Relentless gay rights and public health activist Larry Kramer was an acclaimed theater and screenwriter as well. (Courtesy HBO)

Relentless gay rights and public health activist Larry Kramer was an acclaimed theater and screenwriter as well. (Courtesy HBO)

Larry Kramer’s persistence opened doors, achieved lasting results

Feisty advocate-writer left indelible impact on SF, the world

Larry Kramer, the award-winning American writer, outspoken LGBTQ activist and dedicated public health advocate who died May 27 at 84, rarely took “no” for an answer. But his unrelenting, often-combative persistence paid off with a rich legacy in theater and film as well as an essential evolution in national health policy during the AIDS crisis.

Kramer’s talent as a writer first took root and gained notice in film after he landed a teletyping job at Columbia Pictures in his early 20s and eventually wrote the 1969 Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Women in Love,” an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel. (The film earned a Best Actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson.) But he soon gravitated to writing for the stage, where his exploration of gay themes that were personal would flourish.

One of his earliest plays “A Minor Dark Age” — though never produced due to Kramer’s ongoing health issues; among other conditions, he tested positive for HIV in 1988 — in 2013 became a catalyst for his working relationship and friendship with director Pam MacKinnon, artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater since 2018.

“He approached me through mutual friends that he had a play of his that had never been produced that he was interested in going back into, and really like ripping into it, and wanted me to read it,” MacKinnon says. “And that struck up a friendship and a collaboration.”

Kramer’s New York apartment, where in the late 1980s he assembled activists to form the militant AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) direct action organization, was a similarly thoughtful, though free-from-anger, setting for meetings with MacKinnon.

“I would go to his apartment and we would talk through pages and possible rewrites, and what was this person’s motivation when you wrote this play or scene,” says MacKinnon, one judge for the 2013 PEN Literary Awards, when Kramer won the Master American Dramatist Award. “It had sort of the structure of a Greek tragedy, and so emotions could be huge in it.”

People regularly were on the receiving end of Kramer’s famously driven, often irascible personality — his 1988 letter published in the San Francisco Examiner was particularly harsh toward National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who later became his good friend — and his ire was frequently felt in the theater.

“I was thrilled to sit side-by-side with this great writer, this man I had huge respect for, and we got along,” MacKinnon says. “We never got into any stressful situation and were in the anything-is-possible phase of a creative collaboration, so I never saw directed toward me the prickly side of Larry. I certainly saw a couple of times when theater producers in New York subsequent to an audition reading said ‘no’ to him, and he got upset and was angry. I could see that energy that could open doors and move mountains.”

The same energy that helped Kramer create his 1985 autobiographical play “The Normal Heart,” which won a Tony Award in 2011 for best revival and 2014 Emmy for outstanding television movie, was also felt in the public arena with his co-founding in 1981 of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first service organization for HIV-positive people. And Kramer’s impact through organizations like GMHC and ACT UP was felt far beyond his native New York.

“While he was a quintessential New Yorker, Larry Kramer’s influence on San Francisco queer culture was profound,” says San Francisco Pride Executive Director Fred Lopez. “The founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP was instrumental in getting the public health system to pay proper attention to the plague unfolding in S.F., Manhattan, L.A. and elsewhere.”

Kramer’s groundwork and demands to accelerate AIDS drug research and cease discrimination against gays proved to be a formative influence for LGBTQ activists who followed him in the continuing struggle for civil rights and against governmental negligence.

“In my 20s, as a young gay activist working in gay men’s health promotion, I looked to the legends of Larry for inspiration,” Lopez says. “He could be, by most accounts, a difficult individual. But how many lives did Larry save from governmental inaction over HIV/AIDS? It’s impossible to guess.”

Kramer’s passion for public health and equality has found renewed urgency today, with the world shaking by the COVID-19 pandemic — a subject of a play he was working on at the time of his death — and demands for racial justice. As was the case during Kramer’s fights against public and governmental denial, indifference and foot-dragging, current crises are being exacerbated by belated or insufficient action and even resistance from public officials.

“At this time when we are reflecting on 50 years of the Pride movement, I think about his indelible impact now,” Lopez says. “Thank you, Larry. And rest in power.

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