This month, ACT UP–the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power–is marking its 20th anniversary. We spend the hour with ACT UP co-founder, Larry Kramer. A legendary–and controversial–figure in the gay rights movement, Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. He has also written many plays including "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me." Kramer was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over 70 years old. He joins us today in our firehouse studio for the hour. [includes rush transcript]
Twenty years ago this week, 250 AIDS activists traveled to Wall Street to protest the high price of antiviral drugs and the Reagan’s administrations failure to address the AIDS crisis. The date was March 24, 1987.
Activists lay down in the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, blocking traffic. Some held cardboard tombstones. Seventeen of them were arrested.
It was the first of many actions led by a newly formed group called AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power–or ACT UP. The group’s motto was Silence Equals Death. ACT UP would go on to invade the offices of drug companies and scientific labs, storm Saint Patrick’s cathedral in New York, cover the home of Jesse Helms in a giant condom and conduct die-ins at the FDA.
In October 1992, members of ACT UP headed to Washington where the AIDS quilt was on display. They decided to throw the ashes of loved ones who had died of AIDS onto the grass of the White House. The event was captured in the documentary The Ashes Action.
- The Ashes Action–excerpt of documentary.
This month ACT UP is marking its 20th anniversary. Today hundreds of members of ACT Up are heading back to Wall Street. This time to demand a single-payer health care system and drug price controls.
Among the protesters will be the activist and writer Larry Kramer. In 1983 he helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the country’s first AIDS organization. Four years later he helped form ACT UP.
He is a legendary–and controversial–figure in the gay rights movement. In the early 1980s Larry Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic. One article was titled "1,112 and Counting." At the time there were just over one thousand known cases of AIDS. He wrote, "Unless we fight for our lives we shall die... every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us." He has also written many plays including "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me."
Larry was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over 70 years old. Larry Kramer joins us today in our firehouse studio for the hour.
- Larry Kramer, longtime AIDS activist, author and playwright. He helped found both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. He has written many plays and books. His most recent book is titled "The Tragedy of Today’s Gays."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Twenty years ago this week, 250 AIDS activists traveled to Wall Street to protest the high price of antiviral drugs and the Reagan administration’s failure to address the AIDS crisis. The date: March 24, 1987. Activists lay down in the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, blocking traffic. Some held cardboard tombstones. Seventeen of them were arrested. It was the first of many actions led by a newly formed group called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The group’s motto was "Silence equals death."
ACT UP would go on to invade the offices of drug companies and scientific labs, storm St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, cover the home of Jesse Helms in a giant condom, and conduct die-ins at the FDA.
In October 1992, members of ACT UP headed to Washington, where the AIDS quilt was on display. They decided to throw the ashes of loved ones who died of AIDS onto the grass of the White House. The event was captured in the documentary, The Ashes Action.
ACT UP ACTIVIST: I think the quilt itself does good stuff and is moving. Still, it’s like making something beautiful out of the epidemic, and I felt like doing something like is a way of showing there is nothing beautiful about it. You know, this is what I’m left with. I’ve got a box full of ashes and bone chips. You know, there’s no beauty in that. And I felt like a statement like this, throwing these on the White House lawn, is like saying this is what George Bush has done. You know, this is what him and Ronald Reagan before him have done.
DEMONSTRATORS: Bringing the dead to your door! We won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won’t take it anymore!
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, The Ashes Action. Well, this month, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is marking its twentieth anniversary. Today, hundreds of members of ACT Up are heading back to Wall Street, this time to demand a single-payer healthcare system and drug price controls.
Among those who will be walking will be the activist and writer Larry Kramer. In 1983, he helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the country’s first AIDS organization. Four years later, he helped form ACT UP. He is a legendary and controversial figure in the gay rights movement. In the early 1980s, Larry Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic. One article was called "1,112 and Counting." At the time, there were just over a thousand known cases of AIDS. He wrote, "Unless we fight for our lives we shall die... every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us." Larry Kramer has also written many plays, including The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me.
Larry was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over seventy years old. Larry Kramer joins us today in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
LARRY KRAMER: Thank you for having me here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.
