Larry Kramer, a playwright and social activist for the cause of gay liberation, brought to the nation’s attention both the gay community and the disease of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) that was devastating gays at the beginning of the 1980s. Combative and controversial, Kramer was able with his activism and writings to stir up public attention, interest, and funds to help fight the disease and to bring greater acceptance to gays and lesbians. He himself was HIV positive (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the first stage in the development of AIDS. Kramer helped found ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) as a protest organization to publicize the lack of treatment for AIDS and to target organizations that were not doing their part. And he founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group with his friends to raise money and provide services for AIDS patients.
The onslaught of AIDS has now been somewhat slowed by medical advances, and having AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Kramer’s efforts on behalf of the gay community have been significant catalysts for public acceptance of gay life and activities including, now, gay marriage. The number of self-identified gays and lesbians in the American population has been estimated at about 4 million, or about 1.7 percent of the population, numbers contested by gays and in any event, a subjective statistic. The gay community started to make its presence openly felt in the early 1970s following a 1969 uprising in a Greenwich Village bar, the Stonewall Inn, when gays reacted violently to a police raid. Often referred to as the opening salvo in the battle for gay rights in the United States, Stonewall was a kind of coming-out party for gays and lesbians who had kept their homosexuality hidden in a prevailing and punishing antigay climate, where being gay meant being marginalized and discriminated against. The Gay Pride parade in June 1970 in Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles to mark the first anniversary of Stonewall, and every year at the end of June since then, has been part of major efforts to integrate the gay lifestyle into American society. But the battle cry, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!,” did not sit well with many, both inside and outside of urban centers, and still does not in many parts of the country and political map.
In the 1950s, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance. The description stayed there until it was removed in 1973. Though gays and lesbians had always existed in American and European society, they existed in the shadows, self-protectively. Being homosexual meant discrimination and even danger. Gays and lesbians gradually found increasing acceptance in late 20th-century society, though not without major struggles, to the point where marriage and military service have become possible. The 2011 repeal by Congress of President Bill Clinton’s 1993 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting discrimination against gays in the military and the passage of same-sex marriage laws by more than a dozen states have given gays and lesbians more widespread freedom and integration into society. While these legal events have changed the social climate for homosexuals, prejudice against them lingers, and there remain many obstacles to their full acceptance.
Larry Kramer has devoted his plays, novels, and essays to explaining what it is like to be gay, the gay lifestyle, and to political activism on the part of gays. His 1978 novel, Faggots, about the life of gay men on Fire Island and in Manhattan, upset the gay community that Kramer would then claim treated him like a traitor for describing the way gays conducted their lives. Even the mainstream press reviewed the book negatively and the only gay bookstore in New York City removed the novel from its shelves in protest. Nonetheless, Faggots became a best seller. It is taught in university gay studies programs and has never gone out of print.
Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, told the quasi-autobiographical story of a gay man, Ned Weeks, on Fire Island and in Manhattan in the early 1980s who is trying to save his lover who is dying of an unknown disease. The play opened in 1985 at the Public Theater in New York City where it became the longest-running show at that theater. It was Kramer’s literary riposte to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group, which had ousted him in 1983 for being too militant, but it was also a very successful public rallying cry for AIDS awareness and funding. The play was revived in 2004 at the Public Theatre and again on Broadway, where it won a Tony award for Best Revival in 2011. The part of Ned Weeks has been played by Richard Dreyfuss, Martin Sheen, and Joe Mantello, among others. Reviewing the play for the New York Times, Frank Rich noted its “pamphleteering tone” and called it “the most outspoken play around.” Kramer, Rich said, “has few good words to say about Mayor Koch, various prominent medical organizations, The New York Times or, for that matter, most of the leadership of an unnamed organization apparently patterned after the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.”
Though Kramer insulted and angered many with his confrontational style —New Yorker writer Michael Specter, writing about Kramer as called him “a weird mixture of Jerry Rubin and Mahatma Gandhi, three parts obnoxiousness and one part righteous indignation”—Kramer was a major change agent for just that reason. He brought unprecedented attention to a disease that was decimating the gay population and to the gay world itself, yet was seldom talked about. Other health organizations trying to raise funds to support their cause, particularly those involved with breast cancer, took note of the fund-raising success and public relations strategies of AIDS groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, both of which were founded and thriving through Kramer’s efforts. Watching his friends on Fire Island suffer and die from AIDS and hearing doctors suggest that gay men simply stop having sex, in 1983 Kramer published an essay in the gay newspaper New York Native, “1,112 and Counting,” excoriating everyone from doctors, disease centers, and politicians to gay men themselves for ignoring what was becoming an AIDS epidemic.
