Larry Kramer was a writer and activist who drew attention to the AIDS crisis that disproportionately killed gay men and trans women in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Who Is Larry Kramer?
During the 1980s, Larry Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to support and advocate for men with AIDS and wrote The Normal Heart, a semi-autobiographical play about the AIDS epidemic. In 1987, he helped start ACT UP, a radical activist organization that successfully pushed the Food and Drug Administration to speed up drug research trials to treat AIDS.
Where was Larry Kramer Born?
Laurence David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on June 25, 1935, to a Jewish family. As a child, his family moved to Mount Rainier, Maryland, and later to Washington, D.C., when he was a teenager.
The late 1940s and early ‘50s was a period of fierce moral panic around same-sex attraction, and it was during this time that Kramer began to understand he was gay. Kramer survived a suicide attempt during his first semester of college at Yale and later had his first gay relationship with a male professor. In college, he developed his passion for theater. He graduated from Yale in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Early Writing Career
After college, Kramer pursued a career in film. In the early 1960s, he moved to London to work for Columbia Pictures on movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). He adapted D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love into the screenplay for the 1969 movie of the same name, earning himself an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
In the early 1970s, Kramer moved to New York City and began to focus on playwriting, and later fiction. His first novel, Faggots (1978), was commercially successful, yet controversial among gay men. Some critics felt that it reinforced stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous and drug-using while shaming gay men who had sex with multiple partners.
AIDS Activism and Writing
On July 3, 1981, The New York Times ran a startling headline: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The article reported that at least eight of these people had already died.
This rare cancer was Kaposi’s sarcoma, which can develop in people with weakened immune systems. At the time, doctors and scientists didn’t realize that these 41 people were infected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and had developed the condition we now know as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
Kramer was deeply concerned about these illnesses, which people outside the queer community began to refer to as “gay cancer.” One month after the Times article, he organized a meeting of gay men to raise funds for research into what was causing the epidemic and how to treat it. The group raised $6,635 for research at a time when there was essentially no new funding to study the growing health crisis.
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Angry over medical and political leaders’ continued lack of response to these illnesses and deaths, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City in January 1982. That year, the organization raised some $50,000 for medical research and started a hotline for people with questions about the health crisis. The first night the hotline was open, it received around 100 calls.
That September, the CDC (then known as the Centers for Disease Control) finally gave a name to the mysterious and deadly condition developing among gay men and trans women: AIDS. Still, Kramer was disturbed by how little medical organizations and politicians were doing to address the epidemic.
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In 1983, he resigned from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis over disagreements about how aggressive the organization should be in demanding action on the AIDS crisis. That same year, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Native titled “1,112 and Counting”—a reference to the number of known AIDS patients at that time.
“If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men may have no future on this earth,” he wrote. “Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”
‘The Normal Heart’
Kramer used his experiences with AIDS activism to write his most famous stage play, The Normal Heart, which premiered off-Broadway in 1985. The semi-autobiographical play told the story of Ned Weeks, a gay Jewish writer and activist horrified to see a mysterious disease spreading among gay men.
The well-received play has had many runs since its 1985 debut and was adapted into a 2014 HBO movie of the same name. Kramer followed it with a sequel about Weeks called The Destiny of Me, which premiered off-Broadway in 1992 and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In 1987, Kramer helped found a radical activist organization called ACT UP, which stood for “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.” Frustrated by the continued inaction on AIDS research and treatments, ACT UP sought to force medical and political leaders to do just that. Its slogan was “Silence = Death,” referring to the increasing numbers of gay men and trans women dying of AIDS. By this time, Kramer had already seen many of his friends die from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1988, Kramer learned that he, too, had contracted HIV.
ACT UP’s disruptive tactics succeeded in drawing attention to the AIDS crisis, forcing those in power to take action. In 1989, members of ACT UP chained themselves to the VIP balcony of the New York Stock Exchange to protest Burroughs Wellcome, the company that owned the only FDA-approved treatment for AIDS and was selling the drug at an exorbitant price. The protest disrupted the stock exchange’s opening bell for the first time in history. Several days after the protest, the company lowered the price of the drug, known as AZT.
Anthony Fauci, who became director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984 and was a frequent subject of Kramer’s criticism, has praised Kramer for sparking changes in the U.S. medical establishment. Kramer and ACT UP’s activism pushed Fauci and other National Institutes of Health officials to consult with AIDS patients during new drug development and give them a voice in clinical trials—changes that the NIH adopted in studies of other diseases, too. In addition, the FDA sped up the approval process for new treatments for people with HIV and AIDS.
Kramer’s HIV did not develop into AIDS, but it did affect his health and the medical care he was able to receive. In 2001, Kramer struggled to get a liver replacement because, as someone with HIV, medical officials considered him to be a low priority for replacement. Around the time he finally did receive a new liver, the Associated Press accidentally published a headline falsely reporting that he had died.
In 2013, two years after New York state legalized gay marriage, Kramer married his longtime partner David Webster in a New York City hospital where Kramer was recovering from recent surgery. Kramer and Webster first dated in the 1970s and then started dating again in the 1990s. Kramer continued to speak out about the global HIV and AIDS crisis, which has led to more than 39 million deaths.
Kramer died of pneumonia on May 27, 2020, in New York City at age 84.