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The Plague Last Time

Remembering Larry Kramer


David Robinson

Ever since a friend texted me Wednesday with the news of Larry Kramer’s death, I’ve been breaking into tears — at times, racking sobs. The grief feels even more painful, even more isolating, because I’m “sheltering in place” alone. So I reached out briefly on Instagram and Facebook to share the following:

“I can’t yet put into words what Larry meant to me, and how deeply he inspired me. I hope some of the many tributes being published today, and sure to be published in the days and weeks ahead, will do justice to Larry’s pivotal, multifaceted, unique role in fighting AIDS — the whole world is indebted to him. I also hope some tributes will communicate the incalculable debt that gay men in particular — ALL gay men — owe him. Today, all I can do is grieve.”

A day and a half later, asked to write a few paragraphs about what Larry meant to me, I find myself unequal to the task — partly because I’m lousy at short-form writing; partly because obituaries and eulogies always seem to demand hagiography and idealization, and Larry was neither a saint nor an ideal; partly because Larry played a major role in a history that continues to be ignored and forgotten, or romanticized and distorted; and partly, of course, because I’m still grieving.

Still, here’s my inadequate but heartfelt attempt at an initial tribute to Larry. I’ll finish with personal memories of him, but I feel compelled to start by addressing his role in the founding of ACT UP.

For years, people writing about ACT UP or about Larry would refer to him as the founder of ACT UP (a phrase he himself sometimes used). Over time, thanks to repeated pushback, the article changed from definite to indefinite: “Larry Kramer, a founder of ACT UP.”

Larry’s role can be defined more precisely: On March 10, 1987, Larry Kramer catalyzed the founding of ACT UP by delivering an electrifying speech to a packed room at New York City’s Lesbian & Gay Community Center, in which he made half the room stand, and then told them they would be dead in a year (maybe two — memories of that night differ) if they didn’t take action.

He called for an army of gay activists to take to the streets and force our government to treat AIDS like the catastrophic emergency it actually was.

That story is true, but it’s incomplete, and it’s incomplete in a way that prevents people from understanding Larry, ACT UP, and the sort of mass activist movement he was instrumental in launching.

In America, we love stories about heroic rebels, lone mavericks, brave individuals who, on their own, change history. At the core of such stories is America’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, anti-communitarian ethos, an ethos bearing horrific fruit at this very moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, an ethos that is the antithesis of everything Larry fought for.

The legend of Larry Kramer’s ACT UP–sparking speech reminds me of the legend of Rosa Parks. On the surface, the popular image of these two world-changing people couldn’t be more different:

Rosa Parks, an unknown Black woman, a seamstress, a faithful Christian, humble, respectable, dignified — above all, quiet — gets tired, sits down, and refuses to vacate her seat for a white man who boarded the segregated bus after her.

Larry Kramer, a privileged, gay white man, a Jew, a famous (or infamous) writer, egocentric, abrasive, crass — above all, loud-mouthed — stands up in front of a crowd and, with his words, terrifies them into action.

Among the many ways in which the legend of Rosa Parks falsifies history, one is especially damaging: it erases the fact that she’d been a life-long activist in the fight against white supremacy.

In that respect, her legend obscures and distorts more of her achievement than Larry’s does of his. Largely thanks to Larry’s deservedly successful, autobiographical play The Normal Heart, anyone telling the story of his role in the AIDS pandemic dwells on the fact that he’d already been an AIDS activist before the founding of ACT UP, having co-founded and then been forced out of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

His expulsion from GMHC feeds directly into the popular image of Larry as a lone voice in the wilderness, an Old Testament prophet shouting the truth at a community that refused to listen.

No matter how much truth the metaphor reveals (and it does, indeed, reveal a lot), it conceals certain truths as well. Like the legend of Rosa Parks, the legend of Larry Kramer omits the already existing activism that he, like Parks, stoked into a conflagration.

