Monday, May 11, 2015

On the Beach With Larry Kramer and The American People

"Most history is written by straight people and they don't have gaydar."

~ Larry Kramer

There has been relatively very little written about gay history because there have been few gay historians. Larry Kramer sets out to help change that in his new book, The American People, Volume I: Search for My Heart

Kramer is an icon in the gay community and has been for over 35 years. He is considered to be the most prominent gay political writer of our time. Some may know him as the author of the semi-autobiographical play on which the recent movie, The Normal Heart, is based. 

Others may know him as the co-founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, one of the first groups to assist gay men who were contracting and dying from AIDS in the early-mid 90's. He also founded ACT UP, a direct protest organization that fought to raise public awareness of HIV and the AIDS crisis and the very little that the US government was doing about it.

I have been reading Kramer's book for several weeks now and am approximately 40% into it. A writer for The New York Times referred to the work as "a rambling history of homosexuality and AIDS in the United States ... [that blends] farce and tragedy, autobiography and fiction." It is technically a novel of sorts, but it is based on solid historical research. Again from the Times piece: "If he had had his way, he would simply have called the book a work of history rather than fiction ... 'I believe [,Kramer said,] everything in the book is true. It may look like fiction, but to me it's not.'"

"Mr. Kramer," continues the NYT piece, "said he was driven to write the book because he had long felt that gays had been excluded from history books, written out or ignored."

When I heard that the book was coming out, I knew I had to read it. As I have written about before, I am very interested in gay history, and in his book, Kramer (in the words of the NY Times review of the book,) "is saying something quite specific: That gay men have always been with us, long before homosexuality had a name, and it is past time we extend to these men our historical sympathy and imagination."

There are parts of the book that make for difficult reading and, frankly, I have skipped through several pages on more than one occasion. But the remainder of the book makes for fascinating reading. For example, Kramer beautifully imagines a group of men in early colonial Jamestown, Virginia who, deprived of female society, form a community based on same-sex love. 

I am sure that a *lot* of people would take issue with this "imagining," but although Kramer's work, being a novel, doesn't contain footnotes to sources he has read and upon which he bases his writing, one definitely senses that there is an extensive amount of research that has gone into Kramer's prose. 

In the end, however, it is the imagining that is important. Kramer sees things that a straight historian would not see or would choose not to see. As he states in the lead quote, above, straight historians don't have gaydar. What does this mean? To me, it means that straight historians are trained (and rightly so) to look for hard evidence in the form, for example, of primary source documents.

A gay historian who is researching gay history, however, is virtually guaranteed never to find a document, e.g., an old letter, that states, "I had sex with Abraham Lincoln" last night. So instead, such historian implements their gaydar, i.e., they look at things, at situations, at men, with a sense of who is gay. They notice things that straight historians generally wouldn't and make inferences therefrom. They read the same source documents in a different way. They read between the lines of history, for this is generally where gay history is found. 

This is essentially was Kramer does in his book. He looks at sources differently from other historians, he sees things other historians don't, and ... he imagines. To me, in the end, this imagining is just as important as "hard evidence history." Why? Because it inserts, quite plausibly, gay men into standard historical tableaus in which they have been noticeably absent. It tells a story of men who were like me - and of millions of other men like me.

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