Larry Kramer (born June 25, 1935) is an American playwright, author, public health advocate and gay rights activist. He was nominated for an Academy Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and was twice a recipient of an Obie Award. In response to the AIDS crisis he founded Gay Men's Health Crisis, which became the largest organization of its kind in the world. He wrote The Normal Heart, the first serious artistic examination of the AIDS crisis. He later founded ACT UP, a protest organization widely credited with having changed public health policy and the public's awareness of HIV and AIDS. "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," said Dr. Anthony Fauci. Kramer currently lives in New York City and Connecticut.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Career
- 2.1 Writer
- 2.2 Activism
- 3 Awards
- 4 Speeches
- 5 Articles
- 6 Further reading
- 7 References
Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a second child that his parents did not want. He enrolled at Yale University, where, in 1953, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin. The attempt was because he thought he was the "only gay student on campus," and the experience left him determined to explore his sexuality and set him on the path to fighting "for gay people's worth." Yale had been a family tradition: his father, older brother, Arthur, and two uncles were alumni. He received his B.A. in English in 1957. After graduation he became assistant to first the president of Columbia Pictures, and later to the president of United Artists. Kramer and his partner, architect David Webster, have been together since 1991. It was Webster's jilting of Kramer in the 1970s that inspired Kramer to write Faggots. When asked about their reunion decades later, Webster replied, "He'd grown up, I'd grown up."
Relationship with his brother
Kramer's relationship with his brother, Arthur Kramer, founding partner of the white shoe 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 stopped talking to Arthur. Larry called for a gay boycott of MCI, a prominent Kramer Levin client, which Arthur saw as a personal affront. Arthur stopped talking to Larry. In 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, an anti-gay rights referendum, and Arthur refused to cancel a ski trip to Aspen. Larry stopped talking to Arthur.
Throughout their disagreements, they still stayed close, remaining each other's touchstones. 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 2001, at the age 66, Kramer was close to death from end-stage liver disease caused by hepatitis B, a common infection for people with HIV, which he had tested positive for in 1987. Kramer 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. 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 done more HIV transplants (9) than any other facility in the world — accepted Kramer on its list. He received the new liver on December 21, 2001.
According to Kramer, every drama he has written derives from a desire to understand love's nature and its obstacles. Kramer's 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. Like Capra's film, Kramer wrote the screenplay based upon James Hilton's novel about a group of travelers suffering from their own demons, whose airplane crashes in the Himalayas and are subsequently rescued to Shangri-La. Then followed Sissies' Scrapbook (later rewritten and retitled as Four Friends), a dramatic play "on the numbness and the quest for the sensation of being alive." Scrapbook focuses on four friends who reunite and make predictions about each other's futures, some right and some wrong, juxtaposed against the narrator's predictions, which become true. There are only two gay characters. Of Scrapbook, David Willinger writes, "This play bears special consideration, because it clues us into the fact that the destiny of Kramer as a playwright neither begins nor ends with The Normal Heart, AIDS, or even with homosexuality (or Jewishness), while all these have latterly become central dramatic material in his work." The play was first produced in a theater set up in an old gym on 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue called the Playwrights Horizon. Its subsequent opening downtown failed in 1975, which caused Kramer to muse, "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, a never-staged play for which there were no takers. 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.
Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time. He wrote it as an indictment of the decadent gay life of drugs, promiscuity and sado-masochism found in Manhattan and Fire Island in the 1970s. It caused an uproar in the very community it portrayed. But as the AIDS epidemic descended upon that community in the 1980s, its message proved prescient: the condemnation of heedless male hedonism and its empty ends. The novel's lasting relevance can be seen in that "anyone who searches out present-day responses on the Internet will quickly find that the wounds inflicted by Faggots are burning still," wrote Reynolds Price. "Read anything by Kramer closely, and I think you'll find the subtext is always: the wages of gay sin are death," wrote Playwright Robert Chesley. It was a message that upper-class gay society did not appreciate: the book was taken off the shelves of New York's only gay bookstore and Kramer was banned from the grocery story near his home on Fire Island. 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...."
"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." Larry Kramer, on the publication of his first novel.
The Normal Heart
"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...." Naomi Wolf, on seeing the original production of The Normal Heart.
The Normal Heart is considered a literary landmark. The play contended with the AIDS crisis when few would speak of the disease afflicting gay men, including gays themselves; it remains the longest-run play ever staged at the Public Theater. The play spans from 1981 to 1984, a time when there was scant societal consciousness about AIDS, seen as an incurable disease whose afflicted were handed a death sentence with a diagnosis. Kramer's alter-ego in the play is Ned Weeks, a Cassandra warning of the looming public health crisis, a man who sets out to prove that "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone." Weeks is confronted with the same world Kramer confronted in his essay 1,112 and Counting:
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.
