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Larry Kramer Rails at Yale's 'Conspiracy of Silence' on Gay History

Gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer was invited back to Yale last week to receive the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the university's Gay and Lesbian Association.

Kramer Kramer used the opportunity to rail at Yale's "conspiracy of silence" on gay history, criticizing an endowment offered to the school by his brother to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies because it was misdirected, he says, and used for gender theory and 'queer 'studies (Kramer despises the word "queer", calling it adolescent and demeaning). Kramer wishes the school taught more about gay people in history and talks a bit about his new book, The American People.

Here's an excerpt of Kramer's speech:

Here are some of the things that I have uncovered about our history in writing my new book, The American People:

That Jamestown was America’s first community of homosexuals, men who came to not only live with each other as partners but to adopt and raise children bought from the Indians. Some even arranged wedding ceremonies for themselves.

That George Washington was gay, and that his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were homosexual. And that his feelings for Hamilton led to a government and a country that became Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian.

That Meriwether Lewis was in love with William Clark and committed suicide when their historic journey was over and he wouldn’t see Clark anymore.

That Abraham Lincoln was gay and had many, many gay interactions, that his nervous breakdown occurred when he and his lover, Joshua Speed, were forced to part, and that his sensitivity to the slaves came from his firsthand knowledge of what it meant to be so very different. And that the possibility exists that Lincoln was murdered because he was gay and John Wilkes Booth, who was gay, knew this.

That Franklin Pierce, who became one of America’s worst presidents, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became one of our greatest writers, as roommates at Bowdoin College had interactions that changed them both forever and, indeed, served as the wellspring for what Hawthorne came to write about. Pierce was gay. And Hawthorne? Herman Melville certainly wanted him to be.

That most of the great actresses who endlessly toured America during the 19th century bringing theater to the masses were lesbians and occasionally dressed as men. Just like Katherine Hepburn.

That the plague of AIDS was allowed to happen because much of the world hates us and most of the world knows nothing about us. They don’t know we are related to Washington and Lincoln.

I needed no queer theories, no gender studies, to figure all this out.

Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, hushmarkedry, or hundreds of other things, or had no name at all? What we do now they pretty much did then. Period. Men have always had cocks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them. It is just stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order to theorize, in these regards, that then was different from now.

Read the full speech at The Daily Beast.

(image david shankbone)

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  1. I have to agree with him. I have always hated the word "Queer." It is by definition odd and deviant, and gay people are just as normal as everyone else..

    Posted by: MT | Apr 27, 2009 11:21:00 AM

  2. Um, well...okaaaay...

    Posted by: another matt | Apr 27, 2009 11:25:18 AM

  3. i admire and thank larry kramer for his years spent fighting the good fight for gay rights, but his attitude toward yale and the larry kramer initiative is so boneheaded that i've lost a lot of respect for him.

    larry kramer seems to believe that "gay studies" is synonymous with reverse-engineering homosexual liaisons between powerful, privileged white men. regardless of whether his allegations are correct, his methodology is uniformly sloppy and his allegations, i believe, say much more about how larry kramer wants people to look at gay people, than about any gay people either now or in the past.

    Posted by: lauren | Apr 27, 2009 11:34:00 AM

  4. uh.....what? it seems like everyone in his eyes was gay.

    Posted by: Liz templin | Apr 27, 2009 11:34:38 AM

  5. I respect and admire Larry Kramer and can't thank him enough for everything he's done for our cause. But he needs to accept the paradigm-shift that the internet has wrought. Younger people do not necessarily adhere only to the gay-straight dichotomy. To them, gender and sexuality are fluid states of being. We should not deny them our history because of this.

    Posted by: bading | Apr 27, 2009 11:49:34 AM

  6. I would love to see his bibliography or any list of sources that prove all those claims. I'm not saying they're all false, I'm just wondering what exactly he's using to reach these conclusions.

    Posted by: DonnyB | Apr 27, 2009 11:49:38 AM

  7. Use of the word "queer" is ageist in denying the brave hard work done by our LGBT pioneers. It also denotes a severe tinge of homonegativity and denial, exemplifying the shame that the newer generation feels about their elders and by extention, themselves.

    I was queer not long ago, but am now gay and proud of those who came before me.

