Larry Kramer — the outspoken AIDS activist, playwright, author, and screenwriter — died on Wednesday at the age of 84. The cause was pneumonia, according to his husband, David Webster, who confirmed the news with the New York Times.
Kramer had battled illnesses for years and has been declared dead more than once — both literally, in a 2001 Associated Press headline when he was awaiting a liver transplant, and professionally for writing so boldly about the gay experience and his indefatigable campaigning for LGBTQ rights and equality.
He married Webster in 2013 when he was 78 and Webster was 66 while recovering from surgery at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Before the I.C.U. ceremony, they had already planned to marry after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act earlier that year.
Born Laurence David Kramer on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer grew up to be a famed writer — he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for his screenplay of Women in Love. Before that, he broke out with his confrontational 1978 novel, Faggots. He co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, then, when that didn’t seem sufficient, he went on to create ACT UP in 1987. Many credit his landmark essay “1,112 and Counting,” which appeared in the March 14, 1983, issue of The New York Native, for alerting people to the beginnings of the health crisis when mainstream publications refused to acknowledge the epidemic that would wipe out an entire generation.
But it was his autobiographical 1985 play, The Normal Heart, first produced at the Public Theater, for which most will remember him. A successful Broadway revival in 2011 — directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey — gave people a reason to reconsider the man of letters, allowing the work to transform from agitprop into sensitive historical drama. It was then adapted into an HBO movie by Ryan Murphy in 2014 and starred many of the actors of the stage production; it won Matt Bomer a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.
“Larry knew the value of his work, his life, all gay people’s lives — and his fundamental stubborn belief in equality for all made him perhaps the single greatest and most important gay activist of all time,” Murphy wrote on Instagram. “Up until the end, we were still plotting. I recently bought the stage rights to do The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me in rep on Broadway. He was so passionate and so vital I never imagined he would pass. I thought he’d outlive us all. His work and his spirit will.”
On Instagram, Bomer shared a tribute, writing: “Your writing was bold, courageous, and urgent. It educated, stirred people to action, and saved lives. A towering intellect and an amazing wit. My time with you is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.” The screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shared a statement on Twitter that explained the impact he had for subsequent generations of LGBTQ people: “When so much of the world refused to see any value in our beating hearts, Larry Kramer’s rage helped lift us out of invisibility.”
In 2015, Kramer published the first volume of his epic novel, The American People, and detailed a decidedly queer history of the United States over its 800-plus pages. Among other historically significant characters, he posited that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon all had homosexual relationships. “It’s not just Lincoln — it’s the whole gay American history,” he explained to Out magazine in 2011. In 2020, the second volume was published and stretched to nearly 900 pages.
Kramer was famous for a 1987 speech when he sparked the formation of ACT UP by yelling at 250 people about the lethargic response to the AIDS crisis. “At the rate we are going, you could be dead in five years,” he proclaimed. “Two-thirds of this room … If what you are hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men will have no future here on earth.”
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, ACT UP famously protested the country’s health organizations and other powerful institutions due to the perceived lack of urgency and a need for research into effective treatments for those dying from AIDS-related causes. One of Kramer’s main targets was infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. Kramer wrote an open letter published in The San Francisco Examiner in 1988 that called the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases a murderer and “an incompetent idiot.”
“That’s made my job more difficult,” Fauci told Rolling Stone in 1990, “because I have to go back to the conservative establishment and say, ‘We need to work with these people,’ and they look at me like I’m crazy. They don’t see the side of ACT UP that I do — intelligent, gifted, articulate people coming up with good, creative ideas.”
Later, Kramer — would found out he was HIV positive in 1989 — would praise Fauci for being among those who saved his life by giving him experimental drugs.
“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Fauci explained to the New York Times for its Kramer obituary, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”
As GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis wrote on Twitter: “Larry Kramer’s contributions to the LGBTQ movement and the fight against HIV/AIDS are incalculable. GLAAD and so many LGBTQ people and allies recognize Larry as an undeniable accelerant who not only fearlessly demanded change, but made it come to pass. We send all of our love to Larry’s loved ones during this time, and though we are saddened by his passing, we are forever grateful for his leadership and heroism.”
In a statement posted to Instagram, Elton John wrote: “We have lost a giant of a man who stood up for gay rights like a warrior. His anger was needed at a time when gay men’s deaths to AIDS were being ignored by the American government: a tragedy that made the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP movements so vital. He never stopped shouting about the injustices against us. His voice was the loudest and the most effective. Larry Kramer captured the outrage and spirit of these turbulent times in his brilliant play ‘The Normal Heart’ along with his many other writings. I was proud to know him and his legacy must be maintained. My heart goes out to his beloved husband David Webster.”
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Larry Kramer’s passing is the saddest news. We have lost a giant of a man who stood up for gay rights like a warrior. His anger was needed at a time when gay men’s deaths to AIDS were being ignored by the American government: a tragedy that made the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP movements so vital. He never stopped shouting about the injustices against us. His voice was the loudest and the most effective. Larry Kramer captured the outrage and spirit of these turbulent times in his brilliant play “The Normal Heart” along with his many other writings. I was proud to know him and his legacy must be maintained. My heart goes out to his beloved husband David Webster. Love, Elton @ejaf #RIP
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Larry Kramer. I don’t have the words to properly express my gratitude, admiration , and love for you. Your writing was bold, courageous, and urgent. It educated, stirred people to action, and saved lives. A towering intellect and an amazing wit. My time with you is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. Rest In Peace my friend.