The Tragedy of Today's Gays
A review by Richard Kim
AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer has a lot in common with the late Andrea
Dworkin: a Manichaean worldview, a penchant for hyperbolic speech and dowdy
dress, a murky relationship with empirical truth, a quixotic tribalism that manifests
all at once as genuine love and venomous contempt for their respective kin --
women and gay men. Like Dworkin, whose screeds against pornography were so laden
with pornographic content and style that they were banned by the very anti-porn
ordinances she helped author, Kramer possesses an uncanny ability to mime the
putative object of criticism -- in his case, homophobia.
To some, Kramer is a narcissistic gadfly whose passion for controversy and
flagellation undermines the causes -- AIDS and the gay movement -- to which
he so passionately devotes himself. To others, he's a brilliant and misunderstood
prophet who dares to speak the hard truth nobody wants to hear. Indeed, this
is how Kramer styles himself, as a Cassandra in the desert whose warnings in
1981 about a mysterious, unnamed plague went unheeded, whose call to arms in
1987 to fight the criminal lack of funding for AIDS prevention and treatment
rallied precious few, and whose current campaign -- laid out in his new book,
The Tragedy of Today's Gays -- to reinvigorate a gay movement he sees
as "completely inept," "powerless" and "disposable"
will, he predicts, fall on the deaf ears of today's "tragic," "fucked
up," "blind" and "ignorant" gays who "richly deserve"
Anyone familiar with Kramer's overheated polemics knows to take such fatalistic
rebukes lightly, or at best as a kind of provocation. But why -- this time around
-- do they come wrapped in such false modesty? After all, his early alarms about
AIDS laid the groundwork for the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), an organization
started in his living room that has since become one of the country's largest
AIDS service providers. His 1987 speech at the Gay and Lesbian Center in New
York sparked ACT UP, the radical collective whose spiky tactics are now imitated
by activists of all stripes. Along with Tony Kushner -- who generously blurbs
Kramer's book -- he is one of the most celebrated chroniclers of gay issues
in America. He publishes in the editorial pages of the New York Times.
His autobiographical play-cum-jeremiad The
Normal Heart continues to be canonized in classrooms across the country
and was recently revived at the Public Theater in New York. A speech he gave
shortly after the 2004 election in the Great Hall at Cooper Union -- and which
provides the basis for this new book -- drew 700 rapt listeners and several
hundred more were turned away.
Indeed, this public embrace of Kramer seems so at odds with his persona that
it's hard to explain. How can someone who's such a self-professed pain in the
ass to both the gay movement and the mainstream establishment receive such accommodation?
Perhaps it's because, as Naomi Wolf unwittingly hits upon in her introduction
to The Tragedy of Today's Gays, Kramer is a "humanist writer in the humanist
tradition," someone who "reclaims the language and consciousness of morality"
and transcends "identity politics" to speak of "universal love." Wolf intends
these as compliments, but they might be considered indictments as well.
Although Kramer claims several times in The Tragedy of Today's Gays
to "love gay people," to think them "better," "smarter," "more aware" and "more
talented" than other people, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn't know a
whole lot about them. He recycles the kind of harangues about gay men (and young
gay men in particular) that institutions like the Times so love to print
-- that they are buffoonish, disengaged Peter Pans dancing, drugging and fucking
their lives away while the world and the disco burn down around them. Sure,
Kramer occasionally mentions a young gay man he finds laudable, like the playwright
Jeff Whitty, who wrote a musical about plushy puppets finding themselves on
the subway (Avenue Q). But really, must we all be marionettes singing
the same tune night after night? In Kramer's view, today's gays are a lot like
yesterday's gays. "Does it ever occur to you that we brought this plague
of AIDS upon ourselves?" Kramer asks in The Tragedy of Today's Gays,
but this rhetorical question is virtually identical to the invectives spewed
by Ned Weeks, hero of The Normal Heart, in 1985. And now, 20 years later,
according to Kramer, "You are still doing it. You are still murdering each other."
