“God, I hated him,” Larry Kramer once said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “As far as I was concerned, he was the central focus of evil in the world.”
For many who lived through the AIDS epidemic in the Eighties and Nineties, Fauci was a monster. Kramer crafted this image by relentlessly attacking the doctor in the media. (Kramer ended up establishing the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, two of the most important AIDS advocacy groups in the country.) For Kramer, nothing was too harsh — so many young men were dying of AIDS and President Ronald Reagan, along with his administration, and the government organizations (like the FDA and NIH) all seemed to be ignoring the outbreak.
Kramer was the loud, angry voice that tried to save lives — and nothing and no one was off-limits. “Incompetent idiot” and a “pill-pushing” tool of the medical establishment were among the many barbed comments and epithets that Kramer hurled directly at Fauci, who was the scientist leading the AIDS effort. He even compared Fauci to Nazi Adolf Eichmann. “Anthony Fauci, you are a murderer,” Kramer wrote in a 1988 open letter that laid everything bare. “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers.”
So when Fauci appeared on TV this year as the face of sanity and comfort in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there was certainly a bit of cognitive dissonance. The erudite scientist with the honking New Yawk accent was now an internet zaddy — nominated by some sectors as the “Sexiest Man Alive” and called America’s “Coronavirus Crush.” For those who didn’t know Fauci’s controversial past, the recent death of Kramer on May 27th at the age of 84 brought some of that background to light. In a new piece penned for Time magazine, Fauci wrote a moving tribute to Kramer and his legacy and also further explained how their relationship evolved over the past 30 years.
“We had an extraordinary, complicated but wonderful relationship that ultimately culminated in a very deep friendship, affection and I would even say love for each other,” Fauci begins. “He was unique in that he totally transformed the relationship between activism and the scientific, regulatory and government community. He realized early on in the AIDS crisis that the country as a whole, in the form of the federal government, was not paying much attention to the emerging pandemic. He became very outlandish and even abusive in the way he confronted authority, because he wanted to get that attention.”
Fauci goes on to explain that Kramer: “had so many aspects to his character; he was a very talented guy, an amazing playwright, just extraordinary. He also had a unique capacity, when there were opposing arguments, to alienate everybody on both sides of the issue. He was a firebrand who brought attention to things. He was totally abrasive, confrontational and theatrical. He didn’t care who he offended because he felt he was doing the right thing.”
As we see swaths of marginalized people ignored and left to die from a mysterious new disease — and politicians once again openly deciding whose lives are more important — it’s essential to remember the power each individual has to create change and resist powerful people’s ignorance. As Fauci explains in regard to Kramer and his many vociferous skills: “He stands out as an individual figure who made a big difference, and was truly the leader of a transformation. How many figures are there who blast away at what they feel are injustices, who use tactics no one has ever used before?”