Readers debate Richard Kim's review of Larry Kramer's new book, "The Tragedy of Today's Gays."

By Salon Staff
Published May 11, 2005 7:34PM (EDT)

[Read "Sex Panic," by Richard Kim.]

I have just read Richard Kim's review of Larry Kramer's "The Tragedy of Today's Gays." I'm prompted to send this immediate, although lengthy, letter, initially as a response to Kramer's assertion -- which Kim does not challenge -- that he (Kramer) "loves gay people."

How on earth can someone say they "love gay people"? That's like saying "I love black people." It's such a bizarrely stupid statement (and demonstrably false, coming from Kramer) that one is left to wonder if Kramer has actually been pulling the wool over everyone's eyes for the last 20 years or so by using his intentionally controversial outbursts about the state of the gay rights movement and the AIDS crisis as a cover for his own lack of intelligence and his unending desire for attention, regardless of the extent to which he undermines any sense of the individual and collective respect and dignity that gay men have managed to achieve against considerable odds.

Sure, GMHC may have been founded in Kramer's living room, and ACT UP in response to Kramer's speech at the Lesbian and Gay Center, but that's a far cry from the suggestion that if it weren't Kramer's living room or Kramer's speech, it wouldn't have been someone else's. This hardly makes him a leader. Kramer didn't discover the AIDS crisis, although his willingness to claim as friends several hundred of the tens of thousands of gay men who have died of AIDS leads one to suspect that he sure as hell took advantage of it to promote himself as its No. 1 victim.

At the end of the day, Kramer is far less driven by any desire to seek solutions to the problems faced by his gay loved ones than by his desire for attention, and if he has to vilify gay folk in much the same terms used by homophobic minister Fred Phelps, then that seems to be just fine with Kramer. Like Phelps, Kramer has no solutions to offer, except that we accept his statements as ultimate truth; those who do, will (presumably) be saved, or at least deserve to be, and the rest of us will go to hell. While this may be fine and dandy coming from some obviously fringe ministry with a negligible following, it is more directly harmful when it comes from a self-styled leader to whom people listen and pay attention, even if it is only because they've been led to believe they should.

If there is any single starting point for the debate about rising rates of HIV infection or crystal meth use among gay men (apparently the target of Kramer's latest vendetta), it should be that there is no single starting point for that debate, other than to acknowledge that there is a problem. Kramer, predictably, has no solutions to offer, other than to forcefully argue that these gay men get what they deserve (unlike, apparently, heterosexuals who use drugs and/or contract HIV).

Dismissing every gay man who may have a crystal meth problem, or who uses drugs or alcohol, or who gets infected with HIV, as a self-destructive or murderous disco bunny who deserves whatever he gets and more, is a good example of how to exacerbate a serious community health problem through reckless and selfish (yes, those words again) behavior -- except this time the risky behavior is Kramer's. And that is exactly the point that Kramer has been making since the 1970s: that gay men are ultimately a redundant lot.

While everyone is entitled to a point of view, assuming a leadership position with the ability to influence not only the collective consciousness of the gay community but also its opponents involves a corresponding obligation not to manipulate public health issues and public opinion selfishly and for immediate self-gratification, but instead to act responsibly and with respect for those affected. Kramer is incapable of either.

-- Paul O'Dwyer

Richard Kim's recent diatribe against AIDS activist Larry Kramer is perhaps one of the most limp, derivative pieces of journalism I've encountered this year.

To dwell on Kramer's well-known faults -- his self-aggrandizement, his hail-and-brimstone sermonizing, his overstating of statistics, etc. -- is to overlook the deliberate, focused nature of Kramer's message and how he has shaped it over time. If anything, Kramer's message is more potent than ever.

Kim seems to imply that Kramer has lost sight of the true agents responsible for the escalation of the AIDS epidemic -- namely the craven, self-righteous monsters in the Bush administration. Unfortunately, while it is true that conservatives are, with rare exception, enemies of progressive sex education and AIDS awareness, they alone should not bear the blame for the spread of AIDS. Rather, over the past decade the queer community has itself lapsed in its mission to encourage responsible behavior.

For years, AIDS activism has been crippled by the shallow, self-righteous logic of victimization that assiduously avoids blaming gay men for the consequences of their actions. While well-intentioned, such rhetoric is dangerous and misinformed. As Kramer and other critics, like gay sex columnist Dan Savage, have pointed out, AIDS activists can no longer afford to pity the poor misguided fags who have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus. As Savage said in a recent New York magazine article (which Kim cites), "We are not going to be the baby harp seals the way we were in the eighties and nineties. We picked up the same gun and said, 'I hope it's not loaded this time,' and pulled the trigger again."

Indeed, at a time when an increasing percentage of gay men are showing a willingness to engage in risky sexual conduct -- in particular, chemically enhanced unprotected sex -- it is unfair to dismiss Kramer's work as shrill alarmism.

