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Larry Kramer, Towering Figure of Aggressive AIDS Activism, Dead at 84

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer, author and passionate AIDS activist, has died at age 84.

Kramer died Wednesday morning at his home in Manhattan, The New York Times reports. The cause was pneumonia, according to his husband, David Webster. Kramer was a long-term survivor of HIV and had undergone a liver transplant several years ago.

Kramer is best known as the author of the Tony-winning The Normal Heart, a play about the AIDS crisis, and as a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis — the first AIDS service organization — and of the direct-action group ACT UP. He was also a novelist and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

In 1981, a group of gay men gathered in Kramer’s New York apartment to discuss a response to the new disease that was devastating their community. It didn’t have a name yet, and the human immunodeficiency virus had not been identified as the cause. The result of the meeting was the founding of GMHC, which started with a hotline in one volunteer’s apartment and has expanded into a wide range of services for people with HIV.

Kramer’s confrontational style soon led to a break with the group, though. “His fellow directors effectively kicked him out a year later for his aggressive approach, and he returned the compliment by calling them ‘a sad organization of sissies,’” the Times reports.

Kramer then went on to help found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which demonstrated in streets, churches, and elsewhere to demand treatment for the disease. Kramer and ACT UP were sometimes criticized for their militancy, but they got results.

Kramer called Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a murderer and “an incompetent idiot” for the federal government’s slow response to AIDS. But Fauci met with and listened to Kramer and other ACT UP activists, and the doctor told the Times their advocacy led to more and better treatments for the disease.

“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Fauci told the paper, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

The Normal Heart, Kramer’s most famous literary work, premiered off-Broadway in 1985. The autobiographical play dealt with the early days of AIDS, with its protagonist, Ned Weeks, based on Kramer. It finally came to Broadway in 2011, and at the first preview performance volunteers distributed a letter from Kramer pointing out that there was still no cure for AIDS. The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and was made into a TV movie in 2014, with Kramer winning an Emmy for his adaptation.

Kramer continued to speak out through the years. In an Advocate commentary published on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (September 27) in 2015, he took LGBTQ+ Americans to task for complacency and called on them to demand a cure.

“We need power,” he wrote. “We don’t have power. We have no power in Washington. We need power in every town and city and state and organization that we inhabit. How do we get such power? Well, you start by talking about it, everyone talking about it, all of us realizing that the Supreme Court [which had just ruled for marriage equality] has given us this great gift and platform to fight from, and how do we do that most effectively. ACT UP showed us how we could do this successfully. Its template is as relevant and useful today. It’s not all that complicated. But it requires anger, outrage, hope, and love. As I said we’re much too complacent at this crucial moment in time.” 

At the time of his death, Kramer was writing a play about the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s about gay people having to live through three plagues,” he told The New York Times, referring to HIV and the decline of the body.

Kramer was born in 1935 in Bridgeport, Conn. After graduating from Yale University and serving in the Army, he went into show business, first working for the William Morris Agency and then for Columbia Pictures. 

He acquired the film rights to D.H. Lawrence's novel Women in Love and adapted it for the screen. The movie, released in 1969, was directed by Ken Russell and starred Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, and Oliver Reed. Jackson received the Academy Award as Best Actress, and Kramer's screenplay was Oscar-nominated but lost to Ring Lardner Jr.'s script for MASH.

Kramer also wrote the screenplay for the widely panned 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon, then in 1978 published the novel Faggots, a sharp critique of what he saw as hedonism among gay men.

After The Normal Heart, he wrote another autobiographical play dealing with the AIDS epidemic, The Destiny of Me, which premiered in 1992. He evaluated his activism in the 1989 nonfiction book Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist.

His other writings included a massive two-volume historical novel, The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart, published in 2015, and The American People, Volume 2: The Brutality of Fact, which came out this year. Of the first volume, Andrew Holleran wrote in The Advocate, “It begins in pre-Columbian Florida, with monkeys in the Everglades, and goes on to the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, ascribing same-sex desire to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and so many other figures central to American history that there is no point in listing them here. It also contains the moving saga of a young boy growing up in Washington, D.C., during World War II, who learns he’s a 'sissy.'” 

"There has never been any history book written where the gay people have been in history since the beginning," Kramer told Holleran. "It’s ridiculous to think that we haven’t been here forever." 

The second volume comes up to nearly the present, portraying figures of recent history including J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and Hugh Hefner, goverment conspiracies, and a plague that devastates gay men. 

"This is the greatest, most alarming, most insane AIDS novel anybody is ever going to write or want to write," Steve Donoghue wrote in Open Letters Review, adding, "There’s also Larry Kramer himself, fiercely present on virtually every page of the book, reminding readers that he’s been yelling at them for half a century ... The book is a whiteout blizzard of anger, outrage, showboating, and satire, a dark epic." 

Kramer had been working on his historical opus since the 1970s, before AIDS had even surfaced. He "put it aside" while he was absorbed in plays and activism, he told Holleran in the 2015 interview, then "got serious" about finishing it as the new century dawned and he was diagnosed with life-threatening liver disease.

The liver disorder was not related to HIV (with which he was diagnosed in 1989) but derived from an earlier hepatitis B infection. Kramer received a liver transplant in late 2001.

Kramer had numerous bouts with illness. The Associated Press reported his death in 2001, and when he married Webster in 2013, he was in intensive care at New York University's hospital for a bowel obstruction. "I had the judge, and we were going to be married on my apartment terrace with just a few close friends, and that was on a Monday, and I was taken to the hospital on Tuesday, and Wednesday we were married in intensive care at NYU, after we got permission from the head of NYU, to allow me to be married there," he recalled to Holleran.

Kramer never stopped speaking out. "You must not be afraid to be obnoxious or to concern yourself with what others might think of you, particularly other gays," he said in the Holleran interview. "You have a mission. You must care passionately about this mission and make it clear and concise. Do not water it down by including too many items on your agenda. This is not all that complicated. Anger, passion, and volume are your weapons. We all have these within us. The courage to let it come out is the necessary frosting for this cake. Be bold. You’d be surprised how strong you are capable of being."

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