Writer and Activist Sarah Schulman on The Normal Heart, Being Friends With Larry Kramer, and the Whitewashing of AIDS History

With The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical play turned recent HBO movie, it’s impossible and maybe pointless to try to separate the personal from the political. The play’s protagonist — and Kramer’s stand-in — is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), the splenetic activist-writer who screamed at everyone who wouldn’t listen, and even those who did. In many ways, it’s a time capsule of the early years of the AIDS crisis when it was just a “gay cancer.” The content reflected the reality: 1,112 dead and counting after just two years, indifference from the Koch and Reagan administrations, and a thoroughly freaked-out gay community that had just begun to feel the inklings of acceptance.

After the first production of the play in 1985 at the Public Theater, Kramer galvanized the gay community in the summer of 1987 with a speech, delivered at the LGBT Community Services Center, not unlike the kinds Ned delivers in the play. Its message was simple — if we do not fight, we will die. Vulture talked with playwright, novelist, and activist Sarah Schulman, who joined ACT UP a few months after its conception at that 1987 meeting, and developed a personal friendship with Kramer. A firebrand in her own right, she spoke about Larry Kramer’s anger, the art of truth-telling, and how The Normal Heart is different from other AIDS narratives.

What was the political and cultural atmosphere like when The Normal Heart first premiered at The Public in 1985?
I was very much in the underground at the time, so I can’t tell you about official culture, but I was working as a reporter for subcultural newspapers like The New York Native. I was at City Hall covering the fact that we didn’t have a gay rights bill, and then AIDS really began. In those early years I reported on the closing of the bathhouses, the first AIDS arrest, hearings at the City Council. It was a whirlwind of pain. 40,000 people died of AIDS from 1981 to 1986. ACT UP was founded in 1987.

Like his persona Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer was a controversial figure in the AIDS movement, who seemed at once alienating and completely necessary.
What made Larry different from everyone else was that he was a man with power who used his power and yelled at the powers that be. At that time, people who were really connected to the system did not use their access to help fight AIDS and Larry did. That’s a real huge difference between him and many other people of his class. I often feel that he’s a very important part of the reason my friends who are alive are alive today. He never could come up with a strategy that worked. He couldn’t get along with other people. He was dysfunctional in all those ways, but he used everything that he had. And many people who had more didn’t do that.

I remember when Vito Russo died, which was a devastating death for the community. At the memorial service at Cooper Union, Larry’s eulogy was, “We killed Vito. Don’t you see that?” It was so off base. You had this room full of suffering, dying people who are fighting until their last breath, and he’s saying, “We killed Vito.” I remember friends of mine who had HIV saying, “I’m going to get a t-shirt saying, ‘I killed Vito.’” There’s all that kind of on an interpersonal level, as a member of a group — being out of touch.

What was the Broadway production of The Normal Heart like?
When I went to see the show on Broadway, I really felt proud of him. The wonderful thing about The Normal Heart is that it does not give you this character of the heroic heterosexual who bravely overcomes her prejudices to help the poor, abandoned gay person who’s all alone in the world. And that’s the winning paradigm when you want Oscars and Pulitzer Prizes. This was a play that actually told the truth about how straight people behaved during the AIDS crisis, which was abominably. And it was not, like Dallas Buyer’s Club, the opposite of the truth. It was not straight people are the heroes of AIDS. They were destructive, abandoning, and indifferent. And Larry said that from the beginning, and he was right. So when I sat there on Broadway and I saw him getting all of this praise for telling the truth, I know that that truth is true. I was very proud of him.

But it isn’t simply about straight people as villains. He seems to have a lot of anger at the gay community for not fighting back.
Yes, that’s right. That’s of course realistic, though. If ACT UP hadn’t been formed, would the AIDS crisis have ever transformed? There always was this leadership that wanted to go along with things. And he resisted that. So his criticism of them is reasonable. But on the other hand, you understand why they were the way they were. Paul Popham [Editor’s note: The character Bruce Niles, played by Taylor Kitsch, is based on Paul Popham], who I kind of remember, I believe he was a Green Beret. Some of these people came from really right-wing backgrounds. They weren’t equipped because they hadn’t ever been oppositional. Maybe because Larry was Jewish, maybe because he was kicked out of Yale, I don’t know what the actual reasons are, but he already had the experience of seeing himself as oppositional.

