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Back in the Fold
Ask Larry Kramer about Yale, and he is sure to tell you about two important nights. The first was one of his darkest: the night in October 1953 when, as a freshman in Lawrance Hall, he tried to kill himself because he was so unhappy about being gay.
The second was the night of April 2, 2001, when he gathered with University officials at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to celebrate the donation of his papers to Yale and the creation of a Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Fueled by a million-dollar grant from Kramer’s brother, Arthur Kramer ’49, ’53LLB, the Initiative instantly made Yale’s program one of the richest in the nascent field.
Kramer remembers the second night as the time that “Rick Levin made the speech that made everybody cry.” Levin declared that “lesbian and gay students are, and must be made to feel themselves, a part of this institution, a part of this community, a part of the Yale family.” Some may have taken such sentiments for granted, but for Kramer, it had been a long time in coming. “It was everything I had ever wanted,” he says.
The road from that first night to the second has been a dramatic, controversial, and sometimes harrowing one for Kramer, whose achievements as a writer have often been overshadowed by his work as an AIDS activist. Best known in the pre-AIDS days as a producer and screenwriter, he penned the screenplays for Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969) and the 1973 remake of Lost Horizon (which Kramer calls “the only thing in my life I’m ashamed of”).
In 1978, he stirred up controversy with his novel Faggots, an indictment of a Fire Island gay lifestyle that equated promiscuity with liberation. Then, in 1981, the novel’s message became grimly relevant when AIDS first began to be documented. Kramer responded to the spread of the disease among gay men in New York by cofounding Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Later, frustrated by what he saw as the medical community’s inadequate response to the epidemic, he founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an angrier organization that used both guerrilla-style protests and extensive negotiations to accelerate the development of treatments for the disease. Along the way, he wrote The Normal Heart, his now-classic play about AIDS, one of the works that led the British newspaper The Guardian to refer to him recently as “the Solzhenitsyn of AIDS.”
And, some time in the 1970s, he believes, he contracted HIV and hepatitis-B. While the treatments he helped pressure the medical community into developing have extended his life far beyond the sad prognosis that faced early patients, he came close to dying two years ago from advanced liver disease—a frequent complication of the two ailments. At the time, people with both diseases were not eligible for liver transplants, and Kramer was told that he had six months to live. At the last minute, a few transplant centers changed their policy, and Kramer got a new liver in 2001. He has now begun agitating for changes in the organ-donor system that would make more organs available.
With such a history, one could guess that Kramer’s giving money to Yale was bound to be anything but uncomplicated. As Kramer tells it, he was first approached by the University several years ago, when his success in the movie business attracted the interest of the development office. “I told the man that I would never consider giving money to Yale unless it was for something gay,” he recalls. “He wrote me back and said ‘fine, there would be no problem.’”
But nothing more came of it until about six years ago, when Kramer, his health questionable at best, decided he’d better make a will. His older brother Arthur had invested his money for him (much of it, ironically, earned from Lost Horizon) and had done well. Kramer’s will called for his estate—worth a few million dollars at that time—to be placed into a trust that would benefit his lover, David Webster, during Webster’s lifetime, then go to Yale. “Ideally, what I wanted was a tenured chair in lesbian and gay studies, or a center for gay students like the Slifka Center,” explains Kramer. “I faxed Yale a copy of the will, and after a month, I got a very businesslike and unequivocal ‘no,’” from provost Alison Richard.
Kramer insists that, despite his history of in-your-face activism, he had not intended to start a row with his alma mater. But writer Calvin Trillin, a classmate and close friend of Kramer’s (and a former Yale Corporation member), is skeptical. He remembers when Kramer first told him of his plan over lunch. “He said he wanted to leave his papers and a bequest to Yale,” says Trillin. “I said that’s a nice thing to do, but if you just want to make a tsimmes, I’m sure you can find something Yale won’t do. Larry started negotiating with Alison Richard, and eventually he found something Yale wouldn’t do.”
Richard and Kramer had a series of tense discussions in which she explained Yale’s reservations about his plans. Because lesbian and gay studies was still a new discipline with an uncertain future, Yale did not want to commit to something as permanent as an endowed chair. The University wanted Kramer instead to consider a program of visiting professorships like one that was already under way at Yale thanks to a bequest from Stephen T. Baker ’67. As for the student center, although there are such centers for Jewish students and members of some racial and ethnic groups, the University was leery about creating another of the centers, which some view as leading to separatism.
To Kramer, these sounded like excuses, and he was becoming discouraged about the bequest—and about giving his papers to Yale. “I didn’t want to give my papers to a place that was so cold to the idea of gay and lesbian studies,” he says.
