Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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Larry Kramer and Queer Rights

Adrienne, who deserves for every single queer person in the nation to converge on her journal and thank her profusely for the full-time, weeks-long effort she put into the failed campaign to prevent Oregon's anti-same-sex-marriage amendment from being passed November 2nd, just posted a brilliant entry about the fact that, in order to win any poitical campaign, "you need a strong, vocal, well-organized force of radicals, to balance out the noisemaking of the conservatives and scare people into listening to the relatively 'safe' demands of the liberals." And about how, "We should be ambushing our opponents--surrounding them on one side with the pure unadulterated rage of radicals who want to alter the fabric of society as we know it, and on the other side with liberal queerfolk who 'just' want the right to marry. You can't have the liberal gains without the radical threat, folks. Appearing more moderate doesn't work. It just makes your opponents more confident that they can step all over you, because who's stopping them?"

In that entry, she also linked to a very long, very important speech by Larry Kramer, the 69-year-old founder of ACT-UP and author of the brilliant novel Faggots, which if you haven't already read, you should. (It has great queer by choice lines in it, too!) I hope you will read the entire speech, but since it is very long indeed, I would like to especially point out this part (which is fairly long in itself, but it's too important to cut):
Some 70 million people so far are expected to die. "July 3, 1981, Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals." When I first started yelling about whatever it was there were 41 cases. There are now over 70 million who have been infected with HIV. Somebody up there is really listening, don't you think? There is no way that all infected people can be saved. No one ever says that out loud. Have you noticed? Somehow in some dream world we are going to get treatment into 70 million people. It is never going to happen. It is too late. We told them. But they didn't do anything. Did you notice? Nobody ever does anything. I hope it's finally dawning on you that maybe they didn't and don't want to. So, in case you haven't noticed, we have lost the war against AIDS. I thought I'd tell you that, too. I hope you might have noticed. I can't tell.

The President refuses to buy generic drugs for dying people. He is still saying he is waiting to hear if they are safe. These drugs have been approved. In some cases for several years. Does this sound like a President who wants to save anyone?

I do not understand why some of you believe that because we have drugs that deal with the virus more or less effectively that it is worth the gamble to have unprotected sex. These drugs are not easy to take. There are many side effects. Not life- but certainly comfort-threatening. I must allow at least one day out of every week or two to feel really shitty, to have no sleep, to be constipated, to have diarrhea, to require blood tests and monitoring at hospitals or in doctors' offices, and to have the shakes. The shakes, which come often, are not useful with a mouse or reading a newspaper or with a lover in your arms. And I don't enjoy eating anymore. Keeping on weight is a constant problem. I have dry mouth. I get up six or seven times a night to pee. Many of the meds we are now taking are new meds and were approved quickly and side effects have a sneaky way of showing up after FDA approval, not before. I recently discovered that I was taking an FDA approved dose of Viread that has turned out to be five times the amount I actually need. We are all probably taking too much or too little of every single one of our drugs. Doctors don't want to test for this; tests are not readily available. You have to do a lot of homework yourselves on these drugs. Is a fuck without a condom worth not being able to taste food? Obviously for too many of you it is.

My lover often sits on top of me to make me eat. The first time this happened I was in the hospital just after my liver transplant and I wouldn't eat and Dr. Fung said I had to eat, or else I would die, and I just couldn't eat (do you know how strange this is to someone who was always on a diet?). It was New Year's Eve. We were in beautiful downtown Pittsburgh. David had brought a hamper filled with my favorite dishes. And I could not eat anything. Furiously he crawled into bed with me, boots and all, and started to cry. "We haven't come this far for you to die because you won't eat," he screamed, tears streaming down his face. I will never forget that. I will never forget this man I love so much in bed with me with his snowy boots on starting slowly to spoon into me whatever he'd made and I trying so desperately hard to swallow it, looking at him, this man I love so much, doing this for me, both of us now bawling our eyes out and hugging each other in this strange bed in this strange town, wondering how we got here.

It's so wonderful being a gay person. I said that before. I'm going to say it again. I love being gay. And I love gay people. I think we're better than other people. I really do. I think we're smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we're more tuned in to what's happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people's emotions, and we're better friends. I really do think all of these things. And I try not to forget them.