It's a shame that Kramer's attempt to address young gay men ultimately devolves
into the same pathological, self-destructive plot that has guided all of his
writing on AIDS, for there is a glimmer of sympathy in this book that deserves
consideration. Kramer writes that there's "a big empty space" in young
gay men's lives; "America let these men who should have been your role
models die." So, according to Kramer, this "big empty space"
leads today's gays to "disdain anyone older who was there" and "condemn
[our] predecessors to nonexistence."
This generational rupture, overstated as it is in this book, hasn't been fully
addressed by the gay movement and AIDS activism, and it's important that it
is. Gay people don't learn about gay sex and relationships in their families,
and with the Bush administration's assault on sex education, they certainly
don't learn about them in school. So the sort of cultural memory that Kramer
wishes were there is vital, not only to acknowledge the devastating impact AIDS
had on gay culture, but to fully understand how gay culture itself pioneered
the safe-sex programs that significantly reduced HIV infection. This kind of
historical reflection might also take into account the fact that today's gays
are the first generation to grow up entirely under the shadow of AIDS. It is
fundamental to how we think of sex and gayness. But maybe we need a different
kind of safe-sex message than the sort of fear-mongering that Kramer thinks
so effective, since to fear AIDS is to fear our very capacity for sex and intimacy.
Sadly, Kramer doesn't go there. For him, history and destiny are one and the
same; time is circular. Would that this tendency were particular to Kramer,
but anyone who followed the Times' badly mangled coverage of the new
drug-resistant "superbug" can find parallels not only in Kramer's work but also
in the sensationalistic media coverage of AIDS in the '80s (see David France's
of a panic in New York magazine). Both substitute actual compassion
and understanding (never mind reporting) with a deeply familiar drama (Tragedy
is no accidental title) of a doomed people whose pathological predilection for
sin invokes the wrath of an angry God. This is a kind of "morality," I suppose,
but whether it reclaims or merely recapitulates the moral language that emanates
from biblical fundamentalism is subject to debate.
The difference of course is that Kramer means well. I believe it when he says
that he loves gay people, even as I believe that he reserves for them a special
kind of scorn born of impossible expectations. Kramer is agitated about a lot
of things: the election in which "60 million people voted against us," the "cabal"
of religious and financial elites who have seized this country's public and
political institutions and turned America into a "classist, racist, homophobic,
imperial army of pirates," the Bush administration's $100 billion war on Iraq
that has diverted much needed funding for AIDS and other humanitarian causes.
But these political transformations -- geopolitical and world-historical in
scale, complex in nature -- have a curious way of settling upon what Kramer
deems the "murderous" behavior of gay men who "get hooked on crystal," and engage
in "endless rounds of sex-seeking" and "fucking without condoms." He moves jarringly
-- sometimes within the same paragraph -- from a recount of right-wing machinations
to dire statements about how gays "shrank from our duty of opposition," slunk
off to "a disco, or to the Fire Island Pines or South Beach, or into therapy,
or onto drugs" and are thus responsible for our own erasure "into nothingness."
"What do you do with yourselves all week long, seven days and nights a week,
that amounts to anything really important?" "We stand here and let them do it!"
The Tragedy of Today's Gays is peppered with bolded sentences such as
these, and each one is directed like a bullet at the souls of Kramer's beloved
At the point in Kramer's essay where he really gets a full head of steam going,
he cites a series of unsourced AIDS statistics, among them: "HIV infections
are up as much as 40 percent," "some 70 million people so far are expected to
die," and "there are now more than 70 million who have been infected with HIV."
The first is, if not an outright lie, a hyperbolic and misleading untruth. Kramer
never does specify to whom, when and where this statistic refers, but according
to a report
from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that relies on limited data, HIV
infection rates for men who have sex with men (the population Kramer is almost
exclusively concerned about) rose 11 percent over four years (2000-03) after
steadily declining throughout the '90s. This rise, coupled with increases in
syphilis and other STDs among gay men, has rightly concerned HIV prevention
experts who are still debating what factors contributed to this spike. But in
any event, Kramer's "40 percent" increase is a gross exaggeration.