LARRY KRAMER: Thank you. It moves me to see the footage of the ashes. I never saw that film, and so many of those faces are dead. And it’s still hard to look at that.
AMY GOODMAN: Larry, let’s go back twenty years. Well, let’s go back to when you wrote that very controversial piece, that wake-up call to this country: "1,112 and Counting." What were the circumstances at the time?
LARRY KRAMER: Whatever was happening happened in my group of friends in 1981, when the first article appeared in the New York Times saying forty-one cases. And I immediately went to the doctor had made the announcement, and he said, "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg" —- Dr. Friedman-Kien at New York University. And I just knew he was right. And as I say -—
AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand it was at the time?
LARRY KRAMER: Well, I mean, he said he thought it was a virus. He said the same thing that the government refused to say: I think it’s a virus, and I think you should stop having sex, and I think you should cool it, certainly. And no one wanted to hear any of that. And, of course, the virus wasn’t discovered officially until 1984. So people didn’t want to believe that terrible news.
I just knew it. We had had so many illnesses in our population before, a lot of syphilis, a lot of gonorrhea, a lot of amoebas, a lot of hepatitis. And it was like everything was being escalated. And I said, "That’s the next thing that’s happening to us." It just made so much sense to me. I don’t know why. Everyone says, "Oh, you were so prescient." I don’t think it was prescience. I thought it was as clear as the nose on everybody’s face, if they cared to look.
And, as I say, my friends first died; in my population, the kids on Fire Island, all the houses around us at Fire Island Pines, were the first people who died. So I called a meeting in my apartment and invited everybody I knew and said, "We’ve got to do something." Dr. Friedman-Kien spoke to us. A lot of people didn’t want to believe. Most people didn’t want to believe. And there were just a handful of us who started meeting regularly, as regularly as you could get a bunch of people together in those days.
And then, in February of '82, I said, "We've got to formalize this," and I invited six people to my apartment. And I said, "We have to make a formal organization or something." And somebody said, "Gay men certainly have a health crisis." And I said, "That’s our title. That’s what we’ll call ourselves." And I got my brother’s law firm to — not easily — to do the pro bono work for us, and we established ourselves.
And, unfortunately, Gay Men’s Health Crisis became a pastoral organization, rather than an activist organization. That was a major disappointment to me. They would not take a stand. The president was in the closet, and all they wanted to do was pass out information about what might be happening — no recommendations, no political pressure of any sort.
I was not a political person in 1981. I had been a film producer. I had been assistant to the president of United Artists and then Columbia Pictures, never participated in gay politics, never marched in a gay parade — basically a shy person. And I learned my lesson slowly, what you had to do to fight. And it’s a long lesson, and one is still learning it, and one is still sad to see that so few other people have learned it.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean the president was in the closet?
LARRY KRAMER: The president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, whose name was Paul Popham, now dead. He was an executive with what was then called Irving Trust Company. And he was in the closet at work, so he would not appear in public. He was a very handsome man, and I would say — this is all dramatized in my play, The Normal Heart — I would say, "Look at you. You’re so handsome! Go out there and be our spokesperson." You know, I’m too live a wire. I scare people. And he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. So there were a lot of fights about visibility. And one realized then, in those days, you didn’t bring people out of the closet. Now, you do. I mean, now, when a public official is gay, we bring him out of the closet fast, if we can, because they are basically helping to murder us, if we don’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Why? How do you see that?
LARRY KRAMER: Well, you know, I’m telling everybody not — I’m telling the gay world not to vote for any of these candidates now, right now, that are up for election, because they’re all against us. They all — there isn’t a public official out there, there isn’t anybody running for public office now who would not sell gay people down the river given half a chance. And so, I brought a piece in the LA Times recently saying this is hate. You know, this is hate, that we’re so treated this way. And if you’re voting for these people, then you’re basically saying you hate us, too. It’s been never-ending.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the actions, to say the least, they were creative over the years, quite astonishing actions.
LARRY KRAMER: That’s gay people for you.
