Introduced by University Provost Paul Courant as “the leading AIDS activist since the beginning of the crisis,” Larry Kramer discussed the struggle for answers to the HIV/AIDS crisis last night at Rackham Auditorium.
“In the early 1980s, young men were dying like flies, but we were lucky if we got our story on the local news for three minutes,” Kramer said. “Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word ‘AIDS’ for seven years – that was the situation.”
A Yale graduate and former assistant to presidents of two major film companies, Kramer said he was used to people answering his phone calls, yet no one would listen to him about AIDS.
Kramer said AIDS “went from nothing to 60,000 cases” because of high-level politicians trying to cover up their own homosexuality or that of family members. “They refused to acknowledge the problem or to take action. Much of history is shaped by the complications of individuals’ private lives,” he said.
Kramer said he realized he had to find another tool to bring the world’s attention to HIV/AIDS and, in 1983, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization to raise awareness and search for a cure.
“There were no answers. People would endure anything. A researcher at the Weizmann Institute in Israel came up with a lipid treatment, and an American doctor in the South was charging $60,000 for blood-cleaning,” Kramer said. “That’s the kind of life it was.
“At first, people did not want to listen to a doctor telling them it was a virus. They thought it was the establishment trying to take their freedom – their freedom to love,” Kramer said. “To this day I still don’t know why gay men didn’t act. Lovers died, friends died, whole houses of roommates on Fire Island (N.Y.) died – and it still didn’t make people get off their asses.”
In 1985, Kramer decided to write a play, “The Normal Heart,” about the gay community’s struggle for HIV/AIDS awareness, which was selected as one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.
“I knew it would take me too long to write another novel and I knew, having worked for film companies, no one would make a movie about my story, so I decided to write a play,” Kramer said. “At first, everyone rejected it – every director, every studio.”
“Kramer’s play ‘Normal Heart’ is one of my favorite works,” said Public Health student Nicole Lomerson. “For a lot of us who work in the HIV/AIDS field, Kramer is a hero. I came to hear him speak because of his accomplishments and because he is a phenomenal writer.”
Gay Men’s Health Crisis has concerned itself mostly with nursing the sick, which, according to Kramer, is only half the fight. He said he wanted to create a more confrontational group to challenge those who would turn their backs to the problem.
“ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) hanged an effigy of Frank Young, head of the (Food and Drug Administration), on Wall Street and we demonstrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (in New York City) by taking over mass and refusing to leave,” Kramer said. “From that day on, people knew who we were and they were afraid of us, and that is worth a lot.”
As a student at Northwestern University, Ann Arbor resident Phil Jessel heard Kramer speak and said he was excited to attend another of his presentations.
“Kramer is a living piece of history,” Jessel said. “‘Faggots’ and ‘Normal Heart’ were interesting to read and are an important accounts of the American experience.”
Kramer wrote “Faggots,” a novel about homosexual culture, in 1978.
“Kramer’s contribution to the progress made in the AIDS field and his struggle to educate the public make him an important historical figure,” said Medical School student Charlie Ashbrook. “In the early 1980s, HIV was very unknown. His efforts to improve gay men’s health brought me here to hear his perspective.”
Kramer’s campus visit was one feature of National Coming Out Week. His presentation was conducted as an interview by Medical School Prof. Howard Markel.