Larry Kramer fought indifference — and won!

Activist and playwright Larry Kramer at an AIDS conference in New York in 1987. (Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)


The death of Larry Kramer on May 27th was a huge loss, not only for gay men and others in queer communities, but for all of us involved in the fight against every kind of oppression brought down on us by our decaying, crisis-ridden capitalist society.  It was also a major loss for the world of art and culture. Kramer was a playwright, author, film producer, public health advocate and activist. He was a key figure in the fight against AIDS, being a co-founder of both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in NYC (1981) and the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP, with its bold, militant protests and policy of direct action, started in 1987 in New York city, quickly growing and spreading to many cities in the US and internationally. It denounced the paralysis, indifference and bias of governments and public health agencies as well as the predatory role of Big Pharma. Many protests were designed for a maximum number of arrests, since these attracted media attention. Kramer was often on the list of those arrested.

ACT UP became known for its creativity and inventiveness. One of its first posters was Silence=Death with its pink triangle (the symbol which the Nazis put on the uniforms of queer concentration camp prisoners). One of its famous protests, covered live in the media, was the engulfing of the Washington house of the notorious Senator Jesse Helms with a 15-foot yellow condom saying: A CONDOM TO PREVENT UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS. Two of its signal victories were to change the inordinately slow and secretive process of drug trials and the winning of benefits for people with HIV-AIDS (PWAs).

Kramer, previously not political, became enraged by the death of friends from the virus. He said of his famous public anger at the oppression of LGBTQ+ people and the lack of action on AIDS: “I was trying to make people united and angry. I was known as the angriest man in the world, mainly because I discovered that anger got you further than being nice. And when we started to break out in the media, I was better TV than someone who was nice.”

Arguably, he sometimes went over the top. Among his many literary contributions, his 1978 novel Faggots angered many gay men and others who considered it accusatory, sensationalist and sex-negative. He was viewed as quite abrasive at times, but not vindictive. Anthony Fauci, who heads up the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was one of his targets initially but later they became friends. Says Fauci, “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense and that he had a heart of gold.” But whatever his supposed shortcomings, they were dwarfed by what he achieved. He will be missed for a long time. The struggle for a just society needs more Larry Kramers.

John Wilson is a pioneer of the gay liberation movement in Ontario, and a leading member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste in Canada.

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