AMY GOODMAN: Among them, the ACT UP action on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
LARRY KRAMER: That was our very first — no, it wasn’t. It was a further demo — bunch of guys who worked in Wall Street, who were ACT UP members, put on their suits and ties and managed to make fake IDs, and they, for the first time in history, infiltrated the floor of the Stock Exchange, and they showered the floor with fliers saying "Sell Wellcome." That was Burroughs Wellcome, the maker of AZT, who said — antivirals. That was the only one then, and it was very expensive, and it wasn’t very good. And we were basically making the statement: it’s not good enough, and it’s too expensive. And they did lower the price because of that. However, they raised the price of another drug, but we made a point.
We had success from the very beginning, I must say. The very first demo that you talked of, that night a bunch of guys infiltrated the Evening News on CBS with Dan Rather, and he’s making his news — you know, he’s reading the news, and suddenly there are all these ACT UP kids in the back with signs.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, but we’re going to come back to that action against the news media, against — it was CBS, it was the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and they had made their way onto the sets of the Evening News. Larry Kramer is our guest. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the legendary activist and author and playwright Larry Kramer, as we talk about this twentieth anniversary of the activist organization ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which he helped found in 1987. We are showing video images of various protests through this broadcast, and for those who are listening on the radio, they are available at our website at democracynow.org to view. Larry, as we were watching, you were commenting.
LARRY KRAMER: I was just saying, most of the faces you’ll be seeing are dead, are guys who died. It is very moving to watch.
AMY GOODMAN: In your first article on the subject of AIDS, that was before "1,112 and Counting," you said, "If I had written this a month ago, I would have used the figure forty. If I had written this last week, I would have needed eighty. Today, I must tell you 120 gay men in the United States."
LARRY KRAMER: Yes. Well, now there’s 70 million people with HIV, who have died or have it. An awful lot of people helped that happen. It takes a lot of government inaction to allow 70 million people to get infected. My particular — I have a letter in the New York Review of Books. I have never appeared in the New York Review of Books before. They actually published a letter of mine about Ronald Reagan being a monster and that he was responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler, because his entire seven-eight years in office, next to nothing was done on HIV, on AIDS. They didn’t even put out a public health warning to say "Be careful," allowing people to think everything was OK. So during those seven years, just about every gay man who had sex anywhere in the world had been exposed to the virus. If somebody at the NIH, just someone had just said, "Just cool it for a while, guys. Just, please — we think it’s a virus," whatever — hateful, hateful man, and that he should have a legacy that’s somehow being lauded as a great one is very painful to me.
AMY GOODMAN: He mentioned the word "AIDS" somewhere around year six or seven of his term?
LARRY KRAMER: Seven. It was in an AmFAR benefit in Washington, D.C. I was there. He said it in a very derogatory way. Everybody that was gay in the audience booed him. Dr. Krim, Mathilde Krim, of the AmFAR had said, "If you boo him, I’m going to leave and walk out," which she did not do. And he was really upset that somebody actually booed him. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you feel stopped him from saying this for the vast majority of his term?
LARRY KRAMER: Well, Gary Bauer, who was his domestic policy advisor, in a meeting with me in 1983 in the White House office said these words, that the President is unalterably and irrevocably opposed to anything having to do with homosexuality. So nothing was done. It’s not dissimilar to the tactics that Hitler used, that he passed on the word that he was not interested in a certain thing, and the whole administration wasn’t interested, basically. It happens. It’s happening now with the terrible president we have now.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to jump forward from Reagan to the Gulf War. That’s when this protest took place in the CBS Evening News studios, as well as at the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour where in the case of CBS, people who were pretending to be on a tour of CBS, broke away, got into the studio as Dan Rather was beginning his cast, popped their heads up and said, in the cast, "Fight AIDS, not Arabs! Fight AIDS, not Arabs!" I think in the case of the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, activists got onto the set, as the broadcast was happening, and chained themselves to the desk, the news desk.
LARRY KRAMER: Gay people have a wonderful amount of imagination. We like to joke. We’re like Mickey and Judy putting on a show, for those of you who remember Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and all those musicals, where they — "Let’s put on a show!" Well, that was how we dealt with our street actions.
