Remembering Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer died on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. He was an activist, playwright, provocateur, essayist, and a loud-mouthed son-of-a-bitch. He was 84 years old.
In the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic had killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly gay men, Anthony Fauci led the AIDS response on behalf of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Kramer didn’t think Fauci was moving fast enough. He referred to Fauci as a murderer; said he was evil, and incompetent, and he hated gay people.
Upon hearing of Larry Kramer’s death, Anthony Fauci sent an e-mail to Michael Specter at the New Yorker. It read, in part, “This is a very sad day for me and for so many others involved in the HIV/AIDS struggle over so many years who have had the opportunity to know and interact with Larry Kramer. A veritable icon has passed after a life of enormous impact.” To say that Kramer’s legacy is complicated is to put it mildly.
In fact, Kramer shouted those things about Fauci in the press and then, according to a recent interview with Dr. Fauci, Kramer called him to say he didn’t really mean it, but he needed to make waves.
Kramer was mostly known for two things: saving many, many lives, and being very, very angry. It isn’t difficult to argue that his anger was justified. He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in 1981, but was eventually ousted from the organization he created for being too radical. He founded another organization, ACT UP, in 1987. Their motto was “Silence = Death,” and silent they were not. Known as much for their tactics as for their mission, their demonstrations typically resulted in several, sometimes hundreds, of arrests for civil disobedience. One can only imagine how that must have galled Kramer—the “civil” part, I mean. Civility was never Larry Kramer’s goal; he wouldn’t have been pleased with the description.
As a student and fan of popular culture, I’m more familiar with Larry Kramer’s writing for the page and stage: his provocatively titled novel Faggots (1978), and the brilliant play, The Normal Heart (1985).
I read Faggots in the mid-1990s, having just come out of the closet in my twenties. I’ll be honest; it scared me a little. I saw much of myself in Fred, the main character, who just wanted to find a nice man and settle down, but was constantly bedeviled by the more hedonistic aspects of gay culture: bathhouses, party drugs, glory holes, orgies—y’know, typical gay stuff.
He wrote about men who would say they were free—free from the heteronormative expectations of society, free to be as vulgar, promiscuous, high, and sleazy as they wished, with no one to stop them. But Kramer saw them as the opposite: chained by shame and internalized oppression, reacting to society’s disapproval and controlled by it rather than rebelling against it.
As a young, still-maybe-Catholic, inexperienced, just-out-of-the-closet gay man, I wasn’t sure I disagreed with him. But for the first time, I wasn’t sure I was so thrilled about this club I had just joined. I wondered how many Freds were really out there.
As you can imagine, Kramer made a lot of gay people angry with Faggots. Understandably, they didn’t much like the way he portrayed them. He explored this chasm further in his play, The Normal Heart. Written less than a decade later but in a completely different world, The Normal Heart is about Ned Weeks, an AIDS activist.
Ned rails against the government and medical establishments for their slowness and indifference, but he saves some ire for his fellow gay men, who—to his mind—are having too much sex and are partly to blame for the quick spread of the virus. At least in this work, he gave his critics a credible voice, and yet it always seems to be Ned who gets the last word in their debates.
It is for this reason that I remember Kramer as angry, sure—but also an avatar of pure courage. As he fought to save the lives of the gay men who made up his tribe, he was unafraid—absolutely fearless—of earning the scorn of the very men he was trying to rescue. He said what was right, without any concern as to whether it would be popular. He stood for an entire community, but even in doing so was brave enough to stand completely alone, if need be.
It’s fitting somehow that Larry Kramer died just as many of America’s cities were on the verge of riots—chaotic, violent outbursts of rage that have many of us shaking our heads in sadness, horror, and confusion. I doubt Larry would have been confused; he had long ago made his peace with rage, and perhaps there’s a lesson there for the rest of us.
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit www.rewindpod.com to learn more.