“Plague! We are in the middle of a fucking plague! Plague! 40 million infected people is a fucking plague. And nobody acts as if it is.”
That was the ever-so-documented response from our now fallen comrade Larry Kramer at age 84 to a heckler before the start of his infamous rallying cry. He was at a weekly meeting for ACT UP NY, a grassroots political group committed to direct action to ending the AIDS crisis, in September 1991, reporting back to members on HIV treatment access and advancements. It was just months before I was even born, but it rings all too familiar to the passion and fury that still continue every week — now virtually — at our meetings.
Larry Kramer’s death comes at a cruel and unusual time: a moment in history when we are reminded of injustice and who falls at the hands of a crisis, many of whom are the same groups disproportionately plagued by HIV. But as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, “I fucking love being an angry jewish fag and Larry Kramer helped me embrace that.” I wouldn’t be half the militant and relentless homosexual I am today without the bloody and treacherous path Larry has paved for myself and countless others.
Many people’s first introduction to ACT UP was through Larry Kramer’s rage. You could hear his vigor from a mile away, and in more recent years, when his voice fell more faint, you could still feel it weighted in his words. But hell, if you didn’t witness a heated screaming match at your first ACT UP meeting, it wasn’t an ACT UP meeting.
My start in HIV organizing started in 2014 via AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) through their initiative “Impulse Group.” But later, after learning about the organization’s contribution to stigmatizing and harmful anti-PrEP crusades (at an ACT UP NY general meeting no less), I wanted no part. In more ways than one, ACT UP radicalized me. I went to my first action in September 2015 following a town hall (also attended by Larry Kramer), protesting the closure of the Chelsea clinic, and never looked back. The enraged chants and speeches on NYC funding cuts, the connections I made that night, the plastering of posters saying “Closing Clinics Feeds the Epidemic,” sucked me in.
All that was the same fervor Larry Kramer brought to a sea of people fighting for their lives, and fighting for the people they love. His spirit and tenacity inspired an entire movement, a movement that is still alive and true due to the existing perils of our country and greater world. The movement that continues to fight systemic issues such as pharmaceutical greed, broken housing and healthcare systems, the criminalization of infectious disease, stigma and shame — many of the same exact parallels we’re already confronting in our first few months responding to COVID.
Just shy of two years ago, in early June 2018, myself and a handful of PrEP4All members (a group dedicated to ensuring universal access to the HIV prevention pill PrEP) visited his home in the West Village to seek guidance on how we should continue our fight. Our meeting was planted right on the cusp of Pride Month. He had his many opinions of PrEP, some of course more controversial than others, but one thing that struck a chord in many of us that afternoon was him sharing that “anger is a healthy emotion.” We often don’t realize how stigmatized anger is as an emotion. We’re told to hide it, to not express it at the expense of potentially upsetting others.
But if there’s anything we can learn from AIDS organizing, especially in the height of the epidemic, it’s that they’re only going to listen to you if you make them. It also falls within the crosshairs of every invoked stereotype of Jews and even more specifically, queer Jews. We’re loud, we’re rambunctious, we’re ruthless, all adjectives that are weaponized to stain a persona. But with the help of Larry Kramer’s cries, we’ve been able to reclaim it.
Larry gave one of his last known speeches at Reclaim Pride’s Queer Liberation March, a march that was corporation- and cop-free to center and prioritize the activists that fight for liberation year-round. In the beginning of his speech to over 45,000 marchers, Larry said, “I’m approaching my end. But I still have a few years of fight left in me to scream out. To scream out the fact that almost everyone gay I know has been affected by this plague of AIDS. As its beginning, this has continued to be my motivation for everything I’ve done. It’s been a fight I’ve been proud of fighting.”
This is the legacy Larry Kramer leaves us with. His refusal to not stop screaming until we end the epidemic once and for all. My hope is that our generation understands that memorializing HIV won’t help us end it. It is still a battle that we must fight, and we must fight it loudly. Although Larry outlived many of his oppressors famously mentioned by the always poignant @lgbthistory account, many others will die at the hands of neglect, stigma, and greed. It is up to us to revive Larry Kramer’s anger and see an end to HIV. Until then, we keep chanting. We keep screaming. ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! END AIDS.
Header image: Portrait of Larry Kramer posing in front of a book shelf in his home, New York City, 1989. Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times Co./Getty Images.