AMY GOODMAN: In talking about the history of ACT UP, let’s go to 1989. I’d like to play an excerpt of a program called Stop the Church, about ACT UP’s protest against the Catholic Church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
ACT UP ACTIVIST: Children are dying of AIDS, and the Church has no business telling our children not to use condoms!
ACT UP ACTIVIST: How many more have to die?
NARRATOR: All eyes were not on the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral today, as dozens of members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power turned morning mass into a holy mess.
ACT UP ACTIVIST: Prayers won’t save the 1.0 to 1.5 million people infected by human immunodeficiency virus!
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Stop the Church by Robert Hilferty.
LARRY KRAMER: Unfortunately, you don’t have this incredible shot of Cardinal O’Connor just sitting up there, like, "Oh, my god, what is going on here?"
AMY GOODMAN: What about your focus on the Catholic Church and the protests even within the Church that were so controversial?
LARRY KRAMER: It was an amazing demonstration. There were a lot of Catholic kids in ACT UP, and they were very angry, not only because of the Church refusing to acknowledge what was happening to us, but for their attitude about homosexuality, declaring these kids sick. And so, there was a lot of anger. And the demonstration was wonderful. I think that’s the demonstration that made ACT UP, quite frankly, because there was a lot of — an enormous amount of media criticizing us, in editorials, everywhere. "How dare we interrupt the church service and people’s right to worship?" and all that. And suddenly, we were not longer limp-wristed fairies. We were men in black boots and black jeans and tough, and that became our image. And it made us, I think. And people were suddenly afraid of us.
I can remember, not shortly thereafter, going to a meeting with one of the drug companies that I was sitting — Hoffmann-La Roche — and sitting next to a doctor who was shaking. And I asked somebody else during a break, why is doctor so-and-so shaking? And they said, "He’s afraid of you." And I thought, "Holy mackerel! That’s what we need." That’s a good feeling. You’ve got to realize, I was a shy person. You probably — people don’t believe that, but I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, ACT UP, the organization that you helped found, certainly gave tremendous power and attention to the issue of AIDS all over. Talk about the founding of ACT UP. Now, in that year, 1987, twenty years ago, was that when you were diagnosed HIV-positive?
LARRY KRAMER: Yeah, you raise the similarity of times. I don’t remember that. I had my test in '87, and ACT UP was started in ’87, but I don't know that there was a connection, quite frankly, because it was all one continuous day. What motivates me about all of this is how wrong everything was and is. It’s wrong that people with HIV have been treated so terribly. It’s wrong that gay people are treated so terribly. It’s wrong that there’s this hate. The straight world, for the most part, does not like gay people. And we have tried every tactic known to man to somehow change this. You know, there is 65% of this country, according to the Gill Foundation, basically hates us. And I don’t know how you deal with that, short of slamming as many pies in their faces as we can.
And the state of activism in this country for any movement, as you well know — women, blacks, gays — is in terrible shape. Nobody wants to go out there and be an activist anymore. So this attempt today to revive ACT UP and have this demonstration for universal healthcare is an attempt to relight the flame.
AMY GOODMAN: You recently published an open letter in the Los Angeles Times. It was titled, "Why Do Straights Hate Gays?" You begin by mentioning recent comments by Ann Coulter and General Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I want to play excerpts of what they both said and then talk to you about the article. This is Ann Coulter.
ANN COULTER: I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot." So, I’m kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll conclude here and take your questions.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ann Coulter speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in early March. A few weeks later, General Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
GEN. PETER PACE: My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain things, certain types of conduct, that are immoral. I believe that military members who sleep with other military members’ wives are immoral in their conduct and that we should not tolerate that. I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. So the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" allows an individual to serve the country, not — [inaudible] stop there — that allows individuals to serve their country. If we know about immoral acts, regardless of committed by who or — then we have a responsibility. I do not believe that the Armed Forces of the United States are well served by saying through our policies that it’s OK to be immoral in any way, not just with regards to homosexuality. So from that standpoint, saying that gays should serve openly in the military, to me, says that we, by policy, would be condoning what I believe is immoral activity. And therefore, as an individual, I would not want that to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that, if were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with someone else’s wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior between members of the Armed Forces.
