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Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

Controversial writer and activist Larry Kramer (born 1935), is known primarily for his criticism of political figures, media, and medical organizations for their poor response to the AIDS epidemic. Through his writing and speaking he has stirred controversy within the gay community, by chastising those who proclaim a right to promiscuity as irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating. Both supporters and detractors are likely to agree that Kramer is a colorful, forceful and strong-willed voice in American culture.

A1957 graduate of Yale University with a bachelor of arts degree, Kramer first gained national recognition for his 1970 screen adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. This work earned four Oscar nominations, including "Best Screenplay." He next found himself in the spotlight for his satirical novel Faggots (1978), which poked fun at and rebuked urban gay men for their, as he described it, indiscriminate and hazardous lifestyle. Some readers appreciated Kramer's criticism of those gay men who present themselves as unable or unwilling to maintain meaningful, monogamous relationships. Others ridiculed Kramer for his intrusively moralistic prescription of how gay men should act. On the British, Minerva, edition of Faggots, playwright Tony Kushner lauded the work as "a documentation of an era, as savage and savagely funny social parody, as a cry in the wilderness, and as a prescient, accurate reading of the writing on the wall."

In the early 1980s, Kramer began his tireless campaign to raise public awareness about AIDS and to demand that political and medical leaders find manageable, effective treatment for the disease, and ultimately a cure. AIDS activism and the promotion of a healthy homosexual lifestyle became frequent themes in his writing. He prophetically warned gay America of the growing threat posed by this sexually transmitted disease in his famous essay that appeared in the New York Native, "1,112 and Counting" (1981). The central character in his hit play The Normal Heart (1985), is generally recognized as an autobiographical reference to gay sexual liberation and "the plague" (AIDS), although it is not referred to by name. The Destiny of Me (1993) is a sequel to The Normal Heart. A prolific writer, public speaker and essayist, Kramer published collections of his observations in Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (1989) and We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer (1997), edited by Larry Mass. He also wrote two more plays, Just Say No (1988) and The Furniture of Women (1989). Since the loss of many friends to AIDS and his own personal struggle with the disease, Kramer's sense of urgency and passion have become pervasive in his writings. He is determined to ensure that the disease that is killing so many gays is not ignored.

Donation Turned Down by Yale

In November 1996, Kramer offered to donate $250,000 to his alma mater, to found a gay studies program. When Yale rejected the gift, Kramer flagged the institution as "homophobic." Although the university was willing to accept the donation as a means of bringing visiting gay studies professors to the school, it would not capitulate to Kramer's insistence that a tenured position and a full program be established. Yale claimed that any feelings about the program had no bearing on the discussion, since financial factors made the proposal unfeasible. It would take at lease $2 million to fund a department at Yale. Kramer brought the matter to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Yale. It argued that a donor does not have the right to dictate the use of monies in the manner attempted by Kramer. The Chronicle for Higher Education reported that Kramer would terminate his alumnus allegiance to Yale.

Acts Up to Raise AIDS Awareness

In the early 1980s, Kramer began witnessing the death of his friends from this mysterious sexually transmitted disease that affected the immune system. His ire reached a boiling point as he observed a lack of compassion for those who were suffering by those who had the power to improve treatment and find a cure. He became determined to draw attention to the battle against AIDS and the accountability needed of those in power, who should be working to save lives. The urgency of AIDS brought him a new perspective on what is important in life. In an article by the organization Common Cause reflecting on Kramer's achievements, he is quoted as pointing out, "I was able to support myself as a writer and I didn't feel particularly ostracized. It wasn't until AIDS came along that I was faced with the very stark reality that it didn't make any difference if I had money in the bank or had gone to Yale. My success wasn't going to make anybody pay attention to what was happening."

