In eulogizing Larry Kramer, Masha Gessen tells us that Kramer was a devoted reader of Hannah Arendt. What attracted Kramer was not simply Arendt’s fearlessness. And not only her deep support for the right and practice of civil disobedience. Kramer found in Arendt a thinker of political power. For Arendt, politics is about acting in concert with others and such collective action is the source of power. Thus in writing about antisemitism, Arendt worried that one reason the Jews suffered such ongoing oppression is that as exiles they sought to live isolated and non-political lives rather than organizing as Jews. Similarly, Arendt imagined that the millions of refugees in the world could become an avante garde of a new politics if they organized and acted together. As Gessen writes, Kramer took Arendt’s teachings to heart in his own thinking about politics and being gay.
“I love being gay,” Larry said in a speech last June, during the Reclaim Pride Coalition Rally (an alternative celebration to the commercialized Pride march in New York). He was frail, in a wheelchair, with hearing aids in both ears, and, clearly, very happy to be addressing the crowd. “I love my people. I think in many ways we are better than other people. I think we are smarter and more talented and more aware of each other.” On other occasions, he admonished his people, saying that “we are better than this”—better than inaction, better than the idea that gayness was merely a matter of sexual orientation. He made the case for thinking of gay people as a people not unlike the Jews, and, as a Jew and a gay man, he insisted on the political importance of using the term “holocaust” to describe the decimation wrought by aids. A fan and careful reader of Hannah Arendt, he admired her “hugely for having the guts to raise . . . the question of the Jews’ own complicity in their mass extermination.” He was referring not only to a controversial and often misinterpreted passage in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” but, more broadly, to Arendt’s thinking on anti-Semitism, which she attributed in part to European Jews’ failure to claim political power as Jews. In an unpublished 2018 interview with the academic researcher Gregg Drinkwater, who is currently working on a paper on Larry and Arendt, Larry said, “When aids came along and gays were not mobilizing in any sufficient way, she was very helpful with what she said about the Jews at that time—that they should have their own army, for instance, which is what I looked upon act up as being.”