses vs having central places to reach people who needed to be reached.

All of this made me think of Mark Doty's poem Homo Will Not Inherit (nsfw). An excerpt:
I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit: steam,
and the blinding symmetry of some towering man,
fifteen minutes of forgetfulness incarnate.

I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body,
pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation.
And I have been possessed of the god myself,

I have been the temporary apparition
salving another, I have been his visitation, I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel

for minutes at a time, and I have for hours
believed—without judgement, without condemnation—
that in each body, however obscured or recast,

is the divine body—common, habitable—
the way in a field of sunflowers
you can see every bloom’s

the multiple expression
of a single shining idea,
which is the face hammered into joy.

I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit:
stupidity, erasure, exile
inside the chalked lines of the police,

who must resemble what they punish,
the exile you require of me,
you who’s posted this invitation

to a heaven nobody wants.
You who must be patrolled,
who adore constraint, I’ll tell you

what I’ll inherit, not your pallid temple
but a real palace, the anticipated
and actual memory, the moment flooded

by skin and the knowledge of it,
the gesture and its description
—do I need to say it?—

the flesh and the word.
posted by rtha at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


« Older "Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and lengt...  |  Stunning photographs of the ca... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments