Letters to the Editor

Published in: November-December 2006 issue.

On Kramer’s “Nuremberg Trials for AIDS”

Dear Editor:

Larry Kramer’s article [Sept.-Oct. 2006] proves that his position of privilege in the world trumps his minority sexual orientation status. Kramer writes in “Nuremberg Trials for AIDS”: “There is not one person in the world, even among South African wives infected by their itinerant truck driver husbands, who, on hearing the word ‘AIDS’ or ‘HIV,” does not think the word ‘homosexual,’ or, more likely, faggot or fairy or queer or their local equivalent.”

In six years of working off and on with HIV-AIDS in South Africa, not once have I heard a woman utter “moffie,” the South African slang for faggot, on hearing the word “AIDS.” What I have heard South African women say are things like: “Am I going to die?” “Who will care for my children?” and “Can I get the drugs that are keeping Americans alive?”

In places like South Africa, Kramer’s arrogant statement will do far more to make people hate us than does our sexual orientation.

Kevin Winge, Minneapolis


To the Editor:

It is disturbing to read Larry Kramer’s article that casts blame on several parties for the spread of HIV/AIDS in our society. As a gay man, I sympathize with his views and harbor anger myself toward many of the entities he cites. However, I fear that his anger has gotten in the way of reason and that his attacks on The New York Times, the pharmaceutical industry, and even Ron Reagan, Jr., are irrational and misguided.

It is true that many people and organizations bear responsibility for ignoring the AIDS crisis during the 1980’s. However, I am mystified as to why Kramer attaches such importance to The New York Times. Although very influential, it is only one periodical in a massive news industry. News organizations, both in print and on television, collectively share the blame for ignoring the crisis. Kramer’s focus on the Time magazine is also misguided and provincial, coming from the self-centered notion that New York is the center of the universe.

It is true that the pharmaceutical industry has profited from the AIDS crisis. However, it’s their right to engage in a business that develops and manufactures products for a profit; our capitalist democracy guarantees this right. Further, the pharmaceutical industry has undertaken Herculean effort to develop drugs to treat HIV, drugs that have perhaps prolonged Mr. Kramer’s own life considerably since his diagnosis in 1990. What’s more, the drug companies have also taken the lead in working toward a vaccine.

It’s astonishing that Kramer focuses blame so heavily on the Times and the pharmaceutical industry but barely mentions President Reagan. Ignoring the AIDS crisis was a huge failure in leadership from the very top. Reagan was in the White House during the first eight years of the crisis but didn’t mention it publicly until the last two of those years, after more than 2,500 American had died of AIDS-related causes. Concerning Kramer’s “Nuremberg Trials” for AIDS, the central figure in this hypothetical investigation must be Ronald Reagan in his capacity as U.S. president.

It is odd that Kramer sidesteps Reagan himself while criticizing his wife and son. We now know that Nancy Reagan fought hard behind the scenes to give greater attention to AIDS, only to be overruled by her husband’s homophobic advisers and his own passivity on the issue. Ron Reagan, Jr. publicly noted his father’s response to HIV/AIDS and was a liberalizing influence within his family. Kramer’s reference to Ron Jr.’s sexuality within the context of his career in ballet is irrelevant to his argument and insulting to someone who has been a consistent friend of the gay community.

James M. Wood, Fort Lauderdale

One More Time:  What Killed Jack Twist?

To the Editor:

In his letter [Sept.-Oct. 2006], Antonio R. Gamboa makes a good argument for the case that Jack’s death from a gay-bashing in Brokeback Mountain could be merely Ennis’ projection based on his internalized homophobia (“a mental construct, not a fact”) rather than a real event. However, the movie offers other clues that make this reading far from conclusive.

1. Jack is far more committed to his sexual orientation than is Ennis. It is he who initiates the first sexual encounter and who wants them to live in a gay relationship. Based on his self-understanding, Jack takes actions that confirm his sexual longings but also show the dangerous ways in which he finds release. He tries to pick up a (straight?) cowboy in a bar, goes to Mexico and picks up a hustler, and apparently begins a relationship with another married man. All of these elements can be considered clues that foreshadow the manner of his death. Jack is a risk-taker who could probably be expected to continue on this path, ultimately leading to his murder by someone (a hustler, a straight married man, etc.) acting out of his own internalized homophobia. (This can also be seen in Jack’s attraction to the same kind of men as Ennis: straight-acting guys unable to accept their sexual identity.)