Kramer co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which initially provided various services and support to HIV-positive people in New York. Eventually it became the largest organization of its kind in the world. Kramer soon recognized that servicing the HIV/AIDS-infected was not enough. He must demand that research be done in AIDS treatment through protest and rambunctious public displays that were sure to draw broad media coverage. Kramer founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) for that purpose. The organization's aim is to "act up" or be "naughty" so as to be noticed and contended with. As is stressed on ACT UP's website (www.actupny.org), its members will not be silent. By being intentionally obnoxious, they hope to get arrested. ACT UP will pay their fines, which are well worth the publicity such arrests can attract. The approach works, according to Jon Greenberg, an ACT UP leader, in an article entitled "Act Up Explained," maintaining, "because of ACT UP, AIDS and the public's perceptions of the disease, the institutions of our society have been radically transformed and changed." Commenting on the melodramatic, yet powerfully effective, antics of the organization and its links to drama creation through Larry Kramer, Greenberg later explained in the same article, "ACT UP demonstrations are theater outside the bounds of the physical theatrical space. They are theater in the world, and accomplishing the types of reactions, actions and catharsis that all people in the 'conventional theater' only dream about. We use the same tools, however. Research, intensive pre-production planning, bringing together the actors (demonstrations), rehearsing them and getting to their motivating emotions (anger, fear, love for each other), sets, props, fund-raising, publicity—all this for the single goal of creating a spectacle that will change people's lives and change the world."

In 1996, a low-T-cell count forced Kramer to evaluate which combination of drugs, among the 165 possible combinations, would best help him stave off his demise. He realized through this experience that AIDS patients were a part of some broad, and not carefully documented, experiment in AIDS treatment. They were playing a game of Russian roulette with medication cocktails, discovering which worked and which did not through trial and error. Error easily led to death for patients. Therefore, it was crucial to document and share data efficiently in a network-controlled, central location. In 1988, Kramer set out to establish such a forum on the Internet to record AIDS treatments and monitor patients. The program emerged in 1999 as the AIDS Treatment Data Network, which can be found at www.aidsinfonyc.org . The site is organized into several pages, including glossaries, fact sheets, news, U.S. Public Health Service/Infectious Diseases Society of America guidelines, a treatment newsletter, directory of clinical trials, and the monitoring project itself, to which AIDS patients are invited to sign on.

Kramer was very effective in raising the public awareness of AIDS. Several news articles and television newsmagazine pieces in the late 1990s were written about the amount of attention and funding being given to AIDS research. Some claimed that the singling out of AIDS by government agencies and medical organizations and the amount of financing it was receiving from celebrity donors drew unfair attention to this disease. Ultimately, funding and research was being taken away from diseases affecting and killing even more people than AIDS. Even Kramer pointed out, according to a New York Times article, "[AIDS organizations] have become co-opted by the very system that they were created to hold accountable." In the same article, journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg posited, "While advocates for people with other diseases often lobby vociferously for more money for research, the notion of exceptionalism—that a particular illness deserves special government status—is unique to AIDS, and it is generating a backlash."

As stubborn, sharp-tongued and passionate as Kramer is, he is bound to offend and thereby become the object of denouncement himself. He continues to make enemies within the gay community by speaking his conscience and scolding gay rights groups like Sex Panic, who, he alleges, promote promiscuity and therefore unsafe sex. As forceful as Kramer is in assigning blame, however, he is thick skinned about criticism of his views. He enjoys healthy debate and is, according to John-Manuel Andriote of the Lambda Book Report, "justifiably frustrated that a number of other well-known gay intellectuals and writers have tried to block Kramer from their own awareness because he isn't easily 'managed' and is quite vocal about not needing or wanting their approbation." Larry Mass, a friend of Kramer, was quoted in the same article as saying, "You can't not pay attention to [Kramer], or censor or eliminate him. It just doesn't work and it's going to come back to haunt you."

Further Reading

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 19, 1997.

Journal of Medical Ethics, August 1995.

Lambda Book Report, November 1998.

Nation, February 23, 1998.

New York Times, July 9, 1997; August 24, 1997; November 12, 1997; December 12, 1997.

Progressive, June 1994.

Publishers Weekly, December 8, 1997.

Village Voice, July 29, 1997; August 25, 1998.

"ACT UP Explained," www.actupny.org/documents/greenbergAU.html(November 13, 1999).

"AIDS Treatment Data Network," www.aidsinfonyc.org(November 14, 1999).

"Amazon," www.amazon.com (November 13, 1999).

"Common Cause—Larry Kramer,' commoncause.org/about/psaa/larry.htm (November 13, 1999).

"Larry Kramer Blasts The New Yorker Magazine," www.gaytoday.badpuppy.com/garchive/events/062399ev.htm. (November 13, 1999).

"Repertory Artists—Larry Kramer," www.artistsrep.org/bios/larry_kramer.html (November 13, 1999). □

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