This in part explains why Kramer has shifted his focus over the past 20 years: While the old Larry Kramer largely concentrated his attacks on the failings of the public healthcare system (his landmark 1983 article in the New York Native was especially unsparing in its indictment of, among others, the CDC, the NIH and New York Mayor Ed Koch; Kramer's attacks on Ronald Reagan are legendary) the Kramer of today wisely recognizes that, in an age of billion-dollar AIDS research initiatives, the queer community cannot excuse itself for its own irresponsibility. Kim, however, disregards this and chooses instead to chastise Kramer for his "dowdy dress" and for being foolish enough to paint the queer community as "buffoonish, disengaged Peter Pans dancing, drugging and fucking their lives away."

I have no idea how old Kim is, but as a gay 23-year-old, I can certainly vouch for the accuracy of this depiction of the contemporary gay community -- a community that is plagued as much by willful ignorance as expensive designer drugs. So long as gay men ignore the continuing threat posed by AIDS and the very real possibility of their own demise, Kramer's work will never truly be finished.

-- Dan Poulson

Richard Kim seems to have missed Larry Kramer's main points -- or perhaps Kramer is too close to the truth for Kim's comfort and therefore it became necessary for Kim to try to negate Kramer's points.

While I haven't read Kramer's new book, the many excerpts of it that Kim includes in his piece sound like they're dead on. (I exclude the quotes about HIV/AIDS statistics, which I don't find all that important because I really don't think that numbers are the main point.) And rather than examine the state of the American gay community -- which is woefully pathetic -- Kim rails on Kramer for being a "Cassandra."

Materialism, consumerism, superficiality, selfishness and hedonism have destroyed the American gay community far more than AIDS ever could have. The gay community is rotting from within -- spiritually -- not from without, such as from HIV/AIDS. (Indeed, HIV/AIDS is, I think, only a physical symptom of the underlying spiritual problem.)

Like Kramer, I love my gay brethren, too, but they frustrate the hell out of me. The wonderful, unique, potentially world-changing gifts that they possess they have let atrophy from non-use because they are too busy worshipping the golden calf.

That, not HIV/AIDS, is the real problem.

-- Robert Crook

Richard Kim's critique of Larry Kramer was dissatisfying. Concluding by characterizing Kramer as "a general who fails to notice that the war has long since moved on to new frontiers" was intriguing, but the whole piece never defined clearly what these new frontiers are and, more important, who is fighting on those new frontiers and how the war should now be fought.

The insinuation here seems to run something like "tired old wacky Larry Kramer is not down with the real, young gay rights and AIDS activist scene." Perhaps that's true. But what is that scene exactly? The plight of one defunded AIDS organization in San Francisco (conflated, vaguely, with "other community organizations") is the only concrete detail Kim offers. Kim says Kramer does not seem to know a lot about today's gays, but Kim's article is short on specifics about what today's gays are supposedly all about. Is Kim vague because he's so closely involved that it seems too obvious to him? Or is it because he's vague himself about just what the community is and should be doing instead of following Kramer's lead? I wonder if many of the "everyday" gay folks who Kramer is supposedly so ignorant of -- especially those of us dealing with life in "Middle America" -- feel much clarity about or connection to today's gay rights and AIDS activist scene.

The gay community's response to the right's war on gays and insane AIDS policies seems pretty darn complacent to me, given what we are up against right now. While I agree with Kim that the real enemy is (obviously) not the party boys who are Kramer's favorite target, I nevertheless applaud Kramer for trying to light a fire under the gay community's ass, however he can. I would agree with Kim too that Kramer's shtick focuses too much on puritanical-sounding invectives against drugs, sex and disco, but I think Kramer's underlying message is valid. The right was organizing like gangbusters waiting for their chance while the gay community sat back on its heels during the Clinton years. Kramer focuses too much on the disco distraction, without digging into the more perplexing and vexing reasons for complacency. But Kim offers little insight himself.

Too much of what the gay community "achieved" during the last 10 years has been slick, spun and sterile. And, perhaps as a result, the gay community has been slow to motivate against the right under Bush. Kramer offers an authentic voice of dissent, urging us to look inward so we can be more effective in fighting for our lives and rights. However infuriating Kramer is at times, he's a welcome contrast to the homogenized, corporate and conciliatory voices that pervade so much of today's gay culture.

-- Mark Reschke

Larry Kramer's excoriation of young gay men in his new book could not be more wrong, at least in the country I live in. The statistics about HIV infection in Australia show that those getting infection are still overwhelmingly gay men, but gay men with an average age of 37.

I would also add that, while the numbers have risen in recent years, the HIV infection rate in Australia is a fraction of that in the U.S.

Kramer seems to be suffering from a common malady of the old and irrelevant: the propensity to demonize and vilify young people.

-- Mark Thompson

Salon Staff

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