As for Kramer's second and third statistics -- the "70 million" who are "expected
to die" and/or "who have been infected with HIV" -- the context in which these
two figures are presented would lead one to believe that Kramer is referring
to the number of current HIV-positive people worldwide. But in fact the "70
million" who are "expected to die" refers to a UNAIDS
projection for 2022 if treatment and prevention programs aren't significantly
ramped up -- an alarming, but still avertable, possibility. The "70 million
who have been infected with HIV" refers to the total number of HIV infections
since the beginning of the epidemic, of which some 30 million have died. The
number of HIV cases worldwide is somewhere near 40 million, 95 percent of
which are in the developing world, an indication of tremendous global inequalities
in wealth and healthcare that Kramer never bothers to discuss. These loony and
inflationary statistics are familiar territory for Kramer. In 2003, he published
an Op-Ed in the New York Times that began with the claim that "50 million
people around the world are going to die in a matter of days or months or at
the most a few years." Days? Months? Even a few years? These dire predictions
have, thankfully, not been fulfilled -- although too many people have died in
the interim. But despite being taken to task by Andrew
Sullivan for these factual errors, Kramer has only amplified them in Tragedy,
and it speaks ill of the Times and Tarcher/Penguin's standards that they
ever made it to press.
But why quibble with Kramer over these numbers? Thirty, 40, 70 million -- these
are all holocausts. Any rise in incidence rate, or even stagnation at current
levels, is troubling. That Kramer has printed these misleading statistics can
mean only one of two things: either 1) after 25 years of AIDS activism he cannot
understand simple epidemiological data; or 2) he has carefully and willfully
manipulated these figures. Since the first possibility is too loathsome to bear
let us assume the latter. Kramer's intention then is to instill a panic in his
audience, and indeed grandiose scare tactics are his preferred mode of address.
Responding to reports of the new "superbug," Kramer said, "You
can never be scared too much. Fear is the only thing that seems to work in controlling
people's suicidal, murderous behavior." I'll leave it to HIV prevention
experts to debate Kramer's vision of "safe-sex education," and simply
point out another victim of Kramer's casualness with truth: hope. "We have
lost the war against AIDS." "As of November 2, 2004, gay rights in
our country are officially dead." These kinds of proclamations, along with
manipulation of AIDS data, are symptomatic of Kramer's Cassandra complex; he
conflates the very worst possible future with the uncertain present. So intent
is he on being accurate prophet that one has to wonder whether Kramer really
intends to provoke action at all. If the apocalypse has already happened, what's
a would-be activist to do?
In this sense, Kramer leaves largely unexplored what the relationship might
be between the rightward political lurch and the state of AIDS politics and
the gay movement. Analysis is not his forte, and besides, it would mean actually
engaging the gay men and lesbians (women are conspicuously absent in Kramer's
book except as silenced "helpmates") who do the kind of "backbreaking, grinding,
unglamorous work" that he finds so commendable among the right's foot soldiers.
He might have mentioned, for example, how the Bush administration's Department
of Health and Human Services instituted new funding guidelines that make it
virtually impossible to use federal funds for explicit prevention work among
gay men, drug users and sex workers. Stop
AIDS, a San Francisco community-based prevention organization that does
exactly that, was one of the first groups defunded under this new mandate. But
for Kramer to notice what happened to Stop AIDS or the dozens of other community
organizations under threat would mean to surrender the rhetorical privilege
he has so scrupulously hoarded. It would mean leaving behind the Cassandra routine
and making contact with the "unglamorous." "But I am so very, very tired of
fighting with so few troops," Kramer laments. And so, like a general who fails
to notice that the war has long since moved on to new frontiers, Kramer keeps
beating the drums and waiting for people to show up.
writes for the Nation and other publications on AIDS, sexual politics
and popular culture. He is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at New York