The weird hilarity of the remark made it famous, but Kramer wasn’t being funny; he was being true to his principles. “He’s so in-your-face, so outrageous, so offensive in his tactics, that for all the good work he has done he has been marginalized,” says Barbara Kellerman, who teaches Kramer alongside Lincoln and Lao Tzu in a course called Leadership Literacy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “But that doesn’t mean the tactics aren’t necessary. Leadership is a question of the person meeting the moment. His extreme leadership met that extreme moment. It is arguably less suited to a moment that appears to be about slow and steady progress. Is Larry Kramer agile enough to adjust to the needs of the moment? That’s very much an open question.”
It was Kellerman who brought Kramer word of the latest—and, in some ways, most insulting—outrage against him, this time courtesy of Harvard. In October, the university’s art museum and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts opened “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993,” but nowhere in the exhibit’s online guide is Kramer mentioned. Furthermore, in all the ancillary “programs, speakers, panels, readings, what-have-yous,” Kramer wrote in one of his e-mail zaps, “there is not one appearance scheduled for the person who started it all.” His anger was not assuaged by a curator for the exhibit who told him (he says) that they had decided “only to use ‘young people’ so that the Harvard kids would identify more.” “I was boiling over and wanted to say, ‘You are selfish and incompetent,’ ” he continued, “but all I could blurt out was, ‘These kids should hear me!’ ”
It’s not vanity, or not just vanity. Kramer is genuinely concerned about the fate of others, a fate in which he believes himself to be crucially involved. He therefore worries constantly about the project that failed, the friendship that cratered. Recently he’s been up nights working the e-mail list to set up (with Scott Rudin’s help) a production of A Minor Dark Age, a startling 1973 play that he thinks may revive his theatrical reputation. And when he ran into Cunningham at a holiday party, he humbly reintroduced himself: “I’m Larry Kramer.”
“I know who you are,” said Cunningham. The two men apologized and kissed.
But no matter how many e-mails Kramer circulates, or fences he mends, the danger of rejection is everywhere, inside and out. The present constantly renews its depravity. No wonder he has turned his attention to history: as a corrective but also a salve. In history heroes are treasured for their peccadilloes, not vilified for them. (Lincoln, gay or not, was a very strange, emotional man.) In writing The American People, he can write himself a context he wants to be part of instead of the context he actually lives in. He can join a bigger parade than Dallas’s, or even New York’s.
But for the moment he has come to the end of the route. The last float has floated. Thousands of revelers have collected to cruise and mingle in Dallas’s Lee Park, where Michael Doughman, the Tavern Guild’s executive director, introduces Kramer: “If you’re a young person you may never have heard this name, but he is a true American hero.” There is polite applause.
Kramer has shown me what he intends to say. He will remind the crowd how they are hated, he will criticize passivity in the face of that hatred, he will paint a picture of the glorious days in which gay people made progress because they “fought like screaming fucking banshees.” He will say gay people are smarter and make better friends than straight people, a contention that might surprise Tony Kushner, if not Lincoln. All of this will draw the usual divided response. Commenters on the Dallas Voice website will start an online shouting match afterward: “His bloated and self-righteous performance today is further proof that times have changed, and changed dramatically.” “If it wasn’t for people like us, most of the people you call friends would probably be dead now.” “I rest my case.” At least that will be better than the local television news coverage, which is next to nil, not only for Kramer but for the entire pride event.
But Kramer doesn’t yet know about any of that as he bounds surprisingly nimbly up the stairs to the dais, grabs the microphone, and stares at the crowd in front of him, like a lover who hopes his passion will be returned but from experience knows better. If he ever finishes The American People, these happy, ahistorical citizens will be his audience. “Can you hear me?” he shouts. “Are my words coming through loud and clear?”