Since the very first day of this plague we have been given, almost as if by some cosmic intentionality, American leaders who most assuredly wish us dead. There can no longer be any way to deny this fact. Each day brings more and more acts of hatred. Tell me it is not so. Tell me that the amount of good that is being attempted is not totally and intentionally overwhelmed by the evil. Point out to me how this is not so. I cannot see it. I have been unable to see it since July 3, 1981. I thought it was because it was a tricky virus. That is what we have been told. It's a very tricky virus. I hoped for a while. But we are being played for chumps and it has been so since July 3, 1981. And we never saw it.

We of course continue to be in our usual state of total denial and disarray. Whatever structure the gay world had, if we ever had one, is gone. Our organizations stink. Almost every single one of them. I cannot think of one single gay organization that despite the best will in the world is now anything but worthless to us. Oh maybe one or two. We have no power. Nobody listens to us. We have no access to power. . . . Straight people say "my how much progress gay people are making. Isn't that Will and Grace wonderful." If it's so wonderful why am I scared to death? More and more I am filled with dread. That is my truth that I bring to you today. Larry is scared. Do you see what I see? I don't think so. Most gay people I see appear to me to act as if they're bored to death. Too much time on your hands, my mother would say. Hell, if you have time to get hooked on crystal and do your endless rounds of sex-seeking, you have too much time on your hands. Ah, you say, aren't we to have a little fun? Can't I get stoned and try barebacking one last time? Are you out of your fucking mind?! At this moment in our history, no, you cannot. Anyway, we had your fun and look what it got us into. And it is still getting us into. You kids want to die? Because that's what I sometimes think. Well, then, die.

You cannot continue to allow yourselves and each other to act and live like this!

And by the way, when are you going to realize that for the rest of your lives, probably for the rest of life on earth, you are never going to be able to have sex with another person without a condom! Never! Every time you even so much as consider this I want you to hear my voice screaming like crazy in your ears. Stop! Don't! Never! No way, Jose! Canadian scientists now warn that even partners who are both un-infected should practice safe sex. As I understand it, more and more new viruses and mutant viruses and partial viruses that are not understood are floating around. Are you ready for that one?

Does it ever occur to you how much you have been robbed by both your country and your behavior? America let the men who should have carved out a space for you in the social discourse, the development of your history and being, America let these men who should have been your role models die. So there is this big empty space in which you live. And you don't know where to go or how to fill it in. This is not my original thought but Michael Brown's of the NYU gay student organizations that helped to bring me here, who gave me this to think about. It is sad for a young gay person to feel this way. . . .

Every single president since 1981 has denied our existence and denied the existence of AIDS. And we let them get away with it. Oh a few thousand of us fought for the drugs that we got but many millions of us did nothing and of course an enormous number of them died. They died because they lost their health along their journey of non-involvement and their lack of responsibility to their brothers and sisters. Instead of learning from this lesson, you are repeating it. And you are acting like this with your health intact, many of you, which strikes me as even more perverse than what your dead predecessors did to destroy themselves.

Does it occur to you that we brought this plague of AIDS upon ourselves? 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. And you are still doing it. You are still murdering each other. Please stop with all the generalizations and avoidance excuses gays have used since the beginning to ditch this responsibility for this fact. 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. Make whatever excuses you can to carry on living in your state of denial but this is the fact of the matter. 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. Don't tell me you have never had sex without thinking down deep that there was more involved in what you were doing than just maintaining a hard-on.

I have recently gone through my diaries of the worst of the plague years. I saw day after day a notation of another friend's death. I listed all the ones I'd slept with. There were a couple hundred. Was it my sperm that killed them, that did the trick? It is no longer possible for me to avoid this question of myself. Have you ever wondered how many men you killed? I know I murdered some of them. I just know. You know how you sometimes know things? I know. Several hundred over a bunch of years, I have to have murdered some of them, planting in him the original seed. I have put this to several doctors. Mostly they refuse to discuss it, even if they are gay. Most doctors do not like to discuss sex or what we do or did. (I still have not heard a consensus on the true dangers of oral sex, for instance.) They play blind. God knows what they must be thinking when they examine us. Particularly if they aren't gay. One doctor answered me, it takes two to tango so you cannot take the responsibility alone. But in some cases it isn't so easy to answer so flippantly. The sweet young boy who didn't know anything and was in awe of me. I was the first man who fucked him. I think I murdered him. The old boyfriend who did not want to go to bed with me and I made him. The man I let fuck me because I was trying to make my then boyfriend, now lover, jealous. I know, by the way, that that other one is the one who infected me. You know how you sometime know things? I know he infected me. I tried to murder myself on that one.

