Look Back in Anger

Larry Kramer is right that anger is necessary in the face of inequality, but anger can't be the only thing that guides our lives

by Sean Bugg
Published on November 3, 2011, 7:02am | Comments

If I had to choose the aspect of my own writing I like least, it would be my tendency to delve into optimistic cheerleading.

The tendency doesn't derive from any natural well of optimism snuggled deeply in my bleeding heart. I'm actually quite cynical, approaching the world from the well-quoted perspective that the cynic sees the world for what it is, not what he wants it to be.

Then again, cynicism isn't deeply embedded in my shriveled little heart. There are times and moments when, confronted with the world as it is, I have a deep desire to see the world become what it should be.

As dualities go, I'm not that unusual. Most people, I believe, experience the same tension in their everyday lives, wielding a well-honed cynicism toward the broader world of politics and big business, while feeling much more empathy for the people and issues close to their everyday lives. I'm only slightly unusual in that I'm one of the cadre of Washington journalists and editorialists who try to work these things out in writing.

It's the combination of cynicism and compassion, especially when approaching the LGBT issues that are so central to my own life and the friends and family I love, that so often leads me to anger. No doubt, anger is a useful perspective when confronting an unjust world. When I was younger, I was angrier. I had reason to be, given the state of the AIDS crisis during the early 1990s and the endemic homophobia of our culture that told me ''no'' at every turn.

I'm still angry, but in far smaller doses. I've learned that while anger drives me to fight for positive change in our lives, it tends to blind me to success. I've also learned that as I've gotten older, to experience the constant pressure and fire of anger in my chest would break me sooner than not.

Anger hasn't broken Larry Kramer. I can say without reservation that I have enormous respect and admiration for what he has accomplished, both as artist and an activist — if those two things can even be teased apart. I couldn't have emerged from my time with ACT UP without some sense of awe at the rage he channeled into a fight to save lives.

Yet for all that he accomplished, that undiminished anger means he sees no victory, no success. When asked by Metro Weekly's Chris Geidner about how gay lives are lived more openly and successfully than 30 years ago, Kramer answers, ''A lot of that is because the culture has provided that for everybody. It's not for anything we can take credit for.''

That perspective is understandable, I suppose, given that Kramer sees the gay community as one giant mass of pleasure-seeking apathy. It's even, I daresay, infuriating, given that American culture has never spontaneously changed to accept minorities. It's only been through the long and unfinished work of minorities and their allies that culture has moved.

It saddens me because the anger overwhelms what should be some small measure of joy. Life shouldn't be all pleasure, but neither should it be all pain. Kramer sees the world as it is and he envisions the world as it should be; what he doesn't see is the world as it changes.

Odds are if you're reading an opinion column in an LGBT magazine or website, you're unlikely to be the apathetic gay person Kramer laments. You're involved at some level, whatever it may be. I would hope that you want and will become even more involved and encourage others as well, because Kramer is right that apathy is the enemy of equality. But everyone needs to celebrate our successes as much as they need to be reminded of our remaining challenges.

That's why, despite my own inherent cynicism and the risk of descending into cheerleading, I so often and so purposefully err on the side of optimism. I can't bear the alternative.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace