Writer and a fighter: Larry Kramer’s normal heart

Playwright and LGBTQ rights activist Larry Kramer appeared at the Virginia Film Festival in 2015 to discuss his life’s work. Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival Playwright and LGBTQ rights activist Larry Kramer appeared at the Virginia Film Festival in 2015 to discuss his life’s work. Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival

Reposted from 2015. Larry Kramer died from pneumonia on May 27, 2020.

Larry Kramer has had his finger on the pulse of what it is to be a gay man for the past 50 years. His 1978 novel, Faggots, and its depiction of the partying, promiscuous ’70s made him a pariah on Fire Island. His play, The Normal Heart, captured the fear, anger and heartbreak as a mysterious fatal disease decimated the gay community in the 1980s.

However, it’s his work as a gay rights activist that may be the first thing that pops into people’s mind. Kramer is the founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He also founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—ACT UP—a group that used civil disobedience to protest the lack of funding, research and treatment for people with AIDS in the ’80s. Its first demonstration blocked rush hour traffic in New York in front of the Food and Drug Administration, the agency Kramer believed was dragging its feet in coming up with treatment for the HIV positive.

“I have no idea how many times I’ve been in jail,” Kramer told C-VILLE via e-mail because of difficulties hearing on the phone. “Less time than I’ve been in hospitals, I’m afraid.”

In 1988, Kramer discovered that he had hepatitis B, was HIV positive and in dire need of a new liver. Mount Sinai Hospital refused to put him on its organ transplant list because people who were HIV positive were considered poor candidates for transplants due to their projected short life spans. Kramer became the poster boy for AIDS/homosexual discrimination, and after news reports that he was dying, he received a new liver in 2001.

It’s “still in good shape, I’m told,” he says.

He says his writing and his activism feed each other. “AIDS gave me my subject matter that set my creativity on fire,” says Kramer.

Growing up Jewish in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer has been an atheist since he was a teen. “But being Jewish has made me fascinated in how we have been eliminated during so much of history, just as gays have,” he says. “I write about this to a huge degree in my new book.”

That book, The American People: Volume I, isn’t the first time he’s observed parallels between Jews and gays. During the AIDS epidemic, he wrote 1989’s Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist.

It’s been more than 30 years since acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first observed, and a diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus infection is no longer a death knell—Kramer has been HIV positive for 27 years. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states cannot discriminate against gays who want to marry, but assessing the changes he’s seen in his lifetime is not a question Kramer likes to answer.

“We still are not a unified united population, so I don’t think that enough has changed to congratulate ourselves,” he writes. “There is still much work to do. That AIDS is still a plague after 35 years proves how powerless we are.”

The 80-year-old makes his first trip to Charlottesville for the Virginia Film Festival screening of the documentary, Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, and for An Evening with Larry Kramer, both November 8.

Kramer says his husband, David Webster, was “heartbroken” he was turned down to study at the University of Virginia, and went to Columbia instead. Webster, an architect, has been here often and is very knowledgeable about the area’s history, says Kramer. “He knows all about Charlottesville and Jefferson, etc.,” he says.

During the inevitable Q&As with Kramer, here’s a tip about a question he hates: How would you like to be remembered? (C-VILLE asked anyway so you won’t have to.)

“I would like my writing to be recognized for its excellence, rather than its controversy,” he says. “I am usually reviewed as a loud-mouthed activist, not as a good writer.”

Fans of his 1969 Oscar-nominated screenplay for D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love would disagree.

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