Eric Leven

Kramer Vs. Kramer

Filed By Eric Leven | May 04, 2009 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: gay history, gender studies, Larry Kramer, queer, queer theory, Yale

According to GayCityNews one of my favorite middle fingers in the gay community, Larry Kramer, spoke at his alma mater, Yale, for failing to secure the course of Gay History at the Ivy League school. larrykramer.jpgKramer also didn't hold back on venting his feelings about how the course study of "gender studies" and "queer theory" are not gay history. He also threw in his two cents about the word "queer" itself and his belief that the usage of the word is deleterious to the gay community as a whole.

At Yale's Gay and Lesbian Association to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, Larry Kramer apologized to the group for failing to secure a program to teach gay history at his Ivy League alma mater. The Larry Kramer Institute, funded with a $1 million contribution from his late brother, Arthur, in 2001, was closed by Yale in 2006. "When this happened, I thought my heart would break," he said.

Kramer also lamented Yale's dismissal of gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz from the faculty, the suppression of information about the homosexuality of Yale's first benefactor, John William Sterling, and the university press' refusal to publish C.A. Tripp's "Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln" dealing with the 16th president's homosexuality. He also expressed dismay at how the Institute mainly taught "gender studies, queer studies, [and] queer theory," not gay history as he intended. "I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you," he said. "When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world."

I've never really supported the word "queer" myself. I always identify as gay and have never had a problem with it. Now I understand that "gay" is a very specific label while "queer" is rather open to an interpretation of sorts but I've always felt that queer was a word that we "reclaimed," so to speak, to fill ourselves with pride. But queer is so rainbowy and too kumbaya for me.

The youth seemed to have run with this word and if that continues than so be it. More power to 'em and I'll support them. But I do hear quite clearly what Kramer is saying: "Queer" is silly, it's court jester - what are we to expect from that? I prefer the hard hitting, guttural three letter G-A-Y. That's where my pride comes from.

I also support Kramer's deciphering the difference between Queer Theory and Gender Studies and Gay History. The two aren't the same. Gay History is much like American History or any other history. It's factual records of time. Our place on the time scale. Queer Theory and Gender studies, while they may incorporate aspects of history, is a vague term that seems to tip-toe around the idea of our place and importance on the time scale. On one hand you have Gay History (simple enough, huh?) on the other Queer Theory (hmmm...wha?).

Now I'm not trying to diminish or play down the importance of course work along the lines of Queer Theory. Certainly it has it's place and I'm sure if I were to look over a syllabus I'd probably think it was very interesting. Still it doesn't seem to encompass the simplicity of factual gay history and the course isn't even called "Gay History." If I were signing up for courses I would be much more inspired by "Gay History" than "Queer Theory" although I'd probably sign up for both.

It's always been a pipe dream of mine that if/when I ever get out of the TV industry I'd go back to Grad School and study to become a professor in Gay History and Comparative Literature. What I'd hope to do is teach my students actual gay history (which seems to have been the goal of Kramer) and have them read fiction-based literature published within the contexts of that time to match the historic facts with the cultural consciousness of the surrounding event.

Now that I'm wrapping on my umpteenth TV gig and hearing Kramer's disappointment that idea seems that much more appealing.

Go here for Kramer's full speech.

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It's semantics. Larry Kramer seems to be quite good at putting a wedge between himself and the following generation. This is so petty. And who made up the word "gay" that replaced "homosexual"? They must still be turning in their graves. Please! Don't sweat the small stuff. You defined it precisely Eric. It is a reclaiming of the word and a more expansive definition. Newsflash to Larry Kramer: Not everyone identifies exactly as him and neither should they be required to do so.

I've been unlucky enough to come across Queer Theory classes. Incredible waste of time. As if the humanities needed more of their usual psychoanalytic hot air classes.

There's a clear distinction between History and faux-sociology classes.

However, Kramer does stretch it in his speech with his claims.

Edit: Not to mention he makes the egregious mistake of claiming Bayard Rustin was assassinated.

Factual errors like these making it into print is what probably killed his program.

I will sympathize with his disdain for the usual gobbling up of gay and lesbian studies by the gender studies and sociology departments, which in turn transform it into anything but what was intended.

He can be as pissed off as he wants to over the lack of gay history classes in the program his brother established, and he has every right to be angry over that. But this comment of his:

"I am not queer! And neither are you."

just pisses me off. I'm not calling myself queer just because I'm afraid to use the "hard hitting, guttural three letter G-A-Y" as a label. I identify as such because "gay" leaves no room for the fluidity of my sexuality and gender. So go ahead and proudly call yourself gay. But realize that you don't know my identity better than I do.

Queer: to be different unusual, atypical, eccentric.

