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Standing on Larry Kramer’s Lawn

In a very recent interview to promote the revival of his play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer accuses young gay men today of not caring about their history. Thomas Rogers challenges Kramer’s suggestion that lack of concern for history is unique to this generation, and offers his own experience to indicate that youth’s ignorance isn’t necessarily willful.

What’s surprising is that Kramer, who has a history of accusing people they don’t care about gay history, seems to get Rogers’ message, and the interview becomes an interesting and (kind of) endearing conversation about such macro-yet-micro topics as marriage equality and the difficulty older gay men face finding sex partners. And there’s a fascinating exchange about Kramer’s ongoing feud with Ed Koch, who lives in his building. Clearly, Kramer holds grudges, and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his famous anger stems from his personality rather than injustice. But I sense there’s more to him, that maybe he’s not simply shouting at the youth of today (read: anyone younger than he is) to get off his lawn.

The problem with gay men today, Kramer and Rogers come to agree, is that we currently lack a widespread life-or-death problem like HIV/AIDS was in the early 80s. Kramer remarks that there was a “special glow of importance” during that time, and Rogers says that, after seeing Kramer’s play, he felt a “perverse nostalgia for those early AIDS years [I] never lived through. They were obviously utterly terrifying and filled with sadness, but there’s also something appealing about having this galvanizing issue to unite gay men. We don’t have that as much now.”

This kind of myth is common and powerful, and not just in the LGBT community: Once upon a time, our group (pick any group) had a common enemy, and we united to fight it/them. We worked hard. We didn’t fight among ourselves. Life was beautiful then, but now, we’re a mess. The distance created by elapsed time or lack of firsthand experience really fucks with people’s depth perception.

I have some firsthand knowledge of those days that time hasn’t let me forget. I remember a lot of confusion and pain. We worried about stopping the spread of infection, although we weren’t sure that HIV was really the cause of AIDS. We resented that no one in the mainstream seemed to give a shit about the disease until kids became infected through transfusions.

Those of us not at the head of the movement who hadn’t had the resources and/or cowardice to flee mid-size cities or rural areas, lacked the “special glow of importance” Kramer recalls. We just wanted to keep our friends from dying. We wanted the luxury of taking them for granted rather than savoring every mundane moment in case it was the last.

Far from there being a glow, we lived in a shadow of suspicion of everyone, straight and queer, as if no amount of prophylaxis or abstinence would prevent us from contracting the disease. We struggled to push away the belief that we were worthless faggots who deserved to die.

To be fair, I suspect my own anger (it’s a reflex) is causing me to misread Kramer’s comments, at least in part. He and other activists did what needed to be done to save lives, including their own. Their actions were heroic, especially because their goal was survival, not legacy. But we don’t need another golden age of suffering to galvanize our efforts, or at least I hope we don’t. There’s enough shit going down right now. Although there are many issues, for those who care to pay attention, the themes are pretty easy to boil down: inequality and violence, both of which need to be stopped. With those common threads, we should be able to weave together the various petition drives, fundraisers, advertising campaigns, awards shows, and other activities going on within the sprawling movement.

There are some great activists today who are invested for the right reasons, living and breathing the work, and they keep moving us along. Overall, though, activism today does ring a little hollow. I think we have too many quasi-activists who spend most of their time and energy updating their résumés. I’m talking about people at every level, from those who make far too much money sucking off Congress and Hollywood all the way down to the whiny, privileged college grads who will show up an rallies but are reluctant to make waves by standing up for their rights in their workplaces or their families.

For the quasi-activist, the label “activist” is like pre-distressed denim, exposed brick, and other fashionable signs of time and effort that require no work on the consumer’s part. These folks great at putting on airs to promote their careers as writers and performers and consultants, their businesses, or their egos, but are they getting anything done?

Yes, I’m passing judgment, but please don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. You surely know one or two people who have “activist” emblazoned on their web sites and surely spent more time selecting the font than living the meaning of the word. Are they driven to do more than sell themselves? Did they put anything on the line when they came out or since? Will their work help queer kids feel better about themselves? Do they actually know any young people? Is their activism more than words, and if not, do they at least have an audience? Do they even write to their legislators?

We have visibility. We’re gaining public opinion. It’s time to hold our allies and legislators and bosses and selves accountable. We need activists who are willing to do boring, necessary work. The work we need to do today is more nuanced than in the past, and every one of us who wants to live openly needs to take part. All of us need to play activist, with a lowercase “a.” It’s that simple.

Do it, or get the fuck off my lawn.

3 Responses

  1. Great post.

    Great line: “You surely know one or two people who have “activist” emblazoned on their web sites and surely spent more time selecting the font than living the meaning of the word.”

    So you. (Said with love.)

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