This is the last of four short essays about the man and his moment.
Erik Erikson and Bruce Mazlish were pioneers in Leadership Studies. They had several things in common. Both were deeply interested in and informed by history. Both were deeply interested in and informed by psychoanalysis. And – notwithstanding their Freudian bias – both would never have looked at a leader separate and distinct from the context within which he was situated.*
Erikson and Mazlish were psychohistorians, a word now out of fashion. Still it accurately conveys my concluding point about Larry Kramer: that he cannot be understood separate and distinct from the context within which he was situated. Kramer’s success as a leader is not attributable only to him, to his persona in particular. It is attributable to the fact that he matched the moment. He was perfectly pitched and positioned to address a crisis – AIDS – that was dire in the extreme and that was especially threatening to men who, like Kramer himself, remained marginal, excluded from mainstream society.
When the “gay cancer” hit in the early 1980’s, Kramer was not a newcomer. He was already well known in the gay community as an irritant and provocateur, whose 1978 novel, Faggots, criticized the promiscuous lifestyle with which gay men had come to be associated. But while his particular persona was irritating when life was good, it was imperative when life was bad. The context had changed and so, inevitably, did leadership and followership. Kramer’s famously infuriating style of leadership was necessary and appropriate to the crisis of AIDS, and it was necessary and appropriate to those in Kramer’s community who were scared to death they might be next to die.
History is a trajectory. It is not too much to say then that the Supreme Court’s recent affirmation of same-sex marriage is in direct consequence of Kramer’s capacity to forge gay men and, yes, women, into a community. Kramer galvanized them into taking action, into becoming something they had never been before – activists. Activists protesting on their own behalf. Activists insisting that they had a right to be heard. Activists demanding that the government respond to their needs now, not later. Kramer used AIDS to unify the gay community and to give it a voice. Of course once that voice was registered, it was never again stilled.
Psychohistory teaches what the case of Kramer confirms: that great leadership cannot be understood by looking at leaders alone. Great leaders fuse with their followers. Great leaders along with their followers create change. It takes nothing away from Kramer to say that without an epidemic to eviscerate, he could not have done what he did.
*I write “he” because Erikson and Mazlish wrote exclusively or nearly so about leaders who were men. Erikson famously wrote psychobiographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, both of which were, are, considered exemplars of psychohistory.