This is the first of four short essays about the man and his moment.
Seven years ago I developed a course at the Harvard Kennedy School titled “Leadership Literacy.” The idea behind the course was that contrary to the evidence of recent decades, there is a leadership literature that is great. Great as in seminal, timeless, and universal. Great as in Confucius and Plato, Machiavelli and Carlyle, Weber and Freud, Paine and Stanton, Lincoln and Lenin, Carson and King, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Every reading in the course was unquestionably in this category – in the category of a classic of the leadership literature.
Though every reading was at least two decades old, a few were relatively recent. One of these was by Larry Kramer, a man who even seven years ago was not nearly as well-known as he is today. Now, finally, his name has become widely familiar as that of the single most impactful gay rights activist ever. Now, finally, at the end of his unexpectedly long life (he has been seriously ill for years), he is being given his due. Now, finally, he is being recognized as a great American leader not only of the gay community, but as a great American leader period.
One of the most remarkable things about Kramer is that he was as strikingly effective a writer as he was an activist. At least one of his book, Faggots, continues to be one of the best-selling novels ever about gay life. At least one of his plays, “The Normal Heart” will indefinitely be part of the American theatrical repertory. And at least one of his essays “1,112 and Counting,” is widely regarded as a watershed. It was a clarion call to his own kind, gay men, Kramer sounding an alarm about the most devastating crisis ever to decimate them – the crisis of AIDS. In the early 1980s it was not yet fully understood or widely accepted that gay American men were being ravaged by an epidemic tantamount to a death sentence. In fact, gay people were like straight people: they continued to avert their eyes, ignoring or trying to a lethal disease that was attacking them in particular.
It was left to Kramer – fearless, furious, and ferocious – to issue the warning. “1,112 and Counting” was written in 1983. His use of foul language and invocation of repetition were intended to get the attention of gay men – and they did. Here is an excerpt.
If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get….I am sick of our electing officials who in no way represent us….I am sick of closeted gay doctors who won’t come out to help us fight to rectify any of what I’m writing about….I am sick of gay men who won’t support gay charities….I am sick of people who say “it’s no worse than statistics for smokers and lunch cancer”….I am sick of guys who moan that giving up careless sex until this blows over is worse than death. How can they value life so little and cocks and asses so much?…. I am sick of ‘men’ who say, “We’ve got to keep quiet or they will do such and such.”… And I am very sick and saddened by every gay man who does not get behind this issue totally and with commitment – to fight for his life.