Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ACT UP's Rise Predicted in 1983 Letter to Larry Kramer

This nine-age letter written by the late journalist Nathan Fain was found in the Larry Kramer folder of the Randy Shilts collection at the San Francisco Public Library's Historical Center. My only contemporary recollection of its impact was the assessment of Michael Callen, singer and activist now deceased, who said words to the effect of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis are complex men grappling with a complicated medical epidemic and political cowards like Ed Koch.

This historical document is a vivid reminder of the early fearful years of the AIDS epidemic, the courageous gay men who banded together like brothers to do something -- anything! -- to stop transmissions and keep people alive.

It is also, I believe, fascinating because it predicts the founding and rise of ACT UP, four years before Larry delivered a scorching speech at the gay center in Manhattan at meeting that attracts hundreds who got their shit together to become an activist force to be reckoned with.

Here are excerpts from Nathan's letter to Larry, three-decades ago, followed by the entire nine-page document, bolding is mine:

May 27, 1983

I should advise you that I intend to circulate this letter among a fair number of people whose concern is important to me. ...

My involvement in a range of affairs surrounding the epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) began, as you know, on the evening of August 8, 1981, in your residence, at your invitation. I was among eighty-odd men present; my memory of the night remains sharp, especially about who said what. Owing to a bit of luck, I had the foresight to keep a diary in detail, a diary that confirms my memory.

Later, as you recall, a meeting began at 6 PM Monday, January 4, 1982, again in your home. The reason for this meeting was a suggestion I had made to Dr. Larry Mass. I felt that a general plan, first suggested at the August 8 meeting by Edmund White, to stage a benefit dance to help fund research led by Dr. Alvin E. Friedman-Kien at New York University Medical Center might be a miscalculation. ...

At that meeting were Dr. Mass, Mr. White, you, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport and I. It was at this meeting that a new organization was suggested a name was given it -- Gay Men's Health Crisis. So far as I'm concerned, there were many attendant founders, many beyond that group of six. But it was that group that first thought to build a larger, more enduring foundation to do what we could against an epidemic. ...

Aside from offering your home so graciously as a meeting place, you were one among many. I would hazard that what I saw was a tribal republic taking form. ...

You have worked to become, like Goethe, the personification of an era much linked with sadness and death.

Here I would repeat what I have told you in conversation, that much of your agitation in public has inspired what came to be progress. Because of your relentless concern, more attention is now paid to the epidemic than was paid a year ago. No sensible person would deny this point. ...

To manipulate fear, as you have done repeatedly, is to me the gesture of a barbarian. To exploit the deaths of gay men, has you have done in publications all over America, is to me an act of inexcusable vandalism. To admit, as you have done, that you are capable of, in your term, "merchandising the epidemic," is beyond me. ...

This interminable expatiation would be pointless were it not for my conviction -- ever the optimist -- that a solution lies within our grasp. ...

My suggestion, then, on the first part is the same I made to you just before the circus event. Would you keep silent? Would you let the GMHC leadership hold its own counsel and criticize it, at least, on matters of principle [and not personality]? ...

Second, possibly as a way to achieve success on the first suggestion, I propose that you found your own, new apparatus. Your experience, not only with GMHC but over a lifetime of struggle with society, must give you now priceless insights. You must know what you do, you who are eternally doing "what I have to do." Do it now. Whatever Olympian model you select -- Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King -- understand and make understood that only you will decide and take responsibility for what is to be done in the name of this group. 

Realize for yourself the heady dream of having, as Mishima had, your own personal army. I do not doubt that you will find followers for it, perhaps hundreds. It frightens me, this prospect, but I can stand it. ...

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1 comment:

Stranger2DaWorld said...

Dear Mr. Petrelis,

First of all I really want to thank you for this letter.
It is an indispensable piece of a history that I often feel is on the verge of becoming a footnote for posterity.
I am based in India, and I'm researching for my MPhil dissertation on the AIDS plays. This letter will help me study the play 'The Normal Heart'. And for this, I'm once again very grateful.

JayKumar Buddhdev