By 1987, Kramer had helped organize ACT UP to protest the indifference of government and the corporate world to the situation and, not incidentally, to compete with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which had spurned him. He urged ACT UP members to use a classic 1960s’ protest tactic, getting arrested to get attention, and helped stage massive protests in downtown New York to demand access to experimental drugs. Kramer organized one in front of the Wall Street offices of one of the group’s main targets, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), blocking traffic and resulting in many arrests. The media admired ACT UP’s strategy to demonstrate at the main New York City Post Office on the night tax returns were due, assuring good television coverage. ACT UP introduced its now-famous poster with the pink triangle and black lettering announcing “Silence = Death.” By 1989, ACT UP could send 4,500 demonstrators to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue to protest the Roman Catholic Archdiocese policy against AIDS education and the distribution of condoms. This time 111 protesters were arrested. Additional and ongoing demonstrations were staged at schools and at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., and twice, several ACT UP members interrupted network television newscasts, one at CBS with Dan Rather and another during the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, to publicize a “Day of Desperation” about AIDS funding. Kramer said that he had plans, never carried out, to wrap up Jesse Helms’s house in North Carolina in a giant yellow condom.
He continued to write about the disease and the situation of gays and, in 1988 during the Reagan administration, published Just Say No: A Play about a Farce, using as his title Nancy Reagan’s dictum about drug use. The play concerned a (thinly disguised) first lady with a gay son and a gay mayor like Ed Koch of a large city like New York. It got poor reviews when it opened in New York, but writer Susan Sontag said about it, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.” At one point, Kramer stood out in the street with a megaphone shouting “President Reagan, your son is gay” (which at the time his son denied). Kramer, who saw the AIDS crisis as a kind of holocaust, collected his essays, editorials, letters, and other writings and in 1989 published Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. Essentially it told his own story and advocated that gay men take responsibility for their lives and for the crisis of AIDS and its victims.
His play, The Destiny of Me, opened off Broadway in 1992, a sequel to The Normal Heart with the same hero, Ned Weeks. The play ran for a year and won a Double Obie Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. When George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, Kramer gave a speech, “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” about the hypocrisy of advocating moral values and waging war in Iraq. He has been at work on a 4,000-page book, The American People: A History, since 1978, giving the history of homosexuality. Publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux planned to publish the work in two volumes in 2012. In the book, Kramer is said to make the claim that the crisis of AIDS was intentionally allowed to happen. Since the first AIDS case came to light in 1981, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS. African Americans are disproportionately affected, with 40 percent of recorded deaths. AIDS can be transmitted through drug injection as well as sexual activity.
Larry Kramer was born on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His parents moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C., where he went to Woodrow Wilson High School. He majored in English at Yale University where his father George and elder brother Arthur, now a New York City attorney, went. He graduated in 1957 and 40 years later, he offered Yale several million dollars “to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies and possibly to build a gay and lesbian student center.” Yale turned him down, saying there were other, equally worthy projects he might support.
Kramer’s first job, after a stint in the Army, was in the mailroom of the William Morris literary agency. He moved on to a similar entry-level job at Columbia Pictures and wound up in script rewrite where he rewrote the screenplay for a movie to be made from D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Women in Love. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards. On this success, Kramer moved to Hollywood where he did a rewrite of Lost Horizon. That earned him a six-figure paycheck his brother invested for him and Kramer never had to hold down a job again. He moved to New York City and began writing for the stage, with plots with homosexual themes, and began his life as a political activist.
Kramer, HIV positive, received a liver transplant in December of 2001.
Bull, Chris. AIDS, While the World Sleeps: The First Twenty Years of the Global Plague. Foreword by Larry Kramer. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003.
Kramer, Larry. The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me. Foreword by Tony Kushner. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Moss, Lawrence D., ed. We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
Specter, Michael. “Public Nuisance, Larry Kramer the Man Who Warned America about AIDS, Can’t Stop Fighting Hard and Loudly.” The New Yorker, May 13, 2002.