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“Fight Back!”: ACT UP Members & Tony Kushner Remember Trailblazing AIDS Activist Larry Kramer

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Image Credit: Courtesy: David Shankbone

We discuss the life and legacy of Larry Kramer, the legendary writer and trailblazing activist in the fight against AIDS, who has died at the age of 84. Kramer helped start Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP to demand life-saving drugs, and faced off with Dr. Anthony Fauci before the two became friends. Many credit Kramer for saving thousands of lives. We hear from Kramer in his own words at the 2019 anti-corporate Queer Liberation March and host a roundtable with two former ACT UP members: “Gay USA” host Ann Northrop and Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves. We also speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America.”

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Web ExclusiveMay 28, 2020If We Don’t Fight Back, We Die: Larry Kramer’s Full Speech at the 2019 Queer Liberation March
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We spend the rest of the hour looking at the life and legacy of Larry Kramer, the legendary writer, the trailblazing activist in the fight against AIDS, who died from pneumonia Thursday in New York at the age of 84. Many credit Larry Kramer for saving thousands of lives affected by the disease. At least 32 million people have now died from HIV/AIDS in the world. Larry Kramer was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the 1969 film Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. His semiautobiographical play The Normal Heart chronicled the AIDS epidemic and helped bring the crisis to the public’s attention.

In 1981, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which became a leading provider of HIV/AIDS prevention and activism. Six years later, he helped form ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The direct action group invaded the offices of drug companies and scientific labs, stormed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, covered the home of Senator Jesse Helms in a giant condom, and conducted many die-ins at the FDA, all in an attempt to force the country to address the AIDS epidemic.

Kramer famously fought with Dr. Anthony Fauci, now the leading member of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. In an open letter to the San Francisco Examiner in 1988, Kramer accused Fauci of failing to respond quickly to the AIDS epidemic, and called him a “murderer.” The two later became friends. Fauci credited Kramer and ACT UP for speeding up the drug testing process. In a New Yorker magazine profile of Kramer this month, Michael Specter interviewed Fauci, who told him, quote, “In American medicine, there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry,” Specter wrote; quote, “There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country.”

In a moment, we’ll host a roundtable on Larry Kramer’s legacy. But first, this is Larry Kramer in his own words. Last year, 4 million people took to the streets of New York City in the largest LGBTQ Pride celebration in history to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. There were two marches that day: Revelers marched down Fifth Avenue cheered on by millions for the WorldPride parade; and in Sheridan Square, at the site where gay and trans people clashed with police in 1969, tens of thousands gathered for the anti-corporate Queer Liberation March. Democracy Now! was there. When we went up to Central Park, people went on the podium. Larry Kramer sat in his wheelchair and addressed the crowd.

LARRY KRAMER: What does Pride mean to you? I’ll tell you what it means to me. I love being gay. I love my people. I think, in many ways, we’re better than other people. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware of each other. And I do, I do, I totally do. I am very proud to be gay.

I’m approaching my end, but I still have a few years of fight left in me to scream out.

SUPPORTER: Yeah! Yes! We love you!

LARRY KRAMER: To scream out the fact that almost everyone gay I’ve known has been affected by this plague of AIDS. As it has since its beginning, this has continued to be my motivation for everything I’ve done. It’s been a fight I’ve been proud of fighting.

I almost died three times. I started a couple of organizations to fight with me against the plague. In the end, we failed. I certainly feel that I failed.

CROWD: No!

LARRY KRAMER: There is no cure for this plague. Too many of us are still getting infected. We have become too complacent with PrEP. Research for the cure is still in the Stone Age. The few treatments we have are woefully expensive and come with troublesome side effects. And their manufacturer is holding us up to ransom. Yes, we have lost the fight against AIDS.

It is hard to stand up to the huge portion of the population of American people that hates us. I don’t mean dislike; I mean hate. When we started dying, we told the American people what was happening to us, but the American people didn’t do anything. I hope it’s finally dawning on you that maybe those American people didn’t and don’t want to do anything about this. I hope you might have noticed. I can’t tell.

Laws and regulations that sort of protected us are now being repealed or rewritten. Their media, their newspapers, their networks of the rich and religious, their very president and vice president will see to it that we are useless. … Their wildest dreams are coming true: The faggots are disappearing, and they are doing it to themselves.

We have everything required to save our world except the will to do it. It should have been simple — fight for our rights, take care of ourselves and each other, be proud of ourselves, be proud we are gay. This should be what every gay person is fighting for, seven days each and every week.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Kramer, speaking just under a year ago at the Queer Liberation March in New York City in Central Park. When we come back, we host a roundtable discussion on his life and legacy with two ACT UP members: epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves and Gay USA co-host Ann Northrop, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” performed by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the rest of the hour looking at the life and legacy of Larry Kramer, the legendary writer, the trailblazing activist in the fight against AIDS, who died from pneumonia Thursday in New York — he died on Wednesday in New York at the age of 84. Many credit Larry Kramer for saving thousands of lives affected by the disease. At least 32 million people have died from HIV/AIDS in the world.

