Metro Weekly

An Angry Heart

As ''The Normal Heart'' gets a reading in the D.C. area, its author, Larry Kramer, talks about what's missing from gay activism

Larry Kramer, with his dog Charley, in his Manhattan home

Larry Kramer, with his dog Charley, in his Manhattan home

(Photo by Chris Geidner)

Since the publication of Faggots in 1978, Larry Kramer has been speaking truth – as he sees it – to power.

What’s more unusual, Kramer has been telling his uncomfortable truths to those who, like him, claim to be fighting that power.

Kramer, 76, is comfortable making others uncomfortable. Anger, he says in his cluttered, book-filled apartment off Washington Square Park in Manhattan, is ”a wonderfully healthy emotion.”

Although Faggots brought him attention, it was a few years later, as he began to witness the devastation of the strange disease that would become known as AIDS, that Kramer became an immovable object in a then-radical resistance that began with the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. GMHC begat his play, The Normal Heart, which debuted at The Public Theater in the East Village in 1985. That play begat the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP.

The Normal Heart‘s story of an unrelentingly aggressive activist who is fighting for research, drugs and community activism in the face of a new illness that is killing gay men is Kramer’s story. Kramer’s sequel to The Normal Heart, The Destiny of Me, opened off-Broadway in 1992 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993.

D.C. is Kramer’s hometown – he went to Woodrow Wilson High School – but The Normal Heart has never been staged in the area, despite several attempts to do so.

Following a Broadway staging of the play that received the 2011 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, The Normal Heart finally is coming to the D.C. area for a staged reading on Nov. 7 by Forum Theatre Company in residence at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring.

As talk of a movie – helmed by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy – and a national tour of the Broadway revival make headlines, Kramer says the play that was once a ”cry of alarm” is now a story of ”our history.”

That doesn’t mean that Kramer sees much progress for gay people in the more than 30 years since he wrote Faggots. And, he’s sorry to say, he doesn’t see much happening in the near future – both because of what he sees as the apathy of ”the gay community,” and because he sees the ”enemy” as recognizing that apathy and willing to put the time and money into stopping equality advancements.

But at least there is the play.

METRO WEEKLY: It has to be amazing to see The Normal Heart back in circulation.

LARRY KRAMER: It just came out of the blue. Joel Grey had arranged a benefit reading here. It sold out and was very well cast and directed, and everyone was just dumbfounded by how current it seemed to be. From the very first line, ”I know there’s something wrong,” you could hear a pin drop for the rest of the night.

Daryl Roth, who’s a very powerful Broadway producer, was there, and she said, ”I’m going to take this to Broadway.” And she did. And that’s what got us going again, and it’s been like that ever since. It’s an unreal experience to have a play come back so powerfully so many years later, almost as if it was new.

MW: To a lot of people, it is completely new.

KRAMER: That’s the thing, we wanted young people to see it. When we first opened, the older gays who we thought might come didn’t. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve learned from previous productions that gays are not always the best supporters of gay art, of gay writers. They just aren’t.

It was Daryl’s idea to get the youngsters in. If they could prove they were 30 or under, she’d sell them a ticket for $30. And they started coming. And they started telling their friends, and their friends. So the audiences were very young, which was wonderful. And they didn’t have any preconceived notions about anything. It was all new to them. They were amazed, because they didn’t know all of this.

MW: When you think of the clarion call that you provided in the ’80s, when nobody wanted to hear it –

KRAMER: Well, it’s history now. It’s not so much a message play.

MW: How do you want those ”under 30” people to see it?

KRAMER: As I said at the speech I gave at the Tonys, this is our history. We must know our history. And I think people come to that now and see it as that. It’s a different play than it was when it was first done in [1985]. Then, it was meant to be a clarion call, as you say, a cry of alarm. And everybody thought it was very agitprop, a term I came to loathe. And now it’s seen as a play, and critics are – what’s been especially nice to me – responding to the quality of the writing. People always overlooked that because the stuff that I write about is so political. Somehow, for most critics, that doesn’t seem to go hand in hand. It drives me nuts. I work very hard on my writing.

MW: People want to know, what’s the movie status?

