A relentless voices in activism since his early days in 1980s New York, we explore the writer’s life, work, and captivating legacy
Larry Kramer was a force of nature. The tireless activist, essayist, and playwright, whose angry voice and pen raised awareness about AIDS, and inspired thousands to action, died yesterday (May 27) at 84.
Once described by Susan Sontag as “one of America’s most valuable troublemakers”, Kramer was as fearless as he was furious. An aggressive wordsmith, recognised for his infamously scathing tongue and take-no-prisoners approach, Kramer would use his confrontational rhetoric, though polarising, to bring global attention to the AIDS epidemic, and ultimately, turn HIV into a treatable condition, rather than a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of people.
Even as recently as 2011, Kramer, deep in his 70s, was stood outside the Golden Theatre in New York at the celebrated revival of his play, The Normal Heart, handing out leaflets to theatregoers, which read: “Please know that this is a plague that need not have happened. Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen.” For Kramer, to stay silent was the same as death.
A titan of gay rights, who never stopped challenging the status quo, we remember the writer and activist in his own words.
“We’re all different in many ways and alike in many ways and special in some sort of way”
Kramer was born June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times, he describes having a miserable childhood, and was bullied by his father, who called him a “sissy” from a young age. “He always picked on me and yelled at me and occasionally hit me,” he said. “I was a creative person whose creativity was always looked on as suspect by my parents.”
In 1953, he enrolled in Yale to study English literature, tried to kill himself in Freshman year, and had a liberating affair with a male professor, before climbing up the film career ladder, and landing jobs with Columbia Pictures and United Artists in the 60s.
His breakthrough as a writer, however, came with a 1969 film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love, for which he purchased the rights with $4,200 of his own money. Clearly, it paid off – the film was a box office hit and earned Kramer his very own Oscar nomination.
When he eventually did turn to gay culture, his scathing 1978 novel, Faggots, about promiscuous sex, drug use, and sadomasochism in the New York gay community, sparked outrage with those who saw Kramer as an old-fashioned moralist. The book was banned from the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, and Kramer was seen as a traitor.
“Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get”
In 1980, Kramer told People magazine about a time on New York’s Fire Island, at a gay resort community, when he watched a man carry out his dying lover, pleading, “Does anyone know what’s wrong with Nick?” He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York shortly after, having read articles about a deadly rare cancer among gay men – which we now recognise as HIV.
Later, he went on to found the far more militant Act Up. Kramer felt that government officials weren’t paying enough attention to the disease when it was primarily affecting gay men and staged a number of protests and sit-ins, demanding a speedup in AIDS drug research. “There’s no question in my mind, if this were happening to you and the white, straight middle-class community, it would have been attended to a long time ago,” he told NBC News in 1983.
Despite his vocal activism, Kramer proved too much of a firebrand even for his counterparts at Act Up – both organisations her helped found eventually kicked him out (he responded by calling the Gay Men’s Health Crisis a “sad organisation of sissies”).
“Why isn’t every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action?”
A landmark was his article 1,112 and Counting, which appeared in the New York Native gay newspaper in 1983. A response to the lack of progress against the disease, Kramer wrote: “If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men may have no future on this earth.”
“After almost two years of an epidemic, there still are no answers. After almost two years of an epidemic, the cause of AIDS remains unknown. After almost two years of an epidemic, there is no cure,” he said, adding: “Why isn’t every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every gay man in New York want to die?”
While his taunting approach no doubt alienated many people (“Nasty words make poor little sissy pansy wilt and die?” he carried on, referring to the “closeted doctors” and others who wanted to keep a low profile), there’s no doubt that he was crucial in bringing attention to AIDS, and ultimately, turning HIV into a treatable condition, rather than a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of people.
Larry Kramer was interviewed for FoA (2006). On ACT UP: “It was very moving to feel the energy of people responding, people really caring, working together, men and women, straight and gay, cooperating with each other, lesbians and gay men, black and white, everybody pitched in.” pic.twitter.com/ugHYwVu4LT— Face of AIDS (@faceofaids) May 28, 2020
“I don't consider myself an artist. I consider myself a very opinionated man who uses words as fighting tools”
Yet his Roman Candle came in the form of The Normal Heart, a scorchingly angry and autobiographical play, in which a furious young writer battles against fatal indifference, politicians, society, the New York Times, and the gay community to bring attention to the AIDS crisis. First staged at the Public Theater in 1985, as the embers of the epidemic were beginning to burn into the public consciousness, Kramer breathed fire.
“I wrote this as a play because I thought I could get the message out faster — and I’m not ashamed to call it a message play – about why it took so long for anything to happen when we had a chance to save a lot of lives and money,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.
The show was a hit, running nearly 300 performances in its first run. At the time, the New York Times said, “The playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage.” Looking back, it’s widely regarded as paving the way for a younger generation of playwrights to take on the epidemic. Tony Kushner’s gut-wrenching drama, Angels in America, Falsettoland’s vibrant humour and Matthew Lopez’s impassioned masterpiece, The Inheritance, all owe pieces of themselves to Kramer’s work.
“One wonders what will become of us”
In 1988, Kramer was diagnosed with HIV and moved in with his partner David Webster, an architect, in 1994, who he stayed with until his death. Dedicating much of his time to writing, Kramer embarked on his biggest project yet, The American People, a mammoth two volume history of gay people in America, which took over a decade to write. “I just think it’s so important that we know our history — the history of how badly we’re treated and how hard we have to fight to get what we deserve, which is equality,” he said.
Still, Kramer never stopped. At his death, he was working on a play centred on the coronavirus epidemic. Speaking to The New York Times in March, he said: “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.”