As Frank Rich noted, the stage at times "seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument[s]" that have been the hallmarks of Kramer's life. The play was originally produced by Joseph Papp in 1985 and starred the late Brad Davis, followed by Joel Grey. Other actors who have performed Ned Weeks include Richard Dreyfuss (in Los Angeles), Martin Sheen (at the Royal Court in London), Tom Hulce and then John Shea in the West End, and most recently Raul Esparza in a highly acclaimed revival at the Public Theater.
Just Say No, A Play about a Farce
Just Say No, A Play about a Farce (1988) is about how sexual hypocrisy in the Reagan and Koch administrations allowed AIDS to become a plague; 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."
The Destiny of Me
The Destiny of Me opened in October 1992 and ran for one year off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater by the Circle Repertory Company. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, was a double Obie winner and received the Lortel Award for Best Play of the Year. It picks up where The Normal Heart left off. The play follows 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 original production starred John Cameron Mitchell, "a young actor who dominates the show with a performance at once ethereal and magnetic," wrote Frank in his New York Times review. 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?" It is the destiny Kramer awakened himself after the suicide attempt at Yale in 1953, when he was determined to see his self-worth as a gay man. 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 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.
Its recent 2002 London Finborough Theatre production was the No. 1 Critics Choice in The Evening Standard.
The Tragedy of Today's Gays
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 continues to disappoint him. Legendary drag artist Lady Bunny wrote: "You are just too fucked by this election, and you're just too fucked UP with crystal, barebacking and apathy to confront your attackers, the conservative right.... That baton's been passed now, kids. You gonna drop it? Or come out swinging? Or go to the gym and cruise the steam room? Or shop for your next circuit party outfit? Or do another bump, girl?"
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.
The American People: A history
For the past two decades, Kramer has been at work on a manuscript called "The American People," 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. "He has set himself the hugest of tasks," said Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, who is the only man to have read the entire manuscript. Schwalbe describes it as "staggering, brilliant, funny, and harrowing."
"Dear straight people, Why do you hate gay people so much?" Kramer in the Los Angeles Times in response to Marine general Peter Pace's homophobic remarks about gays in the military.
Kramer's literary prowess and legacy have often been overshadowed by his intertwining his writing with political activism. Much of heterosexual America sees Kramer only as a radical gay activist. Gay America viewed him as an annoying and unwelcome moralist until March 14, 1983, with the publication of his front page essay, 1,112 and Counting in the New York Native. The Native was the lone gay publication in New York and for that it garnered a lot of attention. The essay could not have been more plain-spoken or jolting; 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 told an interviewer that his activism was sparked by reading the book The Homosexual Matrix, by Clarence Artuur Tripp.("C.A. Tripp, 83, Author of book on homosexuality dies, by Douglas martin, New YOrk, times, May 22, 2003)
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)
"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." Tony Kushner
In 1987, Kramer founded ACT UP, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power. The international AIDS advocacy and protest organization. ACT UP was effectively formed on March 10, 1987 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center in New York City. Larry Kramer was asked to speak as part of a rotating speaker series, and his well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS. Kramer spoke out against the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which he perceived as politically impotent. Kramer had co-founded the GMHC but had resigned from its board of directors in 1983. According to Douglas Crimp, Kramer posed a question to the audience: "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes." Approximately 300 people met two days later to form ACT UP. "ACT UP put medical treatment in the hands of the patients. And that is the way it ought to be." Dr. Anthony Fauci, quoted in The New Yorker, May 13, 2002.
Kramer's fervency did not mellow with time. "Our own country's democratic process declares us to be unequal, which means, in a democracy, that our enemy is you. You treat us like crumbs. You hate us. And sadly, we let you."
Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies
In 1997 Kramer approached his alma mater, Yale, 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 was as follows:
"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.
- American Academy of Arts and Letters, Award in Literature
- Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Destiny of Me in 1993.
- Winner of two Obies for The Destiny of Me, 1993.
- Public Service Award from Common Cause
- The Normal Heart, named as one of the Hundred Best Plays of the Twentieth Century by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain
- Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay nomination, Women in Love (1970) - for his screenplay adaptation of the novel by D.H. Lawrence
- The tragedy of today's gays, 10 November 2004
- We are not crumbs, we must not accept crumbs - Remarks on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of ACT UP, NY Lesbian and Gay Community Center, March 13, 2007
- "The Making of an AIDS Activist: Larry Kramer," pp. 162–164, Johansson, Warren and Percy, William A. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York and London: Haworth Press, 1994.
