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Opinion: Larry Kramer, A Remembrance Of A Fierce AIDS Activist

Writer and activist Larry Kramer, here in 1989, was an unapologetically loud and irrepressible voice in the fight against AIDS.
Sara Krulwich
Getty Images
Writer and activist Larry Kramer, here in 1989, was an unapologetically loud and irrepressible voice in the fight against AIDS.

Larry Kramer was angry, irascible, and indispensable. He was a playwright and novelist in 1983, as he saw friends around him die of what you then had to spell out as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. And he wrote a call to action in the New York Native, a gay bi-weekly paper: "1,112 and Counting," was the title.

It was the number of people diagnosed with serious complications from AIDS - nearly half in and around New York.

"If this article doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men have no future on this earth," he wrote.

He turned some of his most incisive phrases on members of his own community he thought stayed silent because they feared coming out to their family or employer.

"Every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life," wrote Larry Kramer, "is truly helping to kill the rest of us."

AIDS made Larry Kramer an activist. He helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis — where his derogatory oratory got him ousted — and then ACT UP, which staged die-ins in front of government offices, Wall Street, and houses of worship.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, then already head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, recalled for us this week, "I met Larry when he called me a murderer and an idiot in the newspaper. To him, I was the face of the federal government. He got my attention, and I listened."

The federal official who had to weigh his words, and the activist who hurled words like fiery torches, became friends.

Larry Kramer wrote a heart-stopping speech in his 1985 play, "The Normal Heart," which dramatized debates of the time among gay men about whether to be visible in the struggle against AIDS.

"I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates..." a character declares, reeling through a litany of artists and writers before thundering, "These are not invisible men."

Anthony Rapp, the actor, told us that as a queer man, he believes he owes Larry Kramer his life. "He was a galvanizing force that saved countless lives," he said, "and made the world a safer, better place for so many of us."

And Rebecca Makkai, whose novel, "The Great Believers," about a group of friends living through the AIDS crisis in the 1980's, told us, "I hope Larry Kramer gets to choose between resting in peace and haunting every S.O.B. on his list."

Larry Kramer lived with HIV for more than three decades. He was 84 when he died this week — of pneumonia.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.