KRAMER: The movie is being prepared. Mark Ruffalo is supposed to play Ned Weeks. Ryan Murphy is directing it and I’ve written the screenplay. I know he wants Julia Roberts to be the doctor, and I know we both want Jim Parsons to repeat his performance as Tommy. I just assume we’re going to shoot next summer, but I haven’t heard that from him. But I know he seems to be revving up somehow.

MW: That would be good.

KRAMER: It’s about time.

MW: What about the fact that The Normal Heart has never been produced in your hometown, in D.C.?

KRAMER: Well, you know the old expression: ”You can’t hit a homer in your own hometown.” A little is that. Zelda Fichandler didn’t like the play, and she was running Arena [Stage] then. So, that was that there. And [Studio Theatre’s] Joy Zinoman took it on, and proceeded to fire the director that I had given it to without consulting with me. She found some unknown and I wouldn’t go along with that. And Roger Stevens, who was running Kennedy Center, didn’t like the play and wouldn’t allow it to be done there.

MW: You said that you’re hoping to take the Broadway production on tour.

KRAMER: Well, it’s more than that. Daryl Roth has been the most amazing producer anyone could ever work with. She’s just in love with this play, and she pledged to me that she would take it on tour and that she would get it done in England. And she’s working toward both of those. It’s hard to arrange tours, because theaters are booked way in advance. And George C. Wolfe, who’s going to direct it, doesn’t want to go into a big theater. He wants to go into a moderate-sized theater. Daryl will find it. She’s just that kind of a producer.

Talks are pretty far advanced in Washington. I won’t tell you where or how, but we want it done when the International AIDS Conference is there [from July 22 to July 27, 2012]. So that’s the goal, and I believe it will happen.

And then she and Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, are working to set it up in London.

MW: Would you come down for the hometown staging?

KRAMER: I might. If it’s the first run on the tour, I probably will. George is the most wonderful director I’ve ever worked with, so I’d be happy to see what he does again. He’s just a genius. He directed the Broadway production.

MW: Turning to current politics, you made a splash talking about what, actually, all of the organizations were already talking about: the value of state marriage equality and the reason why there are all these federal lawsuits challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. And now Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has filed a lawsuit challenging military spousal benefits – saying that spousal benefits need to be equal for same-sex married couples in the military.

KRAMER: Good for them. There’s just so many fights. I’m sort of surprised that Boies and Olson – they did such unbelievable work, and that somehow it’s being held to ransom by the financiers of all these suits that keep the enemy at our door so assiduously. All they do is file lawsuits, and that’s going to go on forever. Wherever we win, they’re going to come in and sue. I don’t know what it takes to make the Supreme Court do its job properly. They’re probably happy that they don’t have to worry about it yet. So we’re caught in this terrible situation. I’m not the only one saying that.

MW: You look at the ’70s, when Faggots came out, the devastation of the ’80s, and then you see wedding cakes in New York this summer. What sort of a path is that? Is it a coherent path, is it just that history happens?

KRAMER: Are you looking for patterns?

MW: What’s the long view?

KRAMER: Take it a day at a time.

I remember in ACT UP, everything was so bad all the time that we just sort of had to make it up as we went along, what we were going to do. Because today’s emergency wasn’t necessarily tomorrow’s emergency, or the other way around. People who were in one job one day weren’t there the next, and you were constantly having to educate people.

People always ask me, ”What was it like?” I don’t look back. I look to today and to what we still have to do in the days to come. What we achieved in the past has always been haphazard and more often by luck than by skill.

We’re still a leaderless population. The same things I’ve complained about since the beginning have not been rectified in any way.

I know that there’s a lot more sympathy for Obama than I’m prepared to show him. We still haven’t got these things, you know. I don’t consider ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” some major victory. It’s a small, dishonest political move that Clinton did to enchain us, and it’s been unknotted. But it’s for a very small percentage of us. Everybody acts as if it’s a major thing for all of us, and it isn’t. And he knows that. It’s been a small gift he’s given us to throw us a bone. The big gifts, he’s not giving us – no one’s giving us. And that hurts. I don’t see that changing.

MW: What do you see as the big gifts?

KRAMER: Equality, pure and simple. From the Supreme Court. That we’re allowed to get married, for a start, and get all the benefits that straight people get. That’s it. That’s the whole megillah, as the Jews say.

