More than 35 years after the AIDS epidemic began striking down scores of gay men, activist Larry Kramer still has strong words for the politicians who ignored the crisis then and hinder the search for a cure today.
“We’re still at the height of the AIDS crisis, the press is not reporting it and cases are up all over the world,” said Kramer frankly via Facetime. “The search for a cure is still in the toilet. We’re still being sold down the river by the NIH (National Institutes of Health). All these things are not being reported. The only difference between the early days of GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and now is there are a lot more of us out there fighting. We have a bigger army to rub in their faces if we all show up.”
Kramer, a successful screenwriter and author who called Fire Island home in the 1970s, was not initially a political activist. It was only after his friends began getting sick in 1980 from the “gay cancer” that he found himself advocating for gay rights. He is quoted in his Wikipedia entry as saying:
"It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends...Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men.”
A year later, he would gather his friends together in his apartment and found the organization that became known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the leading organization to raise funds for and provide services to men in New York City suffering what had been since labeled as HIV/AIDS.
The outspoken and confrontational Kramer targeted then-Mayor Ed Koch, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health and politicians before being ousted by the GMHC board in 1983.
After a trip to Europe and a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, he voiced his frustration with both the political and media establishment and gay community leaders in a 1985 play, “The Normal Heart.” The critically-acclaimed play was revived in 2004 and 2011, and made into an Emmy Award-nominated movie broadcast on HBO in 2014. He has since also penned a number of important essays, books and histories.
In 1987, Kramer helped found AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP and set about on a powerful effort to use protests and civil disobedience to focus attention on what he saw as a holocaust perpetrated on gay men through government inaction.
ACT UP is no longer active, but Kramer still feels the urge to mobilize, especially after the results of the 2016 elections.
“I think it’s not in the nature of people to be activists and to be angry,” Kramer explained. “They have to learn how to do it. A good activist is someone who is angry and frightened at the same time. Those are the motivating factors that are most useful. I should think that gay people everywhere should be frightened by this new administration. It’s scary.”
He went on to warn, “They’re going to take away our rights. Whatever it is, we have to be prepared. We have to be visible as a group. When there’s a protest, more of us have to show up. We need to protest outside of every Republican Congressperson’s doors. Let them know where’re there and we’re mad.”
Kramer declined to weigh in on the development of AIDS-prevention therapies like PReP that may lull young gay men into risky sexual behaviors. Many young men, in particular, do not know anyone who has died from HIV/AIDS.
“Whether they remember AIDS or not, they should remember (the time) before there was marriage. They can read the papers, they know what’s happens to us, that should make them get off their asses,” he almost scolded. “We’re wonderful people. I love being gay, it makes me fight even harder.”
And he pointed out that anti-gay hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years.
“We have to fight for our lives here in a whole different way. Kids have to be made to realize that. In Florida, of all places, with the terrible mass murder (in Orlando), you should be even angrier because of that. The one thing that pisses me off are gay people who aren’t willing to fight for their rights,” he said.
Now 82, Kramer cannot imagine his life any differently.
He said, “I’m glad that I was on the front line at the very beginning and saw something was happening and I’m glad I’m still alive to continue that fight. It’s like...the (war) reporter who drops behind enemy lines and can see what the situation is really like.”
While Kramer’s rhetoric shows no signs of softening—he continues to maintain a busy speaking schedule—he admitted his biggest secret with a slight grin, “I’m a huggy bear and that’s what a couple of my oldest friends call me.”
Symposium Focuses on HIV-Positive Millennials, History
The World AIDS Museum and Educational Center (WAM) in Wilton Manors takes its threefold mission seriously.
In addition to documenting the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the non-profit institution is also committed to honoring the people who suffered and continue to suffer from the disease and educating and enlightening the people who are touched by HIV/AIDS.
On March 9 - 11, the museum will host activist Larry Kramer, a founder of both Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT UP and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright, and hold a symposium focused on the needs of HIV-positive Millennials.
WAM CEO Hugh Beswick explained, “HIV/AIDS is the most misunderstood and misrepresented disease ever because of the stigma attached. This is the 30th anniversary of ACT UP, and many of the people who were involved in the early days are in their 70s and 80s now. We needed to document the story completely and realized many of these people might not be with us much longer.”
Kramer is still a controversial figure within the LGBT community, but even those who disagreed with his political methods, agreed that he was a central figure who should be a part of the events. After many months and outreach to mutual friends, Beswick was able to book the 82-year-old activist.
“He’s brilliant, controversial and difficult, like him or not, everybody who we talked with said you can’t tell the story of the AIDS crisis without telling the story of Larry Kramer,” said Beswick, “and he’s hard to get.”
Kramer will be interviewed by Kevin Sessums, former editor of Interview magazine and Vanity Fair, who will be flying from San Francisco to participate in a onstage discussion at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, March 10 at 8 p.m. The event will also include a musical tribute to Kramer from the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida. Tickets are $25.
Kramer and Sessums will autograph their books, “The American People” and “Mississippi Sissy,” respectively, and greet the public at WAM in Wilton Manors on Thursday, March 9 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. This event is free.
Then, on Saturday, March 11, WAM will host a free Poz Millennials symposium at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale. Beswick sees the afternoon symposium as an especially important program, noting the high new infection rates among younger gay men and within the African-American community.
For more information and to reserve tickets for the weekend events, go to WorldAIDSMuseum.org.