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Interview with Larry Kramer

By |2002-03-10T09:00:00-05:00March 10th, 2002|Uncategorized|

“We, as human beings, have responsibilities just being alive to look after each other and ourselves and to right wrongs, and when people are apathetic it makes me very angry. And especially when they’re your own people because you love them more.”
Larry Kramer

“Activist is not a dirty word and it’s not hard to be one. You just have to speak up and speak your mind. Write a letter, write a check. We’re not talking about super-human strength required.”
Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer knows what it’s like to fight like hell.
As a co-founder in the early 1980’s of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the founder of the in-your-face AIDS advocacy group ACT-UP, Kramer has been raising his voice for years to bring attention to the issues that matter to him. He has never been one to stand idly by while people died. His anger fueled that of others who refused to be silent. Kramer’s life is reflected well in ACT-UP’s motto: Silence=Death.
Besides a resident hell-raiser, Kramer is also a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His 1978 novel “Faggots” is one of the best-selling, and controversial, gay novels of all time. His play “The Normal Heart” has been staged over 1000 times.
These days Kramer is not as singularly involved in AIDS activism as he was in the days of ACT-UP, but age certainly has not tempered his fire. Currently he is an outspoken and critical advocate for organ donation and transplants. The cry for a better system for harvesting donations, however, has not been an easy one to take up. “Unfortunately I don’t have a mob of angry dying gay men to go out with me and scream,” he said. “It’s been hard to get publicity about it.”
Kramer, who has both HIV and hepatitis B, was the recipient of a new liver over three years ago. Due to hepatitis B and HIV-related complications, his liver was failing. He was told he had six months to live unless he got a transplant. The clock was ticking, and two months before that six-month sentence, Kramer became the oldest recipient of a liver transplant.
Kramer realizes he is one of the lucky ones. For every organ that is donated in this country, there are five people who need it in order to survive. Getting a donated organ is not easy and it is not cheap, especially if the person who needs the organ is HIV positive.
The current organ donation system in this country is not effective, according to Kramer. He would like to see it changed to something closer to the donor system in place in other parts of the world. “In Europe the system of organ donation is completely different,” he said. “Everyone in Europe is considered to be a donor unless they say otherwise and in this country it is the reverse.” This leads to a constant shortage in organ donations in this country. Meanwhile, people die.
Yet the media is largely silent on the issue of organ donation. “It’s just like the early days of AIDS,” he said. “You can’t get 20/20 or Nightline or the news programs to do stories on this.”
Likewise, he says, the medical community is silent. He called doctors “the most apolitical people in the world.” He stressed, however, that it is vital they speak out on the issue of organ donation. “It’s very hard to get doctors to speak out about anything, even when their patients are dying,” he said.
Kramer has no patience for people who put their heads in the sand when it comes to important issues. Kramer doesn’t have an apathetic bone in his body and is angry that there are still gay and lesbian people who will not stand up for their rights. “We, as human beings, have responsibilities just being alive to look after each other and ourselves and to right wrongs, and when people are apathetic it makes me very angry. And especially when they’re your own people because you love them more.”
As a lifelong activist, Kramer would like to see more people proudly assume that title. “Activist is not a dirty word and it’s not hard to be one. You just have to speak up and speak your mind. Write a letter, write a check. We’re not talking about super-human strength required.”
He said he is sad that the LGBT community hasn’t coalesced into a more organized whole. “We don’t have enough people fighting for us,” he said. “We don’t have enough lobbyists in Washington where all the power is and I have been screaming about that for a long time.”
It all comes back to being an activist, whether you want to or not. “With so many gay and lesbian people in this country, there are precious few of us doing the work,” he said.
Though he is no longer leading the movement, AIDS is certainly still an issue he is passionate about. He does not, however, see a cure in the near future. In terms of HIV/AIDS policies in this country he doesn’t see anything getting better or worse. He has seen some positives, however. “I see an awful lot of very good medicines that are there now, which will give people normal lives and that’s a breakthrough,” he said.
The number of new HIV infections showing up in young people today dismays Kramer. “What’s most distressing is I don’t see the changes in the gay male community that I had hoped to see after all the death they’ve been through. That the number of new infections is rising is very upsetting to me,” he said. “It’s very sad to me, that so many people [died in the early days of AIDS], and it’s almost as if they died in vain.”
Kramer is happy to see that there are still people raising hell about HIV/AIDS issues, however, especially in the face of the current administration. He called Bush “very beatable” in 2004.
Kramer also weighed in on the issue of same-sex marriage. He said it makes him angry that some LGBT people don’t see the marriage fight as an important or necessary one. “I understand where they’re coming from because they don’t want to parrot what the straights are doing,” he said, “but there are over 1000 monetary rights that straight people get when they are married from the government, things that are tangibly important and the only way you can get those things is by being married. If we can come up with another word and another system that the government can accept and they gave us all those rights then fine. But right now marriage is the only way we can get them.”
The issue is both personal and political. Kramer has a substantial estate that he wants to pass onto his lover. However, because they are not married the government will take a much larger chunk out of the estate than they would for a married couple.
Kramer attributes the reluctance on the part of some LGBT people to push for marriage rights to the same issue of sitting back while other people do the work. “That’s another head in the sand thing when people say that they don’t want to fight for gay marriage, he said. “We have to fight for gay marriage.”
Currently Kramer is at work on a book he’s been writing since 1979. “It’s called ‘American People: A History’ and it’s a history of America and it’s a history of being gay in America and a history of AIDS and a history of how hideous gay people have been treated here,” he said. “It’s 3000 pages so far and, believe it or not, the publisher doesn’t want me to cut it.”
When Kramer was waiting for his liver transplant he came very close to death. “I was terrified I would die before the book was finished,” he said.
Today, with a new liver and a spirit as fighting and fierce as ever, he has every intention of seeing the book go to print. “I hope I have enough time left,” he said.
Larry Kramer will deliver the third annual Horace W. Davenport Lecture in the Medical Humanities sponsored by the U-M Center for the History of Medicine on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. in the U-M Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington in Ann Arbor. A book signing will follow. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. For more information call 734-647-6914 or email jdclev@umich.edu.

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