Anyway, we do not have equality. That’s what the Bill of Rights says we’re entitled to. That’s what the Constitution says we’re entitled to. And we don’t have it. I don’t see us getting it for a while, quite frankly, because the other side is willing to spend too much money to see that we don’t get it. The Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, primarily, have very deep pockets to see that we don’t get it. And they’ve learned this tactic that I don’t think any of us saw coming, which is that the minute we win, find something to sue. Tie it up in the courts. And they can tie ’em up in courts until we’re all dead. It’s pathetic.

MW: Do you think that’s more a failure of LGBT leadership or of mainstream leadership, or whatever you want to call it?

KRAMER: At the height of the Holocaust, when Jews were being shoveled into the ovens by the trainload, a great woman by the name of Hannah Arendt, who was a political philosopher – Jewish, obviously, and German – said, in essence, to all of the Jews in the world, ”Why are you allowing this to happen? Where is your army?” She thought the Jews should actually have their own army, which was an unbelievable thing for a woman to say. And, in essence, she was saying, ”You brought all this on yourselves. You get what you deserve. You’re not fighting back. And you’ve never fought back, ever, in your whole history.” And I say that about us, too. People don’t want to hear it.

Where are the ACT UPs today? Where are the anti-Vietnam [War] demonstrations of such amazing numbers today? This business with Wall Street is fine. I view it as rather disorganized, and I’m glad they’re able to keep it together for so long. I don’t hear what the demands are that are being met. The banks aren’t folding up and going out of business.

I never understood why so few of us are willing to fight. At the height of the AIDS plague, from ’91 to ’96 when it was really awful – with how many millions of gay people, 10 [million], 20 [million], who the fuck knows how many, but a lot – there were no more than maybe 5,000 or 6,000 people in various ACT UP chapters around the country or in California with Project Inform who were willing to fight for their lives. I’ve never been able to understand that. So few of us were willing to fight to get those drugs. We got those drugs. ACT UP got those drugs. They’re not there for any other reason.

And, now, all these people who want to get married so badly, where are the demonstrations? All these people who are married, don’t they know that marriage is what I call a ”feel-good” marriage – doesn’t provide anything except nice, warm feelings? That seems to me to be cowardly – a cowardly evasion of the truth.

We’re all in an enormous state of denial somehow – and we continue to be. And it doesn’t get any better.

MW: Did you think the Get Equal White House protests about ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were something like what you’re describing?

KRAMER: Get Equal is something that was very well meaning that just seemed to come and go. It was well financed by a very rich man, but I didn’t see it drawing the kind of support or troops that it needed. I don’t know why activism is so scarce now.

MW: Do you even consider something like the Human Rights Campaign to be activism?

KRAMER: I think HRC is the dregs. I think it’s the toilet of the gay movement.

MW: So, you have no opinion of HRC?

KRAMER: [Laughs.]

MW: That’s a criticism leveled against them by people – maybe not in those exact terms – but, why?

KRAMER: What more can be said? I find them useless, and I find them perpetuating con jobs on all of us. Ass-kissers extraordinaire.

MW: One can criticize things that they do, but then, things like the hospital visitation memo, which might not matter….

KRAMER: What is the hospital visitation memo? We’ve been able to visit people in the hospital almost since the beginning. It was never a big problem here – ‘

MW: Maybe not here [in New York City], but it was in Florida, where Janice Langbehn wasn’t allowed in to see her partner as she died. I grew up in Ohio, I can certainly see places there where a gay couple wouldn’t be allowed to see each other. I feel like, at some point, things that might seem ”past” for people in New York, California, D.C., have more relevance in other areas of the country that have anti-gay marriage amendments in their constitutions and it’s going to be a long time going before they get to the place where New York is.

KRAMER: I think we should have learned by now that this “pebble at a time” attempt to make right is just that. They’re pebbles. We need bricks. Until we’re ready to throw bricks, we’re not going to get anywhere. You can name any kinds of wonderful things [HRC has] done, but they still have not changed the basic problem: We are not equal. We do not have equality. They do not look at the big picture, they look at the small picture. As does every other gay person, who is just happy to go home at night and go back into their state of denials.

It’s a very, very passive population, and that is our great tragedy. I love being gay, I love gays. It hurts me to say this. These are all lessons that I’ve learned painfully since 1981, but until we learn to fight back we get what we deserve.

