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Larry Kramer in April 2010
|Born|| June 25, 1935 |
Bridgeport, Connecticut, U.S.
|Occupation||Screenwriter, novelist, essayist, playwright, activist.|
|Subjects||Gay community, AIDS activism|
|Spouse(s)||David Webster (m. 2013)|
Larry Kramer in April 2010
|Born|| June 25, 1935 |
Bridgeport, Connecticut, U.S.
|Occupation||Screenwriter, novelist, essayist, playwright, activist.|
|Subjects||Gay community, AIDS activism|
|Spouse(s)||David Webster (m. 2013)|
Larry Kramer (born June 25, 1935) is an American playwright, author, public health advocate, and LGBT rights activist. He began his career rewriting scripts while working for Columbia Pictures, which led him to London where he worked with United Artists. There he wrote the screenplay for Women in Love in 1969, earning an Academy Award nomination for his work. Kramer introduced a controversial and confrontational style in his 1978 novel Faggots, which earned mixed reviews but emphatic denunciations from the gay community for his portrayal of shallow, promiscuous gay relationships in the 1970s.
Kramer witnessed the spread of the disease that became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) among his friends in 1980, and co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the largest private organization to assist people living with AIDS in the world. Not content with the social services GMHC provided, Kramer expressed his frustration with bureaucratic paralysis and the apathy of gay men to the AIDS crisis by writing a play titled The Normal Heart which was produced at The Public Theater in New York City in 1985. His political activism extended to the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, a direct action protest organization widely credited with changing public health policy and widespread perception of people living with AIDS (PWAs) and awareness of HIV and AIDS-related diseases. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Destiny of Me (1992), and has been a two-time recipient of the Obie Award. Kramer currently lives in Manhattan and Connecticut.
Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a second child, that his parents did not want. The family soon moved to Maryland where Kramer attended school, although they found themselves with a much lower income than the families of Kramer's high school peers. His father pressed him to marry a woman with money, and insisted he become a member of Pi Tau Pi, a Jewish fraternity. Kramer had become sexually involved with a male friend in junior high school, but he dated girls in high school.
He enrolled at Yale University in 1953, but didn't adjust well. He was lonely and his grades were poorer than those to which he was accustomed. He tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin because he thought he was the "only gay student on campus". The experience left him determined to explore his sexuality and set him on the path to fighting "for gay people's worth". The next semester, he had an affair with his German professor — his first requited romantic relationship with a man. When the professor was scheduled to study in Europe, he invited Kramer, but Kramer decided not to go. Yale had been a family tradition: his father, older brother Arthur, and two uncles were alumni. Kramer instead enjoyed the Varsity Glee Club while at Yale. He graduated in 1957 with a degree in English.
According to Kramer, every drama he has written derives from a desire to understand love's nature and its obstacles. Kramer became involved with movie production at age 23 by taking a job as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures, and agreed to the position only because the machine was across the hall from the president's office. Eventually, he won a position in the story department reworking scripts. His first writing credit was as a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a teen sex comedy. He followed that with the 1969 Oscar-nominated screenplay Women in Love, an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's novel. He next penned what Kramer calls "the only thing in my life I'm ashamed of," the 1973 musical remake of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, a notorious critical and commercial failure whose screenplay was based very closely on Capra's film. Kramer has said that his well-negotiated fee for this work, skillfully invested by his brother, made him financially self-sufficient.
Kramer then began to integrate homosexual themes into his work, and tried writing for the stage. He wrote Sissies' Scrapbook in 1973 (later rewritten and retitled as Four Friends), a dramatic play about four friends, one of whom is gay, and their dysfunctional relationships. Kramer called it a play about "cowardice and the inability of some men to grow up, leave the emotional bondage of male collegiate camaraderie, and assume adult responsibilities". The play was first produced in a theater set up in an old YMCA gymnasium on 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue called the Playwrights Horizon. Live theater moved him to believing that writing for the stage was what he wanted to do. Although the play was given a somewhat favorable review by the New York Times, it was closed by the producer and Kramer was so distraught that he decided never to write for the stage again, later stating, "You must be a masochist to work in the theater and a sadist to succeed on its stages."
Kramer next wrote A Minor Dark Age, though it failed to be produced. Frank Rich, in the foreword to a Grove Press collection of Kramer's less-known works, wrote that "dreamlike quality of the writing is haunting" in Dark Age, and that its themes, such as the exploration of the difference between sex and passion, "are staples of his entire output" that would portend his future work, including the 1978 novel Faggots.
