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Revisiting the Archive: Episode 11: Larry Kramer

Making Gay History

22:32 min | 4 months ago

Revisiting the Archive: Episode 11: Larry Kramer

"I'm Eric Marcus. And this is making a history. It's now eleven weeks since my partner Barney and I began sheltering in place and this past week the official death toll in the United States from covid nineteen rose past one hundred thousand mothers and fathers children grandparents colleagues neighbors and friends people not numbers people. I've talked before in this series revisiting the archive about anger. How it can fuel action? How an anger is partnered with love? It can produce a kind of righteous rage that propels us those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis. Know about it. Some of US learned it from Larry Kramer who died this week in Manhattan where he's lived for. Decades Larry was famous for being one of the first billions to sound the alarm during that last epidemic. The one that began forty years ago he was on the front lines even before aids was called AIDS and became a global epidemic at swept away more than thirty million lives before AIDS. Larry was best known for his work as a screenwriter and author but the virus that was claiming so many lives in the political indifference political negligence that greeted it turned Larry into a very public activist. His friends were dying and he felt compelled to do something more than to just bury the dead and mourn their loss in nineteen. Eighty-two Larry co-founded a gay men's health crisis now known as GM five years later he co-founded act up the AIDS coalition to unleash power. Act Up came to be known for its brilliant use of public protests to bring attention to the epidemic by early nineteen eighty nine. When I I met Larry AIDS take in more than sixty thousand lives. Most of them. Gay Men Larry quickly earned a reputation as an uncompromising firebrand with a fierce temper. I'm not proud of it. But that kind of person generally inspires me to run in the other direction. I was more than a little anxious. I approached the door to Larry's apartment in a building that fronts Washington Square Park in New York. City's Greenwich Village. As I said when this episode originally aired I got myself worked up. Nothing I brace myself for a tornado and found the teddy bear. Here's the same. Larry welcomed me into a spacious apartment and showed me into his all white book line living room and I took a seat opposite him across a broad desk as I said at my tape recorder and attach the Mike to his shirt. We talked about how we both had wanted to find a husband early in life and settle down and that led us back in time to Larry's memories as it confused and Unhappy College student in the Early Nineteen fifties. I pressed record interview with Larry Kramer Thursday January twenty six thousand nine hundred eighty nine at the home of Larry Kramer in New York City. Interviewer is Eric. Marcus tape one side one. When I went to Yale I thought I was the only gay person in the world and tried to kill myself because I was so lonely. Did try to What am I think that was fifty? Three was the year my freshman year. Yeah is awful. I mean I do want to go back that far curious because I was a college student on seventy six desperately unhappy. We're at Vassar College. There were there were a lot of gays. They weren't that many people think there were a lot if there were so many gays. Why was I so unhappy? Miserable person and And deaths seemed very appealing at moments during my freshman year when I was dating a woman in making off the man by in life and fifty three must have been much more difficult than seventy six at Vassar. You can even start in shifty. Three Easter I knew I was gay. I think from the day I was born and I think that there have been I. I now know that there were isolate. They were experiences all through before. I even got to Yale. And they were all covert in guilt. Inducing on on everybody's part so the it seemed as if all those early years were spent trying to deny these feelings the feelings would sort of get to strong erupt in and I would have an experience. Which would autumn always make me feel guilty in one way or another and then you put it you become. Sylvia's would come down for a while a week a week or two and Yale was awful. There was a gay bar called parolees. It was awful the time when I finally have the courage to go there. It was only two blocks from campus. But it was a million years away. It was very dark and grey and inside and smokey and and filled with old old older man and I only went the once and somebody picked me up. A car drove for like hours before we found a place that was quiet to do it and then he drove me back where you didn't say a word all of that list of yourself. I eight two hundred aspirin. Oh my God talk about slow and Miss. You must have been pretty miserable to swallow two hundred and yours anymore. Will after you wanted out. Was that who knows. It's a scene. I'll never forget the scene of taking pills the Yup and find you're still better. I didn't wake up. I I went to bed and I got scared and I call. The campus. Police came took me to the hospital and put myself and that was in woke then I fell asleep and I woke up in a room with bars and after grace new haven hospital and there. Was this very unpleasant hospital psychiatrist. Who said all right Mr Cramer? Why did you do it and I go fuck yourself or words to that end he said? I'm now you're not going to be let out of this hospital until you tell us why you did it. And I just had a few rubbed me the wrong way and I wouldn't have told who who knew why I did it anyway. So my brother who's always sort of looked after me came and got me out and he was friends with the dean of Freshmen. My brother had been the before me and And it was you know