Larry Kramer, playwright and AIDS activist, dies at 84

Kramer was known for his public fight to secure medical treatment, acceptance and civil rights for people with AIDS.

AIDS activist and author Larry Kramer posing for a portrait in his apartment in New York City, the United States [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]
AIDS activist and author Larry Kramer posing for a portrait in his apartment in New York City, the United States [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Larry Kramer, the playwright whose angry voice and pen raised theatregoers’ consciousness about AIDS and roused thousands to protest in the early years of the epidemic, has died at 84.

Bill Goldstein, a writer who was working on a biography of Kramer, confirmed the news to The Associated Press news agency. Kramer’s husband, David Webster, told The New York Times that Kramer died of pneumonia on Wednesday.

Kramer, who wrote the play The Normal Heart and founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, lost a partner to acquired immune deficiency syndrome in 1984 and was himself infected with the virus. He also suffered from hepatitis B and received a liver transplant in 2001 because the virus had caused liver failure.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay Women in Love, the 1969 adaptation of DH Lawrence’s novel. It starred Glenda Jackson, who won her first Oscar for her performance.

He wrote the 1972 screenplay Lost Horizon; a novel, Faggots; and plays including Sissies’ Scrapbook, The Furniture of Home, Just Say No and The Destiny of Me, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

For many years he was best known for his public fight to secure medical treatment, acceptance and civil rights for people with AIDS. He loudly told everyone that the gay community was grappling with a plague.

In 1981, when AIDS had not yet acquired its name and only a few dozen people had been diagnosed with it, Kramer and a group of his friends in New York City founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the first groups in the country to address the epidemic.

He tried to rouse the gay community with speeches and articles such as 1,112 and Counting, published in gay newspapers in 1983.

“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.”

The late journalist Randy Shilts, in his best-selling account of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, called that article “inarguably one of the most influential works of advocacy journalism of the decade” and credited it with “crystallizing the epidemic into a political movement for the gay community.”

Kramer lived to see gay marriage a reality and joined one such union himself in 2013, but never rested. “I’m married,” he told The Associated Press. “But that’s only part of where we are. AIDS is still decimating us, and we still don’t have protection under the law.”

Kramer split with GMHC in 1983 after other board members decided to concentrate on providing support services to people with AIDS. The non-profit organisation remains one of the largest AIDS-service groups in the country.

‘Please know AIDS is a worldwide plague’

After leaving GMHC, Kramer gave voice to his grief and frustration by writing The Normal Heart, in which a furious young writer – not unlike Kramer himself – battles politicians, society, the media and other gay leaders to bring attention to the crisis.

Kramer often stood outside the theatre passing out fliers asking the world to take action against HIV/AIDS. “Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague. Please know there is no cure,” the fliers said.

In 1987, Kramer founded ACT UP, the group that became famous for staging civil disobedience at places like the US Food and Drug Administration, the New York Stock Exchange and Burroughs Wellcome Corp, the maker of the chief anti-AIDS drug, AZT.

ACT UP’s protests helped persuade the FDA to speed the approval of new drugs and Burroughs Wellcome to lower its price for AZT.

Kramer soon relinquished a leadership role in ACT UP, and as support for AIDS research increased, he later found some common ground with health officials whom ACT UP had bitterly criticised. (At the Emmy Awards, Kramer wore an ACT UP baseball cap.) 

“There are many people who feel that ACT UP hurt itself by so many of us going to work inside, with the very system that we were formed to protest against,” Kramer told The New York Times in 1997. “There’s good reason to believe that. On the other hand, when you are given the chance to be heard a little better, it’s hard to turn down.”

Kramer never softened the urgency of his demands. He found time in 2011 to help the American Foundation for Equal Rights mount their play – called 8 – on Broadway and bring attention to the legal battle over same-sex marriage in California.

One of his last projects was the massive two-volume The American People, which chronicled the history of gay people in the US. It took him decades to write. 

“I just think it’s so important that we know our history – the history of how badly we’re treated and how hard we have to fight to get what we deserve, which is equality,” he told the AP.

Source : AP

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