Friday, May 6, 2011

You See What Careless Love Has Done

Sonja: Oh don't, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.
Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best.
I'm still trying to get caught up on things I've been meaning to write about for some time. (It takes about a second to think, "I want to write about that," but a lot longer to do the deed.) It helps when I find I haven't been able to forget something that caught my attention weeks ago, like Salon's interview with Larry Kramer.

A number of gay men, especially older ones, were annoyed with the 27-year-old gay male interviewer. I thought it was a good idea to have a much younger person interview a writer so much his senior (Kramer is 75); that kind of dialogue between generations is not common enough. It was Kramer who annoyed me, not because he behaved unusually badly, but because he behaved with his usual unselfconscious stupidity. The interviewer wasn't the sharpest pencil in the box himself, but that just made him a good foil for his subject.

The occasion of the interview was Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart, which was getting its Broadway premiere. Because of Kramer's status as a founder of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP, Gay Men's Health Crisis and his long history criticizing other gay men, the interview focused on his anger and why he thought more gay men weren't angry. Anger, along with writing the screenplay for Women in Love with its famous nude wrestling scene (overrated, I thought) between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, has long been what made Kramer a brand. Now, I like anger, but any three-year-old can get angry; without intelligence it's just a tantrum.

It bothers me that more gay men (and lesbians and bisexuals) aren't angrier. One of the hallmarks of Gay Liberation was that we gave ourselves permission to be pissed off at the Heterosexual Dictatorship, but at the peak of the movement most gay people didn't get angry; Gay Lib was a minority of a minority. Mostly we turn our anger in on ourselves, and I give Kramer credit for yelling loudly when gay men were dying of AIDS, heterosexual society didn't care (was even pleased), and most gay men were paralyzed with fear and shame. He'd deserve honor for that alone, and if he'd stopped there I probably wouldn't be writing this blog post now. (I should also add that he wasn't the only angry AIDS activist -- Vito Russo, for example, had been inspiring me as an angry gay activist before AIDS became an issue.)

So, if "the trouble with gay men today" were just that we aren't angry enough, I'd agree with Larry Kramer. It's not just gay men, of course; feminism has lost much of the anger that gave it momentum in the 70s too. But that's not the only trouble with Kramer as far as I'm concerned. He told the interviewer:
I think there's still an awful lot of meaningless sex going on and the infection figures are still much too high and going up, so obviously there's still too much careless sex going on. I don't want to come out of this sounding like this prude. I never said don't have sex, but what's so hard about using rubbers? I don't have much sympathy for people who seroconvert now, who know about AIDS.
"I never said don't have sex" is a lie. Kramer's notorious 1978 novel Faggots came out before AIDS was identified, and its refrain was "Faggots are fucking themselves to death." Not "Faggots are fucking themselves to death without condoms," mind you. And you can see from this very interview that he's lying. "Meaningless sex" and "careless sex" are two very different things. The virus is no respecter of meaning: you can have all the meaningless sex you want if you block transmission of the virus, and you won't get AIDS; you can have beautiful romantic sex in the moonlight with the love of your life, but if one partner is infected and no measures are taken against transmission, you are putting yourself at risk. It's a bit late for Kramer still to be confused about this, but that's been a large part of his complaint all along.

I can't remember any reference to condoms in Kramer's public remarks about AIDS, though I admit I mostly tuned him out years ago. There's one reference to condoms in The Normal Heart, when the Kramer-surrogate protagonist's boyfriend, who's just been diagnosed with AIDS, asks his doctor, "No more making love?" The doctor replies, "Right." "Some gay doctors are saying it's okay if you use rubbers." "I know they are," says the doctor. "Can we kiss?" "I don't know," says the doctor. That's it.

Kramer doesn't really object to "meaningless sex", though. He only objects when other gay men have meaningless sex, especially if they're not having it with him.

Are you familiar with Grindr, the iPhone gay sex app?


It's an iPhone application that shows you how far away other gay men are, so you can have sex with them.

No. I'd be happy to use it now if I thought it would do anything. I get horny just like anybody else, and David [Webster, Kramer's partner] and I have been together a long time, so our relationship is now something else. I joined Daddyhunt or Manhunt and all those things, and posted my pictures, and filled out my questionnaire. And I got absolutely no response from anyone and it led me to wonder: What do older men do? It's very sad that suddenly there's no way to partake in all of this.

The interesting thing about Grindr is that it creates this map of your surroundings that's really catered to gay men. You can log into it in your apartment and suddenly there are 100 people around you looking to hook up.

It sounds wonderful. I'm not against sex, I'm against being irresponsible. We have bodies and we should enjoy them, but we shouldn't treat each other as things. That's what it came to be in the [1970s] height of Fire Island [the gay party mecca], and I guess you could say the same about this Grindr thing.

"It sounds wonderful"? An iPhone app that helps you find other men for meaningless sex? Kramer complains here that "suddenly there's no way to partake in all this," referring to online hookups for meaningless sex. His relationship with his partner is "now something else," so he joins online hookup sites for older men, "Daddyhunt or Manhunt," but comes up dry, or so he says. Fire Island came to be "treat[ing] each other as things, and I guess you could say the same thing about this Grindr thing." But it still "sounds wonderful." Someone's wires are crossed and shorting out.

"What do older men do?" he asks rhetorically. Well, many of us get laid, whether through online sites or face-to-face interaction of various kinds. (And there is more to life than sex, at any age, though I'm glad I won't die a virgin; contrary to Kramer, sex is almost never meaningless unless you really want it to be.) I have no idea why Kramer didn't get any results on Daddyhunt, but the site wouldn't survive if people weren't using it and presumably having some success with it. I've never used Daddyhunt or Manhunt, and I don't have an iPhone so no Grindr, but if a bitter, ugly, fat old troll like me can find sexual partners, so can Larry Kramer.

I find it interesting that he used an interview to grandstand about the lack of meaningless sex in his life. What's more, a decade or so ago he was doing exactly the same thing: Richard Goldstein wrote a piece in the Village Voice that Kramer had complained to an interviewer about how hopeless it was trying to get laid if you weren't young, blond, and cute. Goldstein pointed out that lots of older gay men managed to find sexual partners and lovers despite our lack of cute blond twinkitude. Judging from the behavior of his surrogate Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart, who cruises the baths for cute young blonds without success and scorns other types of men, it just might be that the fault lies not in our stars, Horatio, but in ourselves. Since this has evidently been on Kramer's bitchlist for a good many years now, it can't be put down to his advanced age; I'd bet he's been singing the same lament since he was young himself.

I've known young gay men who've used the same line. They complain that other gay men only think about sex, and only care about looks -- but when I get the details it turns out that some hot guy wouldn't put out for them. As I've said before, such men think that appreciating a guy's personality is for the other guy, not them. What's going on here is projection, and it also reminds me of Edmund White's rueful admission that back when he was having hundreds of sex partners each year, he still felt that he was sexually deprived.

Sure, there are lots of things I object to in other gay men. (And they find plenty to object to in me!) But life, including the gay community for all its faults, has been pretty good to me. I take for granted that someday that will change. Not only will I not find anyone who wants to have sex with me, but (more important, to me anyway) my body will break down and die. I'm constantly surprised to find that I haven't reached that point yet, but if you could have asked me at 18, I wouldn't have been sure that anyone would ever want me for anything; every friend, every lover, every transient sex partner I've ever had has felt like a gift, so when the day comes that there are no more I'll still know how lucky I've been. It sounds as if life has been pretty good to Larry Kramer too. Using an interview to attack other gay men for not having sex with you, though, is just tacky. But then, oh Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky.