Larry Kramer is dead. The news came not unexpectedly, given his ill-health, but still with shocking force. Who will hound the Establishment now when the need is again great? Who will rally the people, even if he (or she) is so extreme that allies are alienated almost as frequently as enemies? Do we appreciate what Kramer was able to do and what his legacy to us actually is?
AIDS was a terrifying epidemic, especially among gay men. In the early days when little was known about it, we were told that sexual activity spread the virus. If you wanted to be safe, you would have to alter or forego expressing your sexuality. Kramer’s position was that gay men should stop having sex. Period. For a group that was defined by having sex, its own special sex, that was not a popular point of view.
Kramer seemed willing, though, to operate on a two-track philosophy, because in 1982 he also organized a meeting that led to the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The outcasts would force their way into the public dialogue, take the lead in policy proposals, and even get knowledgeable about viral biology. Other cities organized similar advocacy groups as well, some with highly technical medical newsletters. Although Kramer would be annoyed that some of these organizations were not more than hopeful pickup spots. The origination of these groups was something novel though—based on elements from the emerging calls for patients’ rights and the growing women’s healthcare movement (“Our Bodies, Ourselves,” gentlemen). The notions of “safe sex” evolved incorporating both Kramer’s reticence and the power of gay sexual liberation. Eventually, for most gay men, condoms just became part of the action.
In the meantime, growing impatient with GMHC’s emphasis on providing social services and cozying up to politicians and drug company officials, Kramer wrote a widely read article “ 1,112 and Counting” where he railed against the willful ignorance of the immense toll the AIDS epidemic was taking. (Strangely similar to current calls for increased action as we mark 100,000 dead of COVID-19).
His most significant writing about AIDS is surely the drama “The Normal Heart.” Somewhat autobiographical, definitely shaped by politics around the disease, this play’s emotional impact clearly enlisted many allies and raised the level of the struggle against the governmental and pharmaceutical bureaucracies.
Larry Kramer kept being his ornery self. Eventually GMHC maneuvered him out of power within the organization and finally out of the group all together. In 1987 he founded a new organization that would channel the rowdiness he and others were feeling—ACT/UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Polite political discourse was abandoned in favor of mass direct action—whether bodies in street “die-ins,” art wheatpasted on walls or worn on t-shirts, and disruption of the norms officials expected at meetings.
Before Dr. Anthony Fauci was the current savvy voice of scientific reason in the government, he was a mere bureaucrat, dragging his heels. Among other actions designed to get him to treat the epidemic with more urgency, I organized an ACT/UP protest in San Francisco at a professional meeting I was attending where he was receiving a prestigious award; screaming “your red tape is killing us,” 4 or 5 guys wrapped the room and the participants in red ribbons. Chutzpah was the new normal and Fauci has often acknowledged his own evolution in this regard. Important changes occurred, as a result, also at the Food and Drug Administration where drugs were sometimes distributed before testing was completed under a concept of “compassionate release”. Kramer’s was one of the loudest voices calling for such reforms. (And they still exist, to the benefit of many people suffering from other diseases.)
Kramer’s ideas for ACT/UP formed a template which has influenced the tactics of many subsequent movements—of Occupy activists, of the struggle for social recognition of the high incidence of breast cancer, of #BlackLivesMatter, and of #MeToo, for example. AIDS Groups modeled on Kramer’s initiative were started around the world. ACT/UP Paris began in the summer of 1989 by some guys who had been to New York City. During a sabbatical in Paris that Fall, grieving from the death of my lover, I went to their weekly meetings. In fact, action with the group led to my spending my only night ever in jail—for stenciling political slogans on the sidewalks of the Marais. On December 1st, World AIDS Day, we hung a giant banner between the two towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral: “Oui Aux Capotes,” “Yes to Condoms.” French TV loved it!
Larry Kramer ignited the indignation of thousands of People With AIDS and their lovers, friends, and relatives. Although Kramer was not religious, my thoughts go back to the passage in the Talmud that says “if you save a single life, it is as if you saved the universe entire.” It is not far-fetched to say that Kramer’s irascibility and activism has played a role in saving the lives of everyone today who lives with HIV. What a legacy!
Phil Bereano is a member of the Community Action Group of The AMP: AIDS Memorial Pathway being constructed in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and was one of the co-founders of ACT/UP Seattle.