Reporting and Reactions From Forty Years Ago: Part II

This is the second part in a series of excerpts that I wrote, but subsequently cut, from my biography-in-progress of Randy Shilts. This particular sequence recounts some of the initial conflict in New York between activist Larry Kramer and members of the local gay establishment over whether or not this new “gay cancer” rose to the level of a full-fledged community health crisis.

Excerpt #2: The Noise in the Band

“Goodbye, Germs; Hello, Happiness.”

The New York Native headline made it all sound so simple. For the cost of $20 annually, Meridien, a new private sex club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, would “alleviate the problem of VD infection[s] through a consensual gentleman’s agreement and open and honest communication.” As its founder “Mr. Rick” explained, Meridien’s seventeen-point honor code would require members to complete a telephone interview, provide written confirmation of their most recent medical exam, and make a solemn promise that in the interim, they hadn’t had sex with any non-member. Once accepted, men were then encouraged to self-classify their “status” based on the kinds of sexual activity they’d last had, ranging from non-anal contact, “very careful” anal contact , or “heavy” anal contact, which included intercourse, fisting, and rimming.

Undoubtedly born of good intentions, the attempt at a homegrown solution to the venereal disease problem came not from public health, but rather a gay everyman hoping to strike a balance between good-natured, fraternal fun and personal responsibility. “Mr. Rick is not a hairdresser,” Native readers were assured. “This young man with the ruddy complexion, brown eyes, and decent sideburns chose his nom de plume because ‘it adds drama, which is appealing to gays.’” In a follow-up letter to the Native, Mr. Rick explained, “[Due] to the extreme frustration of the current VD situation, coupled with the mind-set of feeling non-related, some people in the baths are knowingly spreading disease with the attitude of let the other guy take care of himself.”

A more chilling prospect was scarcely worth considering: if a previously unknown infectious agent – a slow progressor, with initial symptoms resembling other common ailments – had already found its way into the human body, where it could pass from host to host without yet being detected, a standard VD check wouldn’t even come close to screening out potential carriers, no matter how devoted they were to keeping Meridien’s “gentlemen’s agreement.”

One gay New Yorker was already imagining such a nightmare scenario… but he wasn’t a very popular one. In early August 1981, author Larry Kramer had convened a group of men concerned about the escalating number of persons afflicted with gay cancer. In a subsequent letter to the Native, he wrote, “The men who have been stricken don’t appear to have done anything that many New York gay men haven’t done at one time or another.”

Prior to the MMWR’s announcement, Kramer had already witnessed an alarmingly rapid decline among some of his friends. “We’re appalled that this is happening to them and terrified that it could happen to us,” he wrote. “It’s easy to become frightened that one of the many things we’ve done or taken over the past years may be all that it takes for a cancer to grow from a tiny something-or-other that got in there who knows when from doing who knows what. . . .”

“This is our disease and we must take care of each other and ourselves.”

However urgent the message, some gays still found it impossible to look past the messenger. Just a few years earlier, Kramer’s novel Faggots, a modest commercial success, had offered a searing, no-holds-barred condemnation of what he viewed as the pleasure-obsessed, live-for-yourself trajectory of gay culture in the ‘70s. As Kramer’s small group struggled to raise awareness and funds for gay cancer research, some took issue less with his actual concerns and more with the his alarmism of his tone.

“Basically, Kramer is telling us that something we gay men are doing (drugs? kinky sex?) is causing Kaposi’s sarcoma,” playwright Robert Chesley complained in a letter to the Native. “I think the concealed meaning in Kramer’s emotionalism is the triumph of guilt, that gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity.” While insisting that he was not downplaying the seriousness of KS – in fact, he was sending Kramer a check that very same day – Chesley warned Native readers to be vigilant against the twin perils of “gay homophobia” and “anti-eroticism.”

“In his novel Faggots, Kramer told us that sex is dirty and that we ought not to be doing what we’re doing,” he continued. “Now, with Kaposi’s sarcoma attacking gay men, Kramer assumes he knows the cause… and well, let’s say that it’s easy to become frightened that Kramer’s real emotion is a sense of having been vindicated, though tragically he told us so, but we didn’t listen to him; nooo – we had to learn the hard way, and now we’re dying.”

“Read anything from Kramer closely,” Chesley advised. “I think you’ll find that the subtext is always the wages of gay sin are death. I ask you to look closely at Kramer’s writing because I think it’s important for gay people to know whether or not they agree with him.”

And with that, the battle lines were drawn. For some who viewed their sexual expression as a hard-fought human right, the suggestion that certain behaviors constituted a public health threat amounted to treason – a declaration of war against gay liberation’s very cause, led by those self-hating gays who still felt guilty for being faggots. And of course Kramer, a devoted dramatist and practiced screamer, was known to never back down from an argument. In the months ahead, he and Chesley (himself one of Larry’s former lovers) would continue trading barbs on the Native’s Letters page, psyching out each other’s motives with an unsubtle whiff of queenly disdain, with each in turn declaring, “Gays are dying and we damn well better figure out why.”

In early 1982, Kramer, along with Lawrence Mass, Paul Popham, and others, would oversee the tumultuous founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which aimed to help the afflicted find medical care, social services, and emotional support. Despite having no funding, no offices, and no formal structure, the fledgling organization offered a touchstone for the city’s frightened gay population. In just a few short months, however, Kramer and his co-founders would part ways over a flurry of bitter disagreements.

Source Notes

Information and direct quotes from the October 5-18, 1981, New York Native were retrieved from Lawrence Mass’s papers at the New York Public Library.

Information and direct quotes from Larry Kramer and Robert Chesley in the New York Native between August 1981 and February 1982 were retrieved from the University of Minnesota Jean-Nikolaus Tretter Collection.

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