AMY GOODMAN: General Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Before that, Ann Coulter. Larry Kramer, you have got your hand on your forehead.
LARRY KRAMER: I wish people could recognize this for the hate it is. All those people laughing with Ann Coulter, supporting her as she says these terrible things about gay people. You cannot talk publicly anymore about Jews that way. You cannot talk publicly anymore about people of color that way. Why are gays allowed to be still and forever endlessly the whipping boy? How can the general, who has 65,000 gay men and women under his command, talk about his soldiers that way? It really makes them feel good as they’re going into battle. I mean, that’s unconscionable, what he says. There are 20 million gay people in this world — in this country. And I wish I had my army of 20 million people out there, instead of the few hundred that we do.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a book called Faggots.
LARRY KRAMER: I wrote a book called The Tragedy of Today’s Gays last year, about just what we’re talking about, how gays simply will not go out there and fight for their own lives.
AMY GOODMAN: But that use of the term, "faggots," talk about Coulter and talk about your use of it.
LARRY KRAMER: Well, I wrote the book in 1975. It was published in 1978. Things were a little different then. And it was a book that was — it was critical of the gay world. And I think that the title references that in the book. It’s still a best-selling novel, I’m happy to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about the Conservative Political Action Committee, the conference that took place, where Ann Coulter referred to Edwards in that way, in 1985 at a fundraiser in Washington, you flung a glass of water in the face of Terry Dolan, the founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
LARRY KRAMER: Oh, really? Same organization? Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
LARRY KRAMER: Because I knew he was gay. He was in the closet, and he was doing all these terrible things against his own people. And it was a gay party. It was a gay cocktail party in Washington. And he showed up at it. And I said, "How dare you" — I had been to a discotheque with him, a gay discotheque with him a few months before. I said, "How dare you show up at a gay party after all the things you’re doing against us with your conservative action thing?" Very strange man, who died from AIDS, I might add.
AMY GOODMAN: And the action of putting a condom on the house of the former Senator Jesse Helms?
LARRY KRAMER: Yes. What about it?
AMY GOODMAN: How was this done?
LARRY KRAMER: Well, we had a very large condom made, and we snuck in in the dead of night and threw it over his house. He wasn’t in it at the time. And, unfortunately, for various problems with the media, it didn’t get as much publicity as it should have done. You’re always at the mercy of whatever the big story is that day, and there was a fire or something else that was more important.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about taking on the drug companies. I mean, we, today —- in the world, there are 40 million people around the world, according to the United Nations, who have HIV. An estimated 25 million have died. How could this -—
LARRY KRAMER: It should total 70. I don’t know if that is. I don’t trust the United Nations figures as far as I can throw them.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s close. How do you think, from the beginning, this could have been dealt with differently, and how do you think it has to be dealt with today?
LARRY KRAMER: You know, when you have a health emergency, public officials have a responsibility. The mayor of New York, who refused to say boo about this to his own city, which was hardest hit of any cities. The President certainly didn’t do anything. His government certainly didn’t do anything. Why ACT UP came along, which was — you know ’87 was already six years after this had already started — was kids were just terrified of dying, all around us. People have no idea what it was like. Everybody walked down the street, and you would hear about five more guys who died. It just went on and on and on.
And so, finally, the kids were just terrified and were prepared to become very brave activists, and how do you — we taught ourselves everything we could possibly teach ourselves about the science of it, about the research of it, about the chemistry of it, about the bureaucracy of it, about how you get through the governmental system. And soon, we knew more than the NIH did, and we proved it to them. And we are the ones that were instrumental in going to the drug companies and making them research it and making them get these drugs out there faster. We, in one instance, in the case of Bristol-Myers, we actually stole a drug from their Canadian laboratories, which was very promising, and we said, "If you don’t release this now, we are going to duplicate it ourselves and put it out." Got that drug out there very fast. That’s what you got to do.
