This is the third of four short essays about the man and his moment.
A new, first rate film about Larry Kramer – “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger” – made its debut on HBO a week ago. The film focuses on Kramer’s adulthood, not his childhood. Still it makes reference to the highly contentious relationship between Kramer and his father, even early on when Kramer was a boy. His father, disappointed, perhaps even disgusted by what he perceived his son’s insufficiently manly behavior, would taunt him and call him a sissy. Though he was shy, according to Kramer he would fight his father back, even when he was young, until he went to Yale, where after a year he tried to kill himself.
It doesn’t take extensive armchair analysis to suggest that the wellspring of Kramer’s anger in adulthood was the anger he felt in childhood – from his father toward him, from him toward his father. It’s not a small matter. For Kramer’s regular raging, his legendary contentiousness, his infamous impatience are the hallmarks of the man. It’s not that he lacks other notable traits. Kramer is many things to many people – including being greatly admired and well loved. But what sets him apart – what fuels his furious drive – is his unquenchable anger.*
Rage is hardly rare among those hell bent on getting others to follow where they lead – especially if they are outsiders, battling what they experience as obtuseness and oppression. In fact, many of history’s greatest leaders were just that: furious. Furious at unfairness and injustice; furious at those they thought unfair and unjust.
Among the most interesting examples is Martin Luther King, precisely because he is usually seen as a man of peace, a centrist not an extremist whose strength emanated from his moderation. But if you deconstruct some of his writings, such as the iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you find a man nearly consumed by impatience and anger – an anger that threatened to become threatening. “We know through painful experience,” King writes, “that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Think about his semantic choices: “painful experience” and “never voluntarily given” (italics mine) and “oppressor” and “demanded.” What does “demanded” denote? Clearly violence is on the table, not off it.
King and Kramer. Can we reasonably link them? Can we reasonably say their names in tandem? I would argue that the answer is yes. I would argue that Kramer is not merely as HBO would have him: “one of the most important … figures in … gay America.”** I would argue, have argued, that he, like King, is one of the most important figures in America. Both King and Kramer used their righteous rage to effect change. Both King and Kramer used their righteous rage to liberate their own kind. Both King and Kramer used their righteous rage to harness others to their cause.
This is not to equate them, to say they are one and the same. Rather it is to suggest that their similarities are as pertinent and powerful as their differences.
*Not for nothing the name of the film.
** From HBO’s web site. The italicization of “gay” is mine.