Members of ACT UP New York joined together at the New York City AIDS Memorial at St. Vincent’s Triangle on May 27 to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of AIDS activist, playwright, screenwriter, and author Larry Kramer.
Speakers recalled memories and read from Kramer’s speeches, emails, and other works as they reflected on a leader who left an indelible mark on the community throughout the decades leading up to his death last year at the age of 84. Kramer, whose extensive body of work included co-founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and subsequently launching the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, was remembered as a passionate speaker, a talented writer, and a dedicated activist.
“The Larry I loved the most was the Larry who was a good listener, who ran around the floor of ACT UP and nurtured several dozen people to do the best they could,” Jim Eigo, a founding member of ACT UP, said in front of a masked-up crowd of several dozen at St. Vincent’s Triangle. “He was the best listener I have ever known, despite his huge ego, and he was always a working writer.”
Kramer’s husband, David Webster, was on hand and briefly addressed the crowd to thank folks for stopping by.
Ken Kidd, who received a Gay City News Impact Award last year, read from a statement issued by the US Commission on Civil Rights last year mourning Kramer’s death.
“Mr. Kramer was known, loved, reviled, and feared for his decades of fierce, articulate, unrelenting, and combative AIDS advocacy,” Kidd said as he read from the statement. “His passion was born of anger at the US government’s failure to devote sufficient funding to early AIDS research and of concern for the very lives of complacent LGBTQ people.”
Kidd continued, “At least one of the early targets of [Kramer’s] activism learned to appreciate his brash and acerbic public persona. Dr. Anthony Fauci, then and still director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, was initially accused by Kramer of inaction ‘that resulted in the deaths of thousands… [and] causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the queer community.’ But over the decades, the two cultivated a close friendship. In 2002 Fauci said, ‘In American medicine, there are two eras… before Larry and after Larry.”
Hayley Martell, a new member of ACT UP New York, read from a letter written by Kramer and distributed to those who went to see Kramer’s 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” which depicted the early days of the AIDS crisis. The play was also transformed into a 2014 movie. In the letter, Kramer stressed that the play was rooted in the realities of the crisis — and he also used the note to bring urgency to those who went to watch the play.
“Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague,” Kramer wrote, as recalled by Martell. “Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague. Please know that there is no cure. Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated. Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category…”
Andy Humm, who wrote Kramer’s obituary for Gay City News, offered two brief memories from his days with Kramer.
“We all know that Larry was a brilliant writer and a fierce and terrific speaker. We all know that,” Humm said. “When he finally got us all activated around ACT UP in March of 1987, the first action was at Wall Street. Big demo, and Larry had wanted this since he founded GMHC — he wanted action on the streets. And there were thousands of people in the streets on Wall Street ready to do this…”
With the press on hand, Kramer was preparing to speak and, as Humm recalled, “he turns to me and goes, ‘What should I say?’”
“I say this by way of saying Larry was not a demagogue,” Humm said. “He was thoughtful. He was so nervous about saying the right thing.”
“The second brief story was when Ronald Reagan finally did talk about AIDS six years into the pandemic,” Humm said. “Larry was there, I was covering it, and he’s very hopeful — the president is finally going to say something and maybe we’re going to do something because so many people are dying. So he’s sitting there and Reagan is talking… [Kramer] wants to applaud, but he can’t quite get there, and then Reagan said something terrible about mandatory testing, and Larry got up and we got up and we got to boo that son of a B!”
He added, “All I want to say is don’t forget who our enemies are and were.”
Multiple speakers reflected on Kramer’s final public speech at the first Queer Liberation March in 2019 when he delivered remarks at Central Park. For many younger individuals, it was the first time they saw Kramer speak live. During that speech, Kramer expressed how much he loved being gay, but then turned to the fight against AIDS as he struck a more critical tone and condemned the community for engaging in online dating apps instead of pouring their time into fighting back against enemies.
While the speech sparked controversy among some attendees, others noted that it represented the authenticity of Kramer’s voice.
“I just want to say, back in 2019, how much it meant for us to have Larry speak,” said Jay W. Walker. “His spirit was so strong speaking from the stage of our rally and I remember the thing that made me the happiest was seeing the younger people be mortally offended by what they were hearing Larry Kramer say on that stage.”
He added, “Larry, thank you for speaking, thank you for not caring what anybody thinks about what you say. He was speaking the truth, he was always speaking his truth, and we are all so much the better for it. Thank you, Larry.”
To conclude the event, ACT UP members reiterated the group’s famous chant in unison: “ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”
To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter