Larry Kramer ‘Did Not Set Out to Be an Activist At All’

Currently working on The American People: Volume 2, the founder of ACT UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis talks about his legacy and Theatre Rhino's production of The Normal Heart.

Photo caption: [L-R] Tommy Boatwright (Morgan Lange), Ned Weeks (John Fisher), and Bruce Niles (Benoît Monin) fight the power in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, playing at San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre from Nov. 3-25.

Today, Faggots author, activist, and husband — to longtime partner, architect David Webster — Larry Kramer is 82 years old, and he feels it. Each day begins with a visit from his home caregiver, who administers shots, pills, patches, and food. The longtime HIV survivor’s doctor tells him he’s in good physical health overall, but he still suffers residual problems from a 2001 liver transplant, necessary after hepatitis B ravaged his blood-filtering vital organ. The repeated cuts into his stomach, over multiple surgeries, continue to give him problems. Those who know Kramer, know he regularly wears overalls mainly because, as he puts it, “I have a belly that has no waist that can hold up trousers, because it’s been operated on so many times.”

While Kramer makes a point to walk a couple miles every day and work out with a trainer twice a week, it’s exercising his brain and creative abilities that are most vital to the author’s well-being. “I keep busy writing, and as long as I still have all my mental facilities, I’m very grateful for that,” Kramer told SF Weekly in a recent interview. “If I couldn’t write every day, I’d just as soon not be here anymore.”

To that end, Kramer’s in the home stretch of working on a 900 to 1,000-page beast of a book: The American People: Volume 2, the sequel to 2015’s The American People: Volume 1, the author’s  satire of early U.S. history. But it’s the latest production of The Normal Heart, Kramer’s Tony-winning, semi-autobiographical dramatization of the early AIDS years — turned into an HBO film in 2014 — which plays at San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre Nov. 3-25 that he’s most eager to talk about. Kramer also lamented the lack of a gay community and looks forward to a day when academics embrace more of his work.

The Normal Heart debuted during the early years of the AIDS crisis, and it’s still running 32 years later.  Has its relevance changed over past decades?
Well, it’s interesting because Ben Brantley, in The New York Times, in reviewing the revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, after an even longer period since it opened, said about both plays that they had been one thing when they opened and are an entirely different thing now and even more meaningful for today. I feel the same thing. AIDS is still a hideous problem, and the lack of a united gay population fighting back is still a great problem, perhaps more than then. The Normal Heart deals with a lot of these things. I will say that the play never stops getting done. I’m pleased that Theatre Rhinoceros is doing it again — and, as we talk, it’s being done in 15 to 20 places around the world. So that’s one way to keep it going.

What do you want audiences to take away from The Normal Heart in its current run?
How sad and how wonderful we are. I love gay people and think we were really sold down the river and have been allowed to die. You can call that a genocide if you want, or a plague will do. But because I love gay people so much, it makes me want so much for all of us, which is why I get sad when I don’t see all of us fighting for our equality.

In this era of women’s and Black Lives Matter marches, it seems insane there’s such a “lack of a united gay population.”
Well, we weren’t all that united when we fought AIDS and there were ACT UP [the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] chapters all over the country. And considering how many gay people there were, 10, 20 million people, and with all those ACT UP chapters, there couldn’t have been more than 10,000 activists — which was a lot, but certainly not the number you would think would be out there, especially when they’re fighting for their own lives. I’ve never been able to understand why people are unwilling to fight for their own lives.

It’s the same today when we are getting dumped on, right, left, and center, with everything that’s happening with Trump and all his appointees. And I don’t see us fighting back sufficiently, forcibly, or in a big enough group. I don’t call us a community; I call us a population, a gay population, because there are so many different kinds of us, and a community makes it sound like we’re all living in the same town. Well, we’re not. But one of the saddest things in my life is seeing how so many wonderful gay people excel in so many things, except fighting for themselves. And I don’t know why.

One thing that differentiates you from a lot of people is your willingness to speak up. Where do you get your moxie from?
I think everybody has the moxie, but what I did and what I do is just say what I think. In ’81, ’82, when [AIDS was exploding], it was all my friends who were dying, so that’s pretty strong motivation, especially when you see the closeted mayor [Ed Koch] isn’t doing anything and President Reagan isn’t doing anything. So it made me pissed, which made everybody pissed, but you have to somehow let them know that, and I guess that’s what I discovered. I didn’t set out to be an activist at all. It sort of just happened, because of what happened to us. I didn’t see anybody else out there doing anything, and I was a writer, so I figured that’s what I could do about it. I could write various pieces and tried to stir things up, and then I started Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and then started ACT UP, but I don’t think I did anything that anybody else couldn’t have done. There’s no great art to being an activist. All you have to do is stand somewhere visible with a sign.

But some of the demonstrations that ACT UP pulled together were far more involved than just holding up signs. The Wall Street, General Post Office, FDA, Cosmopolitan magazine, “Stop the Church,” National Institutes of Health, and Day of Desperation demonstrations were genius examples of PR and marketing.
Well, it was New York and a lot of us worked in the theater, and I come out of the movie business, so we were putting on shows always — like Mickey and Judy, and we developed that. We realized that’s what we did and that’s how you got attention. And it was fun. ACT UP was a very moving experience, because we all came to love each other at the same time that so many of us were dying. So we had daily motivations to get out there and be angry and creative enough to whip up new ways to get attention.

You’ve written so much in your career. What are you most proud of, and what are you least proud of?
Well, I look upon all my things as my children, so I tend to have a fondness for most of the ones that are out there. The only thing I’m truly ashamed of is how I was talked into writing the musical version of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon. But in an ironic way I was paid so much money to do it, because I didn’t want to do it, and the more I said, ‘No,’ the more they offered me. And then my brother investing that money allowed me to be independently free during the ’80s and ’90s, so I didn’t have to worry about having an income. So Lost Horizon, in a way, financed Larry Kramer as a loud-mouth activist.

You’re currently working on The American People: Volume 2.  What’s in store for readers?
It’s mostly about AIDS and the plague and my version of what happened and why it happened. I have been on the front lines of this fight since the beginning, so I know where all the bodies are buried, the living ones and the dead ones, and I have very strong opinions about who allowed this plague to happen, because it was allowed to happen. I go into that in great detail, which no one has yet done. So I hope people will plow their way through it. It’s a lot. People are not used to reading books that are 2,000 pages long, but that’s what two volumes will be. I guess I will be proudest of that, because I’ve been working on it for so long.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope I will be considered a good writer and that my work will be taught in schools. The Normal Heart already is in many schools. I would like The American People taken seriously for what it is and what it intends to do with the history of homosexuality in America. I’d like to be known as a good writer and a good fighter.

The Normal Heart, Nov. 3-25, at The Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St. $15-$20; 415-255-8207 or therhino.org.

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