Larry Kramer at Cooper Union says AIDS, gay rights battles lost
In a speech that tied the fight against HIV and the struggle for gay rights to the broader resistance against a now-dominant American right wing, playwright and longtime AIDS activist Larry Kramer painted a gloomy picture of the queer community’s future and offered little to the audience of 1,000 that they could do to change that future.
A central theme in the nearly 90-minute speech was that the right wing has for decades mounted an organized and well-funded effort to roll back many of the social advances of the 20th century. Part of that campaign includes reversing any gains made by the queer community and stopping any further ones.
HIV has proved a useful tool for the right, in Kramer’s view.
“You want to know why AIDS was allowed to happen,” Kramer said during the November 7 speech that was delivered at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. “This is your answer. You want to know why gay people have no power and are unlikely to get any. This is your answer.”
Throughout the speech, Kramer referred to a “cabal” that he said was carrying out this campaign and that had been designed in 1971 by Lewis Powell who was that same year named to the U.S. Supreme Court by Pres. Richard Nixon.
While the 69-year-old Kramer may have been overly specific—and speculative—about when such plans were hatched and who created them, it is certainly true that America’s right wing is intent on curtailing the scope of many social programs that were created in the 20th century, including proposals on school vouchers, privatizing social security and limiting welfare benefits.
The right is also intent on rolling back many of the workplace, environmental and regulatory schemes that have benefited both consumers and labor.
In Kramer’s view, the gay male community has been complicit in this campaign by allowing HIV to spread in its ranks. The disease crippled the community and rendered it unable to fight the right, in his view.
“Does it occur to you that we brought this plague of AIDS upon ourselves?” Kramer said. “I know I am getting into dangerous waters here, but it is time. With the cabal breathing even more murderously down our backs, it is time.”
Gay men were “murdering each other” when they had sex without condoms in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and they continue that behavior, Kramer said.
“You are still murdering each other,” he said. “From the very first moment we were told in 1981 that the suspected cause was a virus, gay men have refused to accept our responsibility for choosing not to listen, and, starting in 1984, when we were told it definitely was a virus, this behavior turned murderous… I wish we could understand and take some responsibility for the fact that for some 30 years we have been murdering each other with great facility and that down deep inside of us, we knew what we were doing.”
AIDS did what the “cabal” could not do, he argued.
“Their wildest dreams then started to come true,” Kramer said. “The faggots were disappearing and they were doing it to themselves.”
Kramer said that the epidemic has only grown worse and the prospects for changing that are not good.
“Some 70 million people so far are expected to die,” he said. “There is no way that all infected people can be saved… It is never going to happen. It is too late… So, in case you haven’t noticed, we have lost the war against AIDS.”
Kramer again faulted the gay male community. While a few community members fought for anti-HIV drugs and health care for people with AIDS, most returned to having unsafe sex once those things had been achieved, he maintained.
“As soon as we got the drugs, you went right back to what got us into such trouble in the first place,” he said. “The cabal can’t believe their good fortune.”
In Kramer’s view, there is little the community can do about HIV. He did not mention HIV prevention efforts and seemed to say that all that was left to the community was to exhort its members to behave themselves.
“It takes hard work to behave like an adult, it takes discipline,” Kramer said. “Grow up. Behave responsibly. Fight for your rights. Take care of yourself and each other. These are the answers.”
Kramer was equally despairing about the possibility for legal advances for the lesbian and gay community.
“I hope we all realize that, as of November 2, gay rights are officially dead,” he said. “The new Supreme Court, due any moment now, will erase us from the slate of everything possible in no time at all. Gay marriage? Forget it. Gay anything, forget it… The only thing we are going to get from now on is years of increasing and escalating hate.”
Kramer’s rhetoric is usually hyperbolic and gloomy. He typically includes some softer lines and he did that again on November 7 when he said repeatedly, “I love being gay. I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do.”
He has also usually used his bleak world view as a goad to get his audience to take action. He specifically rejected action in this latest speech.
“I know some of you will immediately jump up to act,” he said. “I caution rushing off to form anything quite so fast until we decide how we want to deal with what I have raised tonight.”
The questioning that followed the speech was chaotic as partisans in the audience tended to shout down anyone they felt too harshly criticized Kramer.
One 28-year-old, Brendan Keane, saw Kramer’s speech as almost entirely negative.
“The energy of the community has been expended on the disillusionment of one person,” he said before catcalls from the audience made it impossible for him to continue. Keane was angered by what he saw as attacks against younger, gay men by Kramer.
Following the speech, Keane described Kramer as a “disillusioned icon” in an interview with Gay City News.
“I don’t think that he has inspired a community,” Keane said.