Lessons From Larry Kramer for a New Generation

NEW YORK - JUNE 6: Larry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6, 1987 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Cather
NEW YORK - JUNE 6: Larry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6, 1987 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

There are a lot of things that you're not equipped for when you come out. Being only 14 years old, I was still on the up-slope of the journey through puberty. I had a lot of conflicted emotions that I didn't know how to work through.

I soon turned to media. Shows like Glee and Queer as Folk were the best examples I had of what life was like outside of the bubble that was my hometown. There was nothing glamorous about what Kurt Hummel was going through -- just awkwardness, and anxiety, and outright fear. But then I saw Justin Taylor sneak into a gay bar and go home with a man twice his age for some steamy encounters under the sheets. The transition to me seemed logical: you go from high school, a place of fear and anxiety, to the real world, which is drinking and random sex. I had nothing to tell me otherwise. This was a brave new world, and in order to be gay, I had to jump in with both feet.

That's when I saw Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. I was profoundly moved by what I saw. In high school health class, we had learned about AIDS -- but only as something ultra-salient through the 1980's that has since become just shy of benign. But The Normal Heart crystallized so much for me. The trauma of losing not only your friends, but the one person in the world you love completely authentically was so profound. For the first time, I saw the history of the gay community as being shaped fundamentally by pain.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I got to college and found that almost no one else seemed to see things the same way. My school's LGBT group took a trip to an 18-and over gay bar in Philadelphia, and I tagged along. The experience was nothing short of intensely uncomfortable. The room was small, tightly packed and doused by smoke machines every two minutes or so. Everyone around me seemed to be enjoying themselves. At one point I looked to my right to see a couple dancing, one bent over at a ninety degree angle, texting, while his partner ground on him from behind, looking straight ahead. I was tired of getting stepped on and bumped into, and pretending like it was something enjoyable. This is the real world? I remember thinking to myself. Forget about the fact that everyone the floor below was ordering exotic drinks I couldn't pronounce -- nothing about it seemed anywhere near as liberating and self-fulfilling as Justin Taylor's life.

It was no surprise, then, that Larry Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots resonated with me. His tales of a lonely man looking for love in a party culture dominated by meaningless sex and recreational drug use was something I identified with. I was surprised to see the blowback it received at the time -- and still engenders today. Kramer is still a polarizing figure in the queer community, and many people still resent him for trying to shut down gay bathhouses at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I could never understand why such a commonsense move was met with such outright hostility. But then it clicked -- it's both a sense of entitlement to a non-heterosexually regulated location of sexual expression, and a fear of losing what little sense of empowerment one has.

Whenever I talk about my opposition to the gay bar scene, people are immediately taken aback. It's as if I've brandished a gun at a golden calf, and threatened to pull the trigger. People begin hounding me with questions. Do you hate yourself? Do you hate sex? Do you want to be straight? Are you against embracing your sexuality? Why are you giving into Puritanistic heterosexual values? I am not nor am I endorsing any of those things. What I am doing is acknowledging the role that self-loathing plays in the lives of every queer man in this country -- and how our trauma from coming out has manifested itself as endless attempts to fix the unfixable.

Those of us in the LGBTQ community have trauma we've likely never addressed. It's the guilt, the hatred and the isolation within our past that bubbles up when we least expect it. Even those who most adamantly say they're proud to be gay would surely admit that at some time or another in their lives, they hoped against hope that they could be straight. At that time, the trauma is imprinted on our consciousness. And for queer men, who exist in the same patriarchal masculinist culture as our heterosexual counterparts, the repercussions of expressing our pain and sorting through our trauma in a healthy way seem too daunting.

We are facing a resurgence among gay men of STI's, including HIV/AIDS, that has devastating potential. The practice of "bugchasing" -- pursuing openly HIV-positive men for unprotected sexual encounters -- has been amplified by the phenomenon of chemsex, where gay men go on multi-day sex binges fueled by methamphetamine and other drugs. An article in The Guardian says four new cases of HIV are discovered in London every day. While the rise in popularity of drugs like Truvada and PrEP have helped assuage fears of infection, they are neither entirely effective nor without their flaws. Although the majority of users are responsible, healthy sexually active men, too many take it not out of a concern for their health or the health of others but simply for the experience of "better" or more convenient sex. The possibility of being infected with other STI's is not lowered when you have unprotected sex while on PrEP -- and too many people lack the sex education to understand that condom use is more than just about the spread of HIV. When the majority of gay men get their sex education from barebacking pornography, it's no wonder condom use seems like a light suggestion rather than a health precaution.

There's nothing glamorous or sexy about alcoholism or drug use. There's no reason why it has to be an integral part of gay male culture. There are so many people out there in the queer community who don't want to participate in the bar scene. For every person participating in chemsex, there are thousands more having safe, consensual sex. But to argue that unsafe sexual behavior is the indicator of empowerment is ludicrous. There is nothing empowering about endangering your health and that of others just because you can. And when leaders and advocates argue for reasonable precautions in order to protect you from getting sick and hurting other people, it's your responsibility to put your own ego aside and help others. You can be proud of your sexuality and embrace it without putting others' lives at risk.

In an interview for New York Magazine, Larry Kramer said this on his experience writing Faggots:

"People think I'm totally anti-sex, and that simply isn't true. I think the thing that upsets me is that a few gay men make sex their total be-all and end-all -- we have so much more to our lives than just carnality. [...] I so desperately want to redefine homosexuality as something more than just sex."

I too want queerness to be more than about just sex -- because living in a world where Republican candidates still reduce our community to animalistic, immoral heathens, it does us no favors to reduce ourselves to this one tiny piece of who we are. "What happens in the bedroom isn't who we are", was a phrase I heard repeated in many variations in advance of the various marriage equality rulings. Then why are so many of us letting it define our very identity? There is nothing radical or anarchical about throwing caution to the wind and engaging in random unprotected sex. That kind of behavior is dangerous and risky. We are worth more than just our physical bodies, and our social spaces. They only exist because we grant them power -- and to change the culture, we need to invest our power in each other instead.