The Normal Heart Playwright Larry Kramer: I Don’t Know Why Gay People Are Hated, But We Are
By DOTSON RADER
Playwright, author, and longtime gay rights activist Larry Kramer received a special Tony Award last month for The Normal Heart, his landmark 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. The HBO screen adaptation ofThe Normal Heart is currently filming in New York and boasts an all-star cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons.
Parade’s Dotson Rader met with Kramer in his home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to discuss the new movie, Hollywood actors playing gay, equal marriage, and more. Kramer also shared his controversial thoughts on past U.S. presidents (some he deems homosexual) and government reaction to the AIDS crisis.
Parade: Glee creator Ryan Murphy is directing The Normal Heart. Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, is producing for HBO. Did you have trouble casting The Normal Heart because actors are afraid to play gay?
Rader: “Yes. In ’84, ’85, with the play, it was hard to get actors to go gay. We waited forever for Al Pacino, who diddled making up his mind. I was very happy with Brad Davis.” [Brad Davis played Ned Weeks, the lead in the original stage production of The Normal Heart at New York’s Public Theater. Pacino declined the role.]
Why was Mark Ruffalo chosen to play Ned Weeks in the movie? Ned Weeks is based on you. Ruffalo’s straight.
“Ryan said, ‘I want Mark Ruffalo.’ Mark’s unbelievably good.”
You’ve said that your visit in 1984 to the site of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany provoked you to write The Normal Heart. Why did you go to Dachau?
“Something said to me, ‘Go to Germany. Go look at Dachau.’ I followed my instincts.”
What did you learn at Dachau?
“How early it had opened, in March 1933, and we didn’t even know it. It was a lesson for us. So I wrote The Normal Heart. I wanted to get the message out.”
“I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and here at Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”
When you say our government allowed people with AIDS to die, do you mean through indifference or was it a deliberate turning away?
“What’s the difference?”
In The Normal Heart, you attack our government’s disregard for AIDS victims. Was that apparent indifference due to the kind of people who first got infected in America—gays, people of color, addicts?
“Of course. It’s because of who gets AIDS. I consider a great deal of what was done to us [by the government] evil.”
But there were early heroes in the AIDS battle. You and others were arrested many times in protests. Elizabeth Taylor risked a lot.
“Let’s talk about Elizabeth Taylor. She was buddies with Reagan. She never once went to him about this. She lent her name, but she didn’t use her power to confront the powers that be.”
When you were a student at Yale in the 1950s, did you know you were gay?
“I was very unhappy. I thought I was the only gay person in the world.”
The only gay person? Is that why you attempted suicide at Yale?
“I certainly didn’t see anyone [gay] there. And I got very depressed one afternoon and did it.”
You took an overdose, right?
“The campus police rushed me to the hospital and pumped my stomach. My brother was the first person I saw when I came to. We were very close. Because of him, I was able to stay in school and start psychoanalysis in New Haven. So that’s what I did.” [Kramer’s brother, Arthur, a lawyer, died in 2008.]
The suicide rate today among gay and lesbian teenagers is four times higher than it is for heterosexual kids, even after the progress made in securing equal rights. Why?
“Life is very fragile. It’s very difficult for us, no matter how secure we think we are. Everybody who goes into a voting booth and votes against us hates us. We have been hated for so many centuries. You would think somewhere along the line we could’ve learned how to fight back.”
Why are gay people hated?
“I don’t know, but we are. It makes no sense. I don’t know why [Rep.]Michelle Bachmann hates me. I mean, what’s in it for her? Why should she care? I don’t know why that whole Tea Party hates us. Leave us alone already.”
If you’re a parent and you have a son or daughter who you think may be gay, how do you prepare them for the homophobia they will face?
“It’s a problem. Life is unfortunately not meant to be safe. If the parent is a good parent and loves the child, and the child knows that he or she is loved, that is certainly part of the preparation, that’s what mommies and daddies are supposed to do. They shouldn’t get angry because a kid is gay, which is too often the case.”
Do you think we will ever have a gay president?
“Lincoln was gay.”
“We’ve had a number of gay presidents.”
“Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson.”
You were diagnosed with HIV in 1988?
Then your liver failed and you had a liver transplant in 2001.
“I was told that I only had six months to live, and they weren’t transplanting people with HIV. I was at death’s door. I weighed 120 pounds. I wasn’t upset. I thought I’d contributed to the world and been well used. At the very, very last minute, suddenly they wanted HIV-positive people for a transplant study. They had done seven of them. I was the eighth.”
Let’s talk about the Supreme Court’s June 26 decisions legalizing equal marriage in California and overturning DOMA. How do they affect you?
“David and I are going to get married!” [David Webster, an architect, is Kramer’s partner.]
How long have you been together?
When are you going to get married?
“As soon as we can.”
You must’ve been overjoyed at the court’s ruling.
“I couldn’t believe it! You know, they gave us what we deserved, but they kept back some really important stuff. So, I’m not going, ‘Glory, hallelujah,’ like everybody is. What they did will require a lot more lawsuits to clarify stuff that they refused to rule on. But we got rid of DOMA in the 13 states [and District of Columbia] where gay people can marry, so we’ll get [federal] benefits there. I was terrified that I’d die and David would have to give so much money to the government from our house that he wouldn’t have any money left.”
Because of death duties?
“Yes. I’m grateful for that. We said we wouldn’t get married until we got the benefits.”
Most Americans under age 30 support equal marriage. Some opponents of equal rights say that that is because gay people control the media and Hollywood. They talk about a “lavender mafia,” which I suppose you’d be considered a part of.
“Okay. If that’s what they think, then good!”
Does it exist?
“What, the lavender mafia? No. There’s an awful lot of gay artists in every field—writers, artists, painters, directors, actors. Maybe it’s because we’re smarter and more talented than others. People resent that.”
Are you hopeful about the future of gays in America?
“I’m essentially a hopeful person. We’ve weathered a storm here, yes, because we fought back. It’s not been easy.”
For the full Parade story, click here.