Joining us from their various homes, Ann Northrop, co-host of Gay USA, veteran journalist, used to be at CBS, activist who worked with Reclaim Pride Coalition to produce last year’s Queer Liberation March, where Larry Kramer spoke from his wheelchair. She worked with Kramer as a member of ACT UP, was arrested some two dozen times for civil disobedience. Also here in New York, Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor in epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership. He, too, worked with Larry Kramer in ACT UP. And in a minute, we’ll be joined by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner.

Ann Northrop, your response to Larry’s death and the significance of his life? I wanted to talk about The New York Times obit, that was changed yesterday. The subtitle was changed. They originally wrote, “Larry Kramer, Author and Outspoken AIDS Activist, Dies at 84. He worked hard to shock the country into dealing with AIDS as a public-health emergency. But his often abusive approach could overshadow his achievements.” They changed the word “abusive” to “aggressive” to “confrontational.” Your thoughts?

ANN NORTHROP: Well, Larry is a complicated subject. You could use many words to describe him. I loved Larry, and I loved hearing that excerpt from his speech last year. Thank you for that. And it sort of encapsulated everything about Larry — his loving of gay people and all people, his anger at people in power and the government that was allowing people to die. He was a very mixed bag. And I loved him, certainly, and loved him for his anger. But there were also a lot of people who thought he went too far or was too negative, as he ended up at the end of that speech. It’s hard to encapsulate it all in a couple of sentences.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about the creative approach. I mean, he started Gay Men’s Health Crisis but then was not satisfied with it, saying that it was not political enough, it was a service organization, and so then helped to start ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. And if you can talk about the various approaches and protests — talk about creativity — from invading the CBS Evening News studios when Dan Rather was introducing the evening news and saying, “Kill AIDS, not gays,” to putting a condom around Senator Jesse Helms’ house?

ANN NORTHROP: Well, “provocative” was certainly the word that described ACT UP, and still does. And that was to get attention. As Larry said, people in power were perfectly happy to let other people die. And that’s a theme we’ve seen throughout history. We’ve seen it in the Vietnam War. We’ve seen it in the civil rights movement. We’ve seen it in Minneapolis with George Floyd. Power wants to replicate itself, not actually take care of other people.

So, Larry’s attitude, and one he transferred to all of us, was that you have to get in their faces. You have to scream and yell. You have to get their attention, people in power. And you have to create as much of a mass protest to attack that attitude from power to have any effect. You have to force people into paying attention. You have to shame them publicly.

Tony Fauci was quoted as saying, after he became friendly with Larry, that they would have dinner one night, and then Larry would go out the next morning and start screaming about Tony being a murderer, and that Tony understood that because he understood the process. But I think many of us were frustrated at his calm attitude, Fauci’s attitude, because we wanted that anger. We wanted that for action. We wanted urgency. People were dying. And that’s what Larry personified in his anger.

AMY GOODMAN: From one plague to another, Gregg Gonsalves. You’re an epidemiologist. You’re an ACT UP activist, well known. I wanted you to respond to what Anthony Fauci said about Larry Kramer. He said, “In American medicine, there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry.”

GREGG GONSALVES: So, I think, to be fair to history, we have to give other people their due. I know we’re memorializing Larry this morning, but ACT UP was a large movement with many, many people working on AIDS research and drug development. And there were other groups, like Project Inform in San Francisco, led by Marty Delaney and Jesse Dobson and Brenda Lein and others, doing work across the country, in San Francisco.

I think there is biomedical research and drug development pre-AIDS and post-AIDS. I think after the 1980s and 1990s, biomedical research will never be the same. I was on a call yesterday with breast cancer survivors at their annual meeting, and you realized it wasn’t just for AIDS that ACT UP and our movement was important. It was for people fighting for their own health and their own lives across diseases, from breast cancer to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, to TB and hepatitis C. The movement is so much more robust and broad now than we ever thought it could be back in the 1980s and 1990s. And Larry was one of the sparks that lit the fire, but there were so many people whose memories we can’t lose, even as we memorialize him today.

AMY GOODMAN: And those deaths, Larry Kramer repeatedly drummed in the number of people who had died. On Wednesday, the gay rights activist Peter Staley tweeted an image of an article in The New York Times, writing, quote, “On January 25, 1991, this is how The @nytimes reported that 100,000 Americans had died from AIDS. They didn’t bother writing their own story. They ran an Associated Press story instead. On page 18. Below the fold. No pictures. No names.” Gregg Gonsalves, you’re an epidemiologist now. You’re dealing with this plague, coronavirus, which Larry was writing about at the end of his life. The comparison of the plague of AIDS and the plague of COVID19?

