Thursday, March 14, 2013

ACT UPers, GMHC Co-Founder on Fain Letter to Kramer

Several friends wrote to me about the May 1983 letter from the late gay journalist Nathan Fain to writer and activist Larry Kramer, that I posted on Tuesday. Here are their responses and I'm grateful for their insights.

Duncan Osborne, ACT UP vet and writer for Gay City News, says:

Ouch! Kramer got his comeuppance in that one, didn't he? What is the reference to the doctor who was hospitalized? I take it that was an actual person known to Kramer and Fain.

Yes, it was a real person, Dr. Larry Mass, who was a co-founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and editor of the anthology "We Must All Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer". Larry Mass writes:

As is now common knowledge and widely documented and dramatized, there was a lot of contention with Larry Kramer during that period of the founding and earliest organizing of GMHC, prior to Larry's separation from GMHC and its Board. This letter from Nathan recapitulates a lot of the concerns and free-flowing anxieties and especially ambivalence of those days and moments. Nathan went further than most of us in trying to spell out his concerns about Larry directly to Larry. ...

In those earliest days, before Larry Kramer had really established his commitment to the gay community and gay politics (prior to this, it was common knowledge in the political gay community that Larry had never participated in a gay community political initiative), it proved irresistible to many, including me but especially Nathan, to reject a lot of what Larry was saying and doing, especially his tactics, as more self-motivated, self-absorbed, self-promoting and perhaps also self-hating (internalized homophobia) than in everybody's best interests. ...

And here in the letter is the extraordinary revelation by Nathan that when all is said and done, he himself wasn't sure either [if Larry wasn't exactly the leader the gays needed]. You will have to ask Larry if this letter from Nathan planted the first or one of the first seeds for what became ACT UP, but it's the first mention of such an initiative by anyone that I know of. It represents remarkable historical sleuthing on your part, Michael. ...

It was Nathan who, after my hospitalization for depression that he alludes to in his letter here (and that Larry Kramer dramatizes in The Normal Heart), coaxed me back into involvement with GMHC. ...

Nathan was the first person I knew of to die of cancer of the kidney, in association with HIV. But more tragic were the circumstances under which he died. Nathan came from Nacogdoches, Texas, where his family owned the regional press. They were wealthy, well-connected, conservative Christians and virulently homophobic. When they discovered that Nathan had AIDS, they totally abandoned him and left him to die alone in a godforsaken small-town Texas hospital bed surrounded by God-knows what kind of prejudice and hostility.

Walter Armstrong, also a veteran of ACT UP and the former editor of POZ magazine, offers this observation:

This is a remarkable letter. I think Nathan Fain gets down in print some of the frustrations others have had with Larry Kramer, aspects of his personality that could be destructive of the trust and transparency that can keep activism alive. We saw some of that in ACT UP but fortunately he kept coming back.

Nathan is scathing about the creation of a group of angry gay men and lesbians who will follow Larry Kramer like martinets and elevate him to leadership. But it did not turn out quite that way in ACT UP—which I think was good for the group and for Larry. 

To be fair to Larry, he was pushing the other GMHC guys to be more confrontational and political, and they were scared, which in retrospect seems appalling. And ACT UP was filled with impossible people with personality disorders who got a lot done.  

Having said all of this, I have great affection and respect for Larry as an activist and a writer. He had the courage to face the catastrophe very early and enough gay pride to believe that the community could save its own life. 

Jean Carlomusto, longtime lesbian activist, filmmaker and ACT UP vet, chimes in:

Thank you for posting this. Nathan's letter contains it all. Larry's brashness, the coming together of community and the willing suspension of disbelief of how big a crisis AIDS was to become. I am so thankful you are still around to dig up these nuggets of truth. 

Me too, Jean! Many thanks to her, Duncan, Larry Mass, Walter and everyone both dead and living who banded together in the 1980s to fight AIDS, get angry and organized, and who made ACT UP the force-to-be-reckoned-with that changed and saved countless lives.

[UPDATE: Just heard from Chris Geidner who writes for BuzzFeed and he informed me of his post about the 1983 letter. It's posted here.]

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