amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Awards of Courage

Larry Kramer

Honoring with Pride 2000 Honoree


 Larry KramerThroughout the 1980s, Larry Kramer was the single best-known public advocate of individual, community-based, and governmental responses to the national emergency posed by the AIDS epidemic. He voiced the urgency of this need with passion, and he led the way in creating organizational superstructures of unprecedented importance, enabling the justifiable anger felt by so many to take specific form: in 1981, he organized the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and in 1987, he catalyzed the creation of ACT UP, where he remained a leader for several years. Larry Kramer began his writing career with a screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s "Women in Love" (1969), which received a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar; his novel Faggots (1978) remains in print; and he is the author of several dramas about AIDS, including the "The Normal Heart" (1985), which has been seen in close to 1,000 productions worldwide, and "The Destiny of Me" (1993), for which he received an OBIE Award. Many of his essays and speeches have been published in Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist (1994). 


Dr. Lawrence Mass, a close friend of mine, wrote a health column for a now-defunct gay newspaper called the New York Native, and in the early part of 1981, he was the first to begin writing about strange maladies that were appearing out of nowhere. I had written a novel called Faggots, which was an exploration of the gay life we were all leading and I, too, was interested in everything that was happening to us, culturally, sociologically, medically, whatever. So in July, when the first article appeared in The New York Times, saying that Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien and Dr. Linda Laubenstein at New York University were reporting 41 cases of severe disease among gay men, Larry Mass encouraged me to investigate. I went to see Alvin, and while I was in the waiting room, I saw a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and his face and hands were covered with purple lesions. I went inside and spoke to Dr. Friedman-Kien, and he told me that he thought this was "only the tip of the iceberg." On my way out, I saw another friend of mine who had evidently been sick for some time. And it was rather startling to not only read about this in the paper but to be confronted then and there by two people with visible manifestations of the disease.

Shortly thereafter, we arranged for Alvin to come and talk — here in my apartment — to about 80 people who we were able to round up. If you were willing to listen to him, what he had to say was pretty scary. It seemed that the sensible thing to do was to spread the word that something was afoot, and that it might be wise for us to consider being more careful sexually — Alvin said at that very first meeting that he thought the disease might very well be spread sexually. Over the next six months we had some totally unsuccessful fund-raisers and we distributed material that Larry Mass wrote, laying out in a very straightforward fashion the little that was known and suggesting that caution was something you might consider. But already there were a lot of people up in arms, accusing us of being alarmists.

By January of 1982, things were obviously getting much worse, and I decided that we should become a more official organization and escalate our activity. So I called a meeting with six of us: Larry Mass; Paul Popham, who had already lost several close friends; Paul Rapoport, a rich real estate man who had lost his lover; Nathan Fain, who was a journalist and a friend of mine; and Edmund White, the writer, because I thought his name would help us get attention. At some point, Paul Rapoport said something like, "Gay men certainly have a health crisis," and I said, "Let’s use that for our name, Gay Men’s Health Crisis." And awkward as it was, that’s what it became. It was useful because it announced the problem and it also showed that this was an attempt at community empowerment, that gay men were actually trying to help themselves. Paul Popham was elected the first president, and we chose a board of directors. And so was GMHC born.

We had no office at first, and Paul Popham and I pretty much ran everything. At the time, he was an executive with the Irving Trust Company, and he was closeted, so it was always difficult to talk to him at the office — he always had to whisper! But he was a fine, handsome man, he had been a Green Beret, and he had a great personal following in the gay community. Initially, though, we had a lot of trouble reaching out to the community of people of color, and to the lesbian community. No one wanted to touch any of this — it was rich white boys who responded. And slowly we accreted people who were willing to do things, people like Rodger McFarlane, another one of the true pioneers. Rodger started the very first information hotline on his own answering service, literally. He ran it himself out of his apartment until he was just overwhelmed, and then he started training people. And that became the famous and still existent GMHC Hotline. And then there was a wonderful guy named Mitchell Cutler, who started "the buddy system," which helped you do what you needed to do if you were sick — clean your apartment, walk your dog, whatever. Nathan Fain wrote a lot of the journalistic pieces. Larry Mass was our official medical spokesperson, and he was literally being called by journalists and doctors from all over the world — he was the only official medical brain who was out there willing to talk to anybody. I’m talking about calls at 4 o’clock in the morning from Africa or Tibet, literally.

While all this was going on, my battle with Paul Popham was fulminating. I do not believe you get more with honey than with vinegar — I believe the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But Paul and many of his friends worked for straight organizations and were closeted, and their attitude was, let’s take care of ourselves, let’s raise the money among ourselves. And they were certainly not going to tell people to stop having sex, they were not going to do anything dealing with sex, "Because first of all, we don’t even know for sure whether it’s a virus," and so on. Eventually, I was forced to leave the organization, in the summer of 1983. I went away and wrote The Normal Heart, a play about all this. And I was really very unhappy. The organization had been my whole life, and it had been my soapbox. For the next few years I wrote a lot of journalism — I had pieces in the Times, in the Village Voice. But things kept getting worse, and GMHC was not fighting the political battle. They really became the Red Cross, which is what they wanted to become.

Before he died, I reconciled with Paul Popham, and he asked me to tell everybody to go out there and fight harder. In 1987, I made a speech at the Community Center, in which I called for the founding of an activist, rabble-rousing organization — something that would do what GMHC was not doing. The speech was very well received, and the follow-up meeting was mobbed. Somebody put forth the name, ACT UP — "AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power" — which everybody immediately loved. And we agreed that for our first demonstration we would go to Wall Street to protest the high price of AZT. It’s funny, I don’t even know how we came to decide what our tactics would be, I don’t recall any debate — it all seemed to spring fully-formed from our heads, like Zeus. So ACT UP was born. We had about six or seven really good years of major demonstrations and achievements.

And that’s it — I still stay involved, I’ve written more plays, and I’m now writing a novel about the history of America, gays, and the epidemic. Fighting AIDS has been my life. It will be this way until I no longer have a life, or until AIDS goes away. I suspect that the latter will take longer, because the problem remains that we don’t have any power. Throughout all of this, we have not been able to establish a power base. With all the gay people in the world, with all the people who have been affected by AIDS, we have so much money, we have so many connections, we have so many avenues to power — and we have not in any way learned how to use them, and that has been the same from day one. Honey, just look at the energy expended on the dance floors of this country by queens on a Saturday night — if all we’re able to produce is a GMHC and an ACT UP, we are in trouble as a people. And there is still so much to fight for. To this day, there is no one in charge in Washington. There’s no "there" there. And The New York Times no longer has a reporter covering AIDS full time. Right from the beginning, we have known how this epidemic would explode. Mathilde and I were saying it all along. This has not been a secret, but it doesn’t seem to mobilize anybody. And now there is a return to the life that got us into all this trouble in the first place. The younger generation is not political, they’re going back to the same life, they’ve not joined organizations to help make their lives better. And this is more than human nature can bear, for anyone who has seen so much suffering and death. Nobody deserves to get sick and die. But if you’re not prepared to fight for your life, then your life can’t be all that meaningful to you.

As for me, I have loved my life, and I feel that my talents have been well used. Am I proud to be an American? Not particularly, and I once was. Do I believe in democracy? No, it’s hard to. I’m proud of my lover, David Webster, and I’m proud of my brother, Arthur, who has in essence been my patron. I am very proud to be a gay man, and I am very proud to be a continuing part of this fight.