I'd expect someone versed in language to rise above connotation. Its so very anti-intellectual not too, eh?

Gay: content in the moment, in life, the happiness that come from being content in one's self.

Gay, however, in the current connotation, means Lesbians and Gay Men -- and loses the Bisexual and the Trans.

Just to be annoying:

Strikes me as yet another old, white, assimilationist era Mattachine whining about change and forgetting that for 100 years we've all been the same damn thing.

And yours isn't yet another deconstructionist nitpicking?

Be careful Dyssonance... If you're going for dictionary definitions, you'll get called Joe the Plumber!!

The difference is that I at least have both a sense of humor and an actual comprehension of what I'm saying.

Joe, on the other hand, with his mythical g-- err, homosexual friends, is, well, little more than a butt crack in the zealotry of our opponents.

'Queer' is silly, it's court jester - what are we to expect from that?

Umm... you do know the origins of the Mattachine Society's name, right? I hope the irony of your statement is not lost.

Gay History is much like American History or any other history. It's factual records of time.

Hmmm, it's more like one (or several) person's presentation of what they believe to be factual or what they want you to believe to be factual. I have a feeling my Gay History would be vastly different from Larry Kramer's...

Gay History is not to be owned. Not to be yours. Factually rigorous, as opposed to theories.

Tin foil hats aside, it is peculiar how Kramer rambles about the importance of a Gay History department, and yet not a single citation is present in his article. Not a single one.

As much as I respect all he's done for us, he lost me after the "Tragedy of Today's Gays" lecture. And it's more than him coming off as a grumpy, condescending old man.

It's that I just don't believe his picture of some mythical gay yesteryear where every homo was politically engaged and fighting for equality any more than I do his erroneous idea that contemporary gay men have no time for political activism because they're too busy flitting from circuit party to meth orgy. It's always been a politically engaged few who get joined by the masses when a disaster occurs (e.g. AIDS, Prop 8, etc). Larry Kramer was just unfortunate enough to be a part of the movement when the worst disaster ever to hit us did, and now he's romanticizing that back then, gay men really cared.

Thank God that he and so many others did what they did, but I just don't believe that our community has become so callous and shallow that we wouldn't do the same in similar circumstances.

None of which has anything to do with what you wrote...except that, again, I respect what he's trying to do, but could do without his disdain for anyone younger than him and his peers.

Oh, and don't flame me for "(e.g. AIDS, Prop 8, etc)." I'm well aware that the two don't even begin to compare... Simply illustrating two shocks to the community that got people involved, albeit at totally different levels of direness...

The idea that history is just "factual records of time" is as overly simple as the idea that one can write a history of gay (men) without a broader context of gender and sexuality.

Can't understand gay (men) without acknowledging the history of those dirty queers too!

His dislike of 'queer' is silly. But his point about gender studies, or whatever they call it, is on target. The sociology department likes to make up bull---t subjects in order to feather their own nests, but also to promote ignorance in the humanities. The less people know about their history and culture, the weaker their choices will be, and the more secure the professors' bosses.
As for the Kramer bashing here, how typical. He, and many of us, have been getting it for 30 years, ever since we started begging gay culture to clean up its act.

Jonathan Ned Katz might have been squeezed out at Yale by obligatory emeritus rules - he's 70. Or he may have left on his own to pursue other projects in NYC at NYU and other places. At any rate, he's a true public intellectual, and unusual in that he never got a degree, just barged ahead and did the research.

His cause was AIDS not Gay Rights, ACT UP and then he got a liver transplant and now he doesn't test for AIDS. I am happy for him. Hope he finds peace before he dies and people won't remember him as an angry big gay Jew blaming the world for getting infected.

I know I'll live to regret having asked this, Charles, but what does the fact of Larry Kramer (whose politics I can't stand) being a Jew have anything to do with anything?

He is an artist. Being associated with any faith, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, it doesn't matter when one is creating art. The art speaks truth, not the sterotypes people call us after we pass on, queers, Jews, towel heads, demons, ect.
That's what I meant and it is relevant in that it is bigotry.
I burnt a Koran and edited the Bible. I am not against Muslims or Christians, I am against the hate passages in the "holy books" that extremists act upon.

In addition, Yale has an anti-semitic past that was unfair. That's why I hoped Kramer will not be remembered as an angry gay Jew. I am old enough to remember when Ivy League Colleges and Universites would only accept students from WASP families, such as Bush and even Clinton would pass. People of Jewish faith were not allowed at Yale, Harvard and Princeton until the 1940's. And one was judjed by the legacy their last names. If you name sounded like "Lipschitz, or Kramer" (not on the Mayflower) one was not considered for admisssion. Yale was WASP territory. Unfair, but a fact.

