Kramer founded the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, a group known as Act Up © Getty Images

Larry Kramer, Aids activist, dies at age 84

New York playwright prodded an often unwilling nation to confront public health crisis


Larry Kramer, a New York playwright whose theatrical — often confrontational — tactics forced a nation to push aside its apathy and homophobia to confront the Aids crisis, has died. He was 84.

Kramer succumbed to pneumonia, his husband, David Webster, told The New York Times.

Kramer was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, more than 30 years ago, when it was still considered a likely death sentence. Yet Kramer lived to see not only effective Aids therapies but the legalisation of gay marriage — another cause for which he had long battled — the production of several plays and the recent dawn of a new viral pandemic, coronavirus.

Kramer’s sense of urgency about the Aids crisis was articulated in a path-breaking 1983 essay, 1,112 and Counting. “Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake,” he wrote. “Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die.” 

As an artist and an activist he was known for an unyielding approach that generated attention and controversy. One of the groups he founded, Aids Coalition to Unleash Power — or Act Up — shut down the New York Stock Exchange, picketed the Food and Drug Administration and wrapped the house of Jesse Helms, the conservative US senator, in a giant condom.

There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. And he helped change it for the betterAnthony Fauci

One of its targets was Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, who is now leading the nation’s fight against coronavirus. Years ago, Kramer berated Dr Fauci as an incompetent and a murderer for what he believed was a plodding and bureaucratic response to the Aids crisis.

Dr Fauci eventually came to sympathise with Kramer, and shifted his agency’s approach to speed up testing of experimental drugs and give affected communities more say in their treatment. He even described his bitter antagonist as a friend. “In American medicine, there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry,” Fauci told The New Yorker in 2002. “There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. And he helped change it for the better. When all the screaming and the histrionics are forgotten, that will remain.” 

Kramer was born in Connecticut in 1935, and grew up in the Washington area. While a student at Yale University in the early 1950s he attempted suicide, an act he attributed to the alienation he felt because of his sexuality.

After graduation he worked for a talent agency in New York, and then Columbia Studios, which sent him to London. His biggest film success was Women in Love, in 1969, which he adapted from the DH Lawrence novel.

Kramer’s activism career was born when he gathered with friends in his New York City apartment in 1981 to discuss a mysterious new illness that was ravaging the community. That meeting spawned the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group.

“The very first people who got infected and died were my friends, my age group, from New York and Fire Island,” Kramer told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2017. “So, from the very beginning I got involved.”

But he fell out with the group a year later after clashing with fellow members and went on to launch the more combative Act Up, whose motto was: Silence=Death.


The unlikely coalition that put the brakes on Aids

It was a pattern that was not uncommon for a tenacious man who could be a brutal critic. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, he referred to the National Institutes of Health as “a cesspool of mediocrity” and his friend Dr Fauci as the “consummate manipulative bureaucrat”. (He was an equal-opportunity offender, becoming a pariah in the gay community for a satirical 1978 novel, Faggots, that lambasted what he saw as its hedonism).

Kramer’s best-known play, The Normal Heart, debuted in 1985, and told the largely autobiographical story of a New York writer’s fury as Aids strikes down his lover and friends in the early 1980s while public health and elected officials turn away. A 2011 production on Broadway won three Tony awards, including best revival.

His most recent work was a sprawling, 1,600-page alternative history of America. It included the line: “Show me a plague and I’ll show you the world!” 

Kramer, at times, seemed exhausted by the burden of his activism. “Larry, in private, as with many people, is often very different from what his public persona is and I think people don't often understand his humour or how beloved he is by his friends,” his biographer, Bill Goldstein, told the Associated Press in 2018.

In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, a frail Kramer lamented that the Aids crisis was still ongoing — as was his fight for equality and social justice. ''I don't think that things are better generally,'' he said. ''We have people running this government who hate us, and have said they hate us. The fight's never over.''