Then, in the midst of what had been quiet negotiations, an item about the dispute appeared in the newsletter of the Yale Gay and Lesbian Alumni (Yale GALA), and a New York Times reporter called Kramer to ask him about it. “So then it was, ‘Okay, the media has called, and Larry doesn’t say no to the media,’” says Kramer. On July 9, 1997, a front-page article in the Times bore the news that Kramer was trying to give Yale $4 million for gay and lesbian studies, and that Yale didn’t want it. The media dustup went on for weeks, and Kramer was outspoken in his attacks on Yale, calling the University homophobic, President Levin “spineless,” and Richard “that termagant woman.”
Kramer says that as a result of the media attention, “I had letters from more than 100 institutions of higher learning begging me to consider them,” he remembers. “USC sent me a set of blueprints for the building they would put up.”
But Kramer resisted these offers, even as his communications with Yale stopped. And there it stood until 2000, when Trillin, urged on by their classmate Jim Banner, invited Arthur and Larry Kramer to lunch in hope of breaking the impasse. It was there that Arthur Kramer—whom Trillin calls “the single best big brother in the world”—made an offer that astonished his brother. “He told me he’d give a million dollars to Yale for anything I wanted,” says Larry Kramer.
“I’m very proud of my brother,” says Arthur Kramer, “and I’m a committed Yale graduate, as is he.” The elder Kramer gave the money but has largely stayed out of the discussions about how it is to be used. “I smile at the meetings and encourage them, but mostly I stand aside and kvell, “ he says.
Arthur Kramer’s generosity—and Trillin’s words to Levin and Richard on Kramer’s behalf—opened the lines of communication again, and soon Kramer was invited to New Haven to meet with Richard. This time, they found some common ground, and in April 2001 they announced a plan for Arthur Kramer’s million dollars that was not so different from what the University had first encouraged Kramer to consider: a five-year program to bring in visiting faculty, host conferences and lectures, and coordinate academic endeavors in lesbian and gay studies. At the same time, Kramer agreed to donate his papers to the Beinecke Library, which Trillin considers a coup for Yale.
“I think the papers are extraordinarily valuable for scholarship,” says Trillin. “You have someone who was in at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis and who has the added advantage of being a complete packrat. From the point of view of history, sociology, and public health, the papers are a real treasure trove.”
What is perhaps most surprising is the friendship that Richard and Kramer say has developed between them. “It’s true that Larry used to excoriate me in public places,” said Richard last winter before she left to become vice chancellor of Cambridge University, “but I always had a high regard and liking for Larry, and I’m now proud to call him a really good friend.”
Kramer agrees. “We’ve become so close, it’s painful to think of her leaving,” he says.
Understanding the importance of the Larry Kramer Initiative requires a quick history of lesbian and gay studies. Inspired by women’s studies, African American studies, and other identity-based fields of academic inquiry, lesbian and gay studies came into being in the 1970s, when a few seminal works of gay history were published. While the early emphasis was on uncovering the suppressed history of gay and lesbian life, the field found its most hospitable home in English and literature departments, where the emphasis was on literary theory. A set of ideas known as “queer theory” soon developed, using post-structuralist ideas about literature and philosophy to raise questions about our “socially constructed” categories of sexual identity. Rather than accept unquestioningly the idea of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” identities, queer theory seeks to demonstrate that much of what we think constitutes gender and sexual identity is actually a kind of performance—one’s true sexual identity is fluid and changes with circumstances.
But lesbian and gay studies doesn’t just encompass history and literary theory. Marianne Lafrance, who has chaired the faculty committee that oversees the Kramer Initiative, points to research in biology, sociology, anthropology, and the history of science that considers issues related to sexuality. A professor of psychology with a joint appointment in women’s and gender studies, she says her field has moved on from a time when homosexuality was considered a disorder to raise broader questions. “Now we’re asking not just ‘What causes homosexuality?’” she says, but also ‘What causes heterosexuality?’ and ‘Why is sexuality so central in some people’s perspective?’”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a locus for lesbian and gay studies coalesced at Yale around historians John Boswell and Martin Duberman. Boswell led three biennial conferences on the subject at Yale, and Duberman began an effort to establish a center for lesbian and gay studies at Yale in 1985. In 1991, though, Duberman left for the City University of New York, where he founded its influential Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and Boswell died in 1994.
But a couple of gifts kept a small flame of lesbian and gay scholarship alive at Yale. In 1993, an alumnus gave money to fund research projects in the field, and the provost appointed a faculty committee to administer what became known as the Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies. That committee developed the Pink Book, a listing of courses relevant to lesbian and gay studies, and established a small lending library named for Boswell. In 1994, with Stephen Baker’s bequest, the committee began to oversee a series of one-year visiting professorships.
