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'Hero,' 'mentor,' 'prophet': AIDS activist Larry Kramer made his mark

Soon after the death of Larry Kramer on Wednesday, tributes began to pour in from people moved and personally affected by the outspoken AIDS activist.
Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer with his dog Charlies in New York on Nov. 29, 2010.David Handschuh / NY Daily News via Getty Images file

Soon after the death of Larry Kramer on Wednesday, tributes began to pour in from people moved and personally affected by the outspoken AIDS activist and playwright who grabbed humanity’s attention four decades ago and never let go.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Kramer, a longtime resident of the state, was “the epitome, in the midst of a different plague, of New York tough.”

“At a time when the federal government sat paralyzed in denial of a disease that was ravaging an entire generation of LGBTQ people, Larry Kramer was fearless, uncompromising, relentless and loud — characteristics that ruffled feathers but that forced a response to a public health crisis,” Cuomo said in a statement. “He demanded action, and countless people are alive today because of his work.”

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Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay U.S. senator, called Kramer a “true trailblazer in the LGBTQ community.”

“Larry Kramer was an artist, advocate and activist, whose fight for our community made people listen and helped save lives,” she wrote on Twitter. “May we honor his memory by continuing the march for full equality and justice for all.”

Born in 1935, Kramer grew up in and around Washington, D.C. He graduated from Yale University in 1957 and served in the U.S. Army Reserve, before working in film production in London for Columbia Pictures.

In August 1981, following the announcement of an outbreak of Kaposi sarcoma, Kramer formed a group that eventually became the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first AIDS service organization in the world. In 1987, fed up with federal government inaction, he and other activists formed ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power — a radical organization that staged protests and public interventions for years to force officials to spend more money and include more activists in AIDS research.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, spoke to several news outlets Wednesday about his “long, complicated history” with Kramer.

Fauci was appointed the institute’s director in 1984, three years after Kramer founded GMHC and over a decade before AIDS deaths peaked in the United States, briefly becoming the top killer of young men in America in 1995.

“Larry Kramer was a dear friend yet he could, at the drop of a dime, trash you in the newspaper,” Fauci told Stat News. “He was very unpredictable. But I loved him.”

American author, AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis group in his home in New York on Dec. 20, 1989.Sara Krulwich / The New York Times via Getty Images file

Peter Staley, now a New York City AIDS activist, described himself as “one of the many frightened kids that joined ACT UP hoping to push back death.”

“He called us his kids, and, for me, he became a mentor and father figure,” Staley said in a statement. “We forget that ACT UP was born six years into the crisis. Six lost years, as the country and its president ignored a new virus that was slaughtering a community they despised. Larry told us to fight back.”

In a nod to Kramer’s love of antagonistic activism, author Rebecca Makkai marked his death on Twitter with a wish that he “gets to choose between resting in peace and haunting every last motherf----- on his list.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a tweet, said Kramer “stirred the pot, called out the powerful and, much to the chagrin of some people, he was almost always right.”

Kramer’s opinions and writing sometimes placed him at odds with the LGBTQ community, starting in 1978 with the publication of the tell-all novel about urban gay life, “Faggots.” Kramer used the animosity directed at him in the plot of his semi-autobiographical and critically acclaimed play, “The Normal Heart.”

“Larry Kramer. I don’t have the words to properly express my gratitude, admiration, and love for you,” Matt Bomer, an actor in the HBO miniseries “The Normal Heart,” wrote on Instagram. “My time with you is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. Rest in Peace my friend.”

In 2014, Kramer became the most prominent AIDS activist to speak out against the use of Truvada as HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, writing in The New York Times: “I am here to tell you that I've had lots of side effects from one or the other – several of those side effects leading to hospitalization.”

“I would not wish these on anyone, and taking Truvada when you don't need to (I am not dealing with the sex issue) is, I believe, a bad idea,” Kramer wrote.

He later told Buzzfeed News, “I never was against it,” and, “I never said don’t take it, I just said it’s complicated.”

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple and one of the most prominent gay men on earth, called Kramer “an American original who got loud, acted up and saved many LGBTQ lives.”

“His unrelenting efforts won’t be forgotten and should be held up as an example of a timeless truth: `The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,’” Cook wrote on Twitter.

Edmund White, a fellow founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said in a statement that Kramer was like an “Old Testament prophet — angry and righteous.”

Sex columnist and radio host Dan Savage said Kramer “valued every gay life at a time when so many gay men had been rendered incapable of valuing our own lives.”

“He ordered us to love ourselves and each other and to fight for our lives. He was a hero,” he wrote on Twitter.

Kramer married architect David Webster in 2013. Kramer survived a liver transplant, abdominal surgery and over three decades of HIV infection.

Following news of his death, ACT UP shared a message for their fallen warrior.

"Rest in power to our fighter Larry Kramer. Your rage helped inspire a movement. We will keep honoring your name and spirit with action," the group wrote on Twitter.

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