We’ve Got to Save Our Lives, I Guess

Interviews with Larry Kramer (1935–2020) and Gregg Bordowitz

Still from United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, dir. Jim Hubbard.

The following conversations with Larry Kramer, who died on Wednesday, and Gregg Bordowitz were first published in 2011 in n+1’s Occupy Gazette #3, and are adapted from the ACT UP Oral History Project. See more at actuporalhistory.org.

Sarah Schulman How could you expect that [the gay community] would be able to meet the challenge of AIDS?

Larry Kramer That’s a great question. But I did and I still do, and they still haven’t. We were dying and it happened first—so far as I could tell—through my people around me, my friends, our group. And you just think, Oh my God, we’ve got to save our lives, I guess. To this day, I don’t understand. At its heyday, at its peak, ACT UP—how many did we have across the country? Ten thousand people maybe? With how many millions of gay people in this country? How did I expect it? I did.

SS This is kind of tough question, but if you had never been involved in fighting for anybody else, where did you get the expectation that other people should come and make a stand for us?

LK I guess I never thought of it that way. We needed help and you had to scream for it, and I asked for it nicely, originally. We tried to be very nice to the New York Times and to Ed Koch and you learn very fast that you’re a faggot, and it doesn’t make any difference that you went to Yale and were assistant to presidents of film companies, and that you had money. You suddenly know what it’s like to feel like a faggot or a nigger or a kike. I did. I have said that. And, I did. And I remember the day it happened. And I didn’t like it.

SS When did you first become aware of direct action?

LK I think we all made it up as we went along. I don’t know that we became aware of it. There are all these terminologies for these things now.

SS Where did you first see people doing it?

LK In the speech I made that night in the Center, I referred to this group of Catholics that went up to Albany—ten or twenty thousand of them—screaming at the legislature there, and I said, why can’t we do that?

SS So you just started ACT UP, and then people brought that with them?

LK I remember those meetings, when we would all sit around and talk. The first action—I don’t remember how it got to be Wall Street. We were in the room. Were you there, then? I don’t remember.

SS No, not at the first meeting.

LK We were in the room, and all right, what are we going to do? We knew we had to do something public because—because, because. I don’t know, because of the Catholics had marched on Albany, I guess—because there wasn’t anything else to do. How do you get attention? And somebody said, let’s go against the FDA, because they were so slow in approving things. Mathilde said to me—Dr. Krim—the big heavy in all of this is Frank Young at the FDA. So I sat down, and I wrote an op-ed piece for the Times and they took it. It’s called “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS.” Was it called AIDS? Yes, it was called AIDS. They took it, and it ran on the very day that we had the demo. So we were able to pass out at Wall Street these fliers. And I had gotten Joe Papp to make an effigy in the shop at the Public [Theater] of Frank Young, and we hung him in effigy down there on Wall Street. Where did it come from? I think it just came from all of us talking with each other all the time, I don’t know.

Gregg Bordowitz We were these young gay artists who were interested in doing serious video work about the growing AIDS crisis. That’s when Hardwick hit. I remember David and I started doing work around Hardwick. We started showing up to the protests around Hardwick in the Village, with cameras, and we started documenting those. That was when I started identifying as gay, even though I was still living a kind of bisexual life. I decided that I was going to identify as gay, and be a part of the gay community, and make a contribution. And I started documenting the vibrant protests that arose around the Hardwick decision.

Sarah Schulman Had you been tested at this point?

GB No. And I wouldn’t test for two, three more years. I tested in 1988.

SS So how did you get to ACT UP?

GB David and I saw a poster at the Christopher Street subway stop for a protest at Wall Street. We said, “We’re gonna go there with cameras. That’s the next step. That’s what the Hardwick protests are leading us to. This is the most important issue that’s confronting the gay community.”

SS So you got to Wall Street.

GB We got to Wall Street. I met Jean Carlomusto there, who I would later collaborate with a great deal. The protest was amazing, and very moving, and scary. I remember I was concerned because a lot of people were chanting “You could get it, too.” So here we were, a small group by the church on Wall Street. I remember meeting Bradley Ball there, and a few other people. Everyone clustered together. The passers-by were just like quickly running by us. They didn’t want to have anything to do with us or what was going on. A few people would shout some epithets, or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what they shouted at us, but I remember at one point the entire crowd got into this chant of, “You could get it too, you could get it too.” I remember feeling very weird about that and not knowing how to deal with the emotions around me. I was new to AIDS activist politics. I had been doing other kinds of activism.

SS Like what?

