Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How Larry Kramer Influenced nglccNY Member Michael Venturiello


Michael Venturiello and Larry Kramer 
On May 27 when news broke that the iconic HIV and AIDS activist Larry Kramer had passed away, nglccNY member Michael Venturiello took to Facebook to share a heartfelt message of love. He explained the impact Larry had on his personal and professional life, as the owner of Christopher Street Tours, a Certified LGBTBE® that “focuses solely on LGBTQ walking tours and experiences.”

“To say that I am alive today because of Larry Kramer is not an exaggeration,” Venturiello wrote. “To say that Larry Kramer is the reason for Christopher Street Tours is not an exaggeration. Today, we mourn his passing. Few know the intimate story of how Christopher Street Tours began. It was my first year in New York City.

I was lonely and sad and unfulfilled. Depressed and alone on a Friday night, I laid in bed and decided to casually turn on David France's How To Survive a Plague. That was the first time I heard about Larry Kramer and the work of ACT UP. I was awestruck to know that this man, and an entire generation before me, fought so hard for the survival of future generations. This inspired me to go to my first ACT UP New York meeting. Learning the history and the stories of those lives lost...I felt like I owed it to them, to my queer ancestors, to share their stories.

The mission of Christopher Street Tours is to share stories and uplift voices from those that paved the way before us. This work has brought me an incredible community of LGBTQ people all across the world, an immense sense of joy, and fulfillment like I've never felt before. And that story starts with Larry Kramer. Larry, may your voice forever be uplifted in power.”

nglccNY’s Chair of Media & Communications Cindi Creager spoke with Venturiello about his feelings on Larry Kramer.  Read the Q & A below.

Cindi:  When I saw your Facebook post on Larry Kramer I was very moved. Tell me more about what prompted you to write that.

Michael: It makes me emotional even to think about, because I think it's a very literal statement in so many ways. I think there's the forefront like Larry Kramer was an AIDS activist. He did so much to spark the community around activism and getting us where we are today. So I think it's twofold for me. It's a generational gratitude towards Larry Kramer. Because he started ACT UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis, I can still live my life relatively freely and openly and have knowledge around HIV and AIDS. It has literally saved my life as a gay man.

I also think there's a more personal, deeper side to that. I struggled in my earlier life. I had moved to New York in 2016. I had a job at NYU and I liked it, but it wasn't my purpose and I knew that. It wasn't until then I even heard about Larry Kramer and his work. But something sparked in me to say, “This is my purpose [Christopher Street Tours]. This is my passion in life. This is what I'm meant to be doing and working on." So literally, metaphorically, all of it, I feel like Larry Kramer, I owe everything to him.

Cindi: You said that Larry Kramer is the reason for Christopher Street Tours. How so?

Michael: I see it as a very linear path to Christopher Street Tours, although at the time it felt very scattered and unsure, and I didn't know what I was doing, but with the start of Christopher Street Tours, it was very much like an aha, like oh, this is why I've been in these situations. This is why I've had to overcome these challenges… to get to Christopher Street Tours.

For me, it started with that job that I first took in New York City that I eventually grew to hate and was really just upset one Friday night and didn't want to go out, didn't want to do anything, didn't feel like I had any friends. Like the very sad New York City story. I just flipped on Netflix, or whatever, I'll watch whatever, and David France's How to Survive a Plague came on the list and I was just blown away and even still, I mean it makes sense, but in my head for some reason, it's silly that sometimes I still watch that trailer. The trailer alone to me is so inspirational. It got my attention as a 25 year old, new to New York City. It sparked something in me to say like, "What are you doing?" It challenged me to say like, "What are you doing to give back to your community? To fight for your community? To uplift your community?”

In that documentary I learned about the AIDS epidemic and Larry Kramer. What fascinated me about all of that was at the time I was at NYU, and I was working and living on 10th and Broadway. I was right in the middle of the Village where so much had happened. I felt like I was walking around the streets and no one was talking about it. No one was talking about the history and the movement.

I did a Google search for ACT UP and I found this very, very outdated website, probably still from the '90s. So much to the point where I was like, is this even a thing anymore? But all the actual content was updated, and that's when I went to my first ACT UP meeting and learned all about the AIDS epidemic. That was I think 2017. So it was a really transformative moment.

It sparked this history and historical context and desire to learn more about our history. I felt like it was my duty to share those stories. I feel like I owed it to those people that came before me who were no longer here to continue on that journey.

That's essentially Christopher Street Tours. That's our mission is to share stories and uplift voices from those that paved the way before us. None of that would have happened if I didn't flip on that documentary and see Larry Kramer at the LGBT Center giving his speech that this was a plague.

Cindi: That's incredible. Then how did you end up meeting him?

Michael: I met him through Judith Kasen-Windsor who was Edie Windsor’s second wife before Edie passed away. Judith took me to his apartment. Just to be in that apartment, to be in that space where Larry Kramer was…. I was just standing there taking it all in like, oh my gosh, the first meeting of GMHC, of ACT UP was right here in this living room. I've read about that example where you can see the view of Washington Square Park and the arch and lo and behold, you can. I could see where his computer was set up, and where he was writing furiously all the plays and all the other things. It was just such an amazing moment. We were able to share space and share community during the time. There was a picture that happened, which you saw. Unfortunately, that's where it ends, but it was still such a transformative experience and moment that I really, really feel so grateful for.

Cindi: That gives me goosebumps. You felt the gravity of that moment. I can only imagine what it was like.

Michael: When I first met him, I asked him, "What is one thing that you want people to know about you? Or one thing that you would want to share with the community on our tour specifically?" He said, "I love being gay. I love gay people and we need to stick together and fight back." I feel like that was Larry's MO, gay is good and gay is great and also ACT UP and fight back. That’s the chant we hear in Larry's voice, and because he died so recently, I'm sure that he had thoughts about Black Lives Matter. I can only imagine that he would take that energy and move full steam ahead with acting up and fighting back in the way that we are.

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