Baby Boomer and even Gen X queers remember the '80s and 90s when so many of their friends and lovers, their entire community, was devastated by AIDS. Incalculable losses of kind, talented, extraordinary people were taken away from the worldwide LGBTQ community, and much of our cultural heritage and history was lost.
When recently-departed Larry Kramer decided that he was mad as hell about the apathy of the government and the impotence of many prominent LGBTQ groups, he decided to quit playing nice. Instead of limiting himself to pastoral speaking gigs and internal community events, he decided to take to the streets and force the nation to look the gay community in the eye when he screamed for help.
The group Kramer co-founded, ACT UP, literally took to the streets by blocking buildings such as the Food & Drug Administration, storming the set of the CBS Evening News, and disrupting the New York Stock exchange. In doing so, Larry Kramer and ACT UP showed us what activism really needs in order to be effective.
I have an old friend who works on the administrative side in promoting women’s reproductive health. A while back, I asked her how effective these shouty, rabble-rousing types are in protecting a woman’s right to choose. They said that these types of people, people like Kramer, are a necessary type in progressive politics and social justice. They’re the ones who keep people engaged, who draw public attention, and make it uncomfortable for politicians to ignore these types of issues.
My friend explained that without the loud Larry types, their jobs of drafting legislation, testifying before committees, and writing up guidance would be far less effective. Of course the Larrys aren’t helpful in researching obscure legislation, parsing legalese, and writing up proposals, but those bureaucratic types of people usually aren’t very helpful in whipping up a crowd, pulling in donations, and getting in people’s faces. The two forms of activism are symbiotic in nature and need each other.
In creating change in the world, both types are necessary and can even exist within the same organizations, sometimes at odds to each other. As is often the case, we can look toward the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century for a great example of this, with Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. As we all know, King was an activist who would gladly jump in front of a TV camera, let himself get arrested while taking part of a direct action, and help direct protests that the white establishment could react to violently. On the opposite end was Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man appointed to the Supreme Court. Both men were high level members of the NAACP, but took very different approaches.
Marshall, a more establishment type, served as the head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was pivotal in arguing some of the most important civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. King would not have been able to press the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Montgomery on integration without Marshall’s work in wining Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the legality of school segregation. Both men, while often ideologically opposed, needed each other to succeed. Without King, Marshall would never have been appointed to the court, and without Marshall, King would not have had the right of the law on his side during his protests to help get him there.
In our polarized and extremist age, when we give so much attention to those disruptive types who lead marches through the streets and chain themselves to heavy objects, we can’t forget that they need those prim and proper types do the work within the system to see that their efforts aren’t swept away by reactionaries. It’s not as sexy or glamorous, it doesn’t get you hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, but they are incredibly necessary. Yet those who are the staid and stoic types grinding away in the legislatures, should never, for one second, discount the importance and power of those people who get in the faces of riot cops and shout.
We too often get frustrated at the slow pace of change within the establishment, and rightfully so. That’s what caused Kramer to form ACT UP and begin its campaign of direct protests and disruptions. These people aren’t wanting to start riots and civil wars, they’re just not the types to sit down, stay quiet, and wait patiently for the law to catch up.
Larry Kramer and his organization ACT UP should be remembered alongside every Supreme Court decision that inched us towards equality. We should celebrate him and others like him just as much as we do any culturally symbolic act like a TV kiss. Kramer and ACT UP exist in the realm of LGBTQ progress and equality where the Stonewall riots do, and is just as necessary and important to our freedom as Obergefell v. Hodges. Without him and activists like him, we are not free.
Amanda Kerri is an Oklahoma-based writer and comedian, a regular contributor to The Advocate, and a former board member for Oklahoma City Pride. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.