Larry’s speech wouldn’t have achieved its aim if the right people hadn’t been in the room at New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center that night in March 1987. As longtime ACT UP member Maxine Wolfe (who often disagreed with Larry politically but nonetheless loved him dearly) has recounted, among the audience members were:

  • gay activists who had already started fighting AIDS politically, including members of the Lavender Hill Mob, a tiny, radical activist group that had emerged the previous summer in part from protests against the Supreme Court’s decision upholding anti-gay sodomy laws
  • members of what came to be known as the Silence=Death Project, an equally tiny gay-men’s consciousness-raising group, which had created the Silence=Death image — some members would soon found Gran Fury, the activist art collective responsible for most of ACT UP’s most striking images
  • members of the PWA Coalition, the pioneering, now almost forgotten grassroots organization dedicated to the self-empowerment of People with AIDS (a phrase they created to counter the immobilizing, disempowering phrase “AIDS victims”)
  • numerous people who had worked for or volunteered with GMHC and other AIDS service efforts but were yearning to take aggressive action to end the epidemic ravaging their community.

The promise of hearing Larry Kramer speak drew these and other gay men, as well as some lesbians, to the community center that night. And just as they had needed the right voice to draw them together, Larry had needed the right audience to respond to his incendiary call.

None of that detracts from Larry’s achievement. If he hadn't spoken at the community center that night, mass AIDS activism would have burst forth, probably in New York or San Francisco. (We shouldn’t forget that the 10-year, round-the-clock, AIDS/ARC Vigil in front of San Francisco’s Federal Building started in 1985, two years prior to the founding of ACT UP/NY.) But months and years might have been lost.

Larry’s reputation drew the right people to the community center, and his speech — a blowtorch aimed full-power at a combustible target — ignited the crowd, fused them into a collective unit, and impelled them into action. Two days later ACT UP held its first meeting, followed less than two weeks later by its first demonstration. And even though Larry would soon find the nitty gritty of ongoing collective action frustrating, even maddening (as he had at GMHC), at heart he understood the need for it. Larry Kramer communicated that need with a persistence and power that changed history.

As for my own memories of Larry: The earliest is from October 1987, when ACT UP/NY took part in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. ACT UP had set up a table to raise money by selling t-shirts and buttons. Gran Fury activists had created a sign with a demonic, pink-eyed Ronald Reagan with “AIDSGATE” in pink stamped diagonally under his face. And our black t-shirts, with the now-iconic SILENCE=DEATH image, were like an AIDS-activist demonstration all by themselves. But we were lost in the chaos of the post-march rally.

Larry saved us. Joining me and the others behind the table, he squeezed into a t-shirt. I remember him wearing it over the long-sleeved shirt he already had on, making him look rumpled and unfashionable next to us style-conscious youngsters. Then he grabbed another t-shirt, brandished it aloft, and began bellowing, “Clothe your body in rage!”

Within minutes, he’d drawn a crowd, all of them clamoring to buy an ACT UP t-shirt of their own.

I’d met Larry before. I’d joined ACT UP right after the first demonstration, which I watched from the sidewalk, too frightened to join the demonstrators in the street but mesmerized and inspired nonetheless. The following week I entered the Lesbian & Gay Community Center to attend my first ACT UP meeting, drawn to the group’s energy but still ambivalent.

Only twenty-two years old, recently graduated from college and newly out of the closet, I was ignorant of gay history and I had no idea how AIDS had changed gay life. After a protracted, circuitous, painful coming-out process, I wanted to fight for gay liberation. I had less interest in AIDS, about which I knew almost nothing. I considered AIDS a more limited issue.

It took only a meeting or two for me to accept that the community I’d been longing to find, and to join, was suffering and dying — and also, in that newly born activist group, fighting for their lives and for mine. The struggle against AIDS was the struggle for gay liberation. I didn’t know it at the time, but Larry had been trying to get gay men to accept and act on that reality for five years.

I quickly became a very involved, very visible member of ACT UP, co-facilitating the weekly meetings held every Monday night at the Lesbian & Gay Community Center. My job was to tame the chaos, to keep people feeling and acting as a community, and to help channel our energy, passion, ideas, and emotion — especially our rage and grief — into effective activism.

From the start, ACT UP included outsize personalities. Larry’s was one of the biggest — and one of the loudest. Larry often grew impatient, sometimes exasperated, occasionally infuriated, by the group wasting time (as he saw it) debating piddling details when, every day and every night, people were dying. Taking advantage of his special status in the group, he was prone to standing up (on his chair, if need be) and interrupting discussion — interrupting his fellow ACT UP members — when he wanted to speak (Jean Carlomusto’s beautiful, powerful documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger includes a very funny segment about this penchant of Larry’s).