I think Larry Kramer underestimates just how much educated people (both gay and straight) are aware how many of history's notables preferred their own sex. He strikes me as a bitter man with too much of an ego, and his conclusions about some (like Washington, Lincoln, and Booth) sound like rather a stretch which discredits true gay historians who go by more definitive evidence.

"Queer Theory" is the neo-con/neo-lib version of "Gay Studies" just as "Gender Theory" is the neo-con/neo-lib version of "Women's Studies".

It is dumbing down and removing history and an analysis of oppression from actual study.

The 1960s are already lost in the morass of revisionist history written to reflect a seriously Reaganesque right wing bias.

Kramer is right as usual

"Gay" is just as silly-sounding as "queer," and its meaning is just as hard to pin down. I don't like either word, but at least queer acknowledges some variety. People who insist on using gay will always tell you it means something very specific, but they all think it means something different.

Anthony in Nashville | May 5, 2009 9:06 AM

Kramer can be outrageous, but a lot of his perceptions are correct.

I am not a fan of "queer" myself, I associate it with people who are freaky/kinky instead of lesbian, gay, or bisexual. I guess it depends on how you view yourself, because most people I know who claim the queer label are happy to tell you how subversive their sexuality and gender performances are.

To each his own.

CBrachyrhynchos | May 5, 2009 9:42 AM

Well, with all respect to Kramer, and his views wrt history vs. theory, the mainstream of gay culture has made it quite clear that there isn't room for me under their umbrella. The conditions set for inclusion from my perspective includes a rejection of my history and identity as a bisexual man, and the acceptance of second-class status for laws that would protect me and mine. Meanwhile the Advocate openly entertains the question that a feminine and self-identified bisexual middle school student incited his own murder by being too swishy in the classroom.

"Queer" politics developed as a reaction to the various forms of bias that were endemic within the gay community. I don't see that those biases have substantially changed.

Paige Listerud | May 5, 2009 3:36 PM

Wow! Could you give a link to that Advocate story? I couldn't find it through their search.

Marc Paige | May 5, 2009 10:14 AM

Individuals can call themselves "queer" if they want to, but please don't impose this pejorative on an entire group of people.
Larry is right on this one.

Where exactly does Larry suggest that he believes individuals can call themselves queer if they want to? Just the oppposite, Larry asserts that nobody can/should use the word:

I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you

So I'm a little unclear where your "Larry is right on this one" statement is coming from? It seems to me that you and Larry have a fundamental disagreement on the right for people to self-identify. Just a thought...

Thanks for your comment. You and I continue to disagree on this, but I love you anyway!! Lee McD

Thanks for your comment. You and I continue to disagree on this, but I love you anyway!! Lee McD

Thanks for your comment. You and I continue to disagree on this, but I love you anyway!! Lee McD

Anthony in Nashville | May 5, 2009 11:56 AM

Those are valid points. Lots of people feel mainstream gay culture does not resonate with them. Hence the subset groups like bears, faeries, same gender loving, etc.

I understand the need to have a group with which you can identify. I also feel like breaking down into all these individual groups can be problematic in terms of organizing around social justice issues because some groups don't like each other, yet to mainstream society they are all looked at as "gay," so it can look like crabs in a barrel.

Paige Listerud | May 5, 2009 2:46 PM

My, how times change. "Queer", as it was used by members of "Queer Nation" in the early 90s, was the youthful, radicalized, non-assimilationist term we kids used to differentiate ourselves from the older gay and lesbian identified generation--who we thought were too rainbowy and too kumbaya.

I joined because Queer Nation included bisexuals and our fluid sexuality (no widespread usage of "pansexual" at the time). I DEFINITELY did not feel included, and sometimes felt outright hostility, from the larger gay and lesbian community. Inclusion of transgendered people in Queer Nation quickly followed after.

Imagine my surprise to read "Why I don't do bi" and realize, at least according to Jessica Hoffman, that bisexuals are not included in "queer" anymore--not queer enough, not radical enough. Where had I heard that before? Fascinating.

For you history buffs, Harry Hay was a founder of the Mattachine Society, organizing according to the methods he had picked up as a member of the American Communist Party. Harry viewed gays as radically, perhaps revolutionarily, distinct and different from straights. His presence would not be supported by gay activists like Ken Burns, however, who wanted the organization to secure its position in Cold War America by denouncing "subversive elements". Commie queero Harry Hay was thrown out of the organization he helped to start.

Not gay enough. Not queer enough. Too radical. Not realistic enough. Too left. Too Right. Too assimilationist. This argument has been going on for a long time now, people. Do you think we could have it in a smarter way?

Paige Listerud | May 5, 2009 3:50 PM

As a final note: if I'm resisting the assimilation of an older generation, that was resisting the assimilation of an older generation that was resisting the . . . What am I resisting, again?