In 1978, Kramer delivered the final of four drafts of a novel that he wrote about the fast lifestyle of gay men of Fire Island and Manhattan. In Faggots, the primary character was modeled on himself, a man who is unable to find love while encountering the drugs and emotionless sex in the trendy bars and discos. He stated his inspiration for the novel: "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." Kramer researched the book, talking to many men, and visiting various establishments. As he interviewed people, he heard a common question: "Are you writing a negative book? Are you going to make it positive? ... I began to think, 'My God, people must really be conflicted about the lives they're leading.' And that was true. I think people were guilty about all the promiscuity and all the partying." The book was called Faggots.
The novel caused an uproar in the community it portrayed; it was taken off the shelves of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore—New York's only gay bookstore, and Kramer was banned from the grocery store near his home on Fire Island. Reviewers found it difficult to believe that Kramer's accounts of gay relationships were accurate; both the gay and mainstream press panned the book. On the reception of the novel Kramer says, "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." Faggots, however, became one of the best-selling gay novels of all time.
In 2000, Reynolds Price wrote that the novel's lasting relevance is that "anyone who searches out present-day responses on the Internet will quickly find that the wounds inflicted by Faggots are burning still". Although Kramer was rejected by the people he thought would be laudatory, the book has never been out of publication and is often taught in gay studies classes. "Faggots struck a chord," wrote Andrew Sullivan, "It exuded a sense that gay men could do better if they understood themselves as fully human, if they could shed their self-loathing and self-deception...."
Initially, while living on Fire Island in the 1970s, Kramer had no intention of getting involved in political activism. There were politically active groups in New York City, but Kramer notes the culture on Fire Island was so different that they would often make fun of political activists: "It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends... Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men."
However, when friends he knew from Fire Island began getting sick in 1980, Kramer became involved in gay activism. In 1981, although he had not been involved previously with gay activism, Kramer invited the "A-list" (his own term) group of gay men from the New York City area to his apartment to listen to a doctor say their friends' illnesses were related, and research needed to be done. The next year, they named themselves the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), and became the primary organization to raise funds for and provide services to people stricken with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the New York area. Although Kramer served on its first board of directors, his view of how it should be run sharply conflicted with the rest of its members. While GMHC began to concentrate on social services for men who were dying, Kramer loudly insisted they fight for funding from New York City. Mayor Ed Koch became a particular target for Kramer, as did the behavior of gay men before the nature of how the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was transmitted was understood.
When doctors suggested men stop having sex, Kramer strongly encouraged GMHC to deliver the message to as many gay men as possible. When they refused, Kramer wrote an essay entitled "1,112 and Counting", printed in 1983 in the New York Native, a gay newspaper. The essay discussed the spread of the disease, the lack of government response, and apathy of the gay community. The essay was intended to frighten gay men, and anger them to respond to government indifference. Michael Specter writes in The New Yorker, "it was a five-thousand-word screed that accused nearly everyone connected with health care in America — officials at the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, researchers at the National Institutes of Health, in Washington, doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in Manhattan, and local politicians (particularly Mayor Ed Koch) — of refusing to acknowledge the implications of the nascent AIDS epidemic. The article's harshest condemnation was directed at those gay men who seemed to think that if they ignored the new disease, it would simply go away.
Kramer's confrontational style proved to be an advantage, as it earned the issue of AIDS in New York media attention that no other individual could get. He found it a disadvantage when he realized his own reputation was "completely that of a crazy man". Kramer was particularly frustrated by bureaucratic stalling that snowballed when the people in charge of agencies that seemed to ignore AIDS were gay, but closeted. He confronted the director of a National Institute of Health agency about not devoting more time and effort toward researching AIDS because he was closeted; he threw a drink in Republican fundraiser Terry Dolan's face during a party and screamed at him for having affairs with men but using homosexuality as a reason to raise money for conservative causes; he called Ed Koch and the media and government agencies in New York City "equal to murderers". Even Kramer's personal life was affected when he and his lover — also a board member on GMHC — split over Kramer's condemnations of the impotence of GMHC.
Kramer's past also compromised his message, as many men who had been turned off by Faggots saw Kramer's warnings as alarmist, displaying negative attitudes toward sex. Playwright Robert Chesley responded to his New York Native article, saying, "Read anything by Kramer closely, and I think you'll find the subtext is always: the wages of gay sin are death". The GMHC ousted Kramer from the organization in 1983. Kramer's preferred method of communication was deemed too militant for the group.