ordinarily when something like that happen you were shipped off to go join the army really in those days. Yeah and then you come back to Yale and you've grown up but they let me stay. If I went to the University of Coyote. Just his name was Dr Fry Clement Fry. And he was about in the sixties he had silver hair and it was a good looking man he whereas reptiles button down shirt and You just knew that. He cared more about Yale and he ever did about you and And I told him of this experience that I had had of had been invited to go to the room of two of my freshman year. Two guys freshman year that I had met they somehow mercifully had found each other and they were living in this room and I was invited for tea or something and I walked into this room and the room. You know how awful freshman rooms are. Well they had done their room and it was painted all black and there was a everything has been taken out of the room. Except you know a low mattress was which was black and there was a perfect coffee table with with a rose in a vase. That was spotlit in a board. And and Mabel Mercer's playing on the phonograph right so I describe this little Dr Fry in Dr Fries. Reaction was I. Don't I wouldn't see those guys anymore factory and that's what Gail was like that's going to so there wasn't there wasn't a local gay student group you to call it was. I mean I love going back to Yale now and this is my real yardstick of of how far we've come even though. I'm always yelling about how we've not come far enough. I go back to Yale and Yale is like the college now and there's the dance every year for well over a thousand gay men and women in in you know across the campus from where I tried to kill myself because I thought I was the only one so that is your yardstick for change. It certainly is. Yeah that thirty years time you were completely alone thirty years. It is. God doesn't long time. So where does that leave us? A lot of change no change well. I guess it's in. It's in my nature to be impatient and I only got politically involved because of AIDS and there is no question that we have lost the war to AIDS and that we've lost and we'll continue to lose a great many people when we did not have to lose and that the speed of research treatment education you name. It has been tragically in an inhumanely. Slow it's an epidemic that need not have happened and that we should have listened There's no question that that enough people knew what was happening. Should've list we'll specifically. You should listen well the community. I mean the gay press the gay leaders. You were there before. It was an epidemic or just as it was becoming. Well I think now we know that even when we found out eighty one it was much bigger than we thought but we thought it was just the beginning right. Eighty one in this very room in August. Eighty one eighty men sat with Dr Freeman keen from Nyu who told us in no uncertain terms exactly what was happening and and he was right at eighty one in. August of eighty one. The New York Times article that alerted. Everybody really was July third eighty one. The New York Times headline was freer. Cancer Semen forty-one homosexuals and said that all the guys had the same history which was a history of of having had all of these sexual diseases. Amoeba was hepatitis A. and B. and mononucleosis syphilis gonorrhea n-name it. When I saw that in the New York Times I was scared. Because I'd had all of that and I guess the penny dropped the English say or the bell rang or something I call Larry. Massu was was it is my friend. Who's a doctor? And who had written some articles? He wrote a health column for the native and had written about it before the Times had and And I guess I've spoken to Him peripherally about it but not it had. The Bell Hasn't Rung Until The Times. That's the way of making you really stood up and say wow of times covers. It has to be real so he said go talked. Alvin to Dr Freeman keen which I did and Alvin who turned out to be gay and we turned out to have mutual friends. Said this is what's happening. You GotTa Stop Fucking. You're someone well known in the Gay Community. You have to do something about it. Somebody's got to go out there and tell them and it was because of that that I invited Larry Math and I and two other guys. Now dead Donald Been Paul. Rapoport invited everyone. We knew to come to this. First Meeting in August include people from from political groups capable? He got on the phone and we call everybody we called. Anyone could think of political people rich people media people doctors none them showed up and It was a good cross section and It was a lot of people didn't believe him. Did you know this was a hot political football when you picked it up or did you expect people to respond to you or to what you have to say that very meeting that night with without the early evening with Alvin so that I mean there are a lot of very nasty questions put him? There are a lot of people saying you know you're a born again How can you make all of these assumptions on the basis of so few cases? And how can you expect to hope community to stop talking and you know there was no virus? Then people say there's no virus now but it certainly wasn't a virus then that didn't come for another couple of years people could say you have no evidence to base this on and anyone say even if there's the slightest possibility well that's what he was saying and that's what I was saying and It wasn't so much the people that Paul Popham and Nathan Fain who came to be my big adversaries and Gamons health crisis. It wasn't so much that they didn't believe or not believe what was happening. Paul had of course lost a couple friends by them and the lover it was that he didn't think it was Jimmy sees or anybody's position to tell anybody else how to live their lives and that people had to make up