In Memoriam: Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer speaking at a Boston Gay Town Meeting 6.9.87 at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston MA sponsored by the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance.

In Memoriam

Larry Kramer

“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”

Thus began Larry Kramer’s polemic “1,112 and Counting,” his call to action in the face of the rising toll of gay men dead from AIDS, published in the March 14-27, 1983 edition of the New York Native. Kramer died of pneumonia on May 27, 2020, less than a month from his eighty-fifth birthday on June 25.

After graduating from Yale in 1957 with a degree in English, Kramer began his film career at age twenty-three as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures. He worked his way into the story department at Columbia, rewriting scripts. In 1969, he wrote and produced Women In Love, garnering an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. Unfortunately, he followed up with the universally excoriated screenplay for Lost Horizon, a truly dreadful musical based on Frank Capra’s film of the same name. In 1973, he wrote the first of his gay-themed plays for the stage, Sissies’ Scrapbook (later retooled and renamed Four Friends), and a never-produced play A Minor Dark Age.

Of Kramer’s early writing, perhaps the best known—and certainly the most controversial is Faggots, his 1978 no-holds-barred novel laying bare the fast-and-free lifestyle of gay men in Manhattan and on Fire Island. Straight reviewers found it difficult to believe that Kramer’s account of a community drenched in drugs and anonymous sex was accurate; gay reviewers despised the book, and Kramer, for the brutally negative image of gay men that he created. Regarding the reception of the book, Kramer told The New Yorker in 2002, “The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing.” Despite the controversy, Faggots has never been out of print in its forty-two years, it is regularly taught in LGBTQ studies classes, and has become one of the largest-selling and most talked about gay-themed novels of all time.

More recently, The Normal Heart, Kramer’s play about a writer named Ned Weeks as he nurses his lover, who is dying of a yet-unnamed disease, won universal praise. The play trashes the medical establishment, the government, and yes, gay leaders whom Kramer deemed too complacent, too comfortable, too absent from the fight against AIDS. The longest-running play in the history of New York’s Public Theater, The Normal Heart was revived on Broadway in 2004 and again in 2011, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. In 2014, Kramer won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for the HBO film adaptation of The Normal Heart. His 1993 play The Destiny of Me, a sequel to Normal Heart, won two Obie awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Kramer’s other notable writing includes Just Say No, A Play about a Farce (1988); Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist, a collection of Kramer’s non-fiction writing; The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, a speech he gave after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004; and The American People: A History, a massive, controversial two-volume historical work (2004; 2020) that Kramer described as “my own history of America and of the cause of HIV/AIDS. Writing and researching this history has convinced me that the plague of HIV/AIDS has been intentionally allowed to happen.”

Larry Kramer speaking at a Boston Gay Town Meeting 6.9.87 at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston MA sponsored by the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. Photo by Ellen Shub/Courtesy HBO

More importantly for the HIV/AIDS community, Larry Kramer was the godfather of AIDS activism. Although he had shunned gay activism for years, when his friends from Fire Island started getting sick and dying, Kramer’s activism was born. In 1981 he invited gay men from the New York City area to his apartment to listen to a doctor tell them that their friends’ illnesses were related, and research needed to be done. From that meeting sprang the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the primary organization to raise funds for and provide services to people afflicted with AIDS. As GMHC began to concentrate on social services for men who were dying, Kramer insisted they fight for funding from New York City. Mayor Ed Koch became a particular target for Kramer (whom he called a murderer), as did those gay men who seemed to think that if they ignored the new disease, it would simply go away. When doctors determined that HIV is transmitted through sex, Kramer demanded that GMHC deliver that message to as many gay men as possible. They refused, which led Kramer to write the essay entitled “1,112 and Counting.” Unfortunately, Kramer’s loud, brash, in-your-face demeanor and rhetoric proved too outrageous for GMHC, and the group removed him from their board of directors. Kramer’s righteous anger disrupted his personal life as well, costing him numerous friends and causing the break-up with his lover at the time, also a board member on GMHC, over Kramer’s condemnations of the political apathy of GMHC.

Crushed by his expulsion from GMHC, Kramer’s most significant role in the fight against HIV/AIDS arose from that disappointment. In 1987, Kramer was one of the founders of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, aka ACT UP, the controversial but effective direct action protest group that targeted government agencies and corporations for the lack of treatment or funding for people with AIDS. Their first target was the Food and Drug Administration; on March 24, 1987, about 250 people blocked traffic in front of the FDA’s Wall Street offices. Storming and taking over government offices, blocking traffic with sit-ins and die-ins, were the group’s tactics; getting arrested was one of the group’s primary objectives, as it would focus attention on the pandemic. Kramer himself was arrested dozens of times. It is no exaggeration to say that with ACT UP, Larry Kramer changed the face of medical health policy in the U.S. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the CDC, with whom Kramer had viciously feuded before they reconciled in recent years, has said that “ACT UP put medical treatment in the hands of the patients. And that is the way it ought to be… There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. And he helped change it for the better. In American medicine there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry.”

Kramer was ill for all of his later life. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. Of the diagnosis, he wrote, ““A new fear has now joined my daily repertoire of emotions, and my nighttime ones, too. But life has also become exceptionally more precious and, ironically, I am happier.” Diagnosed with terminal liver disease in 2001, he received a liver transplant (aided by Dr. Fauci). In 2013, Kramer married architect David Webster (with whom he had reconciled after their split over GMHC) in a ceremony at the ICU in NYU Langone Medical Center, where Kramer was recovering from surgery for a bowel obstruction. In 2019, Kramer fell in his apartment and broke a leg. Mr. Webster confirmed Kramer’s passing from pneumonia.

In his incendiary “1,112 and Counting,” Kramer wrote, “I don’t want to die. I can only assume you don’t want to die. Can we fight together?” For four decades, Kramer led that fight. Damned by some as a loudmouth provocateur, revered by many more as a savior when we needed one the most, Larry Kramer’s legacy lives on in the lives of all of us long-term survivors——who would not be alive today if not for Kramer’s rage and dedication. We have lost a Titan among us——but his words continue to enrage and inspire us. Our hearts, normal or otherwise, are hurting like hell today.

—Hank Trout

For more information, check out HBO Documentary Films’ In Love & Anger, which focuses on Larry Kramer.

Hank Trout interviewed activist Billie Cooper for the April cover story.