- "Public Nuisance, Larry Kramer the man who warned America about AIDS, can't stop fighting hard and loudly." Michael Specter, The New Yorker, May 13, 2002.
-  by Michael Specter
- Spector, Michael (2002-05-13), “Larry Kramer, the man who warned America about AIDS, can't stop fighting hard-and loudly”, The New Yorker: 56, <http://www.michaelspecter.com/ny/2002/2002_05_13_kramer.html>
- Gay Brother, Straight Brother: It Could Be a Play, Anemona Hartocollis, The New York Times, June 25, 2006.
- Arenson, Karen W (1997-07-09), “Playwright Is Denied A Final Act; Writing Own Script, Yale Refuses Kramer's Millions for Gay Studies”, The New York Times, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9503EED61539F93AA35754C0A961958260>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- France, David (2001-06-11), “The Angry Prophet Is Dying”, Newsweek: 43
- Kramer, Larry (2000), The Normal Heart, Grove Press, p. 31
- Branch, Mark Alden (April 2003), “Back in the Fold”, Yale Alumni Magazine, <http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/03_04/kramer.html>. Retrieved on 2007-04-21
- Adcock, Thomas (2007-03-16), “Conversation with Jeffrey S. Trachtman”, The New York Law Journal, <http://www.law.com/jsp/nylj/PubArticleNY.jsp?hubtype=ProBono&id=1173949429824>
- “Writer Chuckles Over Report of His Demise”, The New York Times: Section F; Column 1; Health & Fitness; Pg. 8, 2002-01-08, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A00E5DC1439F93BA35752C0A9649C8B63>
- Dahir, Mubarak (February 5, 2002), “Larry gets a liver - but who's next?”, The Advocate, <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1589/is_2002_Feb_5/ai_82322819>. Retrieved on 2007-09-24
- Willinger, David (1999), “The Abnormal Talent”, in Larry Kramer (ed.), We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 217, ISBN 0312220847
- Kramer, Larry (2002), Women in Love and other Dramatic Writings, Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-3916-7
- “Larry Kramer”, GLBT History Month, 2006-10-25, <http://www.glbthistorymonth.com/glbthistorymonth/bio.cfm?LeaderID=25>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Kramer, Larry (2000), “Introduction by Reynolds Price”, Faggots, Grove Press, ISBN 0802136915
- Foreword to The Tragedy of Today's Gays, p. 3
- Gussow, Mel (1985-04-28), Confronting a Crisis with Incendiary Passion, <http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F70814F9355C0C7B8EDDAD0894DD484D81&showabstract=1>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Rich, Frank (1985-04-22), “Theater: The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer”, The New York Times, <http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&res=9C00E3DB1E38F931A15757C0A963948260&oref=slogin>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Rich, Frank (1992-10-21), “The Destiny of Me; Larry Kramer Tells His Own Anguished Story”, The New York Times, <http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&res=9E0CE7DC1F3CF932A15753C1A964958260&oref=slogin>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Kramer, Larry (2000), The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me: Two Plays, Grove Press, ISBN 0802136923
- Off West End's history of the Finborough Theatre, <http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/theatres/history/8>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Vargas, Jose Antonio (2005-05-09), “The Pessivist; AIDS Activist Larry Kramer, Hoarse From Speaking Truth to Power”, The Washington Post: C01, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/08/AR2005050800988.html>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- “The Tragedy of Today's Gays”, HIV Forum, <http://hivforumnyc.org/pdf/larrykspeech.pdf>. Retrieved on 2006-04-22
- Kim, Richard (2005-05-07), “Sex panic”, Salon.com, <http://dir.salon.com/story/books/review/2005/05/07/kramer/index.html>. Retrieved on 2007-04-22
- Kramer, Larry (2007-03-20), “Why do straights hate gays?”, The Los Angeles Times, <http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-kramer20mar20,0,1705133.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- Specter, Michael (2002-05-13). Profiles: Public Nuisance. The New Yorker. Retrieved on 2007-12-16.
- Crimp, Douglas & Rolston, Adam (1990), AIDS Demographics, Seattle: Bay Press (Comprehensive early history of ACT UP, discussion of the various signs and symbols used by ACT UP).
- Arenson, Karen W (2001-04-02), “Gay Writer And Yale Finally Agree On Donation”, The New York Times, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C04EEDF113FF931A35757C0A9679C8B63>. Retrieved on 2007-09-23
- AIDS Activist Discusses 25-Year Battle, Harry Smith, CBS Sunday Morning, June 26, 2006, Retrieved on April 19, 2007.
- NT2000 One Hundred Plays of the Century, National Theatre online, retrieved April 19, 2007.
LGBT and Queer studies
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