GREGG GONSALVES: Well, we have two presidents who have botched the response to two different epidemics. Larry said, I think on a CBS piece in the '80s, that we died from AIDS because we were disposable people. We didn't matter. Well, there’s a new era and new epidemic and a new set of disposable people, whether they’re dying in nursing homes, or they’re dying in communities of color, in meatpacking plants, in prisons. For those of us who are in ACT UP, we recognize what’s going on now, and it’s been beyond benign neglect. It’s malevolence. It’s premeditated murder. And Larry knew very well what was happening then, and he knew what was happening now in the epidemic that we’re facing today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Tony Kushner into this discussion, the renowned playwright and screenwriter, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play Angels in America, which was later made into an award-winning television miniseries. His other plays include Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change and A Bright Room Called Day. His most recent play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Tony Kushner was a friend of Larry Kramer’s.

Tony, I was wondering if you could start off by talking about Larry Kramer’s trip to the White House under Reagan, who did not mention the word ”AIDS” for something like six-and-a-half years of his two terms, as the plague raged through the community in this country, not to mention around the world. He went there with Liz Taylor? Talk about what happened.

TONY KUSHNER: Well, this is something that was reported at the time and then was memorialized and sort of immortalized in Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On, that Larry asked Elizabeth Taylor to bring him to the White House to a sort of dinner. I don’t remember right now what the purpose of the dinner ostensibly was, but it was at a moment when Reagan was sort of riding the crest of his popularity, been reelected.

And when he got up to speak — you know, the president of the United States — Larry stood up and started to boo him loudly, which was an astonishing moment. It was an appropriate thing, because Reagan, of course, notoriously never mentioned the epidemic until 1987. He sat, as president, making no public utterance, while thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans got sick and died.

And Larry standing up and doing it, it’s what Ann was saying earlier. There was a politics that Larry certainly helped to invent of a kind of an in-your-face refusal to behave according to any codes that were, you know, ostensibly about being civilized and polite and orderly, in the name of getting people to hear the truth. And that was one of the signal moments. It certainly had an enormous impact on me when I read about it, before I knew Larry.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about how you got to know him and the significance of who he was, from being a playwright, like yourself, to being this uncompromising activist?

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, I mean, I think, for people who — for gay men of my generation, the first awareness that most of us had of Larry was when his really extraordinary novel, Faggots, was published. I mean, just the title alone was incendiary. It was a shock to the heterosexual population, and it was a shock to the LGBT community. It was a word that we, many of us, felt we were fighting to permanently retire. He embraced it. You heard in that astonishing speech that you played earlier, Amy, that he was still using it. It was an early manifestation of sexual minoritarian people calling themselves queer.

And then The Normal Heart happened after that, in 1985, I believe — '86? — at The Public Theater in New York. And it was a play like none other before. I think it's one of the rare works of art that actually is both a great work of art and galvanized people to immediate action. It’s a rare work of art that was written about an overwhelmingly terrible moment, in the moment that it’s describing. I still don’t understand how Larry did that. And for people who were interested in theater, for people who were interested in politics, Normal Heart gave, I think, a permission for gay theater to become overtly political.

And it was sort of part of Larry’s whole project, which, in a certain sense — I mean, I agree with Ann: He’s an impossible person to sum up briefly. And in many ways, he was an impossible person. But he was a very great man and a great writer. And one of the things that he kept screaming at his community was that we had to take ourselves really seriously. And that argument with us, with himself, started in the earliest openly gay writings that he penned, and it continued to the end of his life. And he was a very tough person. He and I were very close friends for a while, and then we had a falling out and then a reconciliation of sorts. But I admired him enormously and revere his memory.

AMY GOODMAN: He famously wrote, in the early ’80s, one of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic — 

TONY KUSHNER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — called “1,112 and Counting.” At the time, there were just over a thousand 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.” Comparing, Tony Kushner, these two viruses, comparing AIDS to what we’re confronting today, something Larry was also dealing with in these last days.

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I mean, I think that what Gregg said is pretty much a definition of it. I mean, it’s a pandemic that in many ways is wildly different from what the AIDS epidemic was. It’s far less ignorable by the general population than in its early days AIDS appeared to be. The population of people immediately affected by AIDS

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds, because we want to end with the words of Larry.

TONY KUSHNER: OK. So, you know, I mean, I think all epidemics, all crises reveal certain fundamental truths about our society, its degree of coherence and its degree of incoherence, and how the vulnerable suffer more from that kind of incoherence. I think that’s what Larry was about.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the words of Larry Kramer from that Queer Liberation speech last year.

LARRY KRAMER: Do you think our enemies care about the rise of HIV infections? They’re grateful for them. They thank us for our cooperation and our silence and our invisibility. And while all this happened, what did we do? We shrank from our duty of opposition. Yes, our duty of opposition. In other words, fight back! We need to fight back all together as one. I would love to hear you and see you express the importance of this. If you love being gay as much as I do, fight back.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Kramer, dead at the age of 84. We’ll post the whole speech online. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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If We Don’t Fight Back, We Die: Larry Kramer’s Full Speech at the 2019 Queer Liberation March

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