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Larry Kramer, Towering Figure of Aggressive AIDS Activism, Dead at 84

Kramer

Larry Kramer, author and passionate AIDS activist, has died at age 84.

Kramer died Wednesday morning at his home in Manhattan, The New York Times reports. The cause was pneumonia, according to his husband, David Webster. Kramer was a long-term survivor of HIV and had undergone a liver transplant several years ago.

Kramer is best known as the author of the Tony-winning The Normal Heart, a play about the AIDS crisis, and as a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis — the first AIDS service organization — and of the direct-action group ACT UP. He was also a novelist and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

In 1981, a group of gay men gathered in Kramer’s New York apartment to discuss a response to the new disease that was devastating their community. It didn’t have a name yet, and the human immunodeficiency virus had not been identified as the cause. The result of the meeting was the founding of GMHC, which started with a hotline in one volunteer’s apartment and has expanded into a wide range of services for people with HIV.

Kramer’s confrontational style soon led to a break with the group, though. “His fellow directors effectively kicked him out a year later for his aggressive approach, and he returned the compliment by calling them ‘a sad organization of sissies,’” the Times reports.

Kramer then went on to help found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which demonstrated in streets, churches, and elsewhere to demand treatment for the disease. Kramer and ACT UP were sometimes criticized for their militancy, but they got results.

Kramer called Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a murderer and “an incompetent idiot” for the federal government’s slow response to AIDS. But Fauci met with and listened to Kramer and other ACT UP activists, and the doctor told the Times their advocacy led to more and better treatments for the disease.

“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Fauci told the paper, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

The Normal Heart, Kramer’s most famous literary work, premiered off-Broadway in 1985. The autobiographical play dealt with the early days of AIDS, with its protagonist, Ned Weeks, based on Kramer. It finally came to Broadway in 2011, and at the first preview performance volunteers distributed a letter from Kramer pointing out that there was still no cure for AIDS.

Kramer continued to speak out through the years. In an Advocate commentary published on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (September 27) in 2015, he took LGBTQ+ Americans to task for complacency and called on them to demand a cure.

“We need power,” he wrote. “We don’t have power. We have no power in Washington. We need power in every town and city and state and organization that we inhabit. How do we get such power? Well, you start by talking about it, everyone talking about it, all of us realizing that the Supreme Court [which had just ruled for marriage equality] has given us this great gift and platform to fight from, and how do we do that most effectively. ACT UP showed us how we could do this successfully. Its template is as relevant and useful today. It’s not all that complicated. But it requires anger, outrage, hope, and love. As I said we’re much too complacent at this crucial moment in time.” 

At the time of his death, Kramer was writing a play about the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s about gay people having to live through three plagues,” he told The New York Times, referring to HIV and the decline of the body.

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