Larry Kramer and the Comfort of Being Mad

The author and activist passed away this week at age 84.

by T. Cole Rachel
May 31 2020, 9:30am

On hearing of the death of author, essayist, playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer last week, I was reminded of the first time I encountered his work. In 1988, I was a closeted 14-year-old gay boy living on a farm in southwestern Oklahoma. Coming of age in the pre-internet era in a deeply religious rural town, my exposure to anything gay—and my own notion of what gayness might even mean—was informed almost entirely by a hodgepodge of the very few mincing gay caricatures I’d seen in movies, shoplifted porn, and the only two “gay” novels I’d managed to clandestinely get my hands on: Edmund White’s A Boys Own Story and, much more shockingly, Larry Kramer’s Faggots. To my adolescent mind, Faggots—Kramer’s 1978 takedown of NYC’s pre-AIDS gay culture—was equal parts titillating and terrifying, packed with descriptions of sex acts I had yet to imagine, drugs I’d never heard of, and a kind of freedom and rampant hedonism my child-mind could scarcely conceive of. Of course, I wouldn’t understand the book’s buried satire, judge-y sexual politics, or its warranted divisiveness among gay readers until many years later, but the novel’s total audaciousness struck like a lit match in my mind. I still had a lot to learn about my own faggotry, but Faggots, despite its myriad complications, made me somehow less afraid and more excited about being one.

By the time I finally completed my own pilgrimage from small town boy to big city queen in the early 2000s, the AIDS epidemic had since crested. Though I had grown up under the specter of AIDS and, like many other gay men my age, had come to associate sex and intimacy with the ever-present possibility of death, I had been spared the firsthand experience of living through the horrors of the plague years. Thanks to new, readily available drug regimens, HIV was no longer considered the death sentence it had been only a few short years before. Gay men coming of age at this time were suddenly afforded a freedom that most had thought might never be possible again. This freedom was due specifically to the work of Larry Kramer and a generation of activists who channeled their rage and despair into a tool that shocked the world into action. Kramer’s work in AIDS advocacy, both with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, more audaciously, with Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) provided a blueprint for generations of activists to follow on just how to shake people awake. Whether it be shutting down the New York Stock Exchange, moving mountains of federal bureaucracy, or publicly shaming and stunting politicians and the FDA into action, there is no denying that the HIV drugs that we have today—the little blue pills that myself and so many people I know take every day in order to keep us alive—largely exist because of the efforts this one high strung, volcanically angry, and often very polarizing man.

A 1988 ACT UP protest outside the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Photo by Peter Ansin/Getty Images

It was only after I moved to New York and found myself welcomed by a cadre of older gay writers, did I truly understand Kramer's legendary intensity and the full reach of his work. Depending on who you spoke to, Larry Kramer was someone admired and/or passionately reviled in almost equal measure, and yet he was universally respected. Both as a literary and a political figure, he meant very different things to different people, and in the wake of his passing, much has been written about his contrarianism, his outrageous outspokenness, his difficulty, and how impossibly headstrong and belligerent he could be, even with lifelong friends. Provocation and confrontation were seemingly his calling cards, often threatening to overshadow his prodigious body of work.

Strangely, it’s this aspect of Kramer’s life that resonates so strongly with me now. While his expansive literary output, particularly his much-lauded autobiographical play, The Normal Heart, will always be essential reading within the gay canon, it’s Kramer’s righteous anger that feels the most relatable and valuable now. Having spent the first 20 years of my own life self-policing my every move—the way I walked, the way I talked, the sound of my own voice—simply as a way to exist within a culture that was not only indifferent to the death of people like me, but actively wanted us dead, I found myself not only exhausted, but frequently furious. The relief I felt after finally being able to come out and be myself was often unexpectedly commensurate with a fiery resentment that I’d already wasted so much of my life being unable to do so. It often felt like a wellspring of frustrated energy with no place to go. When I read Kramer’s writing about AIDS, when I watch videos of him speaking truth to power in places where queer voices were never heard, it remains a potent reminder that anger, when channeled correctly, has a purpose. For better or worse, it is often our most inexhaustible resource.

I’m certainly not the first person to point out the irony of Larry Kramer leaving us in the middle of yet another largely avoidable global pandemic, or that he does so at a time when authoritarianism and toxic conservatism seek to upend every aspect of our culture. His life and work—pissed off, thorny, unabashed, sometimes deeply messy—remains instructional for our current moment. In his now-infamous 1983 essay, “1,112 and Counting,” Kramer wrote, “Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get. . . Unless we fight for our lives we shall die.’’ The context might be slightly different now, but the statement feels remarkably prescient. At a time when the forces in power seek to silence and destroy the most marginalized, sometimes you’ve got to be the loudest voice in the room in order to be an agent of change. Sometimes the only message that gets through is one of angry, perfectly articulated rage.

Larry Kramer