Astonished and saddened about being forced out of GMHC, Kramer took an extended trip to Europe. While visiting Dachau concentration camp he learned that it had opened as early as 1933 and neither Germans nor other nations did anything to stop it. He became inspired to chronicle the same reaction from the American government and the gay community to the AIDS crisis by writing The Normal Heart.
Despite Kramer's promising never to write for the theater again, The Normal Heart is a play set between 1981 and 1984. It addresses a writer named Ned Weeks as he nurses his lover who is dying of an unnamed disease, the doctors puzzled and frustrated by having no resources to research it, and the unnamed organization Weeks is involved in and is eventually thrown out of. Kramer later explained, "I tried to make Ned Weeks as obnoxious as I could ... I was trying, somehow and again, to atone for my own behavior." The experience was overwhelmingly emotional for Kramer, as at one time during rehearsals he watched actor Brad Davis hold his dying lover played by D.W. Moffett on stage; Kramer went into the bathroom and sobbed, only moments later to find Davis holding him. The play is considered a literary landmark. It contended with the AIDS crisis when few would speak of the disease afflicting gay men, including gays themselves; it remains the longest-running play ever staged at the Public Theater, running for a year starting in 1985. It has been produced over 600 times in the U.S., Europe (where it was televised in Poland), Israel, and South Africa. Actors following Davis who portrayed Kramer's alter ego Ned Weeks included Joel Grey, Richard Dreyfuss (in Los Angeles), Martin Sheen (at the Royal Court in London), Tom Hulce and then John Shea in the West End, Raul Esparza in a highly acclaimed 2004 revival at the Public Theater, and most recently Joe Mantello on Broadway at the Golden Theater. Upon seeing the production of The Normal Heart, Naomi Wolf commented, "No one else on the left at that time...ever used the moral framework that is so much a part of Kramer's voice, and that the right has coopted so skillfully. Conscience, responsibility, calling; truth and lies, clarity of purpose or abandonment of one's moral calling; loyalty and betrayal...."
In a review for the New York Times, Frank Rich said:
He accuses the governmental, medical and press establishments of foot-dragging in combating the disease—especially in the early days of its outbreak, when much of the play is set—and he is even tougher on homosexual leaders who, in his view, were either too cowardly or too mesmerized by the ideology of sexual liberation to get the story out. "There's not a good word to be said about anyone's behavior in this whole mess," claims one character—and certainly Mr. Kramer has few good words to say about Mayor Koch, various prominent medical organizations, The New York Times or, for that matter, most of the leadership of an unnamed organization apparently patterned after the Gay Men's Health Crisis.
In 1987, Kramer was the catalyst in the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action protest organization that chose government agencies and corporations as targets to publicize lack of treatment and funding for people with AIDS. ACT UP was formed at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center in New York City. Kramer was asked to speak as part of a rotating speaker series, and his well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS. He began by having two thirds of the room stand up, and told them they would be dead in five years. Kramer reiterated the points introduced in his essay "1,112 and Counting": "If my speech tonight doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble. If what you're hearing doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?" Their first target became the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which Kramer accused in the New York Times of neglecting badly needed medication for HIV-infected Americans.
Getting many people arrested was a primary objective, as it would focus attention on the target. On March 24, 1987, 17 people out of 250 participating were arrested for blocking rush-hour traffic in front of the FDA's Wall Street offices. Kramer was arrested dozens of times working with ACT UP, and the organization grew to hundreds of chapters in the US and Europe. Immunologist Anthony Fauci states "ACT UP put medical treatment in the hands of the patients. And that is the way it ought to be... There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. And he helped change it for the better. In American medicine there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry. Playwright Tony Kushner offered his opinion of why Kramer fought so restlessly: "In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry's generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry."
Two decades later Kramer continued to advocate for social and legal equity for homosexuals. "Our own country's democratic process declares us to be unequal, which means, in a democracy, that our enemy is you," he wrote in 2007. "You treat us like crumbs. You hate us. And sadly, we let you."
