Larry Kramer has an issue with historians. He has publicly criticized Clare Lyons and Richard Godbeer, both historians of early America who have, in his view, papered over the presence of gay men in the colonial period.
With his latest book, The American People, Kramer aims in part to correct what he sees as willful ignorance in the historical profession that, as he told an audience of Yale alumni in 2009, “homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history.” In The American People, he retells American history with gay men at the center, and argues not only that homosexuality has always existed, but that it has always been hated and persecuted.
At the same time, he offers a narrative of the American AIDS epidemic, here referred to as the “Underlying Condition.”
As usual, Kramer writes himself into the book, appearing as Fred Lemish, a journalist who is writing a “history of this plague, which … he discovers is also a history of The American People.” At the same time, the Underlying Condition represents not just the epidemic, but the evil of human ignorance, which engendered the anemic early response to AIDS, when the general public and politicians alike treated gay men and others affected by the disease as expendable.
For Kramer, the lack of gay history and the AIDS epidemic are closely linked. In a recent speech at the Spring Gala of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, he told the audience, “I no longer have any doubt that our government is content, via sins of omission or commission, to allow the extermination of my homosexual population to continue unabated.”
For Kramer, the absence of gay men from historical narratives underwrites the lack of a concerted government response to the epidemic. But in his view, historians are not only complicit in the silencing of gay history, they are culpable in public complacency around homophobia and the AIDS genocide it engenders. As he tells readers in the voice of Dame Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench, one of the book’s handful of narrators, “History is about evil. If it isn’t, the historian has lied to you. Almost all of them have.”
But for an author so concerned with telling the true “history of hate when one is among the hated,” Kramer is remarkably cavalier in the ways that he represents groups other than gay men—Native and African Americans in particular.
He refuses to refer to Native Americans as such, making an explicitly self-conscious choice to refer to them as “Indians,” and invents a whole host of fictional North American tribes—Dree-o-Dragees, Valdrawnees, and Pfunamis among them—with names that evoke Dr. Seuss.
In one troubling chapter, he writes in pidgin English from the perspective of an enslaved girl forced to have sex with an enslaved man, whom Kramer names “Darkus.”
More broadly, The American People works at cross purposes. For a book that aims to rewrite American history, it is quite lightly sourced. In a 2007 letter to the New Yorker, Kramer claimed to have found evidence of marriage and adoption of Native American children among men in the early years of the Jamestown settlement. This research seems to be the basis for a chapter about tragic romance in early Virginia. But if Kramer is so eager for academic historians to tell that story—and so disdainful of them for not doing so—wouldn’t it have made sense to include notes of some kind? Kramer’s decision to locate The American People in an absurd parallel reality reminiscent of Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest also undercuts his goal of claiming a usable gay past.
Kramer lived through the worst years of New York City’s AIDS epidemic, and watched innumerable friends die while the federal government did next to nothing. Ronald Reagan, who appears here as “President Peter Ruester,” infamously did not say the word “AIDS” in public until 1987; by the end of that year, over 40,000 in the United States alone had died of the disease. The American People brims with Kramer’s justified anger, and at times the book reads like a rage-fueled fever dream. But in his disdain for academics, Kramer negates the queer history that has been written, and in blurring the line between fiction and reality, makes it easier for the true conservatives in the field to dismiss that work as marginal to the story of “The American People.”
Dan Royles is a visiting assistant professor of history at Stockton University in New Jersey. His research focuses on the politics of the body and social movements in recent American history. He is currently working on a book manuscript, oral history project, and digital archive dealing with the political culture of African American AIDS activism. Follow him on Twitter @danroyles.