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Silence=Death: Larry Kramer, RIP

Larry Kramer (1935-2020) died on Wednesday, May 27th, of pneumonia. He was 84 years old and, during much of his adult life as a writer and activist, he battled – both personally and politicly – the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He is survived by his husband, David Webster.

Kramer was the author of the provocative 1978 novel, Faggots, a mocking portrayal of 1970s New York’s very “out” gay community. Much of the book is set on the gay mecca of Fire Island in the era before AIDS. It so offended many early gay activists that the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay and lesbian bookstore, banned it.

Faggots appeared a decade after the Stonewall “riot” of June 28, 1969. Over three days and nights, the Village was the site of a mini-guerrilla confrontation between rock- and bottle-throwing “faggots” and the police’s elite Tactical Patrol Force.

The Stonewall uprising exploded the myth of gay passivity in a triple sense. First, “homosexuals,” and in particular stylized effeminate drag queens, were not passive – they could be tough; second, the formal, political “homophile” movement of self-identified male and female “homosexuals” needed to – and could – be more militant; and, finally, individual “homosexuals” needed to – and could — come out of the “closet” and be more one’s self, however s/he manifest it. After Stonewall, Sodom and Gomorra began to move out of the proverbial closer and onto main street.

However, the emergence of AIDS/HIV in the early-80s had a devastating impact of New York’s gay community. Since AIDS/HIV was first diagnosed in 1981, 1.1 million Americans are estimated to have been infected, including over 700,000 who died.

What as dubbed the “gay plague” raised alarm within the gay community – something had to done! In 1982, in his apartment living room, Kramer helped found Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a service group devoted to taking care of sick and dying men. (His “strong” personality led the GMHC board to force him out of the organization.)

Against the mounting AIDS crisis, Kramer penned a very autobiographical play, The Normal Heart, that premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1985 and has subsequently been performed in Los Angeles, Broadway and other venues.

In 1987, Kramer gave a talk at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Center that helped found ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a more militant group. Kramer recognized that direct action was needed to confront the establishment’s political and moral complacence typified by the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. Pres. Reagan’s first speech on the subject wasn’t until May 31, 1987, when more than 25,000 Americans, the majority of them gay men, had died. ACT UP’s slogan was simple: “Silence=Death.”

The group’s first action saw 250 activists descended on Wall Street to protest overcharging of the antiviral drug AZT. Seeking to disrupt business-as-usual, activists occupied the New York stock exchange trading floor and managed to delay the famous opening bell; 17 people were arrested. The group disrupted the operations of government offices, Wall Street businesses and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It advocated for a speedup in AIDS drugs research and an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took Kramer’s concerns seriously. As he reportedly said, “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

One of the great stories about Kramer involves former New York mayor Ed Koch. After he left office, Koch and Kramer lived in the same exclusive Greenwich Village apartment building on Washington Square. Kramer loathed Koch, for his wishy-washy politics, failed response to the AIDS crisis and being a closeted gay man. (Koch appears as a distasteful character in The Normal Heart.) Standing in the lobby of their apartment building, Kramer recalled:

“He [Koch] was trying to pet my dog Molly and he started to tell me how beautiful it was …. I yanked her away so hard she yelped, and I said, ‘Molly, you can’t talk to him. That is the man who killed all of Daddy’s friends.’”

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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