Has it never, ever occurred to you that not using a condom is tantamount to murder? I cannot believe you have never considered this. It is such a simple and intelligent thought to have. And we all should have had it from day one. Why didn't we? That has been haunting me for a while, that question. Why didn't we? It is incredibly selfish not to have at least thought that question at that moment, all those moments when we were playing Russian roulette.

. . . For a few brief years we had some noble moments, of togetherness and anger and progress. Not many of us, mind you. If you are still alive, you know who you were and where you were during those worst years of our mass murder. You know what you did and what you didn't. And I know too. I know that most of you, should you still be alive, didn't do a goddamned thing. In fact, you were ashamed of us, many of you were. I remember that as well as I remember those who died. "Friends" crossing the street to avoid me because I was advising cooling it. I was actually told to not come back to Fire Island Pines. Lots of people come up to me now on the street and say, thank you for what you did for us. I do not consider that a compliment. My response quite often's been a curt Fuck You, why aren't you doing it too! I don't do anything that anyone else couldn't do. I just do it, and some 10 or 15,000 other people did it too then. And the rest of you sat on your asses. And, those of you who are still alive, know who you were and how little you did.

Yes for one brief moment in time we got angry. Correction, a few of us got angry. Of all our many many millions of gay people in this country, about 10,000 of us or so got angry enough to accomplish something. We got drugs. We got AIDS care. We got enough so we could continue fucking again. That in the end is what it amounted to. As soon as we got the drugs, you went right back to what got us into such trouble in the first place. What is wrong with us? The cabal can't believe their good fortune.

How many gay people in America in those years of AIDS? Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million? How many of us are there now? We don't even know how many of us there are! Or how many we lost! And every time some statistical number is released by some faceless organization or government office, I always wonder: how the fuck do they know how many of us there are when we don't even know how many of us there are? And none of our so-called gay organizations ever bothers to find out. It would be nice to know, helpful to know. Don't you think?

You know, it isn't meant to be easy, life. I don't know why it isn't meant to be easy, but it just isn't, so we might as well get used to it and try to find things that give us a certain sense of pride. We must create ourselves as something we can live with. It takes energy, yes. Why are we so crippled intellectually? Oh, we study sexuality and gender stuff until it comes out of every university's asshole but we don't study history, who we were and where we came from and our roots, the wellsprings of our historical existence. We do not honor our dead as we do not honor ourselves. We continue without surcease to be and remain, endlessly, day after day, helpless victims. "In my country when they raise the bus fares, we burn the buses," a Brazilian journalist said to me as she watched a
sparsely attended ACT-UP demonstration.
It is an amazing thing that Larry Kramer has lived to be 69 years old. He sounds very exhausted, fed up to the point of a cynicism that I think at some points in his speech, when he generalizes about all queer people not doing enough for queer rights nowadays, becomes so harsh as to be unfair and potentially counterproductive. But he surely has more than earned the right to be exhausted and fed up. How many years has he been living every day with the knowledge of imminent death tangibly felt in his body, the continuing failure of the government to do some of the things that it could to stop the spread of this death, the already finalized deaths of a couple hundred of his closest friends/lovers/acquaintances/activist colleagues, and the guilt for having been the most immediate cause of their deaths? And not just passively living with this knowledge, either, not by a long shot, but actively fighting as hard as any person has to do something about it.

I think Larry Kramer is wrong about some things. I think he's wrong about how bad the situation is, how universal apathy is among younger queer people, and about his generation of queer men having failed to pass the baton to younger queer people due to being dead. To some extent, yes, the fact that so many queer men died did profoundly rob us of years of activist work those men would have done for queer rights. But there are also enough left alive like him, and even enough who wrote down their thoughts before dying, that I do not feel we've all been deprived of older queer male role models. Actually, in my personal life, I've always found older queer male role models a lot more readily available to me than queer female ones. Certainly the queer by choice baton was very much passed to me by Frank Aqueno, and despite the fact that the cruelty of his later behavior toward me three years ago transformed what was formerly the deepest gratitude toward him into mostly cold contempt (wow, this is the first year that the anniversary of the anniversary of our friendship-severance has passed without my noticing the day . . . it was November 3rd, so I had good reason to be distracted this year), I did gain a much stronger sense of history and connection with his generation of queers, or at least his generation of queer men, than I would otherwise have had. He was an ACT-UP member, he marched with Larry Kramer, he saw half his friends and lovers die of AIDS too. I spoke to him for about four hours a week on AIM every week for two years. He's 62 years old now, same generation as Larry Kramer, miraculously uninfected. I guess I'm more unusual than I usually realize, in having spent that many hours talking to a queer person that much older than me. I recommend it. Not with Frank - I recommend against Frank - but with someone that age who is queer. I think Larry Kramer's right about the importance of having a sense of queer history, not just in the abstract ancient past, but on the level of individuals and in the time period when we were already born but too young to be involved.

