Feature writing

Larry Kramer: 1935-2020

Larry Kramer’s anger powered his LGBTQ activism. We should never forget it.

The Daily Beast

May 28, 2020

Larry Kramer, who has died at age 84, made the voluble expression of his anger central to both his LGBTQ and AIDS activism. It freaked everyone out and helped change the world.

The anger. That’s what the obituaries and memories of Larry Kramer come back to. It’s what the interviews with him came back to. And yes, Kramer, who has died aged 84 from pneumonia (not COVID-related), was infamously irascible. But he was furious with a purpose. He was angry on a mission.

He died in the timespan of our current pandemic, and became famous in the timespan of another, AIDS. His anger remained a constant.

That Kramer’s anger somehow stood out as defining tells us something about the very passivity that was the prompt for much of the anger itself. If some shrank from Kramer’s anger, he in turn bristled at what he perceived to be their inertia.

But well-known friends and activists and those who worked with him—who will speak to The Daily Beast in a forthcoming piece—remember his warmth and mischief too, and his widely told story of introducing his Wheaten terrier to his neighbor, New York Mayor Ed Koch, as the man who was “killing Daddy’s friends,” because of his lack of engagement with the HIV and AIDS crisis in the city.

Kramer, who is survived by his husband, the architect David Webster, was both artist and activist with all the passionate intersections that implies. His script for Ken Russell’s movie of Women in Love (1969), which he adapted from D.H. Lawrence’s novel and which he also co-produced, featured Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s extremely hot fireside wrestling match. His landmark novel Faggots (1978) may not be deemed a fine novel, but—like its author—it told some hitherto unexplored-in-fiction realities of gay culture and desire.

Kramer’s autobiographical play The Normal Heart (1985) was one of the first to explore the impact of HIV and AIDS on gay men, and it did so with the wit, and caustic honesty of an insider; through its lead character, Ned Weeks, Kramer interrogated the tensions of his personal and public life.

Kramer—later diagnosed HIV positive—was a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in January 1982, and the play charts Ned’s passionate activism versus the conservatism of his colleagues, eventually leading to his expulsion from the GMHC-like organization he leads. The play explores love and guilt in a time of AIDS, rampant prejudice, and political antagonism.

Later came The Destiny of Me (1992), an autobiographical play, again following Ned Weeks as he receives treatment for AIDS while meditating on the tensions within his biological family when he was an adolescent.

The Normal Heart became an HBO movie and was revived on Broadway in 2011. Sitting in that audience was almost as charged as the events of the play. People cried audibly. Outside the theater, Kramer—decked in a bright orange jacket—handed out leaflets about the need for activism to audience members. It was inspiring to see him, the artist and the activist as one, here on Broadway raising a ruckus.

After GMHC, Kramer had been instrumental in the formation of direct action group ACT UP, whose die-ins and zaps targeted both the hypocrisy of those letting people die with such callous indifference and the world of science, urging it to accelerate research and development of HIV medication.

In a beautifully written remembrance, the activist Peter Staley today recalled the many Larry Kramers he knew and saw in their years of friendship and fighting in the activism trenches: Kramer the inspiration, the firebrand, the exasperating “out-of-touch,” “finger-wagging” moralist, and—most profoundly for Staley—the founder of a movement Staley says he is alive today because of. It is the kind of honest, deeply-felt testimonial only a friend and comrade-in-arms could write.

LGBTQ people learn to dampen anger, soften it, put on a face, make a joke, mask it, and move on. Quelling anger, being reasonable, getting people to like you, playing the game: Any LGBTQ person knows the inner mechanics of that. We’ve known it and had to access it, from our earliest days and the earliest taunts of morons at school.

arry Kramer didn’t play nice. He didn’t stay quiet. He didn’t pacify the bully, he confronted them and snarled louder. He raged, and j’accused. He was the nearest LGBTQ culture had to a fulminating preacher. He externalized all the anger and fury that so many felt when faced with homophobia, discrimination, and government inaction over AIDS—and he spread that anger and activism into the world through his passionate words and deeds.

Larry Kramer wasn’t just angry at bigots. He knew that bigots attack LGBTQ people. They do it as naturally as horses flick their tails at flies. But the indifference and casual submission of those being attacked, the non-fighting back, made him just as furious as those who—like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and their administration—practice their anti-LGBTQ cruelty so freely and gleefully.

A diagnosis of terminal liver disease, a liver transplant, and bouts of ill-health did not slow Kramer down. There was The American People, a two-part novel sequence about gay Americans. And there were, as this entertaining 2011 profile by Jacob Bernstein in The Daily Beast points out, feuds with a bunch of people, including gay luminaries like Tony Kushner (about Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality).

At the time of his death, Kramer was working on a play about “three plagues,” as he put it to The New York Times in a March interview: HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and the decline of the human body. Of the latter, Kramer, the Times said, was referring to a broken leg suffered “when he fell in his apartment and lay on the floor until his home attendant arrived hours later.”

Kramer said he was now friends with his one-time nemesis Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who he had once called an “incompetent idiot” in how the federal government had responded to AIDS.

“Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense and that he had a heart of gold,” Dr. Fauci told the Times.

It’s funny how time can soften things because the divide between Fauci and Kramer was still stark; Fauci remained inside the halls of power, Kramer remained outside. But the pair were like two weary, affectionate veterans on a battlefield, their scars not fully healed but also no longer oozing pus.

Many people were wary and critical of Kramer. He was polarizing and then some, but his anger was also in some way performative. He himself said that anger played better on TV than being nice, but it was also radical and visible where so much other anger—specifically LGBTQ anger—wasn’t. And, intentional or not, it was good strategy. As Kramer agitated in the field, the suits in establishment organizations lobbied and made nice. They were a good tag team, even if they sniped at each other.

Watching Kramer in action was thrilling, revelatory, and also frightening. It was also piercingly recognizable—this anger that rumbled in the hearts of many LGBTQ people and people with AIDS, but was often not expressed.

This was a time when not just straight people in power but straight people generally didn’t register the pain that led Kramer to denounce the authorities as “murderers.”

Kramer found a purpose for his anger; he realized it scared people. It meant he would not win every battle, but he would win a few. He just had to figure out where best to deploy it.

Not for Larry Kramer rainbow pins and pleas for understanding; instead, a simple and direct demand, relentlessly loudly voiced, against hypocrisy and inaction, and for activism and true equality. Many shrank from his passion, and thank goodness many others did not. Kramer’s anger gave a generation of activists strength, inspiration, and focus.

“Silence equals death” was a slogan not just for ACT UP T-shirts, it was Kramer’s way of life. He practiced what he bluntly preached. The statement was intended to shock and shame people into action.

Kramer, likely now somewhere above us making his views perfectly clear to St. Peter, would hope it still would.