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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 29, 2020 - Volume 48 Issue 22
Larry Kramer dies at 84 - "One of America's most valuable troublemakers." - Susan Sontag
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Larry Kramer dies at 84 - "One of America's most valuable troublemakers." - Susan Sontag

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Larry Kramer, whose take-no-prisoners rhetoric defined the early period of AIDS activism, died May 27. He was 84.

According to Kramer's husband, David Webster, he died from pneumonia. Kramer had contended with health problems for much of his adult life, including HIV, liver disease, and a successful liver transplant.

In the early 1980s, Kramer was one of the first activists to foresee that HIV/AIDS, what was then thought to be a rare form of cancer affecting Gay men, would spread worldwide and kill millions of people without regard to sexual orientation.

Under the circumstances, he said, "If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson."

Kramer founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1981. It was the first service organization for HIV-positive people. His fellow directors kicked him out a year later for his aggressive rhetoric. Never one to accept a rebuke, he characterized them as "a sad organization of sissies."

Kramer then founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a direct action group demanding a speedup in AIDS research and an end to discrimination against Gay men and Lesbians. ACT UP targeted government offices, Wall Street, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Kramer pulled no punches in his criticism of officials. For example, he once introduced New York City Mayor Ed Koch to his dog as the man who was "killing Daddy's friends."

Although Kramer routinely accused officials of "murder" and "genocide" for failing to move quickly enough to tackle the HIV epidemic, many recognized that his outbursts were part of a strategy to shock the country into dealing with HIV as a public-health emergency.

The infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, for example, said of Kramer "Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold."

Fauci later helped Kramer get a liver transplant and access to experimental drugs that saved his life.

Kramer was also a world-class writer. His breakthrough came with a screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, for which he had obtained the film rights with $4,200 of his own money.

He also produced the film, which was a box-office hit when it was released in 1969 and a high point of more than one career. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Glenda Jackson won an Oscar as best actress for her performance, and the director, Ken Russell, established himself as an important filmmaker.

Kramer eventually turned to Gay themes with his first novel, Faggots. A scathing - some said "self-loathing" - look at promiscuous sex, drug use, predation, and sadomasochism among Gay men, it was a lightning rod from the day of its publication in 1978.

In 1985, Kramer published his autobiographical play, The Normal Heart, depicting his antagonistic relationship with his father and his mutually ambivalent relationship with his protective older brother.

The Normal Heart returned to the stage in 2011, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. An HBO adaptation, written by Mr. Kramer, won the 2014 Emmy for outstanding television movie.

While he recovered from his 2001 liver transplant, Kramer began work on a new project, a massive historical novel called "The American People," by which he meant the Gay American people. A central argument of the work was that many of the country's historically important figures, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, had had homosexual relationships.

The first volume, almost 800 pages long, was published in 2015. Volume 2, more than 80 pages longer, was published this year.

Tell a friend:

Larry Kramer dies at 84 - "One of America's most valuable troublemakers." - Susan Sontag
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