Larry Kramer (1935–2020)

Activist and playwright Larry Kramer, an instigator of ACT UP whose early, outspoken advocacy for a national response to the AIDS pandemic stirred public awareness and helped transform health care policy, has died at eighty-four years old of pneumonia. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, Kramer won two Obie Awards during his lifetime. Known for his combative style and resolute moralism, Kramer channeled his activism into autobiographical plays concerned with love, relationships, and sexuality. He is survived by his husband, David Webster.

Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1935, to a middle-class Jewish family. Like his older brother, father, and two uncles before him, he enrolled in Yale University, graduating in 1957 with a degree in English. After serving a tour in the army, Kramer began operating a Teletype at Columbia Pictures, where he gradually worked his way into the story department to work on scripts. His second screenplay, a 1969 Ken Russell–directed adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—for which Kramer personally purchased the rights—was nominated for an Oscar. His theatrical debut came four years later with Sissies’ Scrapbook (later retitled Four Friends), a play about relationships between a group of gay and straight friends that was staged by Playwrights Horizon.

In 1978, Kramer published Faggots, which satirized the lives of promiscuous, drug-using gay men in Manhattan and on Fire Island. The novel drew immediate outrage from many in the city’s gay community who condemned the book’s moralizing, anti-sex perspective. Faggots was subsequently removed from the shelves of New York’s only gay bookstore, while Kramer himself was banned from a Fire Island grocery. Three years later, when acquaintances began to fall mysteriously ill, Kramer and a group of gay activists formed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first organization dedicated to helping those infected with HIV. His fellow members soon ejected Kramer from the group because they found his tactics too aggressive, leading him to write the 1983 New York Native essay “1,112 and Counting,” a widely read, five-thousand-word clarion call in which he asked “Why isn't every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every gay man in New York want to die?” The piece concludes with a call for civil disobedience and a list of twenty men Kramer knew who died of the then unidentified illness.

Kramer’s best-known play, 1985’s The Normal Heart, dramatized the events of the previous three years of its author’s life and his activist pursuits. Hosted by the Public Theater, where it ran for nine months, The Normal Heart was well received by critics for its emotional impact. The play’s return to Broadway in 2011 won a Tony for best revival, leading to a 2014 HBO adaptation by director Ryan Murphy. Its sequel, The Destiny of Me, appeared in 1992 and was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Perhaps Kramer’s greatest achievement, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), was formed in 1987. According to Eileen Myles’s 2010 Artforum text on ACT UP, the radical, direct-action activist group “grew out of a question posed by playwright Larry Kramer to a crowded room at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center one night in 1987. ‘Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?’ The answer was ‘a resounding yes.’” Over the next decade, ACT UP and its affiliates staged numerous demonstrations at locations including Wall Street, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, changing the face of public health in America. In 2001, Kramer’s older brother gave $1 million to Yale University to found the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. At the time of his death, Kramer was working on a play about gay life during Covid-19.