Playwright and AIDS Activist Larry Kramer Dies at 84

The American writer and public health advocate was “a lionhearted force,” says Smithsonian curator Katherine Ott

Larry Kramer, National Portrait Gallery
Larry Kramer by Robert Giard, gelatin silver print, 1989 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Jonathan G. Silin

Larry Kramer, an outspoken activist and playwright who pushed public health officials to take the AIDS epidemic seriously, died of pneumonia on Wednesday morning. He was 84 years old.

As Daniel Lewis reports for the New York Times, Kramer was known for his writing and tenacity in raising the alarm about the AIDS crisis. Though his tactics were antagonistic and at times controversial, many credit him with successfully shifting public health policy in the 1980s and ’90s. Kramer, who learned that he was HIV positive in 1988, saw that the medical establishment was moving too slowly to address the disease, so he took action to expand access to health resources in the gay community.

“He was a lionhearted force behind the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, and unflinching in calling out all those who refused either to act or care,” says Katherine Ott, curator of medicine and science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Kramer had the immediate savvy of an activist. He could cut through the BS and aversion of others. He was supremely confident in his skin and was never shy with his opinions and brilliant political analysis.”

During the early 1980s, Kramer was one of the first activists to recognize that as a sexually transmitted disease, AIDS had the potential to spread worldwide, according to the Times. Kicked out of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (of which he was a founding member) because his peers considered his approach too aggressive, Kramer later established the militant-minded AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The group, which remains active today, demanded faster drug development and the end of discrimination against gay people.

Kramer’s provocative strategy brought AIDS into the public conversation. He regularly took aim at prominent figures in health care, including infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 1988, Kramer wrote an open letter decrying Fauci as an “incompetent idiot” and declaring, “I call you a murderer.” The message was published on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner.

“It definitely got my attention,” Fauci tells STAT NewsPatrick Skerrett. “I represented the federal government and was one of the few people in the early 1980s who was out there talking about HIV. To Larry, in the beginning—and even to some extent up until the end—the federal government was the enemy that wasn’t giving enough, doing enough, using the bully pulpit to call attention.”

Over years of correspondence, the two became close friends—a fact that never prevented Kramer from publicly criticizing Fauci.

Playwright and AIDS Activist Larry Kramer Dies at 84
American playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer poses for a portrait wearing a shirt designed by American artist Keith Haring. Photo by Catherine McGann / Getty Images

Kramer’s autobiographical 1985 play, The Normal Heart, elevated the public’s awareness of the AIDS crisis by revealing its many cultural consequences. A 2011 revival of the show won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic’s Circle Awards, and in 2014, HBO adapted the work into an original movie.

“The first time I encountered Larry Kramer was through his play … in London in 1986,” Yale epidemiologist and global health activist Gregg Gonsalves tells STAT News. “Here was anger, passion, a deep, deep sadness on stage, all the emotions I felt coming of age in the Reagan era, in the age of AIDS, but wasn’t able to articulate.”

The play also resonated with photographer Robert Giard, whose “large collection of portraits of prominent gay and lesbian writers … [was] created partially in response to seeing The Normal Heart,” the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery notes in the label text for the artist’s 1989 snapshot of the activist.

Kramer’s career spanned decades. He used strong language that both galvanized and alienated readers, writes Neda Ulaby for NPR. In a 1983 essay, he tackled what he saw as gay men’s shame and denial: “I am sick of closeted gays. … Every gay man who was unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us. ... Unless we can generate, visibly, numbers, masses, we are going to die.”

In 2004, Kramer delivered a speech titled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays.” It “promoted an active approach against a powerful and negative political rhetoric, and sent a humanistic message to the young gay community,” notes the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, which holds a typographic artwork based on the talk in its collections.

Kramer’s more recent work included the second in a two-tome project titled The American People. The historical novel is built on the idea that central characters in American history, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, engaged in same-sex relationships, according to the Times.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kramer was at work on a play about “gay people having to live through three plagues,” as he told the New York Times’ John Leland in late March. The plagues are AIDS, COVID-19 and the decline of the human body, as represented by an unsettling experience in which Kramer fell in his Manhattan apartment and had to wait hours for a home attendant to find him.

“I spoke with him a couple times about how to document HIV, queer history, and his role in all of it,” says Ott. “Whenever I managed to reach him, he always had 12 things going on. Our conversations were brief, in other words. He was more about action than history.”