The Sunday Magazine

Larry Kramer made his most lasting mark as an AIDS activist who spoke fiercely with moral authority

Larry Kramer's rhetoric was inflammatory and could be divisive, but when he was on a tear, people noticed and change happened. Kramer died on May 27, 2020 at the age of 84. Michael Enright spoke with Kramer in 2007 — an intense conversation with someone who changed both public attitudes and public policy.

Kramer was a writer who was most renowned for his award-winning 1985 play, The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer accepts the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play for The Normal Heart during the 65th annual Tony Awards in New York on June 12, 2011. (Jeff Christensen/Associated Press)

Larry Kramer was quite okay with making people squirm.

He was a writer who was most renowned for his award-winning 1985 play, The Normal Heart, but he made his most lasting mark as an activist who spoke fiercely with moral authority.

He was at the barricades in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic — one of the first to see the potential for AIDS to kill millions of people worldwide. He pressed doctors to provide better health care, outed closeted politicians and goaded gays to get angry in the face of the mounting death toll of their friends and lovers.

He helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis, and in 1987 — the same year he was diagnosed with HIV — he started ACT UP: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

Kramer's activism mixed theatre with rage, style with substance. Among his exploits — wrapping the home of right-wing Republican Senator Jesse Helms in a giant yellow condom, and spreading the ashes of AIDS victims on the White House lawn.

His rhetoric was inflammatory and could be divisive — he accused public health officials and politicians who ignored the AIDS crisis of murder or genocide.

But when Larry Kramer was on a tear, people noticed and change happened.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health — who is now the visible public health authority in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic — was one of the early targets of Kramer's rage.

But they later became friends, and Fauci credited Kramer with helping to revolutionize how medicine is practised and for forcing doctors and the American public health bureaucracy to make AIDS a priority.

Dr. Fauci told the New York Times that "once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry made a lot of sense and that he had a heart of gold."

That was just one of the many tributes that poured in when news broke that Kramer had died at the age of 84 on on May 27, 2020.

Larry Kramer was a guest on The Sunday Edition in 2007. It was a few weeks after he had responded to a homophobic speech delivered by America's top general, Peter Pace, with a blistering column that asked bluntly, "Why do straights hate gays?"

His conversation with host Michael Enright was intense and sometimes combative. And if some of the things they discuss in the interview sound like long-past battles and issues, that's in no small part because of Larry Kramer's activism.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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