AMY GOODMAN: You had Dr. Fauci in your sites for a long time.
LARRY KRAMER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: His position was head of the Centers for Disease Control —
LARRY KRAMER: No, no. He’s head of NIAID, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He still is. He’s the government’s chief person on HIV, has been all along. He was terrible for many years. He then became a true hero. I called him a murderer early on, and I now call him a hero. That’s his development, and it was moving to watch as it happened.
AMY GOODMAN: The New Yorker magazine credited you with helping to revolutionize the American practice of medicine. The magazine quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying, "In American medicine, there are two eras: before Larry and after Larry."
LARRY KRAMER: That made me feel very good. This whole drama over these years has been a zillion life lessons every single day.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to go to another break, but when we come back, I want to ask how you have dealt with being HIV-positive and your own liver — your liver was removed?
LARRY KRAMER: I have a transplant.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a liver transplant, highly unusual. And we want to talk about that.
LARRY KRAMER: Fine.
AMY GOODMAN: Stay with us. We’re talking to Larry Kramer.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour with Larry Kramer. He is the legendary AIDS activist, provocative activist — some say "provocateur" — author, playwright, wrote The Normal Heart, wrote The Destiny of Me, the plays. His most recent book is called The Tragedy of Today’s Gays.
You are wearing a t-shirt that says, "Where is the outrage?" Larry, and people may be hearing your bracelets hitting against the table. Describe them and why you wear them.
LARRY KRAMER: I wear turquoise, and I never take it off, because in 19— when I came down from Yale in 1958 or something, I went to a fortune teller, and she said to me, "You must always wear something with turquoise. It will look after you." And I never paid much attention to it. And then, when I learned that I was HIV-positive, I started paying attention. And then, when I started getting sick, which was over the years in the late '90s, I just loaded myself with more and more turquoise, because the American Indians believed that turquoise does take care of you and look after your health. And why not? It's as good a superstition as any. I’m still here, and I never take it off.
AMY GOODMAN: "Where is the outrage?" the t-shirt.
LARRY KRAMER: "Where is the outrage?" is by the gay fashion designer Marc Jacobs, and I saw a picture of it somewhere, and I rushed over, and I bought six of them, and you can buy them from him on Bleecker Street.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own health struggles over the years. Right around '87, you're diagnosed HIV-positive.
LARRY KRAMER: I have been extraordinarily lucky. I have no idea why I’m here. I have never been sick with anything having to do with HIV. When I didn’t need any drugs — and I never had any drugs until my liver caved in — and every time, there was always a new drug to take. You know, so many people died because of timing, because they couldn’t hold on until the next treatment came along. For whatever reason, I held on. Who knows? I’ve got good genes or whatever, my turquoise.
In about 2000, my liver started caving in from the Hepatitis B. And there’s this incredible picture that was in Newsweek. I looked like Demi Moore, you know, with triplets inside of me. I was all blown up like a balloon, and I was told I only had six months to live, because there was no way I was eligible for a liver transplant. They simply were not giving HIV or Hep B people organ transplants. And I accepted that, and I was ready to die. So many of my friends already had. So I figured I had had a good run for my money.
And then, lo and behold, there was a clinical trial out of the NIH. They were looking for people like me to see if transplanting people with HIV or Hepatitis B or C actually worked. "Here I am! Here I am!" I said. A lot of people were unwilling to go into the trial, because the results that far had not been good. But I got my liver in 2001. Dr. John Fung, then at the University of Pittsburgh, now at Cleveland Clinic, did it. And I’m now his poster boy. It’s an amazing experience to be — I only had a couple weeks left by the time they replaced the liver. He said, "You have no idea how close you came before I was able to plop in the new one." And then to wake up and —- I told my lover, David Webster -—
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been with David for ten years?
LARRY KRAMER: Now, fifteen.
AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen years.
LARRY KRAMER: Yeah. And I said, "I want your face to be the first one I see when I come out, so I know that I’ll have lived." Amazing experience. And I’m in perfect health now, perfect health, and it’s an incredible experience.
