We lost a great leader with the death of Larry Kramer. Larry was an accomplished man, earning a degree from Yale, an Academy Award nomination as a screenwriter, a two-time Obie winner, Pulitzer Prize nominee and activist. Born in a time when being out was unheard of and the role models we have today did not exist, he had his own struggles with coming to terms with and accepting himself as a gay man, as many did and still do. Going as far as attempting suicide while in college, Larry would come to terms with who he was and go on to lead a movement that would change our world.
While not initially interested in activism, Larry would become a leader in the gay rights movement and the fight against AIDS when gay men began to get sick in 1980 with a then-unknown disease. Larry was instrumental in so many ways from forming the first AIDS organization, which would become the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), to ACT UP in 1987 after years of the government and the world turning a blind eye to what was happening. Larry forced gay men, the government and mainstream news to pay attention and respond to the AIDS crisis, starting with his lengthy essay entitled “1,112 and counting,” of which Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner said, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.” Indeed, he did.
“You’d think one day we’d learn. You don’t get anything unless you fight for it, united and with visible numbers.”
— Larry Kramer
Larry exemplified what it means to stand up and take action even when that makes you unpopular and a target. While many were willing to stand back because they were afraid of being outed in a time when we had few, if any rights, Larry said no. He stepped forward, mobilizing a movement that would bring forth money for research to fight AIDS. He would not let all those that had died, were dying and suffering, do so in vain. Widely criticized for his methods, even by the gay community, he was ousted by GMHC in 1983 due to his “in your face” approach. That approach resulted in the intended outcomes — people and the government took notice and took action. Larry knew someone had to do something, and he did.
While we now know that HIV had probably been around for decades, it was not until 1981 that the virus seemed to take hold and spread. If you were born after 1981, chances are you don’t know what effect the disease had back then, the toll it was taking. I was 14, and I remember clearly the fear that permeated the gay community and the lack of response or even acknowledgment of the government to do something because it was that “gay disease.” I remember my own fear as a young gay man, seeing all those who were sick, dying or who had passed. Had those infected with HIV been white straight men, things would have been much different. Now more than ever, that fact is not lost on me when I see the world’s response to the COVID pandemic compared to what happened back then.
“AIDS was allowed to happen. It is a plague that needs not to have happened. It is a plague that could have been contained from the very beginning.”
— Larry Kramer
Had it not been for Larry and others like him, we would be in a very different place today. Because of his courage, we should all recognize that one person, each of us can make a difference even when the stakes are high, we are afraid and there is much to lose but also much to be gained. Today more than ever, we all need to be like Larry and stand up against all that is wrong in the world and our own country. Renowned immunologist Anthony Fauci said of Larry, “In American medicine, there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry.”
Larry’s life and courage should be a catalyst for our own response to the lack of leadership in our country, to the continued and pervasive racism and bigotry that still exists, the inequality and injustice of anyone. We must raise our voices, however we can. We must demand change and not stand by meekly and wait for someone to do it for us. We must unite not as groups of color, gender or sexuality, but as human beings. Larry’s passing should be a call for action, so we do not let all those who have gone before us, who have sacrificed, risked and even lost their lives to have done so in vain. Each of us must have a cause and do something to advance that. We must get involved by voting, writing our representatives, raising our voices. Like Larry, we must act up.
“Some reporter called me ‘the angriest gay man in the world’ or some such. Well, it stuck, but I realized it was very useful.”
— Larry Kramer
Leadership comes in many forms and people, but most often, it comes from those we least expect.
Larry Kramer was 84.