I ask Kramer if the way Lincoln might be portrayed in a Hollywood film was worth losing a friend over—in particular a man he used to describe as a comrade and, yes, a gay hero.
“I don’t want him as a friend if he’s going to be this kind of a person,” Kramer answers instantly. “He disappointed me mightily. He was no longer a gay hero, because he was not willing to sign on to this fight. There was enough information out there for him to create a character in which this was possible, and he was refusing to do that, and I don’t know why.”
Kramer seems genuinely mystified, but this is a man who also says he can’t understand why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say—and I’m serious!” Others might argue that the requirements for a movie are not the same as those for an academic biography. That an artist gets to write what he wants. (“I don’t submit my work for political preapproval to anyone,” says Kushner.) That there are things about Lincoln more important than his being gay, if he was. But Kramer’s lifelong project has been at all costs to expand and complete the historical picture; art is not separate from politics or exempt from its exigencies. Odd that in this argument he should have turned against Kushner, of all people, who has done as much as anyone in that cause. And yet not so odd, if you interpret Kramer’s quest as an attempt to find and promote a great gay father in history since there was none in his childhood or, despite his desire to manufacture one, in his life since then. In that sense, Kushner did something far worse than refusing to toe the Kramer line: He assassinated gay Lincoln—this time, at the movies.
“I’ll be happy to discuss my thoughts about Lincoln,” says Kushner, “if and when my screenplay—not one word of which Larry has seen—is filmed. Until then, perhaps he should drop his unhealthy obsession with my writing and concentrate on his own.”
Kushner is not alone in exile from Kramer’s good opinion. Kramer and Edmund White—another co-founder of GMHC—have been sniping at each other for years. Of White’s Farewell Symphony, a sex-drenched memoir-as-novel that resembles Faggots, except that Faggots is a critique of promiscuity while White’s book reads as a giddy cook’s tour of it, Kramer wrote: “There are so many faceless, indistinguishable pieces of flesh that litter these 500 pages that reading them becomes, for any reasonably sentient human being, at first a heartless experience and finally a boring one.” Now the feud has devolved into Internet mudslinging. In a Wikinews interview, White and his partner gleefully deride Kramer as “too ugly” to have fully participated in the seventies Fire Island scene and compare him unfavorably to “real writers” who don’t spend their time “yelling in public.”
Kramer doesn’t buy that opposition, pointing to the long tradition of great literature, from Swift to Dickens to Zola, that amounts to politics by other means. Rather, he justifies outrageousness as necessary, citing Joe Papp, who had nurtured The Normal Heart at the Public Theater: “If you haven’t made somebody angry, you haven’t done your job.” But the advent of electronic yelling has changed the stakes. When Kramer is inflamed, he doesn’t just schedule a speech but zaps an e-mail to everyone on his considerable list of very powerful names. In 2008, the writer Michael Cunningham, a friend since ACT UP days, found himself publicly shamed—in just those words, “shame, Michael, shame”—by an e-mail Kramer sent, as Cunningham puts it, to “about 10,000 of his closest friends.” The crime? In its World Voices festival that year, the writers’ organization PEN, of which Cunningham was a board member, had not included enough gay panels or gay voices. (Around a dozen gay writers participated, though it was hard to count; as Michael Roberts, then PEN’s executive director, says, the work of people like Kramer has in fact made it possible for authors not to define themselves on the basis of sexual orientation.) In a return e-mail, Cunningham suggested that “public shaming” may not be “the most effective initial reaction to a disagreement with a peer,” to which Kramer (according to Cunningham) replied, “Michael, stop whining.” Things quickly devolved into what Cunningham calls “a La Brea Tar Pits fight.”
“Gay people are being persecuted in ways that make noninclusion on a panel look petty,” Cunningham says. “I’ve been to a few protests about gay people being murdered in Iran and Iraq, and I haven’t seen Larry at those. I give him his due for what he accomplished. I think he has made a real difference in the world—and abusive and slightly crazy Larry doesn’t negate heroic Larry. Probably one wouldn’t exist without the other. But he makes a fundamental mistake in abusing people who are on his side, insisting on a macho form of activism that reminds me of what I call Bad Daddy or Bad Boyfriend. Maybe he underestimates what a powerful figure he is to so many of us. Or maybe he doesn’t.”