MW: If you had those troops today, what would you do?

KRAMER: We have the troops, and we did it.

MW: But what would today’s mission be?

KRAMER: Same thing. You go after the enemy. You organize yourself, and you divide up what you have to attack, and you go after it. It’s no mystery.

ACT UP, at its height in New York, had 1,500 members. We had so many committees going after so many pressure points in getting us these drugs, in getting us this research. There were meetings that you could go to every night, seven nights a week. We were organized, and we were smart. And we got it. We had the smart ones figuring out the strategy, and we had the street troops. The good cop/bad cop. Every corporation works that way. The street troops were there to protest, to show you that we mean business. The strategy is being figured out and being delivered to them at their committee meetings, saying, ”We want this, or else.”

No big mystery. If there’s 20 million of us, that’s 20 million soldiers. When we get angry enough that we don’t have what we deserve, when we get angry enough that the taxes we pay don’t get us what they get everyone else, then maybe we’ll do something about it. I don’t see that happening. So, therefore, we stay like we are, and leave it to the HRCs of the world to pick up the tiny pebbles.

It’s not a mysterious process. It’s called visibility, anger, unity. We don’t have that.

MW: We definitely don’t have unity.

KRAMER: Name me one gay leader. Who have we got? I don’t see anybody. I don’t hear anybody saying what I’m saying to the extent that I’m saying it. Where is a gay leader that people can hear? We’ve never been able to birth him or her.

The few good ones we’ve had in the past – [former National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Executive Director] Ginny Apuzzo, [former Human Rights Campaign Fund co-chair] Vivian Shapiro, [former NGLTF Executive Director] Urvashi Vaid, interestingly all women – have all, in the end, given up in despair. My friend Rodger McFarlane committed suicide out of despair for all of this, after having built three wonderful organizations – tried to bring them all together, tried to make everyone work with each other, called all the leaders into Washington to meet and stop backbiting. It doesn’t happen. And, I guess, my saying all this just depresses everybody into doing less.

MW: You don’t see the birth of a perfect leader who would pull everybody together?

KRAMER: I wish I could. I wish I would make enough people angry enough to do something. I mean, ACT UP was anger. ACT UP was made out of anger and fear. I happen to think anger is a wonderfully healthy emotion. Until you have anger and fear, you don’t have any kind of an activist movement.

MW: Do you think that pebbles – to continue your metaphor – actually decrease the fear?

KRAMER: I think the drugs decrease the fear, not the pebbles. Suddenly, we weren’t all going to die. And, so you can go back into your state of denial instead of realizing that how we got those drugs should lead us to the next step, building on what we were able to accomplish. That’s where organizations like GMHC have fallen down. When Paul Popham and I started the organization, we hoped that its future would be very different, that it would become an advocate for gay health, that we would work with getting recognition and insurance and all kinds of things. It didn’t happen. I guess I haven’t got much good to say about anything today, and I’m sorry.

MW: But there are accomplishments, there are changes.

KRAMER: I don’t look to the past, I look to the future. I used to have this fight with Frank Kameny all the time, who had to constantly be congratulated about all the wonderful things that had been done because of him, instead of looking at the things that still hadn’t been done.

I would criticize the past for not giving us the future, and, of course, he’s the one that gave us the past in his eyes so he would get mad at me and say, ”Look at how much we’ve accomplished.” Well, I don’t think we’ve accomplished all that much. I really don’t.

MW: You don’t see gay lives as being lived differently, more openly, more successfully than they were 30 years ago?

KRAMER: A lot of that is because the culture has provided that for everybody. It’s not for anything we can take credit for. I think we want to take credit for it – ”Look how far we’ve come” – but we didn’t do much to get there. More of us are here, more of us are out, because that’s the nature of life today, for all minorities.

We still are treated like shit, and we still aren’t equal. So, if you want to look at that as how far we’ve come, be my guest. I just won’t join you.

I’m glad my play’s out there. That’s nice. I just want people to see what I’m talking about. People come out of this play crying, saying, ”What can I do? What can I do?” Well, the play tells you what you can do — but I don’t see you doing it.

Read about Forum Theatre’s staged reading of “The Normal Heart.”

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