GB I was involved with anti-interventionist—I was a member of CISPES. I was involved with protesting US involvement in Guatemala and Nicaragua, and was part of the anti-interventionist in Central and Latin America movement, and was part of the group that shipped medical supplies to Sandinista hospitals on the Lower East Side. So I was very interested in doing activism, and always wanted to do something. I joined that group, the Sister Cities Project on the Lower East Side, to become more involved with my neighborhood—this white, Jewish kid from Long Island living in the East Village, a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood at that time. I kind of wanted to connect with my neighborhood and my neighbors. I actually just met more Jews. I met other people, too, but it was like I met more people like me, and realized that there was something very abstract about what we were doing. I never really quite knew if the medical supplies we sent got to the hospitals, and these kinds of things.

SS So did you have anybody in your life who had AIDS until you came to the Wall Street action?

GB I did not know anyone. As it turns out, I did. But they wouldn’t express symptoms or get sick until later.

SS But did you know at the time?

GB No. There is something else I wanted to say about the Wall Street action—the anger. I didn’t know quite how to deal with that kind of anger. Actually, I was upset that people were shouting, “You could get it, too.” I thought it was politically bad. I thought it would be politically alienating.

SS Did you think it wasn’t true?

GB I did think it was true. I haven’t thought about this in years. I’m just trying to tell everything here. I just remember that it was my introduction to AIDS politics, and it was a kind of anger, and vibrancy, and honesty that I hadn’t encountered yet in other kinds of activism or protest.

SS This may be a bad memory, but I seem to remember one time you quit because you wanted ACT UP to have a President. Did I make that up?

LK I think so.

SS You didn’t bring in a proposal? I remember you got angry, because you wanted a certain kind of structure. You had a structure proposal for ACT UP.

LK Structure is the wrong word. We were processing a lot of people after a while, a lot of people—especially after we moved to Cooper Union. And to have to deal with that size of a room got to be distressing and boring for a lot of people, too. People were constantly looking for ways to make it all go smoother, and we used to have meetings about that—how can we make it go smoother? How can we get rid of the bullshit? How can we cut to the chase? Whatever. And there were a lot of ideas. I don’t think a general was ever one of them. I think at some point, as things got really awful, I became much more militant in visualizing ACT UP as an army, which didn’t go down very well.

SS Do you think that you personally wanted the attention?

LK I don’t look at it or that or myself that way. The whole thing about ACT UP is results. That’s all I was interested in. I was not interested in airy-fairy theories. Results. How do we get these fucking drugs? That’s what it was all about. How do we get them? And it was a slow process to getting them. And if I had to go out there and yell at somebody, I made myself able to do that. Again, you may find it hard to believe, but I am essentially a shy person, and it became like a Jekyll and Hyde thing, and I took so much of my energy from everyone else. That gave it to me.

SS I just want to get back to the theory/action relationship. So a committee or a constituency would have a need, and then the organization as whole would do the action to facilitate that need?

GB Not necessarily. Sometimes ideas came from the floor on Monday night. As the group got more established, it became more formal in its informal institutionalization, meaning that the people like me and others, who went to meetings on a nightly basis, were in a position to do consensus-building among smaller groups before the large meeting would happen. So I became aware of this, and I’m sure other people were aware of this as well, that if you wanted to present an idea to the group, and you wanted to win consensus, then you had to do a certain amount of campaigning within the group. You couldn’t just come up with a speech that would sway hearts and minds on the floor on Monday night. You had to develop that speech, you had to develop that rhetoric, and you had to do a lot of face-to-face politicking along the way in order to gain consensus. I don’t think there’s anything ominous about this. This is how grassroots, democratic politics work. To a certain extent, this is how democratic politics is supposed to work in general. You convince people of the validity of your ideas. You have to go out there and convince people. It was roiling. The feeling of ACT UP in its heyday—this was like 1988—when the room was packed, and you could hardly get into the ground floor of the Gay Community Center. If the weather was nice, the meeting spills out into the courtyard. There is business happening all over the place. It’s very difficult for the people who are actually running the meeting to get the attention of the group. There is all kinds of sexiness going on, as well. There is all kinds of cruising going on on the sides, and eye catching, and chattiness. There was an energy in the group that was amazing, because it was filled with people who had ideas, filled with people who had energies, filled with a kind of erotic energy. And all that came together. It was in some ways like a bazaar of desires. So it was amazing that anything got done. An enormous amount got done.

SS I want to ask you a little bit about yourself, as a person with AIDS, in the ACT UP context. When did you begin to think that you were positive? At what point in all of this?

LK Theoretically, I still don’t have AIDS. I’ve never had a defining illness, and I’ve never had low enough markers. I am the luckiest man alive. I never had to take any HIV drugs, until I got my liver. And the only reason I had to take it was because the transplant people insisted, to protect the liver. They wanted to keep HIV in check—whether it was out of check or not.

SS So, you’ve been HIV-positive, asymptomatic?

LK Since—I forgot when I was tested already—’85, ’86.

SS And why do you think you were asymptomatic?

LK I am lucky. I have no idea. Not everybody, but almost everybody I knew is dead from those years.

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