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Larry Kramer
Via Wikimedia Commons

Revolutionary Aids activist Larry Kramer has died

The writer and Act Up founder was responsible for the campaign that helped raise awareness of HIV, and changed public health policy in the 80s and 90s

Larry Kramer, the writer and LGBTQ+ activist who tirelessly campaigned for an urgent response to the Aids crisis, has passed away at the age of 84. 

According to his husband, David Webster, Kramer passed away this morning (May 27) in New York after suffering with pneumonia. The author had been ill for much of his adult life, having contracted HIV, liver disease, and undergone a liver transplant.

Initially a playwright – Kramer penned the screenplay for the 1969 Academy Award-winning film, Women in Love – the author became a gay rights activist after witnessing the spread of Aids among his friends. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Kramer said: “The first people who got sick were friends of mine. I started making a list of how many people I knew, and it was hundreds. People don’t comprehend that. People really were dying like flies.”

In 1981, Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first ever organisation for HIV-positive people, but was later kicked out because his methods of communication were deemed too militant. “I was trying to make people united and angry,” he said. “I was known as the angriest man in the world, mainly because I discovered that anger got you further than being nice.”

In published essays, Kramer criticised the lack of government response to the Aids crisis, as well as the apathy of the gay community. Although the GMHC thought his confrontational style was too intense, it attracted the attention of New York’s press – something no one else had been able to do when it came to Aids.

In 1987, Kramer went on to found the direct action group, ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), whose slogan, “Silence = Death”, became the rallying cry for activists. The group’s civil disobedience targeted government agencies and corporations to publicise the lack of Aids treatment, and to demand an end to discrimation against gay men. 

ACT UP is widely credited with changing public health policy and the perception of those living with Aids. The group is still operating today, and has been immortalised in films like 2018’s 120 BPM.

As well as leading vital Aids activism, Kramer continued to write, premiering his defining work, The Normal Heart, in 1985. The play is largely autobiographical, and centres on the HIV/Aids crisis between 1981 and 1984. 

Tributes have poured in for Kramer online. ACT UP New York wrote on Twitter: “Rest in power to our fighter Larry Kramer. Your rage helped inspire a movement. We will keep honouring your name and spirit with action.” 

BuzzFeed’s LGBT editor, Patrick Strudwick, wrote: “Deeply saddened to hear that Larry Kramer – the totemic HIV campaigner – has died. He was hugely controversial, and an explosive firebrand, but wildly courageous. He cared.”

Speaking to The New York Times in March, Kramer discussed the current coronavirus pandemic in relation to the Aids crisis. “The government has been awful in both cases,” he said. “They were terrible with Aids and they’re terrible with this thing. One wonders what will become of us.”