their own lines so a lot of valuable time was lost. Not BEING THE CONDUIT. I thought I was setting up or funny to help. Set up with others an organization that was going to do one thing and that organization became and still is another. What was what was set up to spread information and to fight to fight to make the system accountable and to spread the word of what was happening and that you know we got a cool it. It was not that at all it was. It became very quickly. It was taken over by the social workers and and then it is now what it is then. It's a social service in a very good social service organization but it again. That's our tragedy. It's an organization that that helps people to die and is not an organization that helps the living go on living and we still don't have an organization to do that is that maybe act up. Bush came along much too late Beverly for never but much too late. I BLAME MYSELF. I I am very cognizant of of a great failure on my part that I did not have the ability to be leader that I did not have the ability to deal with my adversaries and still be friends. God didn't there is a God. Did Not give the gay community leader when the gay community needed a leader and you feel awesome and you failed in that role and I failed in that role. I feel very strongly failed role. What does the future hold? Then I think age is going to get much much much worse than a lot. More people are going to die and I. I hope that one of these drugs is going to do something about it but I never seem to hear of any let up in the number of people who seem to be getting sick and that's very scary and I'm HIV positive. Myself which I've just discovered and Protested the first time for the first time. Yeah I you know for the first time. It's it's come home to me in an even more personal way. That my days maybe numbered in a way that. I didn't think of before and that's made me real bad more than angry. I find myself going back to act up which I haven't done in a long time because I got fed up with Must be renewed personal personal interest. Give their fighting. Takes me out of my negatively? Makes me makes me just sort of being touched by their positive. Ism helps me a lot of things I haven't asked you. Is there anything that would like to comment on? So I don't feel like I've been at my best today with you so I'll come back feel a little specious than what specious feel a little scattered and what I've said so I don't know what I love being gay and if I have been an am critical it's only. I think we are very special people incapable of so much more and take a long time to be able to to say that for different generation than many. You know you're born what year thirty five and I'M THE GENERATION. That was sent off to shrinks because shrinks then thought they could change you and you were expected to change and it took a long time for me to come to terms with my homosexuality and a lot of shrinks now having come to terms with it and liking it and then having to face. Aids is almost like a Brat nevertheless. It's I think we are very lucky. I just I. I think being a gay man even today with AIDS is is is a wonderful thing. I love being gay after I turned off my tape recorder we talked about. Larry's health asides being HIV positive. Two-thirds of his liver had been destroyed by the hepatitis. B virus. His doctorate told him that he had maybe three years to live. So legacy was very much on Larry's mind. He told me that he saw his work as legacy. But if the risk of disagreeing with Larry Not that he's here to argue with me I think. His biggest legacy was saving lives to the activism. He inspired and his warnings about AIDS which were heard by more than a few of US including me a lot of us our lives to Larry Kramer. Larry outlived his doctor's prognosis by several decades. Experimental drugs a liver transplant in. Two thousand one saves his life. Larry also got his wish to find a husband settling down with David Webster in one thousand nine hundred ninety one they married on July twenty fourth two thousand thirteen. Larry Kramer died. This past. Wednesday may twenty seven twenty twenty. He was eighty four. Actually there's another memory of Larry I'd like to share before I go. I visited with Larry. One more time after that. Nineteen eighty-nine interview. It was at lunch the following summer with my mother in the Hamptons on eastern Long Island where Larry was renting a house. There were both in their fifties younger than I am now. I have no memory of how that came about or how my mother came to be a part of it. I'm guessing she asked and she was known to be insistent but what I remember clearly is how much they enjoyed. Each Other's company to Jews of a generation that spawned so many fighters for social justice mother included spoke the same language and I had the privilege to sit back and listen. How lucky was I? I don't believe in heaven but like to of the two of them meeting up for lunch again looking down on US wondering how we've made such a fucking mess of things and urging us to fight for our lives and the future of our country many thanks to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation for their ongoing. If you'd like to join us in our mission to bring lgbtq history to life the voices of the people who lived. Please go to making gay history dot org slash support or visit our website at making a history dot com this revisiting the archive episode was produced by Sarah Birmingham making gay histories founding editor and producer and the tire making gay histories deputy director. Who handles all the post production work to get our episodes out to you so long? Stay safe until next time.

Larry Larry Kramer AIDS the Times Larry AIDS Yale Eric Marcus Vassar College Gay Community United States Manhattan Yale Dr Fry Clement Fry Larry Math US AIDS HIV Greenwich Village Dr Freeman