Larry Kramer's Case Against "Queer"

By Charles Kaiser

Originally published on Advocate.com April 29 2009 12:00 AM ET

Larry Kramer went to
Yale University last week to be honored by its Gay and Lesbian
Association during its very first alumni reunion. The brooding
author-playwright-AIDS activist used the occasion to
deliver a broadside against Yale

, queer theory -- as well as the word "queer" -- and
all the American historians who have buried evidence that
Kramer believes makes Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Alexander
Hamilton, and Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) great gay
Americans.

Like me, Kramer rejects
the notion that no one ever thought of himself as gay in
previous centuries the same way we did in the 20th. "I
began to explore all this stuff, and I began to see that people

did

have sex in the old days," Kramer told Advocate.com.
"It's ridiculous -- there's all this business now
about passionate friendship, that all the colonial guys wrote
in all this very flowery message, and that was sort of standard
procedure and it didn't mean anything gay. I'm about to
review book a book by Richard Godbeer, a professor at the
University of Miami, called
TheOverflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation
of the American Republic.

It's 400 pages of letters that people wrote to each other, and
I just don't buy for one second that they're
straight."

"I needed no queer
theories, no gender studies, to figure all this out,"
Kramer said in his speech at Yale.

Part of Kramer's
objection to queer theory is that he thinks it crowds out more
important gay history, preventing it from getting the attention
it deserves at the university level. In his speech he noted
there were 22 courses offered in "the Pink Book of LGBT
studies" and only one of them, George Chauncey's course
titled U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,
"

is a gay history course." The rest of them range from
Cross-Cultural Narratives of Desire to Beauty, Fashion, and
Self-Styling.

BAYARD RUSTIN X390 (WARREN K. LEFFLER WIKI) | ADVOCATE.COM

Kramer is particularly
unhappy that the strong evidence of Lincoln's bisexuality in
C.A. Tripp's groundbreaking work,
The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,

continues to be ignored by most straight historians -- and many
gay ones.

Kramer points to
Tripp's account of Lincoln's breakdown after separating
from Joshua Speed as particularly indicative of the
president's real feelings: "Just look at a calendar
and see when he has the breakdown -- and don't give me all
this other shit about 'Mary's out shopping for too much
money' or whatever. They [Lincoln and Speed] had a parting
and [their letters prove] it was very painful for both of them.
And it isn't even taught as a possibility anywhere.
That's what pisses me off about Yale."

Kramer cites Gore
Vidal's novel
Burr

(which features a gay whorehouse in colonial New York) as one
reason for his belief that both George Washington and Alexander
Hamilton were also gay. (One of Kramer's assertions appears
to have no historical basis whatsoever: He said that Martin
Luther King's senior aide Bayard Rustin "was
homosexual and was assassinated because of it." Rustin was
indeed gay, but he actually died of natural causes in
a New York hospital after a botched operation.)

As for the rest of his
evidence, Kramer said, "I don't want to give away too
much, but these men are so obviously so self-centered in male
friendships -- that by me is gay enough." He said the rest
of what he's learned will be revealed in his massive historical
work,
The American People,

a combination of fiction and nonfiction, which he has been
working on for 20 years and is now 4,000 pages long. Kramer
guesses it's still five years away from publication.

As for gay people
calling themselves "queer," I asked Kramer if he
thought it's just like African-Americans who refer to each
other as "ni*****."

"Exactly,"
Kramer said. "And it certainly is not going to endear us
to the straight world, even though it's intended to be a kind
of in-your-face kind of opposition for political reasons. Which
is just such ass-back reasoning."

LARRY KRAMER X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

When he declared at
Yale, "I am not queer! And neither are you," he was
delighted to be greeted with a round of applause. "Ron
Gregg, who teaches the film course at Yale called Queer Cinema,
said he's thinking of getting rid of the word
'queer,'" Kramer said.

The rest of
Kramer's speech at Yale was an attack on the university for
accepting $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for
Lesbian and Gay Studies in 2001 and closing it down five years
later after removing its director, Jonathan David Katz.
"All references to LKI were expunged from websites and
answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI
was just no longer here. When this happened I thought my heart
would break."

Kramer blamed himself
in part for Yale's actions. "This famous big-deal
loudmouth activist apologizes to you and to Jonathan," Kramer
told his audience at Yale. "My lover, David, says I did not
sit on the nest enough. I did not become enough of the Larry
Kramer they were afraid of." He also noted that
The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students

lists Yale as near "the bottom of the heap in terms of
institutional support and administrative services for its gay
students and gay studies."

As for the continuing
failure of mainstream historians to pay attention to the
evidence that many famous Americans may have been gay, Kramer
said, "That's the trouble with academia: They
don't use their common sense. And it's time for us to fight
back. And I don't see it happening anywhere."