I think, however, that Larry Kramer's (and many other people's) apocalyptic interpretations of the exit polls' "moral values" findings are excessively pessimistic. There is plenty of homophobia out there, certainly, but I think this article analyzed the "moral values" poll results a lot better than anything else I've seen:
Early in the evening on election night, network anchors noticed that the number one issue to voters was something called "moral values," not jobs and the economy, not terrorism, not Iraq. It remains the most fruitless obsession of pundits in last Tuesday's wake. Dick Meyer, writing at the CBS News website, put the matter into perspective as a bit of poll-craft: "While the nexus of issues boiled into the words 'moral values' certainly were a big factor in this election, it's being exaggerated... partly because the Big Theory conforms with what Republican strategists want you to believe. If the poll had been worded or constructed only slightly differently, moral values would not have been the top issue....

"If, for example, one of the issues on the list was a combined 'terrorism and Iraq,' it would have been the top concern of 34 percent of the electorate and nobody would be talking about moral values. If 'taxes, jobs and the economy' was on the list as one item instead of two, it would have been the topper at 25 percent. If, say, abortion rights, gay marriage and moral values were all on the list separately, the numbers would be very different."
In other words: yes, there are plenty of people who hate us, and that's why we need to get angry and organize to do something about it just like Larry Kramer said - but I think we can, I don't think it's as hopeless as it might at first appear to be. (Plenty of other things about the world still appear to be hopeless to me, but queer rights is one of the few that seems less hopeless to me than it's seemed in the past.) We need to organize for ourselves, for each other, for those who will come after us, for those who came before us, for anyone who's ever loved anyone else enough to sit on top of them in snowy boots spooning food down their throat when they're too sick to bring themselves to eat, keeping them alive like David Webster kept Larry Kramer alive.

Something else Larry Kramer said in that speech: "It is 25 years since 100,000 of us marched on Washington." How about we do something about that? All we need is one person setting up a decent website to organize it, and the rest of us can circulate the URL until people start pledging to show up. I'd start the website myself, but 75,000 of "us" would probably refuse to attend if they found out what my other website is, and anyway I don't do a good enough job keeping that one up to date so I have no business imagining I could do a good enough job of maintaining two of them. Someone should, though. Yes, there are plenty of other even worse issues we need to be dealing with too, but I see no reason whatsoever to assume that 100,000 queers marching on Washington wouldn't also bring a fair number of signs protesting the deaths of Iraqis, the withholding of health care, the pollution-induced melting of the Arctic ice cap, the forcing of children to be born unwanted and of women to give birth to children they don't want, violence against women and children and queers and black people and anybody who belongs to any non-dominant group, the failure to invest in alternative energy sources to avert peak-oil-induced mass starvation, and the fact that 75% of black men in Washington D.C. are jailed at least once by age 35. Sure, a lot of the 100,000 queers would be ignorant of those issues, but 100,000 queers is enough queers for there to be a fair number of signs carried by very politically aware people. Provided, I mean, that the march wasn't organized by some stupid group like the HRC who evilly suppress all indications of radicalism or multi-issue-ism or interest in anything whatsoever other than getting docile gender-conforming born-that-way-declaring Republican-voting Euro-American homos a slightly bigger slice of the capitalist pie. Provided, in other words, that the march was organized by an independent human being like one of you. Or several of you, organizing with each other, but not organizing as pawns of the HRC. Anyone up for it?

Oh, and there are lots of smaller things you can do, too. Like signing MoveOn.org's petition calling for an investigation of electoral fraud. (Thanks, lavendertook, for that.)
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