5 min

Larry, Larry quite contrary

This Kramer ain't no Seinfeld character

Credit: Duane Michels

Larry Kramer isa famous, respected and wealthy US writer who can’t keep his mouth shut and play nice. Kramer is best known as the author of the seminal 1978 novel Faggots, a Genet-like excursion into the sex lives of a handful of wealthy New York City homos that shocked (and still shocks) middle America – a now classic book recently praised in a prestigious American Academy Of Arts And Letters citation for its “Swiftian portrait of an all but vanished subculture.”

In the 1980s, Kramer co-founded the AIDS activist group ACT-UP and racked up awards on Broadway for his play The Normal Heart.

For nearly 30 years, Kramer has been a pre-eminent voice of gay America – and, yet, he still refuses to mellow, to adopt the pose of cautionary elder statesman, to become the gay Saul Bellow. At 67, Kramer is as cranky, outspoken and pugnacious as writers half his age.

I have to admit I delayed calling Kramer for as long as I could. Half expecting to be called a moron, or worse, by this legendary castigator – a man who has feuded with no less than novelist Edmund White, neo-con journalist Michelangelo Signorile, Yale University, news anchor Tom Brokaw and his own ACT-UP comrades, to name but a few – I finally caught up with Kramer at his home in Connecticut and found him to be as gracious on the phone as he is scathing in print.

Noblesse oblige? Hardly – Kramer’s too much of a democrat, a working man’s Gore Vidal. Besides, with his books well into multiple printings, Kramer can afford to be generous to hacks.

XTRA: Hello, Mr Kramer?

LARRY KRAMER: Larry. Yes, it’s me. Richard, right? Okay, Richard, what am I gonna do in Toronto for a whole week?

XTRA: Um, oh, there’s lots to do.

KRAMER: Sure, sure. Like what?

XTRA: I’ll get back to you on that. Let’s talk about your novel Faggots. I just finished reading it again, after having read it first in my 20s, and I have to admit I didn’t really understand the book the first time around, or didn’t have enough experience. The humour came out more this time.

KRAMER: Well, Faggots has never been out of print, so you’ve had lots of chances to go back to it over the years. And Grove Press is re-issuing everything I ever wrote, which is no mean feat for any writer. But, to your question, what I’m noticing now is that a lot more straight people are reading it than before. And people still tell me they like it. You know, I tried to back out of this Toronto gig – Is this author’s festival a big deal? – because I’m not a big traveller. But then they told me both my events are sold out, so I have to come. I’m always amazed anyone knows who I am.

XTRA: But you’ve been famous for 30 years.

KRAMER: Oh, sure. Have I?

XTRA: When I read Faggots this time, I was surprised by how much of the novel could have been written today.

KRAMER: Yes, I know. I’ve been very distressed to see all the stuff I made fun of in the late ’70s, the obsession with body type, the emphasis on money and class and superficial things, coming back into vogue. I thought after the AIDS crisis gay men would start being more mature, more thoughtful about their lives, but no. It’s very painful for me to see so many men going back to the lives that killed so many of us before. It’s as if all those people in the ’80s died in vain. I don’t see a lot of us fighting and campaigning, I see a lot of us dancing and going to the gym.

XTRA: How’s your health these days?

KRAMER: My health is great. I’m beyond excellent. I feel 45, which is great when you’re 67. I’m just lucky, I guess. I was probably infected with HIV back in the early ’80s, but I’ve never been truly sick. I never had to take the AIDS drugs until I got a liver transplant a while back.

XTRA: You recently had yourself photographed in your underwear to show people the negative effects of HIV drugs. What exactly was happening to your body?

KRAMER: The photograph was taken to show people what liver disease, caused by one of the drugs, called Epivir, did to my body. I looked like I was carrying triplets! I looked like that Demi Moore photograph, the one taken when she was pregnant, except I’m old and haggard. The Epivir makes you balloon with liquids. The drug worked fine for four years, then it turned on me.

XTRA: The last time we spoke, years ago when I was with a magazine called Lexicon, there was all kinds of talk about Barbra Streisand doing a film version of The Normal Heart….

KRAMER: Oh, there’s still lots of talk. Talk and talk and talk. There are always plans for this film – it’s the most planned non-film in the world. But nothing ever happens. Streisand had the film rights for 10 years and nothing happened, but her people still call me now and then and tell me how interested they still are, but it’s all talk. Somebody else – no names, thanks – somebody equally powerful in Hollywood, is very interested. We’ll see.

XTRA: Tell me about the Lincoln novel you’re working on.

KRAMER: It’s not a Lincoln book, per se, but that’s all anyone wants to know about. The book is called The American People: A History By Larry Kramer. I don’t really call it a novel, I call it a history, a history by me. The book is a history of the country, of the AIDS virus, of homosexuality, you name it. So far, it’s 2,500 pages long and I’ve still got a bunch of work to do.

XTRA: 2,500 pages!

KRAMER: So far. The Lincoln section is part of the homosexual history. Long before my book comes out, hopefully the author of The Homosexual Matrix, Dr CA Tripp, a distinguished retired scientist at Hopkins, will have his Lincoln biography out. Tripp is basically outing Lincoln – he’s got all the evidence and he nails it down.

XTRA: Will American school children be taught that the Great Emancipator was gay?

KRAMER: They’ll have to be. We’ll see if Lincoln’s outing helps gays and lesbians on the everyday level. I just started a program at Yale encouraging scholars to work on gay subjects. Do you know who Lewis and Clark were? The American explorers who mapped out the west? Well, Lewis was gay – he was madly in love with Clark, and he committed suicide when he couldn’t have him. And George Washington had many homosexual episodes – he was infatuated with Alexander Hamilton, who cock-teased him relentlessly. I got all this from Gore Vidal, who knows everything. Anyway, our goal at Yale is to shove this information down straight people’s throats and force them to deal with reality.

XTRA: George Bush Sr’s alma mater teaching gay revisionist history? The CIA’s going to shoot you.

KRAMER: George Bush, Jr or Sr, what a mess.

XTRA: Do you think war with Iraq is inevitable?

KRAMER: Nobody knows what to think. When does this article come out? We could be at war by then. Everybody thinks the president is crazy, that he’s obsessed with Iraq and not paying attention to the economy, which is tanking. His father did the same thing the first time around. I would hope it’s possible, in this day and age of global communication, to work out a plan, short of going to war, to bring Hussein to heal. Of course, the conservatives are better organized to promote war. The left, predictably, screams and yells and doesn’t do much else.

XTRA: Thanks for your time, Larry.

KRAMER: You still haven’t told me what I’m gonna do for a week in Toronto.

* As part of Harbourfront’s International Festival Of Authors running Wed, Oct 23 to Nov 2, June Callwood interviews Larry Kramer at 9pm on Sat, Oct 26 at the Lakeside Terrace (235 Queens Quay W). Kramer then reads with Colm Tóibín and Jean-Paul Daoust at 8pm on Wed, Oct 30 at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay W) – and yes, there are still tickets left.

* Look for Shyam Selvadurai interviewing Emma Donoghue at 8pm on Mon, Oct 21; Donoghue reads with Kathryn Harrison and Aislinn Hunter at 8pm on Sat, Oct 26. Edmund White reads with Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Restrepo and Jorie Graham as part of the Ecco Press tribute at 8pm on Fri, Nov 1; White is interviewed by Leonard McHardy at 9pm on the following Sunday. Tix for most events cost $18; call (416) 973-4000 or check out