Continuing his commentary on government indifference toward AIDS, Kramer wrote Just Say No, A Play about a Farce in 1988. He highlights the sexual hypocrisy in the Reagan and Koch administrations that allowed AIDS to become an epidemic; it concerns a First Lady, her gay son, and the closeted gay mayor of America’s “largest northeastern city.” Its New York production, starring Kathleen Chalfant, Tonya Pinkens, and David Margulies, was prized by the few who came to see it after its crucifixion by the New York Times. Social critic and writer Susan Sontag wrote of the piece, "Larry Kramer is one of America's most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice."
First published in 1989, and later expanded and republished in 1994, Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist contains a diverse selection of the nonfiction writings of Larry Kramer focused on AIDS activism and LGBT civil rights, including letters to the editor and speeches, which document his time spent at Gay Men's Health Crisis, ACT UP, and beyond.
The central message of the book is that gay men must accept responsibility for their lives, and that those who are still living must give back to their community by fighting for People With AIDS (PWA’s) and LGBT rights, for, as Kramer states, "I must put back something into this world for my own life, which is worth a tremendous amount. By not putting back, you are saying that your lives are worth shit, and that we deserve to die, and that the deaths of all our friends and lovers have amounted to nothing. I can't believe that in your heart of hearts you feel this way. I can't believe you want to die. Do you?"  The first publication provides a portrait of Kramer as activist, and the 1994 edition contains commentary written by him that reflects on his earlier pieces and provides insight into Larry Kramer as writer.
Kramer directly and deliberately defines AIDS as a holocaust because he believes the United States' government failed to respond quickly and expend the necessary resources to cure AIDS, largely because AIDS initially infected gay men, and, quite soon after, predominantly poor and politically powerless minorities. Through speeches, editorials, and personal, sometimes publicized, letters to figures such as politician Gary Bauer, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, several New York Times reporters, and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, Kramer personally advocates for a more significant response to AIDS. He implores the government to conduct research based on commonly accepted scientific standards and to allocate funds and personnel to AIDS research. Kramer ultimately states that the response to AIDS in America must be defined as a holocaust because of the large number deaths that resulted from the negligence and apathy that surrounded AIDS in the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and early Bill Clinton Presidencies.
The Destiny of Me picks up where The Normal Heart left off, following Ned Weeks as he continues his journey fighting those whose complacency or will impede the discovery of a cure for a disease from which he suffers. The play opened in October 1992 and ran for one year off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre by the Circle Repertory Company. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was a double Obie Award winner and received the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. The original production starred John Cameron Mitchell, "a young actor who dominates the show with a performance at once ethereal and magnetic," according to the New York Times reviewer Frank Rich. Most powerful, Rich wrote, was the thematic question Kramer posed to himself: "Why was he of all people destined to scream bloody murder with the aim of altering the destiny of the human race?" Kramer states in his introduction to the play:
This journey, from discovery through guilt to momentary joy and toward AIDS, has been my longest, most important journey, as important as—no, more important than my life with my parents, than my life as a writer, than my life as an activist. Indeed, my homosexuality, as unsatisfying as much of it was for so long, has been the single most important defining characteristic of my life.
Tragedy was a speech and a call to arms that Kramer delivered five days after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush that he turned into a book. Kramer found it inconceivable that Bush was reelected on the backs of gay people when there were so many more pressing issues:
Almost 60 million people whom we live and work with every day think we are immoral. “Moral values” was top of many lists of why people supported George Bush. Not Iraq. Not the economy. Not terrorism. "Moral values." In case you need a translation that means us. It is hard to stand up to so much hate.
The speech's effects were far-reaching, and had most corners of the gay world once again discussing Kramer's moral vision of drive and self-worth for the community he loves but that continues to disappoint him.
Kramer, again, had his detractors from the community. Writing on Salon.com, Richard Kim felt that once again Kramer personified the very object of his criticism: homophobia.
He recycles the kind of harangues about gay men (and young gay men in particular) that institutions like the Times so love to print -- that they are buffoonish, disengaged Peter Pans dancing, drugging and fucking their lives away while the world and the disco burn down around them.
Since about 1981, Kramer has been researching and writing a manuscript called The American People: A History, an ambitious historical work that begins in the Stone Age and continues into the present. For example, there is information relating to Kramer's assertion that Abraham Lincoln was gay. In 2002, Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books — the only man to have read the entire manuscript to that date — said, "He has set himself the hugest of tasks," and he described it as "staggering, brilliant, funny, and harrowing." In 2006, Kramer said of the work, " [It is] my own history of America and of the cause of HIV/AIDS.... Writing and researching this history has convinced me that the plague of HIV/AIDS has been intentionally allowed to happen." Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux announced in September 2010 that it had acquired worldwide rights to the book and plans to publish it in two volumes beginning in 2012.
