Kramer vs. Kramer : Activism: Even friends say that incendiary AIDS activist Larry Kramer is sometimes a man at war with himself


When the sixth International Conference on AIDS opens today in San Francisco, the city will be on edge. There are predictions of massive demonstrations by gays and lesbians, threats of disruption, and fears some activists will splash infected blood on police officers.

The anxiety has been building for months. But the man who played a key role in stoking the fire says he will not be there. Larry Kramer, an author and playwright whose rage over the AIDS epidemic has become a legend in gay circles, plans to sit this one out in his Greenwich Village apartment . . . and brood.

"I didn't want to fight anymore with my own people," he says quietly, staring out the living room window on a sultry afternoon. "I was depressed. I think the battle against AIDS has been lost. I think millions of people are going to die. So I decided to just stay home."

It's a puzzling turnabout for the man who issued an incendiary "Call to Riot" at the convention in a widely read gay magazine article. How could a writer who has denounced his friends as "Nazis" for not working hard enough against AIDS stay away from the fray at a time like this?

If anyone should be in San Francisco raising hell, it seems, it would be Kramer, who may be the Angriest Man in America when it comes to AIDS.

"In some ways, he has been like a prophet in the wilderness," says Dr. Mathilde Krim, founding co-chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and a leading international expert on the disease.

"A lot of people do not like his methods, and he says things that are extreme, that I do not agree with. But Kramer was a catalyst in rallying public awareness on this disease, especially at a time when a lot of people were not willing to focus on it."

A prolific pamphleteer and tireless public speaker, the 54-year-old writer has inspired thousands of gay men and women to battle an epidemic that has killed more than 80,000 Americans and may have infected an additional 1.5 million. Like others, he has lost scores of close friends to AIDS and, in 1988, learned he tested positive for the HIV virus.

Pushy, abrasive and sometimes obnoxious, Kramer helped establish Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), two of the nation's most influential AIDS-related organizations. He also wrote "The Normal Heart," perhaps the best known play about the politics of the AIDS epidemic, which has had more than 600 productions around the world, including Los Angeles.

In a former life, back in the early 1970s, Kramer was a Hollywood motion picture executive who produced and wrote the award-winning film "Women in Love." A graduate of Yale who once kept his homosexuality carefully under wraps, he never expected to become a controversial public figure.

But Kramer was galvanized by the crisis sweeping through gay America, and his agenda now is much the same as it was in 1981, when the first cases of AIDS began appearing: More federal money for research and treatment, quicker release of potentially life-saving drugs and, most important, confrontation and militancy when dealing with all levels of government.

"I'm tired of the gay community acting as if we were good little boys and girls, waiting for the government to save our lives," Kramer says, swiveling behind his desk and shuffling through copies of his more recent essays.

"We are being exterminated just like the Jews were in the Holocaust, only we have the chance now to fight back. If it means taking disruptive action, then we have no other choice. I don't understand why every gay person in America isn't as angry as I am. I don't want to be nice anymore."

These tactics haven't won Kramer many friends. He has alienated politicians and scientists who could have been his allies; he has heaped abuse on President Bush, former President Reagan, former New York Mayor Edward Koch, Cardinal John J. O'Connor, New York Times Editor Max Frankel and gay leaders.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, got a taste of Kramer's style in 1987 before he even met the man. He learned the activist had bitterly criticized him for not moving fast enough to release AIDS treatment drugs.

"I was jolted, because here you are working 18 hours a day to save lives, and then this comes out of the blue," he says. "I asked myself, who is this guy? I finally learned it's Larry Kramer, a really well-respected writer.

"So I invite him down to Washington to visit us, to see that we're not all monsters. And he comes across as a very thoughtful, friendly man. I thought we hit it off really well. Then he went back to New York and denounced me again. I thought, hmmm . . . this is going to be an interesting relationship."

On the other hand, Kramer's tactics have produced results. Randy Klose, a gay Beverly Hills developer, credits Kramer for sparking his own full-time involvement in national AIDS fund raising with the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

An independently wealthy man, Klose has given $600,000 out of his own pocket to the cause and says Kramer's widely read 1983 essay, "1,112 and Counting," influenced him to become more political.

