The LGBT community is indebted to activist and author Larry Kramer. “The fire in his belly” led him in the 1980’s to wake up the complacency of this country into dealing with with AIDS as a public-health emergency. A founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first service organization for HIV-positive people, Kramer discovered that his group was too apathetic about the “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” He later founded a more militant group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) that could be seen picketing on Wall Street to make monies available to stop the plague.
His bombastic voice was everywhere demanding speedier research into AIDS drugs, equality for gay and lesbians, urging his community to come out “of the closet,” and follow his politics. He was a fundraiser, lobbyist, and brilliant writer. Author of the tome, The American People (gay people, that is), Volume 2, that was published this year, Kramer is perhaps better known as the Tony-Award winning playwright of “The Normal Heart,” a semi-auto-biographical play that focuses on the rise of HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984.
I don’t pretend to be a trained theatre critic, but as the straight mother of a gay son, I have seen the gay-themed plays for the issues presented: The Inheritance, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” Matt Crowley’s “The Boys In The Band,” “Next Fall,” and “Fun Home.” Because the issues of acceptance and equality are still being examined today, many of these dramatic plays are revivals.
Of all these plays, I liked Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” the best. It was intimate, didn’t ramble, and had my attention to the point where I never took my coat off. Like its author, it punched you right in the gut. In typical fashion, there was Kramer at the stage door at the revival in 2014, handing out leaflets to incite activism to find a cure.
He didn’t look well six years ago. But my God, he had been infected with HIV, contracted liver disease and was living with a liver transplant. His tireless advocacy kept him working. At age eighty-four, he was working on a play about epidemics through three plagues: HIV/AIDS, and now COVID-19.
The “fire in his belly” was never extinguished.
From my blog post “The Normal Heart Had MY Heart Thumping” originally posted on July 10, 2011:
I never saw the original 1985 play “The Normal Heart.” At that run at the Joseph Papp theatre, Joel Grey (who now directs the current play with George C. Wolfe) played the confrontational Ned Weeks, the protagonist. Its revival, which I recently saw, was voted “best” on Broadway at this year’s Tonys, and stars Joe Mantello of “Angels of America” fame as Ned Weeks, a.k.a. Larry Kramer, Normal Heart’s author. (See some of the moving awards acceptance speeches at the end of this post.) This revival closes on Broadway today (7/10/11) after a glorious 12-week limited run. I hope it’ll come back someday soon.
What’s Eating Larry Kramer?
Kramer, in real life, and portrayed on the stage, is a bristly Gay Rights activist from the 1980’s, who, with his gay friends, are focused on raising awareness about an unidentifiable disease which is killing off their friends. The time is 1981-84 during the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis before the development of antiretroviral drugs. It’s the swinging 80’s when casual sex was rampant in the baths and discos that many gay men frequented.
Weeks’s loud efforts are met with indifference by the press and Mayor Koch during this calamitous era when this mysterious disease was known as a “gay plague.” To make matters worse, there is infighting among the closeted members of Week’s grass-roots organization which later became The Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
In the play, Kramer’s live-in lover, the closeted New York Times writer Felix Turner, dies of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a once-rare form of cancer, as a harbinger of HIV. Turner, like other cast members, is a patient of Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a.k.a. “Emma” played by Ellen Barkin who won a Tony for this debut stage role. She is as frustrated as Weeks is and cannot get funding for this mysterious disease that has her baffled and advocating abstinence. According to Kramer, but not stated in the play, ex-President Ronald Reagan did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” for seven years.
The Grim Reaper is Busy
When the play starts, there are forty-one AIDS-related deaths on the defining white brick wall of the stage. It records he history in raised letters, like Braille, of the AIDS disease. By the play’s end, the numbers have mushroomed and can no longer be contained on the stage; they have insidiously crept beyond the stage’s boundaries.
Young Gay Audiences Don’t Know From ’80s Plague
Powerful, intense, with good acting and writing, this play moved the audiences to tears and standing ovations. The young gay couple next to me did not know of the political scene of the 80’s and the beginning days of this plague; it was an eye-opener. They had grown up in a more complacent world where HIV was not considered a death sentence, but could be handled with a cocktail of drugs, protease inhibitors.
30 Years Later, Still an Uphill Battle
Yet, this year marks thirty years since the discovery of the first case of AIDS that took more than a quarter-of-a-million lives. There is still no cure. The money spent on AIDS is still miniscule considering there have been 35 million deaths and seventy-five million infections world-wide. The Centers for Disease Control Aid’s Prevention Center states that the majority of the estimated 56,000 new H.I.V. infections that occur each year are transmitted by those who are unaware of their infection. (New York Times, June 28, 2011). Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to this horrible disease and, like Larry Kramer, crusade for more funding and education?
Have YOU spoken to your child about HIV/AIDS and safe sex?
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.
Wonderful tribute, Wes! (I loved the TV production of “The Normal Heart.” Would have liked to have seen it in the theater…)