2. In the scene in which Ennis hears of Jack’s death, the film is more definitive than Proulx’s short story that it was the result of gay bashing. Mr. Gamboa concentrates on film technique, but there’s an additional element that is also relevant: the acting. When Laureen tells Ennis about Jack’s death, she recites the “facts” in a cold manner, almost by rote (going beyond what Proulx describes as a “level tone”), as if it is a story well-rehearsed to cover up some darker truth. And the story of his death in a tire-changing incident is certainly not that plausible. Mr. Gamboa states that Ennis “stops listening to Laureen” and projects the image of Jack’s death out of his own fear, but I would argue that he only does this when he hears the way Laureen tells the story: he senses that she’s lying.

3. Mr. Gamboa wants the death to be no more than an irrational projection of Ennis’ fear—proof that his internalized homophobia has ruined his life. To accept the gay-bashing as real would justify Ennis’ fear and “subvert” what Mr. Gamboa rightly calls the “most potent motif of the story.” I disagree. It just gets there by another route. It matters little how Jack died. In either scenario, Ennis’ internalized homophobia leaves him without the one person in his life whom he could have loved. While the story gives him the comfort of the occasional wet dream, the movie leaves us with the image of two shirts entwined. Through this image we learn that how Jack died—sad, ironic, or tragic as it may be—is ultimately not as sad, ironic, and tragic as the fate of the friend who’s left behind.

Mashey Bernstein, Santa Barbara, CA


Gay Composers Wrote Serial Music, Too

To the Editor:

Your surmise concerning a gay sensibility in classical music was thought-provoking, but factual problems abound. Gay modernist composers include Pierre Boulez, the most “killer” serialist of all; the indeterminist John Cage; Henry Cowell, promulgator of the tone cluster; Hans Werner Henze, the superb eclectic; and many others.

Even among the composers you mentioned, Copland cultivated a severe twelve-tone method alongside his better-known style, and Britten employed that technique in his gayest opera, Death in Venice. Counterexamples of straight anti-modernists are just as plentiful: Rachmaninoff, Hindemith, Walton, and Korngold come to mind. The happily married Messiaen, for instance, was one of the first serialists to depart from that orthodoxy in search of greater expressivity. If there is any gay sensibility in music, it clearly doesn’t correspond to a traditionalist / modernist opposition.

The insane homophobia of the mid-20th century seems more relevant to the “oddly hypermasculine” “something” about twelve-tone music than does anything intrinsic to that æsthetic. Josquin and Bach have also been disdained as “mathematical,” and the term “formulaic” is scarily reminiscent of the Soviet purges of “formalism.” How perverse to charge the ephemeral Webern with having been “heavy-handed,” even if he wasn’t “easy and pleasant for the audience”!

I won’t especially berate you about your evident distaste for atonal music, since I shared that aversion during my years as a horn player and organist. It was only after I turned to composition that I opened my mind (and then my ears) to that idiom. Please ask yourself: how much tonal music have I heard compared to atonal music? And if, as for most of us, the balance approximates 99 percent tonal to one percent atonal, then haven’t you, in Wilde’s words, “fallen into the harsh error of judging what you don’t understand”?
Joseph Alan Laibman, Ann Arbor, MI


Editor’s Reply:

Thanks so much for your letter, which I genuinely appreciate, as my intro to the last issue was intended more as a provocation than a complete argument. I was aware that I was on somewhat thin ice, especially in the realm of music, when I tried to identify an anti-Modernist streak among gay creators across a spectrum of the arts, and you make a persuasive case for music.

What’s more, you’re right to assume that I find atonal music distasteful, and for that matter I’m not a huge fan of purely abstract art or of the fractured prose of Joyce or Beckett. So in this respect my hypothesis could be a tad self-serving, since I’m giving gay artists credit for avoiding a style that I happen to dislike. But then I read the following quote, which appears in this issue and seems to capture what I was trying to say. It concerns not music but painting, and was said of Duncan Grant by art critic Kenneth Clark: “No one who loved life and visual experience as much as Duncan did could have remained an abstract painter for long, and very soon, flowers began to appear on his canvases, and seductive nudes in pastel on large sheets of paper.”

I’d like to think that if there is such a thing as a “gay sensibility,” it’s all about extolling life and beauty and sensuality and sex, elements that are not promoted by what I see as Modernism’s mechanistic and anti-humanist tendencies. Abstract art excludes human beings by keeping them off the canvas; atonal music does so by keeping them out of the concert halls. (And who really reads Joyce?) Copland may have written some serial music, but no one listens to the stuff, even those of us who’ve tried. That Copland returned to the sweet and messy world of tonal music, whether evidence for a “gay sensibility” or not, seems to me evidence of a humanity that he couldn’t put aside.

Richard Schneider, Jr., Boston



Due to an editorial error in the interview with Ned Rorem in the Sept.-Oct. 2006 issue, the first name of French composer Gabriel Fauré was incorrectly given as “Félix.”