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Larry Kramer, the pioneering queer writer and indefatigable AIDS activist, has tragically died

Nick Duffy May 27, 2020
The playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer had died

The playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer had died (Photo by Melanie Burford For The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

Legendary AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer has died, aged 84.

The former activist, who founded both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP during the AIDS crisis, passed away from pneumonia on Wednesday.

Known for his often aggressive and abrasive style, Kramer was one of the loudest voices of protest, rallying the gay community at a time when the crisis was being ignored under the Reagan administration.

He also challenged pharmaceutical giants exploiting the crisis, and famously took on then-New York mayor Ed Koch over his failure to act, describing the mayor as a “closeted gay man” and questioning his refusal to become more personally invested in the fight.

AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis
AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Kramer’s best-known work is the autobiographical 1985 play The Normal Heart, depicting the devastation caused by the AIDS crisis on the gay community of New York City. It was adapted for TV in 2014, with Kramer nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing.

He also penned the 1978 novel Faggots, which attracted controversy over its derisory portrayal of promiscuity and drug-taking in the gay community.

Kramer, who lived with HIV himself, is survived by his husband and partner of 29 years, architectural designer David Webster. The pair were permitted to marry legally in 2013.

Larry Kramer’s brash style did not win him many friends – but many now see he was right.

The provocative and uncompromising style of Kramer’s campaigning led to well-chronicled splits within the gay community, and made Kramer many foes – many of whom have now paid tribute to the achievements of the man they once fought.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the long-serving director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the New York Times: “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

Larry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6, 1987 in New York City, New York
Larry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6, 1987 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

He credited Kramer for playing an “essential” role in the development of treatments for people living with HIV and pressing for the rapid introduction of new drugs.

British LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell, a friend of Kramer’s, told PinkNews in a statement: “ACT UP’s efforts helped save the lives of millions of people worldwide and Larry was part of that achievement. His often angry tirades against President Reagan, the New York Times, drug corporations and the medical establishment were searing and effective.

“I counted him as a friend and comrade. He will be missed and remembered for decades to come.”

‘People really were dying like flies.’

Kramer reflected on his long career of activism for a New York Times profile in 2017.

At the time, he explained: “One day I was just parachuted behind enemy lines, and there was this horrific story to tell, ad that just became so all-consuming.

“I was trying to make people united and angry. I was known as the angriest man in the world, mainly because I discovered that anger got you further than being nice. And when we started to break through in the media, I was better TV than someone who was nice.”

The legendary activist Larry Kramer in 2015
The legendary activist Larry Kramer in 2015 (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Explaining the motive for his rage, Kramer said: “AIDS changed everything. The first people who got sick were friends of mine.

“In the Village, you couldn’t walk down the street without running into somebody who said: ‘Have you heard about so and so? He just died.’ Sometimes you could learn about three or four people just walking the dog.

“I started making a list of how many people I knew, and it was hundreds. People don’t comprehend that. People really were dying like flies.”

For a man accustomed to seeing so much death, Kramer was well aware of his own morality – and had spoken about “coming to the end” of his life amid multiple health concerns.

In March, Kramer revealed he was working on a final play, An Army of Lovers Must Not Die, “about gay people having to live through three plagues” – referring to HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and the decline of the human body.

Tributes pour in for legendary activist Larry Kramer.

Sir Elton John said: “Larry Kramer’s passing is the saddest news. We have lost a giant of a man who stood up for gay rights like a warrior.

“His anger was needed at a time when gay men’s deaths to AIDS were being ignored by the American government, a tragedy that made the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP movements so vital. He never stopped shouting about the injustices against us. His voice was the loudest and the most effective.

“Larry Kramer captured the outrage and spirit of these turbulent times in his brilliant play The Normal Heart along with his many other writings. I was proud to know him and his legacy must be maintained. My heart goes out to his beloved husband David Webster.”

Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David said: “At the beginning of the HIV and AIDS crisis – when thousands of LGBTQ people and people of colour were dying – Larry Kramer spoke up when our government was silent.

“Larry’s unending courage and tireless efforts helped awaken a nation to the urgent crisis of HIV and AIDS and brought us closer to a cure than ever before. Through his life and work, Larry Kramer inspired generations of advocates, many of whom are alive today because he dared to speak out and act up.

“We mourn the loss of this advocate, and rededicate ourselves to our collective responsibility of ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic – which unfortunately continues to largely impact people of colour today – once and for all.”

GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis said: “Larry Kramer’s contributions to the LGBT+ movement and the fight against HIV/AIDS are incalculable. GLAAD and so many LGBT+ people and allies recognise Larry as an undeniable accelerant who not only fearlessly demanded change, but made it come to pass.

“We send all of our love to Larry’s loved ones during this time, and though we are saddened by his passing, we are forever grateful for his leadership and heroism.”

More: ACT UP, AIDS, HIV/AIDS, Larry Kramer, New York, Ronald Reagan

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