In 1997, Kramer approached Yale University, to help realize a dream: he wanted to bequeath them several million dollars "to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies and possibly to build a gay and lesbian student center." At that time, gender, ethnic and race-related studies were viewed warily by academia. The then Yale provost, Alison Richard, stated that gay and lesbian studies was too narrow a specialty for a program in perpetuity. Kramer's rejected proposal read: "Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale. . . ."
In 2001, both sides agreed to a five-year trial with seed money of $1 million Arthur Kramer endowed to Yale to finance the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. The money would pay visiting professors and a program coordinator for conferences, guest speakers and other events. Kramer agreed to leave his literary papers and those chronicling the AIDS movement and his founding of GMHC and ACT-UP to Yale's Beinecke Library. "A lot has changed since I made my initial demands," said Kramer. "I was trying to cram stuff down their throat. I'd rather they fashion their own stuff. It may allow for a much more expandable notion of what lesbian and gay studies really is." The program was closed down by Yale in 2006.
Kramer's relationship with his brother, Arthur Kramer, founding partner of the law firm Kramer Levin, exploded into the public sphere with Kramer's 1984 play, The Normal Heart. In the play, Kramer portrays Arthur (as Ben Weeks) as more concerned with building his $2 million house in Connecticut than in helping his brother's cause. Humorist Calvin Trillin, a friend of both Larry and Arthur, once called The Normal Heart "the play about the building of [Arthur's] house." Anemona Hartocollis observed in the New York Times that "their story came to define an era for hundreds of thousands of theatergoers." Arthur, who had been his younger brother's protector against the parents they both disliked, couldn't find it in his heart to reject Larry, but also couldn't accept his homosexuality. This caused years of arguing and stretches of silence between the siblings. In the 1980s, Larry wanted Arthur's firm to represent the fledgling Gay Men's Health Crisis, a nonprofit Larry organized. Arthur said he had to clear it with his firm's intake committee. Larry saw this as a cop-out — rightly, as Arthur said later. Larry called for a gay boycott of MCI, a prominent Kramer Levin client, which Arthur saw as a personal affront. In 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, an anti-gay rights referendum, and Arthur refused to cancel a ski trip to Aspen.
Throughout their disagreements, they still stayed close. Larry writes of their relationship in The Normal Heart: "The brothers love each other a great deal; [Arthur's] approval is essential to [Larry]."
In 2001, Arthur gave Yale a $1 million grant to establish the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, a program focusing on gay history.
Kramer Levin went on to become one of the gay rights movement's staunchest advocates, helping Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on such high-profile cases as Lawrence v. Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court and Hernandez v. Robles before the New York Court of Appeals. Arthur Kramer retired from the firm in 1996 and died of a stroke in 2008.
In 1988, stress over the closing of his play Just Say No, only a few weeks after its opening, forced Kramer into the hospital after it aggravated a congenital hernia. While in surgery, doctors discovered liver damage due to Hepatitis B, prompting Kramer to learn that he was HIV positive. In 2001, at the age 66, Kramer was in dire need of a liver transplant, but he was turned down by Mount Sinai Hospital's organ transplant list. People living with HIV were routinely considered inappropriate candidates for organ transplants because of complications from HIV and perceived short lifespans. Out of the 4,954 liver transplants performed in the United States, only 11 were for HIV-positive people. The news prompted Newsweek to announce Kramer was dying in June 2001, and the Associated Press in December of the same year to claim Kramer had died. Kramer became a symbol for infected people who had new leases on life due to advances in medicine. "We shouldn't face a death sentence because of who we are or who we love," he said in an interview. In May 2001 the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh — which had performed more transplants for HIV positive patients (9) than any other facility in the world — accepted Kramer on its list. Kramer received a new liver on December 21, 2001.
Kramer lives near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Another resident of the complex was Kramer's long time nemesis Ed Koch. The two saw each other relatively infrequently since they lived in separate towers. When Kramer saw him looking at the apartment in 1989 Kramer reportedly told him, "Don’t move in here! There are people here who hate you!” On another instance Koch tried to pet Kramer's dog in the building's mail area and Kramer snatched away the dog.
On July 24, 2013 in New York City, Kramer married his lifelong partner architectural designer David Webster.
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