“The liberation of sexuality from the bonds of moralism has left in its wake a crying need for principled, intelligent, vigorous explorations of how a genuine morality can be introduced into our newly minted freedom” – Tony Kushner in an introductory comment to the 2000 reprint of Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots.
This succinct statement by the great contemporary playwright who brought us Angels in America in 1993, and a new play just opening in New York, sums up precisely my intent through the course of these Gay Science installments.
“Morality” is one of the most highly-charged words in our language, one of the most abused and feared. But that a “genuine morality” is important is without question. There is a crying need for it, with the emphasis equally on both words, and that’s why it is conditional upon three other words – principled, intelligent and vigorous. From what I can see, for homosexuals it has never been systematically attempted.
“Gay liberation” ‘morality,’ such as it is, has persisted as little more than freedom of homosexuals from discrimination, without attention to how homosexuals treat each other and themselves. For homosexuals, unlike for straight people, there are no inherent societal or cultural rules or expectations for guidance, and in fact resisting any such perceived impositions is thought of by many as essential to freedom.
My efforts at exploring a “genuine gay morality” have centered on identifying qualities of gay sensibility and creative, constructive non-conformist potential linked to erotic same-sex attraction as a starting point, and examining the implications of that from different perspectives.
Since Stonewall, only New York playwright Larry Kramer has stood out for also taking up this “morality” challenge, though not systematically. The messages in his novel, Faggots, and his play, The Normal Heart, now in a Tony-nominated revival on Broadway, assert that “having too much sex makes finding love impossible” (echoing from the corridors of real life the observation by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray that “pleasure and happiness are not the same thing”), and that gays should stop killing each other by continuing to have unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis (“Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?,” the character Ned says in The Normal Heart).
Moreover, Kramer was far ahead of anyone with his passionate response to the AIDS epidemic once it hit, forming activist institutions, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT Up, to mitigate its impact. Still, all these efforts earned him the angry enmity of the gay “establishment,” beginning with its reaction to his Faggots.
Kramer made many enemies with that book, released as if an ominous Old Testament prophecy, on the eve of the outbreak of AIDS. Then, the excesses of extreme hedonism had swept over the lifestyles of tens of thousands in major cities, as chronicled in Kramer’s 2006 film documentary, Gay Sex in the 70s.
“Why can’t I get out of this lifestyle that is going crazier and more out of control and more mad and legitimized,” a character in Faggots lamented.
Kramer’s enemies resulting from that book turned out to be many of the same who fought against efforts to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in the early 1980s, including profiteering bath house owners, their friends and political radicals who equated frequent and impersonal bath house sex with the very essence of gay liberation (Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, 1987).
This spring, the first documentary has appeared taking a hard look into the pained, emaciated and wounded faces of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. We Were Here, presently making the rounds of film festivals before a general release later this year, looks at how the crisis impacted San Francisco.
While it marks a breakthrough for facing down the crisis (after years of denial and post-traumatic stress), it nonetheless adopts an “upbeat” focus on the gay community’s caring and compassionate response to the epidemic, sidestepping any consideration for what brought it on in the first place.
In another now-in-release film documentary, Making the Boys, about the making of the 1968 Broadway play and movie, The Boys in the Band, Larry Kramer is shown commenting to the effect that gay people “killed thousands of their friends” by their sexual behavior in the early days of the AIDS crisis, adding, “And we really haven’t come to grips with that fact.”
Following a screening of We Were Here at the Baltimore Film Festival, I asked its producer-director David Weissman to respond to Kramer’s comment, and I was disappointed to once again hear his reaction come in the form of an indictment of Kramer for his “anger issues.”
Kramer’s “anger issues,” it seems to me, are in fact his overwhelming compassion for fellow his homosexuals translated into urgent calls for them to change their destructive behaviors.
(To be continued)