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Updated 10:00 AM October 13, 2003



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Larry Kramer recaps career as AIDS activist

Seeming more reflective than reflexive, author and AIDS activist Larry Kramer spoke at Rackham Auditorium in an interview format with Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine. Known for his feisty personality, Kramer was soft-spoken as he looked back on his career as a screenwriter, novelist, playwright and social activist.

Larry Kramer and Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine, discuss Kramer's career as a writer and AIDS activist. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

History will record Kramer as one of the leading and productive figures in the fight to bring AIDS to the attention of society in general, and the political and scientific communities in particular. The path he chose has not been easy, he said.

"I spent many years in the wilderness," Kramer told the diverse audience of students, faculty, staff and members of the community Oct. 7.

He spoke of a privileged life, one in which an Ivy League education and Hollywood connections opened doors as Kramer's career advanced. However, his controversial 1978 novel "Faggots" closed doors and silenced telephones in Hollywood, creating an isolation that still was intact in 1981 when gay men began to see people they loved dying inexplicably.

"It was like war time, with young men dying like flies, but there was nothing we could do to get the media to pay attention," said Kramer, who recalled nearly hitting CBS's Morley Safer at a Halloween party in his frustration to be heard. Kramer's solution was to make up the rules as he went along, channeling anger and frustration, and overcoming embarrassment in his evolution as an AIDS activist.

Co-founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1981, Kramer says the organization's first years were among the most moving of his life because of the camaraderie and caring. Members helped each other overcome medical, emotional, financial and legal problems. However, even with a growing membership, which signified a kind of success, Kramer recognized the organization was limited because it was only helping its own.

"I'm not demeaning what they accomplished, but it was only half the fight," he said.

“Don’t be a dilettante. Storm the barricades, fight for your children and yourself.”
—Larry Kramer

Angry at powerful political figures who refused to utter the word AIDS; angry at pharmaceutical companies attaching huge price tags to AIDS treatments; and angry at the lack of research, Kramer wanted a tool that would draw national and international attention to AIDS, attract financial support and have real interventional contact with "the system."

In 1987, Kramer founded Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which he says is his life's greatest achievement.

"It wasn't about screaming and yelling, although we did plenty of that," he said.

Once members of Act Up learned about clinical trials, how drug studies are developed and how the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work together, the group was able to target its interventions. Act Up achieved many of the goals Kramer had envisioned, including media attention to AIDS issues and prompting changes in how the FDA governs drug studies.

Now 68, HIV positive and living with a liver transplant, Kramer wants to see younger people emerge as impassioned AIDS activists. It isn't happening, he said.

"I no longer understand," he said with some of his old anger. "Don't be a dilettante. Storm the barricades, fight for your children and yourself. You have to figure out how your voice will be heard. You have a responsibility to take care of yourself and others—you need to figure out how to do that."

Kramer's talk was the third annual Horace W. Davenport Lecture in the Medical Humanities, sponsored by the Center for the History of Medicine, co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Victor Vaughan Society, and a generous gift from Donna and Michael Franzblau.

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