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4,000 Pages and Counting

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The gayest story ever told: Kramer's manuscript of The American People.  

That they don’t have a category for pains in the ass is only one reason. Amnesia is another. History may be long, but gay history has to rebuild itself from scratch every few years. Though Kramer was a biblical figure, the Jeremiah if not the Moses of the AIDS struggle, his achievements are, by the standards of a fast-forward culture, archaeological. It was 1978 when the jaw-dropping Faggots scandalized the gay bon ton. (“How dare you give away all our secrets!” the playwright Arthur Laurents supposedly complained to him at the time.) Faggots might have sunk permanently under a wave of hostility had not the first reported cases of a new disease, three years later, made the novel’s famous warning to gay men (change your ways “before you fuck yourself to death”) seem prophetic. But a prophet was not what Kramer wanted to be. That he was for too long one of the few people screaming about “the gay cancer” (and collecting money to fight it at the ferry dock in the Pines) just made him angry—and the sentiment was reciprocated. In response to his 1983 New York Native article “1,112 and Counting,” a condemnation of government inaction and gay nonchalance now acknowledged as a landmark of activist journalism, he was dismissed by his peers as a nasty prude. And in response to his mounting disappointment with what he regarded as the insufficiently militant tactics of GMHC, he left—or got kicked out the door.

But that was 26 years ago, and the articles and screeds he produced as the devastation continued were already published as a historical collection (Reports From the Holocaust) in 1994. The Normal Heart, in which a Kramer-like figure named Ned Weeks acts all Kramer-like and gets ousted from an organization like GMHC, was old enough five years ago to deserve a revival at the Public Theater. The production made for rich entertainment but could not have given a young person any sense of the degree to which the original had guilted and galvanized audiences in 1985, permanently altering New York’s—and thus the country’s—conversation about AIDS.

Well, not permanently. The attention of gay people is mostly elsewhere these days. And though a few twentyish admirers thank Kramer for teaching them, via his books, to fight, they have little else in common with him. He was never much of a youth, even in his youth. In Faggots—a Boschian nightmare of sexual excess fueled, Kramer argues, by the characters’ internalized homophobia, but more proximately by drugs and alcohol—it’s the Kramer mouthpiece, Fred Lemish, who harshes everyone’s highs. (Kramer says that despite its humor, the book was not satire but pure reporting.) Today he barely drinks, and not just because of the new liver—yet he seems to find it unremarkable, or even exciting, that his partner co-owns a leather-and-jeans bar called the Dallas Eagle. It was in fact Webster, a member of the Tavern Guild, who proposed Kramer for grand marshal, keeping the whole thing a secret so as not to disappoint Kramer should the proposal be rejected.

Webster is almost uniquely exempt from Kramer’s absolutism, perhaps because it never worked on him. Fetishized in Faggots as the beloved but untouchable Dinky Adams, Webster kept Kramer at bay even when they were lovers in the late seventies; after they broke up, they did not see each other until seventeen years later, when Kramer sought him out to design the country house in Connecticut. Now Webster takes meticulous, if not exactly doting, care of Kramer: an apple, a bottle of water, and half a sandwich were neatly prearranged in Kramer’s parade tote bag. That the two men are together after all this time—though often in different cities—is, as Kramer sees it, a validation of the virtue of persistence, though it can also be read as the opposite; his persistence may be what originally pushed them apart. In any case, nothing’s perfect: “I know I’m not the love of his life, and that hurts,” Kramer says.

Clearly, though, Webster is the love of his: “I still look at him and can’t believe he’s here. I can’t believe he puts up with the likes of crazy me.” Webster says he does so by engaging not with “the public Larry” but with the “little boy who just wants to have a friendship.” As composed as Kramer is kvetchy, Webster prefers to be the “backstage wife”—to have “my own life and not live in his spotlight. Nor he in mine.” That was evident at the parade: When Kramer reached the end of the route and backtracked to watch the tail of the event, he shouted joyfully at the Dallas Eagle float, with Webster dancing atop it. Trim and distinguished, Webster is one of the few 62-year-olds who can still pull off the bare-chested-with-leather-sash-and-armbands look. But he did not hear Kramer’s cheers.


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