I didn’t know Larry Kramer. So my memories of him are public ones and not unique to me. But one memory has and will always stand out for me. It was an evening live network TV interview. Perhaps it was Nightline or maybe it was some show on CNN. It was an interview via satellite hook-up rather than in-studio. It was at the earliest in the late 90s, probably in the first decade of this century. The key is that Kramer was already a relatively old man and it was after the point when HIV/AIDS had become, at least in the United States, a largely manageable chronic disease rather than a near-term death sentence.
At the close of the interview, the host asks Kramer what he’d learned about people during his decades of activism. This, as you know, is a set-up for a classic TV set-piece moment in which the guest reflects on the human condition and finds some redeeming anecdote about how people are really good after all, some closing note that brings the whole story together. Kramer said he’d learned how “shitty” people could be to each other and how “shitty” people really could be. He used that word which was of course a no-no on TV in the first place.
It was jarring, hilarious, a bit or maybe more than a bit uncomfortable – in other words, very Larry Kramer. The interviewer was completely caught off guard, befuddled. And that’s my recollection of Larry Kramer. RIP, Larry.
Kramer’s activism was about saving the lives of his community, saving his own life and more deeply a total and rage-fueled refusal to see gay men’s lives as expandable, cheap. Dan Savage wrote yesterday that, “Larry Kramer valued every gay life at a time when so many gay men had been rendered incapable of valuing our own lives.” To the extent I’ve been involved in political activism in my life it’s been in fairly conventional ways. Kramer was characterologically outrageous and also by design, I think. As in that interview, he never felt obliged or allowed the story to come to a comforting conclusion.