    Posted by: voodoolock | Apr 27, 2009 11:53:59 AM

  8. I meant to say - 'To them, gender and sexuality are fluid states of being, i.e., QUEER.'

    Posted by: bading | Apr 27, 2009 11:55:28 AM

  9. Poor Larry. He typefies the angry old fag stereotype. Perhaps the vituperative keeps him going.

    Posted by: Bill S. | Apr 27, 2009 11:56:55 AM

  10. "Use of the word "queer" is ageist in denying the brave hard work done by our LGBT pioneers. It also denotes a severe tinge of homonegativity and denial, exemplifying the shame that the newer generation feels about their elders and by extention, themselves."

    the only thing ageist about this whole "queer" debate is the fact that older lgbt individuals use it to infer a host of other issues about younger individuals. also, many people use queer because they feel like for the older generation (including people like l.kramer), lgbt meant G + l if it suited them, and treating bisexual and transgender individuals like pariahs.

    Posted by: lauren | Apr 27, 2009 12:01:40 PM

  11. What an odd, cross and rather snobby speech. There is no reference to bisexuality at all - and if he'd bothered to engage with any sort of gender or queer theory, he'd see how historical analyses have tried to show how bisexuality is much more promiment and 'normal'.

    Also, to use some of his hated queer theory, I find his essentialising a bit tiresome. I am not "related to" Washington and Lincoln. We may have both liked men, but that don't make them my relatives.

    Posted by: Lubin Odana | Apr 27, 2009 12:06:18 PM

  12. I understand the sexual fluidity argument for use of the word, but don't feel that gayness and sexual fluidity are mutually exclusive.

    I also believe that people should call themselves whatever they want, but agree with Mr. Kramer when he states that the word "queer" does seem "adolescent and demeaning" because is does deny our older generations.

    As far as seeming to focus on White men, that may or may not be Kramer's limited purview, but I certainly doubt he mandated the institute in his name be held to that limitation.

    Posted by: voodoolock | Apr 27, 2009 12:09:48 PM

  13. Wow, that's quite a take on history. I have no idea if it's true. If it is, I agree with him that it's shameful that it isn't being taught. But I can't help but feel a little skeptical when I read it.

    100% agreed about the worthlessness (and sometimes outright bigotry) of the "queer studies" industry. It's a haven for also-ran English professors who get away with claiming things like "there is no such thing as gay people," or "gayness is nothing more than a way of expressing one's alienation from society," which you can imagine as easily coming from Ahmedinejad's mouth. Sorry, kids, but the science is clear: for men at least, there is such a thing as gayness, sexual attraction with respect to gender is basically binary, and any correlated alienation or rebellion is a reaction to society's stigma and not the other way around. Queer Studies, like creationism, treats reality as a text that can be interpreted any way the reader wishes, and in the process does a lot of damage.

    Posted by: Pender | Apr 27, 2009 12:10:22 PM

  14. It's unfortunate that a smart man who has contributed a great deal to "the cause" (whatever that is) has rendered himself irrelevant via extremism bordering on absurdity. I'm having a hard time telling the difference between his rants and those of, say, Michelle Bachmann.

    Posted by: Dave | Apr 27, 2009 12:22:45 PM

  15. voodoolock,

    i apologize if my comments seem unduly pointed, but i was hoping you could explain your position on how the word 'queer' denies our older generations. i'm really interested in your perspective on this.

    personally, i consider the word, when used as a descriptor (as in, "i'm queer"), to be one of a panoply of options -- i've never heard anyone argue that everyone MUST exclusively describe themselves as queer, but rather that SOME people feel queerness more accurately describes their sexual/gender identity. if those instances occur, i do agree with you that it would be problematic. but just as terminology changes, i think that it's important for older generations to understand how SOME young people view their own sexuality.

    with regards to larry kramer in particular, during his tenure of involvement with the larry kramer initiative, he consistently expressed his views that the best use of funds was for the sort of posthumous outing of powerful individuals throughout western history seen above. these individuals, needless to say, are almost always white men, and in fact kramer denigrated the work of many fine scholars looking into the role of race and gender in sexuality in history.

    Posted by: lauren | Apr 27, 2009 12:24:32 PM

  16. Larry Kramer will whine about anything these days. It isn't any evidence of a homophobic conspiracy that university history departments aren't taking his word as gospel. The reason that his theories on gay history are not embraced is that they are conclusory (i.e., merely conjectural).

    Posted by: Sal | Apr 27, 2009 12:46:38 PM

  17. If he can prove any of those outrageous historical claims, more power to him. Right now he sounds like a crazy loon.

    I know there was the series Queer As Folk. But I would never refer to myself or another gay person as 'queer'. It feels like an out-of-date reference from All In The Family, which never used the term as a sign of affection.

