Can somebody tell Larry Kramer to shut the fuck up, and, while they’re at it, give a quick bitch-slap to all the old fags who still think he’s some kind of hero?

Over on one of those shitty gay blogs, we are graced with the 7,000 ill-edited words, readably typeset in white on black, that constitute the latest Oscar-bait barnburner from Larry Kramer, the one-time screenwriter/’80s playwright/ACT UP cofounder.

First, some bonafides. I was at his apartment for half an hour on New Year’s Eve sometime in the ’90s, where I believe I patted his dog. I also attended two honest-to-God ACT UP meetings at the Lesbian & Gay Community Center in New York; I knew a lot of ACT UPpers and I wrote for OutWeek. I was a dead body in the ACT UP float at New York gay pride one year. And I wasted my time with the second-rate Toronto analogue, but more on them anon. I know something about this shit.

Where do you begin to critique writing as bad as this?

  • He makes ACT UP sound like it saved the world. Well, maybe it didn’t. Whom else does one quote but Celia Farber (q.v.)?

    [Another example is AZT.] At the time, the FDA agreed to approve it after only 17 weeks of testing [without any of the standard procedures that used to take up to 10 years]. And it flooded the community. Our side says AZT was a catastrophe; AZT killed a generation of AIDS patients. There are orthodox doctors who say that, there are gay activists who silently concede that… To be more concrete, I lived through and reported very carefully about that story and I have a few gay friends who were around then who are still alive today and simply put, they say, categorically, everybody who went on AZT in the early years died. It is the most toxic drug ever approved for human use. It is DNA-terminating chemotherapy that kills all categories of cells. […]

    Of course [ACT UP and other activist groups] meant well! Of course they wanted to save their loved ones and brothers! Of course they didn’t know! But it was a disaster and we have to face it.

    (Are you able to disprove her assertions?)

    Kramer’s version:

    Every single treatment against HIV is out there because of activists who forced these drugs out of the system, out of the labs, out of the pharmaceutical companies, out of the government, into the world. It is an achievement unlike any other in the history of the world. All gay men and women must let ourselves feel colossally proud of such an achievement. Hundreds of millions of people will be healthier because of us. Would that they could be grateful to us for saving their lives. […]

    We redesigned the whole system of clinical trials that is in use to this day for every major illness. And of course, we got those drugs out. And the FDA approval for a new drug that once took an average of seven to 12 years can now be had in less than one. ACT UP did all this. […] We were consistently right.

    Here’s a few talking points for you: The underlying physics and chemistry of the human body did not change the day ACT UP decided to demand quicker drug trials. The result is that drugs began to be tested, approved, and released faster. It became much easier to make mistakes or simply game the system so that known-unsafe drugs went on sale. Or drugs were “tested” on subjects with limited or no ability to ethically consent to the testing, as with destitute and illiterate African villagers. As a result, people who took AZT died, and we got drug scandals like that of Vioxx.

    Just as the body does not change, neither does a leopard change its spots: Pharmaceutical companies may be more inclined to get drugs out the door faster, but that is to their benefit and no other part of their behaviour has changed. (Kramer: “[P]ublic exposure of and procedural remedies to sweetheart practices between the NIH and FDA on one hand and pharmaceutical companies on the other [now, with our own decline, unfortunately out of control again].”) Do you really want Gleemonex to “go nonprescription” before all the data are in?

  • Next, gay rights in the U.S., which I’ve been following since I was a boy watching interviews on Donahue. There’s never been a time when it wasn’t a case of a glass half-empty. The Germans can tear down the Wall and South Africa can nominally metamorphose from racial segregation to a constitutional democracy overnight, but there’s overwhelming evidence that the United States’s glass will remain half-empty for the rest of our lives – and our grandkids’ lives. Kramer essentially makes that point, though he buries it in his usual complaints that nobody in power, at all, gives a shit about us and they are, additionally, engaged in a program of genocide.

    Canadians have a hard time understanding Americans sometimes. Really, we are two separate countries, just as the U.S. is a country separate from the five other nations Kramer complains about. We don’t live in the States and Americans don’t live “in Nigeria, in Ghana, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia,” in Jamaica. Americans, more specifically, also don’t have to live in Queens or Wyoming, two Kramer trouble spots. Some queers doggedly insist on living there, but it’s strictly optional. In a free society, you may reside anywhere. And you may emigrate. You may come to the rational conclusion that your rights will never be protected by your country and decide to move to another country that’s willing to do it. Like Canada.

    It’s commendable that some gay Americans want to stick around and fight what they consider the good fight, but unless they’re living in rather specific parts of the country, their rights are still at risk while they’re doing it. It’s nothing like being beheaded in an Islamic autocracy, but it represents a danger. The only option Kramer seems to accept is sticking around to fight a battle that, the entire weight of his speeches shows, has been lost. Why martyr yourself? Move. You can still fight for gay rights in other countries, which remain foreign countries from the vantagepoint of your new home. You might even have more impact in agitating for better gay rights in the U.S. from a base abroad. What you’re already doing isn’t working, is it?

  • Kramer tells us it’s a waste of time trying to understand why ACT UP petered out. (“Many of us have tried to figure out what happened to us and why we ceased to be what we were. We all have thoughts about what happened but… it’s time to stop trying to figure it out and just move on.”) Well, petering out is what happens to “movements.”

    He also calls for some kind of ACT UP nouveau for the 21st century, and half-heartedly thinks that more Web sites might do the trick. Oh, come on. They’re far too atomized to engage in the kind of site-specific shock tactics ACT UP succeeded with; you can get a few things done, but you can’t change the world. All the other ACT UP work – the legendary weekly meetings, confrontations with officials, forming direct-care organizations, that sort of thing – isn’t done online in the first place. Set up some blogs and you’d still have to do all that while also having no substitute for the direct action that made the whole thing work.

    For this plan, the best defence Kramer can come up with is a Southern-belle-style declaration: “Why, even Time magazine is now stating as a fact that Web sites drive the agendas of political parties.” That’s your justification? It got written in a magazine that nobody who lives online reads? (Which is the greater relic of the past, ACT UP or the idea that newsweeklies still matter?)

    Instead of all that, why not look back in honesty at what ACT UP achieved, even if that happened to be the hastened deaths of thousands of the people it purported to support? If your best shot is a couple of blogs, your time really has passed and there is no Plan B.

    The 21st century is ill-equipped for a single point of activism, a single hero, a single leader. ACT UP was sui generis. It died a long time ago, and so did the relevance of anything like it. Somebody tell Larry Kramer.

    And he misses a genuinely useful application of the Web: Writing one’s own history. If “[g]ays are never included in the history of anything,” how do you account for the ACT UP Oral History Project?

Now, let me ask something for the umpteenth time. Could somebody from ACT UP finally accept that it was not the first direct-action activist group of the 20th century, and maybe not even the most influential? ADAPT was doing shit in the ’80s like blockading inaccessible cablecars in San Francisco and demanding the police arrest the quadriplegics on ventilators who were doing the protesting. Who’s putting whose life on the line? Did they not matter because they weren’t downtown New York queers in army boots?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.03.15 15:18. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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