Larry Kramer is up front about his frailties. Having “almost died three times,” and freely admitting to “not being so mobile,” he also tells a publicist to warn me he’s hard of hearing and a phone interview may be tough. He’s game to try, though.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and so after a couple of questions, we opt for an e-mail exchange. It’s not nearly the death knell to friendly sparring I fear. He has his answers back in about 20 minutes and answers several rounds of follow-ups quickly and without grumble.
The occasion? The publication of his new novel “The American People, Vol. 1: Search for My Heart,” which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published in April. It’s a behemoth —nearly 800 pages that tells variously of prehistoric monkeys, the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War and also the abundant — in Kramer’s vision — homosexual proclivities of the U.S. Founding Fathers with a dizzying cast that includes Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln and even John Wilkes Booth.
Kramer, a D.C. native, is widely known for his groundbreaking and searing play “The Normal Heart,” adapted into an HBO Emmy-winning film last year, and other works such as the novel “Faggots” (1978) and his Oscar-nominated screenplay of “Women in Love.” A pioneering AIDS activist, he cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and founded ACT-UP in 1987. He turns 80 next month and lives in New York’s Greenwich Village with his husband, David Webster (they wed in 2013) and their Cairn Terrier, Charlie, a rescue dog Kramer, always a dog person, says is “very good natured.” He ends our session by admonishing me via e-mail to “be sure to put something in about how much you loved ‘The American People’ and everyone should rush out and buy it and read it immediately!” It is not a stretch to accommodate this request.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Is it fair to say your book is a take on “how it might have happened” on issues of gay Americans, HIV and the Founding Fathers?
LARRY KRAMER: No. I am saying that I think this all did happen. I wanted to write a history of our people.
BLADE: Do you feel AIDS was started on purpose by homophobic German scientists?
KRAMER: No! I am saying that the AIDS virus has been with us since our country started, centuries ago.
BLADE: The New York Times review says your book suggests that “gay men have been with us long before homosexuality had a name and it is past time we extend to these men our historical sympathy and imagination.” Is that a fair estimation?
KRAMER: Of course, although I have never had a good review from the New York Times for anything!
BLADE: Did you envision the book as having such scale at the outset?
KRAMER: Yes. I was striving to write a “big book.” The technical problems interested me. I’ve written plays, movies, essays, a shorter novel. I wanted to see how far I could stretch myself. As I love to write, it’s been an exciting, challenging journey.
BLADE: What was the hardest part of the process? Did you hit any artistic brick walls along the way?
KRAMER: The hardest part was trying to figure out what makes a reader read such a long and complicated book that tells many stories and has a huge cast of characters.
BLADE: You’ve spoken of applying gaydar to historical matters. How fair in general do you feel that is or did it matter for your purposes?
KRAMER: I do not think the gay community is plugged in enough to their radar, so I tried to do it for them.
BLADE: In the modern day, much gaydar has been directed at former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ind). It sounds as though he had transparency issues regardless of whether he’s gay or straight, but is this kind of speculation of his being gay warranted?
KRAMER: Who gives a shit about “speculation” and whether it’s warranted or not? That’s the coward’s way out.
BLADE: Art, history and autobiography are always blurred in your work with characters like Ned Weeks (“The Normal Heart”) or Fred Lemish (“Faggots” and “The American People”). What is accomplished either historically or artistically by taking this approach?
KRAMER: A writer has one great subject to write about, his own life. My life has had many rivers, lived by many Larry Kramers.
BLADE: How’s volume two of “The American People” coming? About what percentage is done?
KRAMER: I have a rough draft but it’s very rough.
BLADE: You’ve taken on the possible homosexual proclivities of the Founding Fathers. Is there a point where similar approaches might be unfair or too obscured by history to justify? Any thoughts on those who assume, for instance, David and Jonathan in the Old Testament were lovers?
KRAMER: Having a strong opinion does not need the justification you are speaking about. No history of gay people exists, which is why I am trying to write one.
BLADE: But at any point in writing “American People,” did you feel you were on shaky ground? Isn’t it relatively easy to slap a gay nametag on a historical figure? What purpose is served in doing this beyond crafting entertaining fiction? Obviously it appears you had more in mind than that.
KRAMER: You miss the whole point of the book if you think I just made up these gay historical figures. I certainly was not out to craft entertaining fiction, but to instruct our people in their history. The only “shaky ground” was my concern people would not take seriously what I was telling them. Interesting that the great reviews arriving are from gay critics and the nasty ones are from straights!
BLADE: You’ve spoken often of the virtues of anger. Are you bitter? If so, is this a negative emotion?
KRAMER: I am not bitter. I am angry. Anger is a wonderful motivator for me!
BLADE: How old were you when you left Washington, D.C.?
KRAMER: I went off to Yale when I was 18. I still go back to see friends.
BLADE: Predictions for the Supreme Court gay case argued last week? If we win there, will we have won overall?
KRAMER: We will have won the right to marry. We have not yet won equality or a cure to AIDS.
BLADE: You’ve been critical of so many approaches to activism from HRC to Frank Kameny and beyond over the years. But could we have gotten to the Supreme Court solely using ACT-UP-style approaches? Couldn’t a variety of approaches have helped us in the long run?
KRAMER: Who says these kind of tactics were not used to help win marriage? I don’t remember criticizing Frank.
BLADE: Didn’t you feel Frank and some others spent too much time looking back?
KRAMER: Yes, I did say that.
BLADE: You told the Advocate recently you are working on a “Normal Heart” sequel, but didn’t you do that already with “Destiny of Me”? Is this another work?