AMY GOODMAN: The average life expectancy now in the United States after being diagnosed HIV-positive is something like thirty-five years.
LARRY KRAMER: That’s what they tell us, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Depending on the population. I mean, the fastest-growing rate of AIDS now, isn’t it in African American women?
LARRY KRAMER: Yeah. They’re not going to live thirty-five years. It is evil, what is happening, that there are treatments that can save these people that are not going to these people, because of the greed — in huge capital letters, underlined — of the pharmaceutical companies. It’s just evil. There are treatments that can be made for a pittance that can be given to these people to save their lives. And that they’re not, as I say, is evil.
The same in this country, there are a lot of people that aren’t getting medicines in this country. And, of course, in this country, the drugs cost a fortune. A fortune. You know, because of programs like the Ryan White CARE Act, some people are getting them reasonably priced. But most people aren’t. I cannot tell you how evil I believe the greed of drug companies is, across the boards. And don’t give me this nonsense about it finances new research. Please.
AMY GOODMAN: So how do you change them, and what about the future of AIDS activism? You’ve called for the formation of a gay army.
LARRY KRAMER: Yes, would that it would come to pass. Unfortunately, I learned, we learned, through ACT UP, because of getting the drugs, that the only way to do anything is major in-your-face activism, and I think that’s the only way you can change things. Why isn’t this country up in arms about this unbelievably hateful president who has put us into this police station?
AMY GOODMAN: Police station?
LARRY KRAMER: Police state, I’m sorry. Police — we’re in a police station — we’re in a firehouse. I don’t know. You know, why aren’t there more protests against this evil man who’s our president. Everybody is so passive in this country. What is that all about? I just simply — where is the outrage? People live under the most terrible circumstances. We do live in a police state. How would you like to be the lover of somebody and not be allowed to live with that person if you don’t have a passport, whatever?
AMY GOODMAN: What about the whole issue of gay marriage? How do you see it, and also going to presidential politics, the questions of, for example, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama?
LARRY KRAMER: I don’t like anybody right now, I’m afraid. They all say terrible things behind our backs.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
LARRY KRAMER: Oh, who knows like what? They’re not supporting us. We are not equal. It’s not about marriage. It’s about equality. You know? In New Zealand or Australia, two people — gay, straight, whatever, from different countries, whatever — can live in a relationship that is recognized by the government, and are taxed like straight people. Why can’t we have that here, you know? It doesn’t even have to have a marriage, doesn’t even have to have a civil union, just a recognition by government that people who love each other and who are committed to each other are entitled to the same rights as straight married people.
My lover, who made the house that we live in in the country, and all the help and money we have put into that house, when I die, he will get a pittance of my estate. He won’t be able to afford to keep that house. That’s not fair. If we were a straight married couple, he would get the whole thing tax-free. That is not right. It is wrong. And it’s that, which motivates me, that all of this is wrong, that I cannot walk down the street holding this man’s hand, if I want to, or kiss him goodbye without worrying that somebody’s going to throw a brick at me, legally, and not be punished. That is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Recently, there was a protest, right around the anniversary of the invasion, when General Pace made his comments, at the Army recruiting situation in Times Square, and among those who came — well, you were there, I believe — and the former New Jersey governor, McGreevey, was there, who announced he was gay, having an affair, and resigned his office. What do you think of the former governor being there?
LARRY KRAMER: Sorry about my voice. Well, he made a big fool of himself the first time, and he’s making a concerted effort to start a new life, and I — as much as I disapproved of him before, let’s give him a chance. He wants to be an activist with us, fine.
AMY GOODMAN: Your brother has been a key person in your life. In the play, The Destiny of Me, he is a key figure. The person — one of the people in the play is based on him. Talk about that relationship in your family.
LARRY KRAMER: I am here today, because my brother. He brought me up, more or less, because we bonded, because of a mutual dislike of both of our parents, who were not very good parents and were both working people who weren’t around. And he was eight and a half years older, and he always looked after me, and still in a way does. And it’s been the most moving experience of my life, that and my relationship with my lover, David Webster.
