Authors: Larry Kramer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American playwright, author, and activist

June 25, 1935

Bridgeport, Connecticut

Biography

Larry Kramer was the first and, arguably, the most outspoken voice in the fight against acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). His plays and essays were written to educate gay men as well as government, media, and education officials about improved medical research, health care, and prevention of AIDS. The son of George L. and Rea (Wishengrad) Kramer, he was born in Connecticut but moved to Washington, DC, in 1941. He hated his father, who abused him both physically and emotionally for being a “sissy.” Kramer felt isolated during his formative years, not only because of his Jewish heritage but also because he had begun to express his homosexuality, although with fear and guilt. The process of accepting his homosexuality began in 1953, his freshman year at Yale University, when he had an affair with one of his professors. He sought psychiatric help, which soon led him to the realization that he could not change his sexual orientation.

After graduating with a BA in English literature in 1957, Kramer served in the United States Army and later secured a position with Columbia Pictures as an assistant story editor. He was sent to London, where he worked on several major feature films, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Kramer launched his own writing career by writing the screenplay for D. H. Lawrence’s 1921 novel Women in Love, a commercial success in 1969 that was both lauded and criticized for its homoerotic undertones. Although this experience gave Kramer the motivation to deal with gay themes, he was unable to interest film producers in his scripts. In 1975 he turned to the theater, but his Sissies’ Scrapbook failed to attract an audience, and his other scripts went unproduced.

Larry Kramer.

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By David Shankbone, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

The 1970s New York City gay community was in the midst of its sexual revolution, but Kramer deplored that lifestyle. He responded to it with his novel Faggots, a satiric exposé of the Fire Island gay scene with its one-night stands, drug use, sadomasochism, and desperation. Faggots became a best seller even though the gay community rejected its criticism and mainstream critics were shocked by the descriptions of homosexual acts. Kramer alleged that promiscuity destroyed the gay community.

In July 1981, Kramer read a newspaper article that changed the course of his life. It reported that forty-one young gay men had contracted Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare skin cancer, and that eight had died as a result. He visited Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien at the New York University Medical Center, who told him that an increasing number of gay men were being affected and urged him, as a strong voice in the gay community, to do something about it. A week later Kramer, believing that gay men were on the brink of an enormous crisis, organized the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first organization dedicated to gathering and disseminating information about the disease which later became known as AIDS. He began to write about the mysterious disease that was killing gay men, but no one was interested. Gay men were offended by his diatribes against promiscuity and unsafe sex, and government leaders did not yet consider it a political issue. Finally, Kramer wrote “1,112 and Counting,” an article that was published in New York Native on March 14, 1983, in an attempt to shock gay men out of their complacency. This public ranting led to his leaving the GMHC, which had become a social-service organization.

Failing to find a forum to express his anger, Kramer finally returned to the theater with his most successful play, The Normal Heart. This semiautobiographical work won the Dramatists Guild’s Marton Award and the Sarah Siddons and City Lights best play awards and has seen hundreds of productions worldwide. It tells his story in the character of Ned Weeks, who learns of the “disease” and struggles against the apathy of both the gay community and government bureaucracy. It shouts, rants, and rails and ultimately succeeds as a moving drama about individual suffering in the face of universal indifference. The success of The Normal Heart allowed Kramer to broaden his role as an AIDS activist. In 1987, he organized the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), an activist group that took a confrontational approach to meetings with government and health officials.

In 1988, Kramer tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and began his personal struggle against deteriorating health and eventual AIDS. In 1992, in the face of what he thought was imminent death, Kramer continued the story of his semiautobiographical character, Ned Weeks, who undergoes an experimental AIDS treatment in The Destiny of Me. Weeks’s attempt to find meaning in his own unhappy life, against the backdrop of thousands of unnecessary deaths, is sobering and powerful. The Destiny of Me received the 1993 Obie Award for best play.

Kramer continued his unrelenting fight to educate the public about AIDS. His collected essays and speeches, Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist, were published in 1989 and expanded in 1994. Following the reelection of President George W. Bush, Kramer made a speech “The Tragedy of Today’ Gays,” which was later published as a book of the same name. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a miniseries for the television adaptation of his play The Normal Heart. For his unwavering activism, Kramer received the 2017 Liberty Award from Lambda Legal.

Author Works Drama Sissies’ Scrapbook, pr. 1973, revised pr. 1974 (as Four Friends) The Normal Heart, pr., pb. 1985 Just Say No: A Play about a Farce, pr., pb. 1988 The Destiny of Me, pr. 1992 Long Fiction Faggots, 1978 The American People: Search for My Heart, 2015 Screenplay Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1966 Women in Love, 1969 (adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s novel) Lost Horizon, 1973 (adaptation of James Hilton’s novel) The Normal Heart, 2014 (adaptation of Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name) Nonfiction Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist, 1989, revised 1994 (as Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist) The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, 2005 Bibliography Baker, Rob. The Art of AIDS. New York: Continuum, 1994. The themes and impact of Kramer’s plays are examined. Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. This comprehensive study of gay drama gives considerable attention to Larry Kramer and his activism as reflected in his major plays. Strong, insightful analysis. Clum, John M. Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This updated version of Acting Gay includes useful analysis of The Destiny of Me, which had not been produced when the earlier volume was published. Harris, William. “Staying Angry.” Dance Ink 6 (Spring, 1995). Discusses Kramer’s continuing activism. Kramer, Larry. “An Interview with Larry Kramer.” Interview by L. A. Winokur. The Progressive 58, no. 6 (June, 1994): 32. Kramer questions the value of a solitary crusade. Kramer, Larry. “Playboy Interview.” Playboy, September, 1993. Examines the impact of Kramer’s writings. Leland, John. "Twilight of a Difficult Man: Larry Kramer and the Birth of AIDS Activism." The New York Times, 19 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/nyregion/larry-kramer-and-the-birth-of-aids-activism.html. Accessed 9 June 2017. Describes the evolution of Kramer's activism during the AIDS epidemic and beyond. Mass, Lawrence D., ed. We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. This collection of twenty essays written by experts in the field treats most aspects of Kramer’s life and writing. The collection ends with a revealing interview between the editor and Kramer. Nelson, Emmanuel S. AIDS: The Literary Response, edited by New York: Twayne, 1992. The themes and impact of Kramer’s plays are examined. See the essays Kevin J. Harty’s “AIDS Enters the American Theater” and James Morrison’s “Larry Kramer and the Rhetoric of AIDS.” Shnayerson, Michael. “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Vanity Fair, October, 1992, 228-297.

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