Larry Kramer, Playwright, Author and Outspoken AIDS Activist, Dies at 84

Larry Kramer was an American playwright, author, film producer, AIDS activist and LGBT rights activist, born June 1935 in Connecticut. In 1953, Kramer enrolled at Yale University where he had difficulty adjusting. He was achieving much lower grades than he was accustomed to; he felt lonely and like he was the only gay student on campus, which led him to attempted suicide. This experience left Kramer determined to explore his sexuality and set him on a path to fight “for gay people’s worth”.

Kramer began his career age 23 by taking a job as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures, a position he took merely because the machine was just across the hall from the president’s office. Eventually, he was promoted to a position in the story department, re-writing scripts at Columbia Pictures. This role then led him to London where he worked with United Artists. While working with United Artists, Kramer wrote the screenplay for the film Women in Love (1969) for which he and received an Academy Award nomination.

In 1978, Kramer published his novel Faggots which is a satirical portrayal of the gay community in 1970s New York, in a time before the AIDs crisis. The novel’s exploration of ‘promiscuous’ sex and recreational drug use, however, provoked controversy and was condemned by some within the LGBTQIA+ community.

During in 1980s, Kramer witnessed the spread of AIDs (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) amongst his friends. In response, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which has now become the world’s largest private organisation assisting people living with AIDS. His frustration with the apathy of gay men towards the AIDs crisis, drove Kramer to engage in action further than the social services provided by the GMHC. His emotions were expressed in his 1985 play, The Normal Heart, which was produced at The Public Theatre in New York City.

His AIDs activism continued in 1987, with the founding of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct-action protest organisation which aimed to gain more public action in the fight against AIDs. To this day, ACT UP has been widely credited with successfully changing public health policy, the public perception of people living with AIDS, as well as raising awareness of HIV and AIDS-related diseases.

Kramer himself had weathered ill-health for much of his adult life. 1988, he discovered that he was HIV positive following surgery for liver damage. In 2001, in dire need of a liver transplant, Kramer was turned down for organ donation because at the time, people living with HIV were considered inappropriate candidates for organ donation. In fact, out of the 4,954 liver transplants performed in the United States, only 11 were for HIV-positive people. “We shouldn’t face a death sentence because of who we are or who we love”, Kramer said in an interview.

False news was spread that same year by Newsweek who announced his death. In May 2001, the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, which had performed more transplants for HIV positive patients than any other facility in the world, accepted Kramer on its list and Kramer finally received a new liver on 21st December 2001.

Continuing his commentary on the governmental indifference towards the AIDs crisis, Kramer wrote Just Say No, A Play about a Farce in 1988, which highlighted the sexual hypocrisy in the Reagan and Koch administrations that allowed AIDS to become an epidemic. Then, in 1989 (and later expanded and re-published in 1994), Kramer wrote Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist which featured a diverse selection of Kramer’s non-fiction writings on; AIDS activism and LGBT civil rights, including letters to the editor and speeches, which document his time spent at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, and much more.

Kramer was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 1992 play The Destiny of Me, which picks up where his 1985 play, The Normal Heart, left off. The Destiny of Me was also a two-time recipient of the Obie Award and received the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year.

In 2004, Kramer delivered a speech entitled The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, five days after the re-election of George W. Bush, which was then published in book form. Kramer believed that Bush had been re-elected primarily due to his opposition of equal marriage rights. The speech Tragedy was a call-to-arms and its effects were far-reaching, once again causing to discuss Kramer’s moral vision of the future of the LGBT+ community.

In response to the 2020 Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, Kramer began writing a play titled An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Sadly though, on 27th May 2020, Kramer’s husband, David Webster, confirmed that Larry had passed away, the cause of which was said to be pneumonia. Larry Kramer’s legacy lives on, however, in the memories of those in the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond, whose lives and rights now are directly impacted by much of Kramer’s activism over the span of his lifetime.

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