04.24.09

Yale's Conspiracy of Silence

Twelve years after Yale rejected a $7 million endowment for a gay student center, the school's Gay and Lesbian Association invited legendary playwright and gay-rights activist Larry Kramer back to campus to receive its first Lifetime Achievement Award. The following is his speech.

to receive its first Lifetime Achievement Award. The following is his speech.

I have come here to apologize to you.

It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.

Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.

When this happened I thought my heart would break.

I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.

By chance, just as we opened for business, Jonathan Ned Katz, our first visiting scholar, and Jonathan David Katz discovered that John William Sterling, Yale’s first really major benefactor, who died in 1918, had been gay and lived with one man only, James O. Bloss, all their adult lives. We released this information to the world, with great pride and excitement. What a way to launch ourselves! In no time flat I received a phone call from a classmate who is a partner in Shearman & Sterling, the giant law firm John Sterling founded, telling me that this information had not gone down well there and indicating that Yale would hear about it.

Jonathan David Katz, who is an art historian, put on an exhibition of the relationship of Robert Rauschenberg and his gay lover and how it affected his art. This, too, did not sit well. Jonathan David Katz’s courses were taken away from him. He was told he could no longer teach.

A book of great historical importance was published in 2005. It is called The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, by the distinguished gay member of the Kinsey Institute, Dr. C. A. Tripp. It maintains that Lincoln was gay. I had a great deal to do with its publication. I had offered it to Yale. Yale wanted nothing to do with it.

When I set LKI up I didn’t know that gay studies included all kinds of other things and these other things ruled the roost: gender studies, queer studies, queer theory. And that then-Provost Alison Richard, who immediately left to run Cambridge University, my attorney, Bill Zabel, and I were ignorant of the great semantic differences lurking in the words “studies” and “history.” Thus I was not able as I might have been when initial negotiations were transpiring, to insist that my brother’s money be funneled via the history department rather than leave it up to Yale, which plunked LKI just where it should not have been, in the women’s and gender studies department. The various queer and gender theories I came to quickly realize as relatively useless for a people looking to learn about our real history drowned us out completely. Month after month, over these five years, as I was sent constant email announcements of lectures and courses and activities that reflected as much about real history as a comic book, I slowly began to go nuts. I made pleas everywhere I could, in the Yale Daily News, to then-Dean Peter Salovey and then history chair, Paul Freedman. Please put us in the History Department, I begged. I made a public plea to another provost, Emily Bakemeier, at a Berkeley Master’s Tea. I brought letters to Provosts Long and Bakemeier from George Chauncey, then at Chicago and now, in no small part because of me, here at Yale, and from Martin Duberman, whom I had put on LKI’s advisory board, two of our most distinguished gay historians. Martin stated in no uncertain terms, and George concurred with him, then: “Yale is doing it wrong. You do not teach gay history via gender studies, via queer theory. You are making the same mistake every other gay program makes.”

Yes, I came to see this and this big deal activist came to see that he was powerless. I apologize to you. I bore witness to all this. I bore witness to the fact that the university was ridding itself of a teacher, Jonathan David Katz, who was exceptionally loved and admired. The kids stood up and cheered him nonstop with tears in their eyes. “He is the best teacher I have ever had for anything, period,” is a direct quote from one young man. On his last day at Yale, Jonathan somehow managed to get the Yale Art Gallery to remove from storage, for this one day, work by the following artists: Homer, Eakins, Sargent, Bellows, Demuth, Hartley, O’Keefe, Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombley, Nevelson, Martin, Indiana, Morris, and Warhol. Jonathan lectured in the Art Gallery to a packed house about why he considers each of these great American artists gay and how this is reflected in their work. I had brought one of the heads of the Phillips Collection in Washington. “What a brilliant piece of scholarship,” she said. This event, also, did not go down well somewhere in the murky invisible inner sanctums of Yale’s Soviet-style bureaucracy. Yale was getting rid of the only faculty member teaching the kind of gay history that I longed for and I was powerless to help rectify this great mistake. Yes, this famous big deal loudmouth activist apologizes to you, and to Jonathan. My lover, David, says I did not sit on the nest enough. I did not become enough of the Larry Kramer they were afraid of.

There were and are 22 courses offered in the Pink Book of LGBT studies for this year. Only one of them, the course George Chauncey teaches entitled U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, is a gay history course. Here are the others:

•Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music
•Critical Ethnography: Methods, Ethics, Poetics
•Cross-Cultural Narratives of Desire
•Gender Transgression
•Sex and Romance in Adolescence
•Biology of Gender and Sexuality
•Anthropology of Sex and Sexualities
•Beauty, Fashion, and Self-styling
•Gendering Musical Performance
•Gender Images: A Psychological Perspective
•Gender, Nation, and Sexuality in Modern Latin America
•Queer Ethnographies
•Music and Queer Identies

The word “queer” also embellishes most of the activities and lectures and fellowships and appointments announced in those various emails. It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that.

Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. 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.

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.

Do you know that men loving men does not require the sexual act to qualify them as homosexuals? My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: “sexual orientation to persons of the same sex; and the second: “sexual activity with another of the same sex.” In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do academics, indeed everyone, insist on this second definition over the first? This theory makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as one of us.

Is Yale actually afraid to teach any of this? To actually name names out loud from Abe Lincoln to John Sterling to Robert Rauschenberg? And why is the History Department allowing history to be hijacked by the queer theorists just as the English Department allowed Paul DeMan and Jacques Derrida to highjack literature for the deconstructionists? That travesty found safe haven here at Yale too.

History is about people events more than it is about theory. We need to know specifically who our brothers and sisters, our ancestors, our own people, are and were! John Demilio has written an award-winning biography of Bayard Rustin, the trusted associate of Martin Luther King, which reveals that Rustin was homosexual. How many years did the world refuse to acknowledge that Jefferson had a black mistress? Such knowledge, when it was finally accepted, has invigorated black studies and given people of color a new pride in themselves and in each other, in their people, in their rightful place in America’s history.

Gays must have this! We must. We must if we are to endure.

I asked Peter Salovey recently why he thought LKI was closed down. Who was behind it? What was behind it? His answer was: “We’ll never know.”

In a recent Yale Daily News article, a gay staff reporter, sophomore Raymond Carlson, wrote that The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students lists Yale as among the bottom of the heap in terms of institutional support and administrative services for its gay students and gay studies.

For those of you here celebrating Yale’s acceptance of us, I am here to tell you that there is not quite so much to celebrate yet. Yes, it is a long way from my freshman year in 1953 when I tried to kill myself. But like so much that continues to happen to us, there is still too much invisible shit blocking the acceptance that we need and we are due.

So I receive GALA’s award with a certain bittersweet acceptance. As I hope I have made clear, I feel very alienated from this university which took my brother’s money and my dream and slammed the door in both our faces.

In closing, once again I apologize to you for failing you. And for failing my brother, who died last year. And for failing myself. I wanted so very very much for the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay History at Yale to succeed for you and for all our people.

But, yes, thank you. We are all fellow warriors and I salute you.

UPDATE: This article originally incorrectly stated that Bayard Rustin was assassinated. It has since been corrected.

Larry Kramer is a writer and gay-rights activist.