Larry Kramer – The troublemaker with heart

Larry Kramer. (Photo: Melanie Burford For The Washington Post via Getty Images.)
Larry Kramer. (Photo: Melanie Burford For The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

  • Aids activist Larry Kramer died on Wednesday of pneumonia after being ill for most of his adult life.
  • Kramer is perhaps best known for his unapologetic and disruptive approach to activism that saw him play an influential role in shining the spotlight on Aids and those affected by it in the 1980s. 
  • He was also a celebrated author and playwright, who shared raw, honest and beautiful stories inspired by his own life.

The late American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag called Larry Kramer: "One of America's most valuable troublemakers."

It's a title that so eloquently befits the man who disrupted the operations of American government offices while at the helm of Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), and simultaneously played an instrumental role in shifting health policies in America during the Aids crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kramer, 84, died on Wednesday in Manhattan from pneumonia, his husband David Webster told The New York Times.

Before starting Act Up, Kramer was a founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) – an organisation that, to this day, still aims to "end the Aids epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected".

"Larry was a revolutionary, challenging the authority of the status quo, a force to be reckoned with," said Kelsey Louie, GMHC CEO, in a statement to the press.

Louie added: "He was a person who made it difficult to be on the other side of his rage, a general who marshalled the troops of our communities, and a passionate, brilliant, and wildly brave gay man. Yet when he visited GMHC’s dining room or attended one of our fundraisers, Larry moved gently throughout the venue, speaking quietly to clients or donors, even offering a wink or a hug if you were lucky."

Kramer was a fierce and fearless activist in his pursuit to draw attention to the Aids crisis and wouldn’t let foe or friend stand in his way of making a ruckus and drawing the attention to exactly where it had to be. He was vocal, disruptive and rightfully loud.

Immunologist Anthony Fauci, who is perhaps currently best known as one of the lead members of the Trump Administration's White House Coronavirus Task Force, was good friends with Kramer.

In a conversation with The New York Times’ Donald McNeil Jr, Fauci recalled his 33-year long friendship with Kramer, saying about how they met: "He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine."

According to Fauci, Kramer later privately apologised to him, saying "he hadn’t meant it, that it was just how to get things done". Most recently, Kramer publicly called out Fauci for going "over to the dark side again". But that was how Kramer operated when he knew he needed to get things done.

Playwright Larry Kramer of the production The Norm

(ACTIVIST: Larry Kramer at Village Voice Aids conference on 6 June 1987 in New York City. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Apart from his activism, Kramer was also a celebrated playwright and author. He wrote the screenplay for the 1969 film Women in Love, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. The film, which explores themes of love and commitment, tells the story of two sisters and two men in a mining town in England post-World War I.

In 1978, Kramer completed his novel Faggots, which centred "on the fast lifestyle of gay men of Fire Island and Manhattan". The main character, based on Kramer himself, was a man "unable to find love while encountering the drugs and emotionless sex in the trendy bars and discos". The book was controversial and drew criticism for its depiction of the gay community. It was even banned in the only gay bookstore in Manhattan.

On the theatrical side, his autobiographical play The Normal Heart beautifully sketched out his personal journey away from dealing "privately and calmly" with the Aids crisis, despite push back from those closest to him. The play tells the story of Ned Weeks and his closeted lover, Felix Turner, amid the health crisis within the gay community in New York City between 1981 and 1984.

In 2014, the play was turned into a film with Ryan Murphy at the helm and starred Hollywood heavyweights like Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts. The film went on to rake in several awards, including a Golden Globe for Bomer for his portrayal of Felix and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Ruffalo for his portrayal of Ned.

Whether at the frontlines fighting for change, or putting pen to paper to give a loud voice to those often forced into silence, Larry Kramer will be remembered as a ground-breaker, whether for his bulldozing approach to activism or his fearless exploration of uncharted territory. 

(Sources: The Guardian, The New York Times, IMDB, Goodreads, GMHC, Act Up)

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