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    Ann Rostow: RIP Larry Kramer

    By Ann Rostow–

    RIP Larry Kramer

    You saw, I assume, that playwright/activist Larry Kramer died of pneumonia a couple of weeks ago. It’s ironic that he breathed his last at this moment, when we stand at the crossroads of plague and civil unrest. After all, Kramer spent his life directing traffic at a similar intersection, shouting with one breath at the powers that be and with the next breath at his own community. There are very few people like Kramer; an irritant, an activist in the truest sense of the word, an inspiration, a man doomed never to be satisfied. He seemed to me the Ulysses Grant of the AIDS crisis, and yes, I just watched that three-part Grant biography on the History Channel.  

    Kramer was 84 when he died. So, he remembered the war protests, the civil rights marches, and the assassinations of the 1960s. He emerged into the nascent gay rights movement of the 1970s, only to run headlong into a combination of death and indifference that seemed impossible to defeat. Unlike COVID-19, no one cared about the epidemic that targeted sexual deviants (and Haitians). Scientists tinkered with possible cures, while politicians looked the other way and society frowned its disapproval. We brought it on ourselves, you see.

    I recall a joke from the era. “What’s the worst thing about getting AIDS?”

    “Trying to convince your mother that you’re Haitian.”

    Yes, I actually remember laughing at that one, at a time when society’s (and one’s parent’s) disgust with homosexuality was an inescapable given, indeed the very reason the AIDS epidemic would linger unaddressed. But all the inescapable givens of the day were not “givens” to Kramer, and through his plays and his rhetoric, he convinced the world around him to reassess its most basic assumptions.

    One of the most powerful phenomena of the fight against AIDS was the solidarity that grew within the gay and lesbian community, as people took care of their friends when others turned their backs. The crisis showed America the kindness and bravery of a community that had been tagged as perverted and sick. And in so doing, it began to undermine stereotypes that had never been questioned before.

    The AIDS crisis gave survivors a new courage as well. The men who lived through it and the women who helped them had less need to hide in a closet. And coming out of those closets led directly to the GLBT civil rights progress of the last twenty years. 

    So, I guess my larger point is that horrible times can lead directly to good outcomes. Indeed, they can hold healing within their horror. Maybe the road out of our current abyss will lead the country to a better place in terms of race and inequality after half a century of going around in circles. Maybe we need another Larry Kramer right about now.

    To the Streets?

    I gather Los Angeles and New York are considering reversing the plans for a virtual Pride, and turning instead to a civil rights protest Pride, surely a decision that will be picked up by other cities around the country. Indeed, it’s now clear that the pandemic is no barrier to full out street activism, ergo, why should Pride-goers sit by their computer screens when they could make a political stand? I’m sure you’ve noticed that many protesters are masked and many of them are making at least a small effort to distance themselves. Oh, and the majority seem fairly young. Will the pandemic surge back due to these protests? Or will it just bump a little and recede again? 

    I guess we’ll find out. But I’m also imagining what might happen if the High Court hits us with one, two, or maybe three defeats over the next few weeks, just in time to trigger a wave of anguish throughout our community. 

    As I write, we have only three dates left for the High Court to release opinions from the 2019/2020 session, namely, the last three Mondays in June. (With 19 cases still unresolved, it’s likely that the Court will add more release dates, either stretching the session into early July, or releasing some opinions on one or two Thursdays in the weeks ahead.) 

    You know, of course, that we’re waiting for our two Title VII workplace discrimination cases, which will decide whether gay and trans employees are protected from bias under the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on sex discrimination. But we are also waiting for a ruling on whether Trump can deport the Dreamers, whether Louisiana can effectively ban abortion, and whether churches can expand the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination rules that allow them to pick and choose whom to hire and fire regardless of civil rights law. 

    The ministerial exception case was argued in May, indeed I just wrote about it for your edification (you’re welcome!) so it’s also possible that opinions in this case, and nine others that were argued in May, could be delayed beyond the normal Court schedule. There are a host of these unusually late cases since the Court blew off April due to the pandemic. Among them, we have a ruling due on whether or not Trump must turn over his taxes, and a Hobby Lobby spin-off case about whether or not religious business owners must offer contraceptive benefits to their insured staff. 

    This last case threatens to overturn a key High Court opinion that says you can’t claim a faith-based exemption to a neutral and generally applicable law, otherwise every man would become a law unto himself. That opinion, written by Antonin Scalia in 1990, came in the case of two men, fired for using peyote in violation of Oregon drug laws and denied unemployment benefits. The men said their drug use was a religious ritual, but the Court said this motive didn’t excuse the offense.