"Larry has tapped into the wellspring of anger that exists over this disease in the gay community across America," Klose says. "He changed my life and got me involved, because I used to be apolitical. He's one of the most intense activists I've ever known, and that's because he's a real fighter. He was born to be a troublemaker, to make waves."

The mere mention of Kramer's name produces laughter and disgust in some circles because many activists say privately that they are tired of Kramer's 10-year temper tantrum and nearly hysterical tone of outrage.

Yet even his worst enemies believe he has made an important contribution.

"Larry Kramer is about as rotten a person as I've ever encountered," says Richard Dunne, a former director of GMHC who has clashed bitterly with Kramer. "He's shrill and tiresome . . . he's a bully. But on the plus side, he was there from the beginning. In the early 1980s, his rage and anger were appropriate."

For all these reasons, many gay leaders fully expected Kramer to be in San Francisco this week. Yet to those who know him, his absence is no surprise. The volatile author, they say, is a jumble of human contradictions.

Gentle and reflective one minute, Kramer can turn viciously on his friends the next. A genius at political organizing, he is fundamentally a loner. Kramer helped form GMHC, the world's largest AIDS service organization, in 1982. But he was later forced out of the group for refusing to adopt a more moderate tone with city officials, especially Koch, whom he has repeatedly accused of ignoring or trying to cover up the epidemic.

In 1987, Kramer helped create ACT UP, which specializes in street demonstrations and guerrilla theater tactics designed to embarrass and harass governmental officials. It has also played a key role within the system, prodding scientists to speed up the release of AIDS drugs. Yet Kramer says he is now estranged from this group as well.

The signs of this most recent break surfaced in March, when Kramer called for massive San Francisco disruptions in Outweek magazine.

In a raging, obscenity-laden broadside, Kramer blasted the government for its response to the epidemic. Gay people are dying, there are no drugs being developed to save their lives and straight leaders don't care, he thundered.

"Every human being who wants to end the AIDS epidemic must be in San Francisco . . . screaming, yelling, furiously angry, protesting at this stupid conference," Kramer wrote. "We have been lined up in front of a firing squad and it is called AIDS. We must riot!"

Asked to be more precise, Kramer looks grim and says that "the new phase is terrorism . . . I don't know whether it means burning buildings, or killing people or setting fire to yourselves. . . ."

Kramer's words might be dismissed as the ravings of a crackpot were it not for his long, respected track record in the battle against AIDS. Leaders of ACT UP have disavowed his latest rhetoric, noting that he speaks only for himself. Other gay leaders have taken a harder line.

Dana Van Gorder, the official spokesman for this week's conference, says disrupting San Francisco will accomplish nothing. "Anger has it's place," he says, "but in this case, I think anger's got the better of him. Everyone across the political spectrum is offended by his call for violence."

It's an old battle, and some friends speculate Kramer is only being rhetorical, that he really does not want an outbreak of violence. But the cumulative weight of these polemics appears to have taken a toll on him. The writer says he is depressed and wants to be left alone. Angered that he was not invited to speak on behalf of ACT UP at the conference, he is staying home.

"People are usually surprised that I'm soft-spoken. I don't think I'm angry 24 hours a day. There's another side to me, too."

A short, neatly dressed man with close-cropped hair, Kramer gestures proudly to the photos and memorabilia on his walls. Less than 20 years ago, he was riding high in Hollywood, after producing and writing "Women in Love." By the age of 33, he was a respected executive at Columbia Pictures and had worked on such films as "Dr. Strangelove" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

But that was in 1970--long before Kramer came out of the closet. Until then, like thousands of other gay men and women in this country, he lived a secret life. The one clear link between now and then seems to be anger.

Randy Shilts, a journalist and the author of "And the Band Played On," a tough critique of the nation's laggard response to AIDS, says his friend Kramer has always been filled with rage, even toward those he cares about.

"If you know Larry at all, you know that there's been this anger inside him for years. People who have known him for years say that. It goes way back, to when he was in college, and even earlier. With AIDS, he's finally found an issue that's worthy of his anger."