KRAMER: I am working on a sequel to the HBO movie, which was a big success for them. But it has not been announced yet until they approve my screenplay and whether Ryan Murphy is free to direct it. “The destiny of Me” was more a prequel than a sequel.
BLADE: Were you overall pleased with how the HBO adaptation turned out?
KRAMER: Very much so. I loved working with Ryan and we had such a great cast, Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, all of whom we want to use in this sequel.
BLADE: Any thoughts on Armistead Maupin or the late Paul Monette (other gay writers of note)?
KRAMER: Paul was a dear friend and I am friendly with Armistead and I admire their work. I know many of the gay writers today and feel uncomfortable commenting on their work.
BLADE: Did you see the 2012 “Normal Heart” production at Arena Stage in Washington? Any thoughts?
KRAMER: I loved what Arena did. It was especially moving to me because when I was a kid, I went to see many of their productions in that small remodeled old movie theater on New York Avenue.
BLADE: How long have you been with David? Once you recovered, how did it feel to be married?
KRAMER: I first started dating David in the mid-‘60s. We dated for many years but he didn’t want to be pinned down. We finally got together permanently in 1995 or so and got married just a year or so ago. I promptly got very sick and spent almost a year in and out of hospitals. He saved my life several times when doctors were not helping; he found the right ones. It is certainly not the marriage one wanted to have, lover and caregiver. His own career as an architect has suffered as he worries for me. We have both certainly been put to the test and it has brought us even closer together.
BLADE: Has he read “The American People”? If so, what did he say?
KRAMER: He was one of the first people who read the earliest draft. He has a great memory of what and who I’ve written about, which is invaluable. He has always been a big fan, even of ‘Faggots,’ which is about our earlier go-round. He’s the dinky character who breaks Fred’s heart.
BLADE: Plans for your 80th birthday?
KRAMER: To carry on writing and staying alive!
BLADE: Barney Frank said this in his recent memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” Do you agree?
KRAMER: Joseph Papp, who produced the original “Normal Heart” at the Public Theater said much the same thing to me, to wit: “If you haven’t offended someone, then you haven’t done something right.”
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Taste of Pride celebrates LGBTQ and allied restaurants
Weeklong event will feature local eateries and bars
Get ready to celebrate LGBTQ-owned, managed, and allied restaurants at Taste of Pride from Oct. 2-8.
The weeklong event is a new initiative by Capital Pride Alliance. In 2021, the organization put on a single-day brunch event in June at LGBTQ and allied restaurants, but this is the first weeklong iteration.
About 15 local restaurants and bars are set to participate, including As You Are, Shaw’s Tavern, Jane Jane, and Code Red. There’s also an opening party on Monday, Oct. 2 featuring food and drink vendors without a traditional brick-and-mortar space, like Suga Chef and Vegan Junk Food.
Taste of Pride will raise funds for the Pride365 fund, which supports local LGBTQ organizations. There will be a three-course prix fixe menu at several of the participating locations, with lunch and brunch menus offered at $30, and dinner menus offered at $40 or $55.
Kareem Queeman, known as Mr. Bake, will be headlining the opening event on the evening of Oct. 2 at Lost Generation Brewery. Queeman, the founder and owner of the renowned bakery Mr. Bake Sweets and a James Beard Award semi-finalist, said he’s excited to spotlight LGBTQ chefs and mixologists.
Queeman said he’s proud to be a part of bringing queer culinary experts together to celebrate the work they’ve all done and discuss what changes need to come to the industry — there will be a panel discussion on Oct. 2 covering those topics. LGBTQ chefs have long gone unnoticed, he said, despite the innovative work they’ve done.
“Queers have been in the industry doing the work for a very long time and we just haven’t really gotten that acknowledgment,” Queeman said.
Providing this space for LGBTQ people in the restaurant industry is paramount to giving a sense of power and ownership in the work they do, Queeman said. He wishes there was this kind of space for him when he was coming up as a chef when he was younger.
Taste of Pride is also a great opportunity for LGBTQ people looking to get into the industry to find safe spaces to work that are run by queer people, Queeman said.
Rob Heim, the general manager at Shaw’s Tavern, said he’s looking forward to being a part of the event. And new fall menu items at Shaw’s Tavern will be available during Taste of Pride, which he’s thrilled to showcase.
“I was really excited to help out and participate,” he said. “It’s a great idea.”
The smaller number of participating restaurants in Taste of Pride is intentional, said Brandon Bayton, a volunteer executive producer organizing Taste of Pride. It’s so each restaurant can be well-represented during the week, and different restaurants will be highlighted on social media on separate days. Capital Pride Alliance is also partnering with influencers to get the word out.
Visibility — all year long
It’s important to have events like Taste of Pride outside of June, Bayton said.
“We exist 365 days,” Bayton said. “So we need to make sure that we continue the celebration and invite others to celebrate with us and just be authentically ourselves. We enjoy and do a lot of things other people do. There’s no reason why we should just be constrained to one month.”
Queeman agrees. His identity as a queer Black man doesn’t stop or start at any given month.
“I’m not just a queer or gay man in June or I’m not just a Black man in February,” he said.
And food is a major intersection that all people of all identities enjoy, Bayton said. It’s a simple way to bring people together.
“We do the exact same things that everyone else does,” Bayton said. “We all eat. We all love to eat.”
Taste of Pride will run from Oct. 2-8. For more information and to make reservations, visit capitalpride.org/event/taste-of-pride.
Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Cuisine and culture come together at The Square
D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors
Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.
After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”
Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.
Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.
“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.
The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination.
The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:
• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).
• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.
• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.
• Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.
• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.
• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.
• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.
“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.
Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.
The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.
For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.
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