Larry Kramer’s Legacy Is More Urgent Than Ever

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It is paradoxical to anticipate the celebration of Pride Month with the sad news of Larry Kramer’s death.

Talking about our community and the history of the struggle for our rights without Larry is almost impossible.

The playwright, author, and activist for the rights of the gay community to access health care during the AIDS epidemic died this week at age 84, Bill Goldstein, a writer working on Kramer’s biography, told The Associated Press.

His husband, David Webster, reported that the author died Wednesday of pneumonia.

The Most Hated Word in the English Language

Much of what we take for granted today was won over by the commitment of Larry Kramer and people like him who refused to let the world label the “gay population” as it pleased.

“I grew up being called ‘sissy’ by my father,” Kramer told CBS’ Harry Smith in 2006. “The most hated word in the English language to me.”

“I just wanted to crawl up and die,” he added.

Laurence David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to a middle-class Jewish family trying to make its way through the Great Depression.

His story would be that of many young homosexuals in a society that was unprepared for inclusion and recognition of people who dared to step outside the traditional format.

Kramer enrolled in Yale in 1953, a time when he would be a victim of loneliness and depression, a consequence of the realization of his homosexuality, even attempting suicide with an overdose of aspirin.

Graduating in 1957 with a degree in English, he began his career in film production at the age of 23 at Columbia Pictures, which would open the way for him to re-edit scripts, where his work with the adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love would earn him an Oscar nomination.

But it was his novel Faggots that was the turning point in his critical thinking about gay culture in the late 1970s. 

A Premonitory Book

What Kramer called the “cowardice and the inability of some men to grow up, leave the emotional bondage of male collegiate camaraderie, and assume adult responsibilities,” was the first draft of his social activism, materialized in Faggots, an investigative self-fiction about the gay culture of drugs, loveless sex, bars, and discos.

“I wanted a lover. I wanted to be in love,” the author Eric Marcus quotes Kramer in his 2002 book Making Gay History. “Almost everybody I knew felt the same way. I think most people, at some level, wanted what I was looking for, whether they pooh-poohed it or said that we can’t live like the straight people or whatever excuses they gave.”

The goal was one: to understand why so few gay men were able to satisfy the fundamental human need to love and be loved.

Kramer recalled the urgency of his interviewees to know whether or not his book was positive, whether the gay community would be portrayed from a good angle, and whether that would help break the stigma.

“I began to think, ‘My God, people must really be very conflicted about the lives they’re leading.’ And that was true. I think people were guilty about all the promiscuity and all the partying. And even though there was a rationale for it, in that everybody else was doing it and the peer pressure was such as to make it acceptable, I think people were self-conscious about it.”

It was after the publication of Faggots that Kramer earned the status of a pariah for the gay press, precisely because he spoke about an issue that would mark the worst period for the community: promiscuity.

Gay Cancer

In the early 1980s, the emergence of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma in cities like San Francisco and New York attracted the attention of the scientific community, particularly because it seemed to be a condition reserved for men who had sex with people of the same biological gender.

Kramer’s friends got sick one by one and it was in his apartment that the first session of what would become known as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was held, the first organization to call Gay Cancer by its name, and the first initiative to raise funds and provide health services for gay men suffering from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the New York area.

Eighty gay men sat in his living room one night to hear from Dr. Freidman-Kien of New York University, who simply told them: “You have to stop fucking.”

“You’re someone well known in the gay community. You have to do something about it. Somebody’s got to go out there and tell them,” the doctor told the activist.

It was then that he began his fight against homosexual promiscuity as a method of protection against a disease whose virus was still indescribable, but which was rapidly killing many of his friends.

The gay press, for its part, defended the right to sexual promiscuity as “the only freedom we have left,” and the position that it had to be fought for, “even if it kills us.”

“And it did kill us, a lot of us,” Kramer continued. “It took all our energy and it took all our fighting. It shouldn’t have been an issue, period!”

“Didn’t we see that we should have been fighting for the right to get married or fighting for the right to be noble and live outside in the world instead of fighting for the right to find our love in these tawdry little places? Were the baths the be-all and end-all of what being gay meant? I think that the baths represented the worst in all areas of what we were all about. Bartering our bodies, using them as things. It’s all about what you look like, not who you are. It was all about fighting for the wrong rights.”

The Fight to Unleash Power

Since 1983, there hasn’t been a politician or doctor who hasn’t passed through Larry Kramer’s pen. The writer turned-activist was the first cry for help that called on the government, the Centers for Disease Control, and researchers for a concrete response to the epidemic that was claiming the life of one gay man every minute.

In his essay “1,121 and Counting,” printed in the New York Native, a gay newspaper, Kramer declared war on the apathetic, on gay men “who seemed to think that if they ignored the new disease, it would simply go away,” and on the system responsible for covering up the effects of the disease on society.

At the time, there were only 1,112 severe cases of AIDS in the United States, an increase of nearly 200 per month, and 418 deaths.

“Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake,” Kramer wrote. “Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die. In all the history of homosexuality, we have never before been so close to death and extinction. Many of us are dying or already dead.”

At the time there was no treatment, no case count, no media awareness, no hope.

“All it seems to take is the one wrong fuck,” explained the activist. “That’s not promiscuity — that’s bad luck.”

His unfiltered writing and aggressiveness would be not only his personal mark but also the reason why the press started paying attention. Eventually, GMHC would expel him, forcing him to take more drastic measures.

Through A Normal Heart, his return to the theatre, Kramer brought to the fore the reality that was being experienced on the streets and is today one of the most reproduced pieces in history.

Once again, his cry was suffocated by institutional deafness.

In 1987, Kramer then turned to street action and founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action organization that became known for its aggressive protests in government facilities, pharmaceutical buildings, and even churches, to draw attention to the growing number of deaths from HIV.

“I’m about as proud of ACT UP as of anything I’ve ever done,” he said later on. “Disrupting the mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is what made us powerful. That one action gave us power. Suddenly, people were afraid of us.”

Their efforts led to the creation of other chapters of the organization in various parts of the world.

One year later, his struggle would become even more personal: during surgery for a congenital hernia, doctors discovered damage to his liver from Hepatitis B, and diagnosed him as HIV positive. 

You Die as You Live

Larry Kramer died as he lived: in the middle of a pandemic. Only this time, the COVID-19 infection does not distinguish between gender and sexual orientation, and its rate of transmission has been accelerated by a globalized but equally unconscious world.

“They still are [in denial],” he said during his interview with CBS in 2006. “It breaks my heart that we’ve gone through all of this, and that many of us have died, and that we fought so hard with ACT UP to get the drugs out there, that are now out there to save people, and that people are still infecting themselves.”

His fight continued to the end, always raising his voice against a community that did not keep up with his struggle.

“[The gay population] is very passive and plastic,” he said in an interview on The Joy Behar Show in 2010. “The internet has not helped activism, because activism works when people get together in a room and work off each other’s energy. And that gets dissipated on the Internet.”

“Activism does not work unless you are afraid,” he added. “It just doesn’t.”

Today, while witnessing one of the worst pandemics in human history, that urgent fear Kramer spoke of is very different. COVID-19 has claimed 102,872 deaths (and counting) in just under six months, and amidst the fear and numbness of over-information, activism and social action are still largely absent.

This is perhaps a war on many fronts.

The struggle that Kramer once led is now that of millions of people who have seen the pattern reproduce itself in police brutality, in white supremacy, and in deeper and deeper inequality. And yet, we still seem to miss his anger and his fervor to act, to bring about change and hold accountable those who have proven to have no idea how to do things.

“We have everything required to save the world,” the activist once said, “except the will to do it.”