“The most important fact is that gays have been here since day one. To say otherwise is a gross denial and stupidity. We played an enormous part in the history of America.”
TRQ: Larry Kramer, Born June 25, 1935
Author, playwright and activist Larry Kramer was born June 15, 1935. Kramer is most known for the novel Faggots (1978), the play The Normal Heart (1985), and for founding the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Having a Yale law degree, his father George took a job as a government attorney and moved the family to Washington, D.C. in 1941. Until that point, Kramer’s mother Rea worked in a shoe store and taught English to immigrants to support the family.
Kramer was an unwanted child, as his parents struggled during the Great Depression. Kramer’s relationship with his father was strained throughout his unhappy childhood. His relationship with protective brother Arthur, who was both a scholar and an athlete, was both contentious and affectionate.
After Kramer graduated from high school, he followed in his father’s, brother’s, and two uncles’ footsteps and enrolled at Yale. Kramer studied literature. Feeling isolated on campus by his homosexuality, Kramer attempted suicide by overdosing on aspirin. Afterwards, Kramer turned to activism and advocacy. Shortly after, he started a relationship with his German professor, his first with a man.
Kramer graduated from Yale in 1957 and joined U.S. Army Reserve. By age 23, Kramer worked at Columbia Pictures. Columbia sent him to London in 1961 to work on Dr. Strangelove and Lawrence of Arabia. In 1967 he contributed dialogue to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.
In 1969 Kramer had his writing breakthrough with the Women in Love screenplay adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s novel. The screenplay earned an Academy Award nomination, while Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the film.
He returned to the U.S. in 1972 and worked on the screenplay for the failed musical remake of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1973). He gradually brought gay themes into his writing, including Four Friends (1973) and A Minor Dark Age (1973).
With his semiautobiographical novel Faggots (1978), Kramer presents a startling look at hedonistic gay life lived in the bars and drug-fuelled club scenes of Manhattan and Fire Island.
Describing his inspiration for the novel, Kramer said, “I wanted to be in love. Almost everybody I knew felt the same way. I think most people, at some level, wanted what I was looking for, whether they pooh-poohed it or said that we can’t live like the straight people or whatever excuses they gave.”
Response to his book was shock: that his book had no literary value, that he had cast judgement on the lives of gay men, that he had determined gay men had little chance of finding fulfilment, that his endorsement of emotional stability and commitment was conservative and nearly hetero-normative.
“The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met,” Kramer said reflecting on the response to Faggots. Nevertheless, it remains one of the best-selling gay books ever.
Before 1981, Kramer’s Fire Island life bore little resemblance to the gay activist lifestyle lived out on the streets of New York. However, when gay friends from all walks of life contracted the rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, this all changed.
Kramer invited New York City gay community members to his apartment to listen to a doctor’s insight on the spreading illness. They formed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and eventually led the way in supporting AIDS patients in New York.
Kramer regularly targeted Mayor Ed Koch, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the sluggish medical establishment, and the general apathetic behaviour of gay men. “1,112 and Counting,”
Kramer’s 1983 article in the New York Native, caught the attention of Tony Kushner, writer of the Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America (1993).
“With that one piece, Larry changed my world,” Kushner said. “He changed the world for all of us.”
“I don’t view myself as a political person. I’m just someone who desperately wants to stay alive.” — Larry Kramer
In 1985, Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, about the effort to draw attention to AIDS in the early years, opened at the Public Theatre. It ran for 9 months.
In 1987, Kramer formed ACT UP as a civil disobedience group to protest government agencies and business’s neglect and underfunding for people living with AIDS.
In 1988, Kramer’s open letter published in The San Francisco Examiner called Dr. Fauci a killer and an incompetent idiot. Fauci responded by working to have the FDA streamline approving new drugs.
According to Fauci, “In American medicine there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry.” Later, he added, “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”
In 1989, Kramer learned he carried the AIDS virus and began working on Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. The book presents autobiographical accounts of his involvement with Gay Men’s Health, ACT UP, and gay civil rights.
In 1991, Kramer reunited with architect David Webster, nearly 20 years after their failed relationship inspired Faggots. They married on July 24th, 2013.
In 2001, Kramer’s brother Arthur donated $1 million to Yale for establishing the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay studies. His law firm works pro bono for gay- related cases.
In 2011, The Normal Heart returned to the stage and won a Tony award. The HBO adaptation in 2014 starred Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts and won the Emmy for outstanding television movie.
On May 27, 2020, Larry Kramer died of pneumonia. At the time, he was working on a play about the COVID epidemic. “It’s about gay people having to live through three plagues,” he explained shortly before his death: H.I.V./AIDS, Covid-19 and the decline of the human body.
About the Authors
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.