Larry Kramer, Author and Firebrand AIDS Activist, Dead at 84

Larry Kramer — the outspoken AIDS activist, playwright, author, and screenwriter — died on Wednesday at the age of 84. The cause was pneumonia, according to his husband, David Webster, who confirmed the news with the New York Times. 

Kramer had battled illnesses for years and has been declared dead more than once — both literally, in a 2001 Associated Press headline when he was awaiting a liver transplant, and professionally for writing so boldly about the gay experience and his indefatigable campaigning for LGBTQ rights and equality.

He married Webster in 2013 when he was 78 and Webster was 66 while recovering from surgery at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Before the I.C.U. ceremony, they had already planned to marry after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act earlier that year.

Born Laurence David Kramer on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer grew up to be a famed writer — he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for his screenplay of Women in Love. Before that, he broke out with his confrontational 1978 novel, Faggots. He co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, then, when that didn’t seem sufficient, he went on to create ACT UP in 1987.

But it was his autobiographical 1985 play, The Normal Heart, first produced at the Public Theater, for which most will remember him. A successful Broadway revival in 2011 — directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey — gave people a reason to reconsider the man of letters, allowing the work to transform from agitprop into sensitive historical drama. It was then adapted into an HBO movie by Ryan Murphy in 2014 and starred many of the actors of the stage production; it won Matt Bomer a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

In 2015, Kramer published the first volume of his epic novel, The American People, and detailed a decidedly queer history of the United States over its 800-plus pages. Among other historically significant characters, he posited that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon all had homosexual relationships. “It’s not just Lincoln — it’s the whole gay American history,” he explained to Out magazine in 2011. In 2020, the second volume was published and stretched to nearly 900 pages.

Kramer was famous for a 1987 speech when he sparked the formation of ACT UP by yelling at 250 people about the lethargic response to the AIDS crisis. “At the rate we are going, you could be dead in five years,” he proclaimed. “Two-thirds of this room … If what you are hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men will have no future here on earth.”

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, ACT UP famously protested the country’s health organizations and other powerful institutions due to the perceived lack of urgency and a need for research into effective treatments for those dying from AIDS-related causes. One of Kramer’s main targets was infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. Kramer wrote an open letter published in The San Francisco Examiner in 1988 that called the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases a murderer and “an incompetent idiot.”

“That’s made my job more difficult,” Fauci told Rolling Stone in 1990, “because I have to go back to the conservative establishment and say, ‘We need to work with these people,’ and they look at me like I’m crazy. They don’t see the side of ACT UP that I do — intelligent, gifted, articulate people coming up with good, creative ideas.”

“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Fauci explained to the New York Times for its Kramer obituary, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

This story is developing.

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