National Commentary

Larry Kramer, An Extraordinary Heart

The passing of my friend, the feisty and often controversial gay pioneer Larry Kramer, in New York at age 84 yesterday is particularly poignant coming in the midst of the current new plague we are experiencing.

He was the voice that called out the last plague, the AIDS pandemic that took an estimated 600,000 lives of mostly young gay men in the U.S. and that continues to ravage much of the undeveloped world.

The era of the AIDS pandemic ran from 1981 to 1996. During that period, every gay man, like myself, lived in the midst of incredible anxiety and fear, because AIDS, caused by the HIV virus, was incurable and led to terrible, horribly painful deaths. If a person woke up to see a rosy bruise on their skin, it was a veritable death sentence.

It is hard to fathom how terrifying just living in this period was, from the day in June 1981 when the first cases were reported to the end of 1996 when Time magazine named Dr. Ho its “Person of the Year” for his discovery of a cocktail of treatments that finally made it possible for a person to live with AIDS and not automatically die from it.

The added terror of that AIDS era was that it exposed its victims in the climate of a still-largly-rejected and shunned lifestyle not only to friends, fellow employees and family. So many young men who overburdened the hospital resources of urban centers like New York City and San Francisco were angrily rejected by their own families and died in pain, dementia, shame, isolation and loneliness.

Larry Kramer was a passionate man, a great lover of his fellow gay persons whose powerful love provoked strong, angry speeches from him as he sought to mobilize a movement to stop known acts of unsafe sex that were killing each other on the one hand, and to protest the lack of government interest in finding a treatment or cure for the pandemic.

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He was commonly dismissed by a lot of gay establishment types for being “too angry,” even though he turned out to be right in his prophetic role sounding the alarm about the threat of the virus while everyone else was too complacent.

His friend in his later years, Dr. Anthony Fauci, now a household name for his role as a respected and forceful leader in the current pandemic, expressed great admiration for Kramer as one who’d forced the U.S. health system to come to grips with AIDS when it wanted to avoid its then-dubious association with homosexual behavior. Kramer founded the ACT-UP movement that demonstrated, and did sit-ins and die-ins to make the point that thousands of people were sick and dying and no one was taking it seriously enough.

In the past decade, Kramer was grudgingly (by many fellow gay establishment activists) acknowledged for his leadership role in the movement with the revival of his play, “The Normal Heart.” Written by him at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1984, it is a powerful testament to the epidemic and the toll it took on his fellow gays. It had two runs in New York, was performed around the country in the first decade of this century, and produced as an HBO special for TV.

In it, as with his groundbreaking and prescient novel, “Faggots” in 1978, he counterposed the love and creativity that gay persons have to offer the world with the urban domains of impersonal sex that had overtaken the major city gay scenes in the 1970s.

Comparable to today, the noisiest gay activists of that era were strident opponents of anything that would limit or restrict their wanton behavior in the face of the pandemic. All, it seemed, except Kramer. As a result, hundreds of thousands of young gays died horrible AIDS deaths that otherwise may not have had to.

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I knew Kramer as a charming, funny and highly intellectual person who never stopped cautioning his fellow gay men about the risks and dangers of unprotected and uncautious sex, not because he was a prude or a hater, but because he was a passionate lover of his fellow human beings.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at nfbenton@fcnp.com.