    Posted by: David in Houston | Apr 27, 2009 12:47:21 PM

  18. "It's unfortunate that a smart man who has contributed a great deal to "the cause" (whatever that is) has rendered himself irrelevant via extremism bordering on absurdity."

    Wait, are you talking about Leland Frances/Michael Bedwell?

    Posted by: crispy | Apr 27, 2009 12:47:53 PM

  19. Everytime I use the word queer to describe myself I do so because it takes the power of that word away from those who would use it negatively.

    Has Larry Kramer every had a moment of happiness is his life?

    Posted by: homer | Apr 27, 2009 12:51:09 PM

  20. Larry gets to be an angry old fag stereotype, vituperative and all (neato - I looked up a new word). He has every right to express his anger, just as others have a right to be clueless how 70+ years of legal and social hatred can make a guy cranky, ESPECIALLY if one has lived through the 40's, 50's, and 60's.

    Words have multiple definitions in most dictionaries.

    Queer - eccentric, unconventional.

    I'll buy that one.

    (C)1996 Zane Publishing, Inc. and Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

    Posted by: John Bisceglia | Apr 27, 2009 12:51:57 PM

  21. "Queer" started being used in the 80s as a way of subverting prejudice. It implied a realization that you can't be victimized by a descriptive word when you know and acknowledge that it's what you are.

    The word was always hard to accept for those with painful memories of being called it in olden times.

    It was eagerly snatched up by academic types and its usage quickly degenerated into a way of casting oneself as painfully inclusive / on the cutting edge of culture. Today the word just sounds trendy-circa-1996 and not a little pretentious. It's a lazy label.

    I recommend that people move on to exploring and experimenting with other obsolete terms. Hushmarkedry?

    Posted by: Paul | Apr 27, 2009 1:16:43 PM

  22. "Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history?"

    Because it hasn't. Homosexuality and the terms used to describe "it," have both changed. There was a time when middle class men in NY called themselves "queer," which meant men who liked sex with other men to distinguish themselves from the working class "fairies," who were effeminate and had sex with "wolves" or "trade," who were men who fucked either men or women. Those days are gone (see Chauncey). It's curious that Kramer doesn't understand that his very objection to "queer" shows that things change.

    Plus I fear that his queerphobia (and theoryphobia) led to his runins with former director of Yale's program, Jonathan Katz, who is both a queer theorist and an excellent art historian -- a trained historian, which is more than you can say for Larry, though I do often love him for his rants. Just not this one.

    And for those of you who criticize queer theory here... well, I suspect that the majority of you have no idea what it is. It's not for everybody, like most critical schools. But bashing it without understanding it is just silly.

    Posted by: KevinVT | Apr 27, 2009 1:22:25 PM

  23. Larry I love you to teeny little bits!!!!!

    Never change.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Apr 27, 2009 1:25:39 PM

  24. I like the word "queer." A lot, actually. Partially because I believe in a collective "queer movement," and would rather not write out LGBTQQIAA... in my attempts to be inclusive- we're all queer. Also, in my experiences with queer studies, the existence of homosexuals has never been denied- at least, in so far as there are men who like to have sex with other men (and who do so.) But maybe treating "queer studies" as a homogenous whole with no internal debates suits people better; I suppose it would be difficult to sound forceful when you have to admit that some people might actually escape your criticism.
    Also, the notion of "homosexuality" and what men did with each other has not always been the same- it wasn't even the identity we know it as now until around the 18th/19th century.
    Kramer's idea of Gay and Lesbian studies is antiquated: we've established that other (great) men in history have had sex with men. Score one for our side; but I don't really get what advances that mode of scholarship have brought to the movement/study of gender, sexuality, etc. since around the 70s and 80s.
    And no, I'm not related to Lincoln and Washington. And I'm not related to Larry Kramer, either. I'm not arguing that what was accomplished wasn't and isn't important, but I think there's more to the idea of queer studies. Not to mention the fact that saying "Lincoln was gay!" and leaving it at that is equivalent to previous presumptions that he wasn't.

    Posted by: ImAQueer | Apr 27, 2009 1:33:18 PM

  25. He is probably right about "queer", and I like his strong positions on gay equality and teaching students about gays in (actual) history.

    But his historical "facts"?

    I don't think so.

    Posted by: Philo | Apr 27, 2009 1:35:31 PM

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