Why do you think it took so long for a film to be made?
Well the film happened because of the success of the Broadway show, right? Why did that take so long? I don’t know. But you know we’re so far behind. I’ve been at this for a really long time and when you have an idea that’s an original idea, you usually are misunderstood, because they confuse familiarity with quality. So then you have to wait, sometimes decades until your original idea is now the status quo. Either they remember that you had it in the first place or they wait for someone else to come along and have it again. And then it gets praised. That’s the normal cycle.

What was the difference between what Larry Kramer was trying to do with his plays versus his political screeds and speeches?
I guess The Normal Heart is personal. And some of his political writing, his analogies between AIDS and the Holocaust didn’t work; that was not a successful intellectual venture. I think he’s a better feeler than he is a thinker. I’ve interviewed 168 surviving members of ACT UP New York for the ACT UP Oral History Project and almost everyone who talks about him talks about him the same way. They’re all annoyed with him on some level and yet they love him. He enrages them, but they all know what he’s done for them.

Returning to the play, Kramer has said that formal aesthetic concerns are not important to him. Do you think that’s true?
It’s possible. You could compare it to Angels in America, which has this very ornamented theatricality. For many people, that is the most important element of the play and Larry doesn’t have that. But the content of Angels in America is that there’s a gay man who abandons his lover when he has AIDS. That almost never happened in real life. And then he has the Reaganite Mormon who heroically takes the poor, abandoned gay man to the emergency room because there’s no gay people there to help him. That’s the opposite of the truth. So you have people who are impressed by it, formally, but there’s very little discussion of what it’s actually saying. I remember feeling this at the time, was that what it was describing was not the truth. The truth was that people with AIDS were abandoned by their families and they joined together and they forced this country to change against its will. That’s not the story that the dominant culture wanted to hear. That’s Larry’s story. It’s not encased in something that engages or perhaps distracts.

But you know one of the things in American theater is that the meaning and values of the work is almost never discussed, whether it’s condemned or praised. Rarely do people say, what does this play stand for? And when we look at what The Normal Heart stands for, it really holds up.

Do you feel like we need a Larry Kramer now in the queer community?
Who’s we? Now we’re in the homonationalist era. Now we’re at the era of the reconciliation of the white race through gay marriage and gay family and gay rights. And gay people who have certain kinds of privileges whether they’re white or citizens or HIV negative allying themselves to the state and using the state apparatus that separates them from other people. This is where we are now. But there is no “we.” It’s not the same “we” that it was at that era or that time.

Well I would question whether it ever was, even then.
Well ACT UP was successful because it had all these different kinds of people and it allowed all different kinds of people no matter what their background to act in a way that made sense individually. It did not try to control. There was no attempt to homogenize people’s behavior and that’s why it was a successful movement.

What did you think of How to Survive a Plague? There seemed to be a certain whitewashing of history going on.
Well we call it “The Five White People Who Saved the World” — that’s our nickname for it. And those white people are very busy because apparently they’re always saving everything all the time. Everywhere you go, you see them.

Jim Hubbard, the director of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, and David France did a public debate. It was co-sponsored by Visual Aids and you can watch it on YouTube and it’s really really fascinating. At one point they open up for questions and the first question to David is: Why do you have no women or people of color in the film? And he says, well I wanted to focus on wealthy white men because they had the time to devote to activism. Now as a person who has interviewed 168 surviving members of ACT UP New York, I can tell you that’s not historically correct. People in ACT UP gave their entire lives to ACT UP. All different kinds of people from every class and background would report in our interviews that they were at ACT UP five nights a week, that their entire life was ACT UP. And that had nothing to do with how much money you had. And the second thing he said was that these men went to good universities and so they were able to understand the science. That is absurd. The audience almost started laughing. One of the best experts on the science of AIDS in ACT UP was Garance Franke-Ruta who was 19. We all sat there and realized that this man knows nothing about ACT UP.

And yet France’s documentary was widely praised and even nominated for an Academy Award in 2013.
Because it does the same thing that Philadelphia does: It makes the dominant culture comfortable. It gives them heroes that look like them that they can identify with. That’s the story that they want. In Philadelphia, the straight lawyer heroically overcomes his prejudice to help the poor gay man. Why Tom Hanks’s character didn’t just get a gay lawyer is something I never understood about that movie. It had this bizarre conceit, but that’s what straight people want. Now we have this whiteness that is uniting gay people, especially gay men, with the rest of the white race. This is pervasive, now we see that straight people can identify with these white gay protagonists, it made them the heroes. That’s why they like it. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t true.

Writer Sarah Schulman on The Normal Heart