Remembering Larry Kramer Through His Most Powerful Words

Pin It
Giard Larry Kramer NYC 1989
Robert Giard, Larry Kramer, New York City, 1989

One of the most vital and enduring voices since his early days of activism in 1980s New York, the celebrated – and sometimes feared – writer Larry Kramer passed away this week at the age of 84

In a scene from the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, Larry Kramer shouts through the noise of people arguing at a meeting of Aids activists. “Plague! We are in the middle of a plague!” he yells, giving voice to his rage. This anger became something of a signature for the writer, journalist and activist, who died from pneumonia on May 27, 2020 at the age of 84. Kramer was a founder of both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1980s New York, and dedicated time to activism in the face of a growing Aids crisis (he himself was diagnosed HIV positive in 1988). His activism would take the form of open letters in newspapers to public health officials – one such piece was directed at Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who today is at the forefront of the USA’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic – television appearances, lobbying, essays, and protests.

With his autobiographical 1985 play The Normal Heart, Kramer documented how he and his peers campaigned for action in the face of a disease that was working its way through their community. The Normal Heart ran on Broadway in 2011 to great acclaim, and a television movie version, written by Kramer, won an Emmy in 2014, testament to how Kramer’s voice has endured and remains vital. Variously described as “one of America’s most vital troublemakers” (by Susan Sontag), “the angriest man in the world”, a “master of provocation” and a man with “a heart of gold”, Kramer’s impact in the LGBTQ community, for whom he fought for equality and attention, is undeniably vast. He fought against inaction from leaders and people in positions of power, and against the apathy he sometimes found within his own people. “I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren’t 195 dead New Yorkers enough?” he wrote in his 1983 essay for New York Native magazine, 1,112 and Counting.

Interviews with Kramer in the last decade, after years of health struggles including liver disease and Aids, depict him as physically weaker, with a notably softer voice, but just as steadfast in his views. He still wrote, and published his most recent book, The American People, Volume 2: The Brutality of Fact in January of this year, following Volume 1: Search for My Heart in 2017. In memory of Kramer and his vital work, we present a selection of his most powerful words.

  1. “I was trying to make people united and angry. I was known as the angriest man in the world, mainly because I discovered that anger got you further than being nice. And when we started to break through in the media, I was better TV than someone who was nice.”
  2. “Being gay is a natural normal beautiful variation on being human. Period. End of subject. Therefore, any argument which says differently is an immoral supremacist one. Call it out as such ... Be outraged, offended, angry and intolerant of any discussion or any one who describes you as unequal, undeserving or unnatural for being just as you are.”
  3. “I don’t consider myself an artist. I consider myself a very opinionated man who uses words as fighting tools.”
  4. “The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there – all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organise ourselves block by neighbourhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed.”
  5. “Activism is very seductive, and writing is painful and hard. It’s very scary to have a death threat living over your head. Activism is very sustaining. But I don’t view myself as a political person. I’m just someone who desperately wants to stay alive.”
  6. “The most important fact is that gays have been here since day one. To say otherwise is a gross denial and stupidity. We played an enormous part in the history of America.”
  7. “What inspires me is seeing things that are wrong. It’s wrong to be treated with such inequality.”
  8. “I love being gay and I love our achievements and I’m so discouraged by what we haven’t achieved. We have no power in Washington or anywhere else. Power is about speaking up – being a buffalo, if you have to. Be mean if you have to. We have come far but we haven’t come far, but that’s a whole other movie to make.” 
  9. “Plague! We are in the middle of a plague! And you behave like this! Plague! 40 million infected people is a plague! Until we get our acts together, all of us, we are as good as dead.”
  10. “One day I was just parachuted behind enemy lines, and there was this horrific story to tell. And that just became so all-consuming. I still don’t have any interest in anything else, except getting gay history taught in schools.”

Lead image: photography by Robert Giard, courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art. The image was featured in the gallery’s 2019 exhibition Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers and Giard’s 1997 book of the same name.