So, you’d think my strongest memories of Larry would be of clashing with him on the floor of ACT UP, struggling to rein him in, keep him from derailing the group’s work and fracturing our precarious unity with his blistering anger. But even in his most obstreperous, enraged moments, the source of Larry’s passion was clear: he loved us, his community. And he didn’t want to see any more of us die.

Larry’s love for the younger gay men in ACT UP was especially clear. He saw us as his children. It sometimes — perhaps often — stung him when we asserted our independence. But, fundamentally, he loved us and was proud of us, and he made sure we knew it.

One time in particular, he displayed that love in a way that took me completely by surprise. It is my fondest memory of Larry.

During the winter of 1989, in the second year of my MFA program in dance, I came to the painful realization that, much as I loved dance, I had to give up my dream of a career as a dancer. Not because I didn’t have the talent (maybe I did, maybe I didn’t). But with the AIDS epidemic growing ever worse, despite ACT UP and other AIDS activists’ unremitting, ever-intensifying efforts, I couldn’t pursue dance with the single-minded dedication it required.

In the fall of that year I was put on academic probation for racking up too many absences to attend demonstrations, and because of being on academic probation, I missed ACT UP’s huge, historic demonstration at the Food and Drug Administration, which played a role in speeding the availability of the antiviral drugs that would make an enormous difference in coping with the pandemic.

So, I applied to graduate school to become a literature professor. But as the deadline approached for committing to one of the schools that had offered me a spot, I felt I would be letting the movement down, abandoning my responsibility to my community, if I did anything other than devote myself to AIDS activism.

I sought out Larry’s advice. Or, rather, I sought out his encouragement for what I felt I should do. After an ACT UP meeting, I told him about the decision I was wrestling with, told him I was thinking of turning down the graduate-school offers and instead getting a subsistence-level job that would leave me free to dedicate myself to AIDS activism for as long as the epidemic lasted.

I knew other people in ACT UP who had chosen that route, and I fully expected Larry to give me his blessing. After all, hadn’t he been screaming and shouting, pleading and cajoling, shaming and inspiring our entire community for years, trying to get us all to do precisely that: make fighting AIDS the absolute, undisputed priority in our lives?

But when I told Larry what I was thinking, he responded, with utter conviction and visible emotion, and without a second’s pause, "No, David, no! You must pursue your education, you must go to graduate school. Being a college professor is a good, secure, important job. You’ll need that.”

I was flabbergasted. I’d asked advice from Larry Kramer the uncompromising, radical gay activist, but I’d been answered by Larry Kramer the loving, middle-class, Jewish father. In the abstract or in general, he may have wanted everyone to drop everything in their lives and do nothing but fight AIDS. But when looking at me, a young gay man he’d already seen give so much to the fight against AIDS — what’s more, a young, HIV-negative gay man with the potential for a long life ahead of him — Larry didn’t want me to jeopardize my chance at a happy future.

Larry couldn’t have foreseen that a couple of years later I would be watching that future crumble as I tried, unsuccessfully, to save the love of my life from dying of AIDS. Nor could he have foreseen that academia would not prove to be the path to a happy future for me, and that I would eventually give up a tenured university position to pursue a different and (I still hope) more meaningful path. What matters to me — what has stayed with me all these years — is that when I turned to Larry for advice, he responded so lovingly.

Even Larry’s blind spots and shortcomings — especially when it came to gay male sexuality, which he too often trivialized, ridiculed, dismissed, even demonized — were rooted in love for his fellow gay men, his fellow faggots. He wanted us to love ourselves, and he wanted the world to love us — and he was willing to be hated by the world and even by us, if that was the price he had to pay for speaking the life-saving truth as he saw it.

Fortunately, many of us listened, and many of us loved him for it — and always will.

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David Robinson lives in Oakland, California, where he has taught high-school English for the past six years. A passionate birdwatcher, he is launching a grassroots campaign to mobilize birders across the country to do crucial Get Out The Vote work for the 2020 elections. He can be reached at