The United States was originally a refugee camp for Puritans who hated all sorts of sexualities, condemning them as evil devil games. Larry Kramer’s address to the community this past Sunday at the Great Hall at Cooper Union took up that old admonishing tone. The answer to our problems, said the armchair philosopher from Connecticut, was a list of sexual commandments to keep our bodies AIDS-free, hold our freakishness out of sight and protect our political power from diminishing.
Kramer is terrified and livid. I am 28 years old, and I recognize that AIDS has become fictionalized by my generation into a mere nuisance. Glibly benefiting from the work of activists in the 1980s, my generation only remembers their work with a brief toast to the dead before throwing back the meds cocktail managing the disease. AIDS has become less terrifying to my peers. Recognizing the idiocy of this shortsightedness, Larry came down from the mountain to tell his people what they must and mustn’t do from now on.
Never fuck without a condom. Just say no to orgies; no to crystal meth; no to role-play sex in Hitler costumes; no to the circuit parties; no to life without meaning. If we want to stop the exponential increase of AIDS, other STDs and overdoses, we must transform gay consciousness by inspiring beautiful alternatives.
But my response to Kramer is that paternalism and law making are not the way. That approach reeks of the same moral authoritarian rhetoric that blinded compassion for faggots—Kramer’s word—and allowed AIDS to spread in a way that SARS was never allowed to. Kramer is channeling a puritanical prescription that is hypocritical. Demonizing gay sex culture and behavior because it is oblivious to political and biological repercussions is dangerous, no matter how smart and informed that condemnation is. If AIDS did not exist, as it once did not, gay men might be praised in some quarters for indulging in anti-monogamous sexuality, as one might praise Colette of Paris or Catherine M. Whether in a novel or in an address to the community, those who condemn as faggots gay men virulently pursuing their libido are sexual fascists using AIDS to propagate their vision to make gay men people of normal hearts and normal sex. Fighting to make and defend diversity is less frightening than the prospect of old men making norms for youth.
In Kramer’s view, without the respectability that goes with being normal, we are politically powerless. For Larry Kramer, who invokes the Nazis as a warning, powerlessness is dangerous. Accordingly, since we have to behave sexually as good Americans to maintain our power, awaken our consciousness in the current realities of this nation, avoid being demonized and keep our bodies free of plague, then Larry is going to give us hell until we obey his pragmatic prescriptions.
The casual fascism triumphant in America today doesn’t need funny salutes and mustaches to announce itself. It insipidly makes each and every citizen unbalanced to varying degrees. One need only talk to a foreigner to realize how crazy we have become as Americans. But Kramer offers no antidote. He’s different from the barebackers, but crazy in his own way—rigidly adhering to a set of commandments to fuse the gay community, and willingly cut away the faggots who don’t conform to his notion of common sense.
Every time Kramer said he loved us on Sunday, and then proceeded to call the lost among us faggots—he was tired of caring, he announced in one of his most frightening asides—I waited for the audience to raise its voice and tell him to share the stage. No. The audience was largely of his generation, and for me, the address clearly exposed the divide between generations that makes the notion of a gay family, or gay brotherhood, or gay community, a quaint memory from the age of plague and certain sudden death.
The older generation, who could be mentors to the younger generation, has two reactions—both disappointingly stereotypical – to youth. The first is to condemn us as forgetful, depraved and ungrateful. The second, more insidious, is to crave our bodies for their feast, to make whores of us, or to guide us in a sexual ritual of varying degrees of care and economy. The ideal that the older generation could be teachers, true guides, is in my opinion the top priority for our community. The younger generation needs to make a compassionate address to the older generation, to encourage its lead in our process of healing. The older generation suffered a severe existential trauma from AIDS. They witnessed a wasteland of gay bodies. Then, when the cocktails were poured, a quick nod to the dead was followed by a lion’s roar for renewed life. And the orgies took up full swing. Steroids staved the wasting, and made body builders of a whole generation of men. All they offered the younger among us was a bacchanalia of indulgence, primarily in youthful flesh.
My generation does not have teachers who cared enough to build a beautiful gay alternative society to our ghetto. We don’t live in an alternative culture. As the American makes good consumers of too many of us, as well as closet Republicans in our zeal for yuppie success, the creative and artistic among us are chased from Manhattan with impossible rents. Too many in the older generation have commodified youth, and my generation usually just imitates and amplifies those trends. My generation only imitates and amplifies the older. The gay pimp is a son imitating his fathers.
Some activists from the ‘80s made real gains in the face of the vitriol and plague they faced, but did not succeed in building a culture of beauty which my generation could inherit. We have inherited a culture that is attendant to the straight one. We are merely a gay version of the greedy dream that puts one’s own laws above others, one’s own desires above others and commerce above beauty.
Gays need to secede spiritually from the American project that makes leches of us. Kramer’s personal exile in Connecticut is not the model. Gays must create a true alternative culture in Manhattan. A changed consciousness may guide people from drugs and dangerous sex, but a father shouting at his faggot son won’t change anything. It will only entrench the older generation in its hypocritical posture that denounces youth in egoistical jealousy for the fun they feel they’re missing, but which really doesn’t feel so wonderful at all.