The committee learned from the Baker professorships that having visitors on campus for only one year was frustrating for students, since the scholars weren’t around long enough to develop lasting academic relationships. As a result, one of the Kramer Initiative’s two visiting professorships will be a two-year junior position—still far short of the permanent tenured positions Kramer had initially sought, but long enough for a student to, for example, take a professor’s course one year and do a senior essay under the same professor the next.
The visiting professorship, which actually resides in the women’s and gender studies program, is but one of the programs coordinated by the Kramer Initiative. In just its first year, the Initiative has become a nexus for gay and lesbian academic, social, and political activity, largely due to the efforts of executive coordinator Jonathan D. Katz. An art historian by training, Katz was the first faculty member in lesbian and gay studies at City College of San Francisco, which has the first (and only) free-standing department in the field. He left a tenured position at SUNY–Stony Brook to come to Yale, where he is classified not as ladder faculty but staff. (He has an adjunct appointment as an associate professor in the art history department.)
Katz studies the influence of sexuality and sexual relationships among gay mid-century artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly. He is also a veteran political activist and a founder of the 1990s gay activist group Queer Nation. Having watched the Kramer controversy unfold from outside, Katz was unsure about Yale’s intentions at first. “I came in suspiciously,” he says. “I thought Yale was interested in a fig leaf to cover an embarrassment. But the consistent message I’m getting is that Yale wants this to happen. And it doesn’t want it to happen weakly, but as the advent of a leading program.”
Katz hit the ground running when he arrived last fall, launching a lecture series, planning a conference with the American studies program, and creating a council of student gay and lesbian organizations. “He’s an incredible person, and he is working harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says student leader Marissa Pareles ’03 of Katz. “The initiative has provided a tremendous boost to queer life on campus.” The Kramer Initiative also supports student and faculty research projects and will bring in post-doctoral fellows in the coming years. (The fellowships will be supported by a new fund—kicked off by Kramer—that honors the late Out magazine founder Sarah Pettit ’88.)
Katz believes that a successful program at Yale could help jump-start lesbian and gay studies nationally. Unlike women’s studies or African American studies, which have found institutional homes in American universities relatively quickly, lesbian and gay studies has languished. Scholars have published important books in the field, but universities have been slow to carve out faculty slots for those scholars. Katz believes that fear of alienating alumni of private universities—or legislators who fund public ones—is partly to blame. Besides City College of San Francisco and the City University of New York, the most substantial programs are at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and New York University.
With Arthur Kramer’s money and five short years, Katz hopes he can establish a foothold for the discipline that will someday lead to a freestanding academic program with its own tenured faculty. “Yale won’t become a major player until it hires tenured faculty with a national profile,” says George Chauncey ’77, ’89PhD, a historian who chairs the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the University of Chicago.
But the visiting professors are a start, and the first visitor is a pioneering scholar of gay history who, coincidentally, is named Jonathan Ned Katz. (The two Jonathan Katzes bear the campus confusion with good humor.) Jonathan Ned Katz has mined legal documents, letters, publications, and diaries for evidence of intimate same-sex relationships. In his book Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality, he wrote about several such relationships, but the one that caught the attention of the most people—including Kramer—was the opening chapter about Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed, with whom he was known to share a bed. “The known material suggests to me that there was an erotic current between these two men and between Lincoln and other men,” says the visiting Katz.
Kramer has seized on such scholarship to declare that Lincoln was “unequivocally gay,” though he acknowledges that “I don’t need as much proof as William Bennett is going to need.” Kramer wants the money that was given in his name to be directed more toward historical research than queer theory, a field he has trouble getting excited about. “First of all, I hate the word ‘queer’ and I’ve begged them to try to get it out of academic dialogue as soon as possible,” says Kramer, who is not swayed by the argument that the ironic appropriation of what has traditionally been a slur against homosexuals is empowering.
Marianne Lafrance has chided Kramer for being out of step and narrow in his interests. “Larry has an unwavering focus on a particular kind of gay history, basically outing famous homosexuals from the past. He tends to dismiss other areas of inquiry that are as important and more intellectually interesting.”
But Kramer believes that uncovering gay history will do more good in terms of increasing public acceptance of homosexuality. “The more historical figures we can legitimately ‘out,’ the more seriously we’ll be taken,” he says. “That the greatest president our country has ever had was gay has to do a lot of good for our cause—more than any number of courses in queer studies.”
While program coordinator Jonathan D. Katz says he hopes that the tendency to neglect gay history will be rectified at Yale, he also says that queer theory is an important part of the dialogue, including the introductory class that he teaches.
Kramer is watching the progress of his namesake initiative closely, and he says he will leave his money to Yale to continue it if it meets with his approval. But while the subject of his estate once seemed to be of urgent importance, the realization of any bequest from Larry Kramer now seems blessedly far in the future. “My transplant surgeon told me in all seriousness that you are as old as your liver,” says Kramer, “and I have the liver of a 45-year-old man.”
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