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LGBT activist Larry Kramer spent his life upending prejudice

The playwright, who died this week at 84, created fundamental change in America through his art as much as his activism.
Larry Kramer
American author, AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer at his home in New York on March 26, 1987.Angel Franco / The New York Times via Getty Images file

When the Stonewall riots began the modern LGBTQ liberation movement in the summer of 1969, Larry Kramer was still deeply in the closet in his first career as a film executive. He was careful to bring a woman with him to all the Monday-night executive screenings. And yet, he was also already using his power as an artist to promote the gay agenda.

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That year, he also wrote and produced a brilliant film version of "Women In Love," the storied D. H. Lawrence novel. One of Kramer’s most important tasks as producer was to make sure the British censors didn’t remove the most homoerotic moment most moviegoers had ever seen up to that time: a naked wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in front of a fireplace. In his efforts to close the deal and keep the scene, Kramer and director Ken Russell took the chief British censor to lunch –- and agreed to lower the lights in the scene to make it a tad more discreet.

The entire history of the LGBTQ movement is a story of the collaboration of culture and politics.

Twelve years later a group of men gathered in Kramer’s Fifth Avenue apartment to discuss the creation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It would become his first crucial vehicle as an activist and the first organization to raise the alarm to gays and straight people alike as to the gravity of the AIDS epidemic. From that moment on, all of Kramer’s political activities were deeply informed by his sense of the theatrical.

The entire history of the LGBTQ movement is a story of the collaboration of culture and politics: how gay artists and gay activists worked in tandem to transform the world’s attitude toward what had been one of its most hated minorities for centuries. And no one combined their artistic and political talents more successfully to produce social progress than Kramer.

In March 1987, when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging America, and the whole gay community was peering over an abyss, Kramer summoned all of his theatrical talents in an impassioned speech to young activists at what was then known as Manhattan’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. Kramer’s words were so powerful the era’s most visible activist group, ACT UP -- the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was founded just two days later. Before the end of the month, 250 demonstrators brought theatrical chaos to Wall Street, with huge signs declaring "Silence = Death." Activists’ demands included new government action and an end to corporate profiteering, especially by Burroughs Wellcome, which was charging as much as $10,000 a year for AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS.

Kramer’s words were so powerful the era’s most visible activist group, ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was founded just two days later.

“Die-ins” on Wall Street were succeeded by made-for-TV takeovers of corporate headquarters, including one at Burroughs Wellcome where protesters ejected the occupants of a corporate suite and sealed the doors with metal plates and a high-powered drill. A few months later, these demonstrations reached their theatrical peak when ACT UP foot soldiers vented their anger at the Catholic Church for its opposition of the use of lifesaving condoms. The action included the invasion of a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where activists handcuffed themselves to the pews.

Kramer’s taste for drama often took him over the top, with vicious public attacks on everyone from from Dr. Mathilde Krim, the founder of AMFAR, the organization founded to find a cure for AIDS, to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Both Krim and Fauci recalled that Kramer would often phone them right after attacking them, to assure them that there was nothing personal about his broadsides. “I’m just trying to get attention,” he would tell them.

“That was his way of saying, ‘Hello? Wake up!’” Fauci recalled this week to The New York Times. “That was his style. He was iconoclastic, he was theatrical — he wanted to make his point.”

Kramer’s taste for drama often took him over the top.

Kramer wasn’t the only gay man to use theater, but his use of the theatrical reflects an important shift in gay liberation in the 20th century and beyond. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, plays, books and movies helped to end gay invisibility, beginning in 1961 with the British film Victim, about the blackmail of London homosexuals. The production at first couldn’t land a star, until Dirk Bogarde, a closeted gay man, understood its potential and agreed to play the lead. The off-Broadway plays Fortune and Men’s Eyes, in 1967, and The Boys in The Band, in 1968, followed, with movie versions of both appearing in the early 1970s. In 1971, Sunday Bloody Sunday demolished another barrier with the first full-on all-male kiss in a major motion picture between Peter Finch and Murray Head -– a moment as shocking for straight viewers as it was redeeming for gay ones.

So in 1985, it made perfect sense for Kramer to turn to the stage to raise the alarm about the AIDS epidemic with his script The Normal Heart. The story of the efforts of one man, Ned Weeks (Kramer’s undisguised stand-in) to seize the world’s attention “starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage,” as Frank Rich put it in his review in The New York Times. Gossip columnist Liz Smith called it “a damning indictment of a nation in the middle of an epidemic with its head in the sand. It will make your hair stand on end even as the tears spurt from your eyes.”

Kramer devoted the end of his life to a massive two-part novel, "The American People." The books are his final retort to the centuries of invisibility suffered by real life gay heroes. In them, he blithely asserts that Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Richard Nixon were all gay. The list is obviously over the top, but once again, Kramer was only trying to get the world’s attention.

After 84 years, his art had done just as much as his activism to create fundamental change in America.