    So just imagine if this current High Court decides Scalia’s reasoning no longer applies to our society. Anyone and everyone with a Bible at hand would be able to skirt civil rights laws (or peyote bans) at their whim. Imagine, then, if this Court also decides that gay and transgender men and women are no longer protected against job bias under federal law. Toss in a ruling in favor of an expanded “ministerial exception” for church affiliated employers, and you can bet we’ll be taking the “virtual” out of our 2020 Pride marches.

    Circus Days

    New topic: Since we are still buttoned down for the time being, Mel and I just watched a documentary on Netflix called Circus of Books, about a middle-class straight Jewish couple with three kids who found themselves running a hard core gay men’s porn store in West Hollywood in the 1980s. A secret from their family, as well as their friends in the synagogue, the business flourished and at one point, Karen and Barry Mason also owned one of the top producers of gay porn films in the country. What was supposed to be a short-term cash bridge to new careers turned into a 35-year enterprise, because, well, one thing led to another and the store and film operation were successful.

    Eventually the Masons grew comfortable with their double life, and joined PFLAG to support their gay son Josh. The stores (they expanded) went downhill as the internet replaced the old porn business, and the West Hollywood outlet was the last to close in 2019. You should watch it.

    The Mason’s daughter Rachel produced the documentary, which ends as the internet not only takes down the porn industry, but also decimates the gay bars of the late 20th century. Now, it seems as if COVID-19 is writing the final obituaries, if not for gay bars in general, at least for our community’s dive bars. You know, the ones that used to have black windows and called themselves “The Anvil,” or “The Chain Gang.”

    I’d be surprised, however, if gay bars are gone for good. No, they’re not cruising locations anymore. And partly for that reason, they’re not men-only bars or women-only bars. But modern GLBT bars still thrive, I think, as places to hang out, to talk, to watch sports, to dance, to see friends. It’s not the same. Those bars of old were a lot more fun. But who would want to go back to those times, really? 

    I have a few other pieces of legal news as well, including a partial victory out of the Tenth Circuit on whether or not Americans must select male or female on their passports. (The answer awaits further litigation.) But I am not inclined to delve into these arcane areas. For some reason, a great lassitude has crept into my personal space in the last half hour or so, and I am losing my capacity to revel in the news of our vibrant community. I have the television running without sound, so my attention is diverted by loops of protest shots, funeral scenes and my unhappy fellow citizens on parade. Mel has just informed me that the subject of an irritating Amber Alert that interrupted our consumption of Rachel Maddow last night, a little boy, has been found dead. He was two, and dressed in a Mickey Mouse shirt. Also, our friendly feral cat has vanished. And, of course, Trump is still president. 

    It’s just as Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Except you can scratch the part about the best of times.

    Another Rant About Nextdoor

    I guess someone in Ohio did something to the grass in his gay neighbors’ yard to spell out “FAG.” The two men who lived there used the incident to raise several thousand dollars for a local gay charity, and apparently police are examining neighborhood Ring cameras in order to catch the culprit.

    Meanwhile, some of my neighbors are going a little nuts these days. Some termite company sent kids door to door to drum up business, generating calls to the police and outraged posts on Nextdoor. “Man knocking on door at 6 pm,” and the like. Come on, guys. Either don’t answer the door, or politely reject their services.

    We also have mask wars, many of them focused on whether or not you should wear a mask while walking down the street. Hey, I’m a responsible mask wearer, but there’s no need to bother with it if you’re walking down an empty street. 

    And my least favorite post, the “helpful hint” to suggest that we adjust some practice to conform to the neighbor’s personal preferences for no reason. For example: “Just a friendly reminder that as a pedestrian while walking on a road where no sidewalk is present one should walk against traffic (left side of the road). This will also help cut down on how many times we all pass one another in terms of social distancing.”

    You know, this person might be right, but I don’t need a “reminder” that I can walk on whichever side of the road I damn well please! I mean seriously. This is written as if those of us who might walk on the right side of the road have been breaking some urban walking regulation and need a “friendly reminder” about how to behave. It infuriates me for reasons unclear and it makes me want to deliberately defy this person’s recommendation. 

    Oh, and let me complain again about the people who are selling used junk for nearly retail prices? I just saw a post for two wire bar stools, only $100 even though the neighbor bought them recently for $140. I don’t think so!

    You may well ask why I still peruse the Nextdoor postings given these atrocities, and the answer is because for every annoying neighbor, there are a dozen nice ones, including many who mirror my opinions. Also, I am concerned about the lost pets. And from time to time, I too wonder whether or not I just heard gunshots, or why three cop cars were sitting at that intersection, or what kind of snake this might be. 

    And do you remember that I told you about one post last year that said a clown was walking down my street at eight pm with a baseball bat? I needed to know that. 

    arostow@aol.com

    Published on June 11, 2020