As a young boy growing up near Washington D.C., Kramer says he lived in the shadow of his older and more well-adjusted brother, Arthur. He didn't like baseball, he wasn't particularly physical, and he preferred to spend his time dreaming up and performing imaginary plays.

George Kramer, a government attorney, never hid his disgust, calling his youngest boy a "sissy" at every opportunity, Larry Kramer says. The elder Kramer, who died when Larry was in his 30s, never understood his son's stubborn refusal to conform.

"I could never do anything right," Larry says, looking back. "He always picked on me and yelled at me and occasionally hit me. I was a creative person whose creativity was always looked on as suspect by my parents."

Kramer realized in junior high school that he was gay, but he kept it from his parents. He learned to fight back verbally against his father, and says he eventually "started giving as good as I got. . . . And I guess it goes back to that. I am not frightened of authority, and I find so many people are."

A bright student, Kramer went to Yale but was overwhelmed by his inability to fit in either at home or in a new school. In 1953, during his freshman year, he tried to commit suicide by taking 200 aspirin. He quickly called police for help. Later, he told his older brother about his homosexuality.

Arthur Kramer helped him find a psychiatrist, and the young man began a personal evolution. He came to terms with his homosexuality, he says, and got a job as a $29-per-week messenger boy with the William and Morris agency in New York. His father was enraged, he says, but Kramer felt he was on the right course.

In the years to come, he rose up the ladder of the film industry, working as a Teletype operator, a producer's secretary, an assistant producer and finally, in the early 1960s, as a young executive with Columbia Pictures in London. After "Women in Love," Kramer wanted to make pictures on gay topics, but quickly learned the industry was not interested.

Following an unhappy stint with MGM studios in Hollywood, he came back to New York in the mid-1970s. A psychiatrist suggested he write a novel about his life as a gay man; Kramer agreed. In 1978, he published "Faggots," a scathing critique of sexual promiscuity among homosexuals that sold more than 440,000 copies.

It also made Kramer public enemy No. 1 in some gay circles. The author said his book had only suggested that homosexual men look for love, instead of random sex. But critics felt he was denigrating the gay liberation movement.

When the AIDS crisis erupted in 1981, the same tension emerged. Kramer called for safe sex policies, while a multitude of homosexual leaders angrily resisted, saying such recommendations were premature and punitive.

In 1985, following his break with GMHC, Kramer wrote "The Normal Heart," which gained worldwide attention. The lead character, a screaming, raging activist closely modeled after the author, has been played on stage by Joel Grey, Brad Davis, Martin Sheen, Tom Hulce and Richard Dreyfuss.

It also mirrored the playwright's life in more tragic ways: Kramer's longtime lover, a man he is unable to identify for legal reasons involving the man's ex-wife, died of AIDS in the early 1980s. The experience, chronicled in the play, left him shattered and bitter.

As the epidemic has progressed, Kramer's speeches and writings have taken on an increasingly urgent tone. In a 1987 address to the Boston Lesbian and Gay Town meeting, he zeroed in on an issue that haunts thousands of people who, so far, have survived the age of AIDS:

"Don't you ask yourselves quite often the Big Question: Why am I still alive? Untouched? At some point I did something the others did. How have I escaped?

"Don't you think that obligates you to repay God or fate or whomever or whatever, if only your conscience, for this miraculous fact: I am still alive. I must put something back into this world for my own life, which is worth a tremendous amount."

Kramer says the realization that he tests positive for the AIDS virus has given him greater energy to pursue his work.

"It does in fact change your life when you do know," he says. "It has made time exceedingly precious. It makes you aware of how wonderful life is, when you are about to lose it, perhaps."

In his more private moments, however, Kramer is afraid.

"It scares you," he says. "There are many times when you just wake up in the middle of the night and think about it.

"In a funny way, we don't mind dying . . . but we don't want to get as sick as most people get. It's so awful. I don't want to go through a year of weighing 90 pounds and having diarrhea, losing my mind intermittently and going blind, and all of these horrors."

Outside, an ambulance siren blasts and Kramer suddenly looks angry.

"A tremendous wrong is being done to us, and it makes me furious," he says. "I think, when I am ready to go, I take somebody with me."

Times staff writer Victor Zonana contributed to this article.

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