Larry Kramer: From Art to AIDS Activism and Back

Award-Winning Playwright Transformed Confrontational Activism in the Age of HIV

Larry Kramer at the New York Premiere of "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger" on June 2, 1015.. Mike Pont/Getty Images

Larry Kramer (1935 - ) is a renowned American playwright who co-founded both the New York-based HIV charity, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the confrontational AIDS activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Much of Kramer's work, both in theater and the political arena, reflected the frustrations he felt at a government and public largely apathetic about the growing number of AIDS-related deaths—predominantly among gay men—in the early days of the epidemic.

From Academy Award Nominee to AIDS Activist

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut to a lower-middle class Jewish family, Kramer’s early years were often emotionally turbulent as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality, both at home and during his years as a student at Yale University. After having attempted suicide while in college, Kramer began to explore his sexuality in greater depth, channeling many of those experiences and emotions into his later works.

In 1969, after years working his way up the ladder at Columbia Studios, Kramer garnered public attention as the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Women in Love, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence and starring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The film’s homoerotic undertones (most memorably captured in the naked wrestling scene between Bates and Reed) drew both praise and controversy—a response that would follow Kramer for much of his ensuing career.

Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots, which explored the dark underbelly of gay life on Fire Island and Manhattan, provoked outrage among many in the gay community who believed that the book painted a negative portrait of the community as a whole. It was during this period that Kramer felt he was being "treated like a traitor" for simply telling the truth about what he have experienced and seen in his own life in New York.

By the early 1980s, Kramer became increasingly outraged at the number of AIDS deaths among gay men in New York, which he felt were being ignored by the Reagan administration and even by members of the gay community itself. In response, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GHMC), a non-profit organization dedicated to the support and care of people living with HIV.

However, within a few years, Kramer was forced out of GMHC after breaking with several members of the board. Unlike many of colleagues, Kramer was adamant that the organization not sit on the political sidelines at a time when New York City Mayor Ed Koch was doing little to respond to the city’s growing AIDS crisis.

The national media attention that Kramer drew—at one point declaring Koch and his administration "equal to murderers"—foreshadowed the growing militancy that would mark his later efforts.

The Birth of ACT UP

In 1985, Kramer penned The Normal Heart, a play about a gay writer and activist who clashed friends, colleagues and even his closeted lover over the growing AIDS epidemic.

It was to become Kramer’s seminal work, winning multiple Tony Awards and spawning numerous productions and revivals around the world.

The success that followed Kramer after The Normal Heart did little to quell his increasingly vocal attacks on the government agencies and corporations he believed were indifferent to the plight of HIV-infected Americans. In a now-infamous speech to a group of gay men in 1987—in which he proclaimed that two-thirds of those in the room would be dead within five years—Kramer called for the creation of a direct action organization that would push the boundaries of civil disobedience and force the hands of the very people who turned their backs on them.

Within days, hundreds of gay men signed up to become part of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Led by Kramer, the activist group would soon become known for creating public confrontations and inciting arrests in order to bring greater media attention to their cause.

Armed with megaphones and their ever-present "SILENCE = DEATH" posters, ACT UP members regularly infiltrated organizations and events to provoke public furor and debate. Among their numerous campaigns, the group called the lowering of antiretroviral drug prices (which were largely unaffordable to the people most at need); demanded that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) speed up the approval of HIV drugs that often took years to reach the market; and aggressively challenged AIDS denialists and the publications that printed their denialist claims.

In 1988, within a year of establishing ACT UP, Kramer himself learned that he was HIV positive after being diagnosed with hepatitis B.

The Impact of ACT UP

ACT UP is largely credited with transforming confrontational activism at a time when such actions were associated either with fringe, "eco-terrorist" groups like Earth First! or divisive, anti-crime organizations like The Guardian Angels. While each were effective in attracting media attention, ACT UP arguably effected more changes in government policy, while garnering consistent support from both gay and mainstream organizations alike.  

Few could argue that Kramer and his ACT UP colleagues didn’t succeed in achieving many of their key goals. In 1988, within a week of their protests against the FDA, the agency announced the fast-tracking of HIV drug approval.  

Similarly, six months after ACT UP demanded that the clinical definition of AIDS be changed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—a definition which prevented women from accessing care by limiting certain symptomatologies to men only—the Clinton Administration widened the definition to allow HIV-positive women to secure Social Security and other benefits.

ACT UP’s success would soon spur other civil groups to action around the world—most prominently South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which used similar media-savvy tactics to help secure low-cost antiretrovirals for poorer South Africans.

The Playwright's Return to "Normal" ad

 In 1992, Kramer returned to playwriting and penned the follow up to The Normal Heart entitled The Destiny of Me. The Off-Broadway play, which continued to decry AIDS complacency against the backdrop of an HIV drug trial, won the Obie Award for Best Play and was named a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In 2001, Yale University, Kramer’s alma mater, secured a $1 million endowment to establish the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies.

On July 24, 2013, Kramer married his long-time lover, David Webster, soon after New York  State’s landmark decision to recognize same-sex marriages.

On May 25, 2014, Home Box Office (HBO) premiered an television adaptation of The Normal Heart, produced by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) and starring Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch and Julia Roberts. The film went on to earn 16 Emmy nominations, culminating with a win for best television film at the 66th Primetime Emmy Award celebration on August 25, 2014.

The film was followed by the 2015 release of the HBO documentary, Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, which recounted the playwright's life and received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

In May 2016, Kramer again made headlines when he criticized Hillary Clinton for praising Nancy Reagan for her contributions to HIV during her husband's presidency. In response, Kramer declared that the former First Lady "never said dipshit [sic]" about HIV and insisted Clinton's remarks were "hateful." 

Sources:

Johansson, W. and Percy, W. The Making of an AIDS Activist: Larry Kramer. St. Martin’s Press; 1989; ISBN-10: 031202634X.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). "A Timeline of AIDS - 1988." AIDS.gov. Accessed January 13, 2014.

Mass, L. We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. Palgrave McMillan; 1997; ISBN-10: 0312177046.

Rossi. "Cosmo Confessions." Poz; published online June 1998.

Yale News. "Larry Kramer's Papers Donated to Yale and the Larry Kramer Initiative in Lesbian and Gay Studies Announced." Press release issued April 2, 2001.

The New York Times. "Larry Kramer and David Webster." Published July 26, 2013.

The Hollywood Reporter. "Ryan Murphy, HBO Prepping 'Normal Heart' Sequel." Published January 10, 2014.

Los Angeles Times. "Emmy 2014: 'The Normal Heart' wins for television movie." Published August 25, 2014.

Sundance Film Festival. "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger." Accessed April 18, 2016.

Miksche, M. "Larry Kramer Responds to Hillary Clinton's Reagan AIDS Advocacy Gaffe." Outward; published March 11, 2016.

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