AMY GOODMAN: Your brother’s name is Arthur?
LARRY KRAMER: Arthur Kramer, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Does he live here in New York?
LARRY KRAMER: They live in Stanford and in Rancho Santa Fe. He’s the rich one in the family. And he was the first person I told I was gay, and he got me into therapy when I tried to kill myself at Yale in my freshman year. And he’s always been very caring. He’s not been critical of my homosexuality.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you’ve written all straights hate gays.
LARRY KRAMER: I sort of am a little angry with you that you’re making that statement, because obviously the article is written with a certain perspective in mind, that if straight people don’t hate gays, they’re also — they’re voting for people who hate gays, so what’s the difference, basically? You know, until Hillary or Obama or somebody says, "Yes, I am for gay equality and will fight to change the laws for gay equality," then she’s a person who I think hates us, quite frankly. End of statement. And you can say that about every presidential candidate. Nobody has come out for gay equality. They’re terrified of doing it, because they lack the courage and because of this 65% of the country, which basically does hate us: the right wing, the religious right, whatever they’re called these days.
AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to be done right now?
LARRY KRAMER: Well, we need a very strong ACT UP again. We need every gay person to get out there and fight, and unfortunately that’s not going to happen. This is not a population that knows how to fight to save its own life. But I could say that about just every population, I’m afraid.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you have to say to young people? Didn’t you recently at some point go back to visit your high school?
LARRY KRAMER: Very depressing. Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, the place like a third world school now. I go around to colleges a lot. I get invited to colleges a lot. And it’s very moving. The kids are very passive, and they know it, and they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know how to get out of it. And one attempts to instill in them a sense of pride for who they are. I happen to think that gay people are better than straight people. I think we’re more courageous and more loving, and we’re better friends, and all of these things. If I can just instill the kids with that and that they have to fight their place in the sun, and a day at a time.
AMY GOODMAN: When you wanted to kill yourself, what were the thoughts, the feelings, that brought you out of it? How did you save yourself?
LARRY KRAMER: I was at Yale. It was my freshman year, and I just knew I was the only gay person in that entire university, which, of course, was not true, but that’s how I felt, and I was not doing well, unfortunately, and my parents had spent so much money for my education there, and I felt terribly guilty that I was flunking out, and so I ate 200 aspirin. And I don’t know. I called the campus cops finally. I went into my bed, and I thought that I would fall asleep, and I didn’t. And so, finally, I guess something took over, and I called the campus cops, and they came and they pumped my stomach. And my brother was the first person I saw when I did wake up. He had just come back from his honeymoon. Some present! And he got me to a shrink fast.
AMY GOODMAN: Larry Kramer, you’re extremely critical of the establishment —
LARRY KRAMER: Who could not be?
AMY GOODMAN: — gay organizations.
LARRY KRAMER: Oh, gay organizations. Well, I am. We are a very wealthy community. I don’t want to call it a community. We’re not a community. I try to — there is not a gay community. It’s a gay population. We are much bigger than a community. But there’s a lot of — there are billionaires — David Geffen, people like that. And he’s just one of many and we have simply not used our money to organize ourselves to fight back, you know? The Jews learned how to do that after the Second World War. They got their organizations to protect their people, to get laws passed by the government, that Jews are protected. I make a lot of comparisons between the Jews and the gays. And we’re still just much too invisible.
Just last election was the first time that major rich gays got together through a man called Tim Gill at the Gill Foundation, who’s a billionaire, and my friend Rodger McFarlane, who runs the Gill Foundation, to actually organize with people like George Soros and Norman Lear, election by election. The last election we defeated a number of hateful candidates, like Santorum in Pennsylvania and a number of local. That’s the first time we have done that, we have used — we have raised millions to fight back. And now that we have learned how to do that and the rich gays are forming their own foundations, I hope there will be more of that. It’s a long process.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to have to leave it there, Larry Kramer, I want to thank you very much for spending the hour with us. Larry Kramer, longtime AIDS activist, author and playwright, one of the founders of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
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