• July 10th, 2020

Opinion - A tribute to global AIDS activist Larry Kramer



When Larry Kramer passed away on 27 May, the world lost an AIDS activist that many who are infected with or affected by HIV or AIDS might not know the critical role he played in the gains towards policy and treatment enjoyed today worldwide. It was his aggressive demands for a strong response to the AIDS crisis that helped change the US health policy in the 1980s and 90s, as he foresaw a disease that could kill millions irrespective of their sexual orientation and sadly, his prediction came to pass. 

Kramer had been ill for many years with HIV and a liver disease that had seen him get a liver transplant and treatment with a lifesaving experimental drug courtesy of one of his previously pronounced ‘enemy’, Dr Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who he’d called “a killer” and “an incompetent idiot,” for what he saw as the agency’s neglect of AIDS issues. However, in later years the two became friends and colleagues in the fight against HIV & AIDS. In an interview with Times, Dr Fauci was to explain that, “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense and that he had a heart of gold.”
In this tribute, I write about a man I had the honour of meeting in 2004 while I was a Masters of Public Administration student at Harvard Kennedy School in the US. He was a guest speaker at a Human Rights meeting hosted by our PAL 138 Leadership Field Studies Workshop lecturer, Prof Todd Pittinsky. I had requested to speak with him after the talk, a chat I will forever cherish and that is why in my PhD Dissertation entitled, HIV & AIDS Stigma, Namibian Newspapers and Health Policies, 2000 - 2012: An Investigation of Framing, Priming and Agenda-Setting Effects, he appears as the first person it is dedicated to. 

An activist who had what many called a ‘cantankerous, rabble-rousing approach to activism’ and was at one time labelled, “the most belligerent man in America”, Yale-educated Kramer was born on 25 June 1935 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His numerous accolades include an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the 1969 film, “Women in Love” and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play “The Destiny of Me”. His two plays, “The Normal Heart” and the “Destiny of Me” were among the first artistic productions to present AIDS as a crisis. An author of repute, he penned many books among them Faggots and Reports from the Holocaust: The story of an AIDS Activist.

To get AIDS noticed, Kramer deliberately defined it as a ‘holocaust’ that his government was not dealing with fast enough as it was originally associated with homosexuality but which became a fast killer, especially among the poor minorities. In 1987, he and others found AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) which took a radical approach to AIDS activism, staging demonstrations and protests at pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street, government institutions, religious bodies and Broadway. The group’s campaigning spurred experimental medicines’ research for HIV treatment, making them available more quickly, more equitably and at an affordable price. One of ACT UP’s most memorable protests was in 1989 when hundreds of protesters lay in front of the New York Stock Exchange thus crippling its activities for the day to demand, among others, a reduction in the high cost of the AIDS drug AZT, the key response drug at the time. In their demands, the actions of the group saw results that included many of the officials he earmarked for criticism before applauding him for his relentless activism which could be regarded as having created numerous worldwide interventions, possibly even perhaps 2003’s George W. Bush’s Presidential President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Kramer’s fight for those infected in the 80s started when he realised many of his friends and acquaintances in the gay circles were dying from a disease no one seemed to understand. When he penned the famous article on 27 March 1983 in the New York Native entitled, 1,112 and Counting, only two African countries had acknowledged the presence of the disease – first Uganda followed by South Africa which registered the disease’s presence in 1982. Thereafter, Zambia in 1984, Botswana and Malawi in 1985 and Namibia in 1986 among others. The article got the US government and other concerned organisations to take note of the disease that had been named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). His intro read: “If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get,” he wrote…. When we first became worried, there were only 41. In only twenty-eight days, from January 13th to February 9th [1983], there were 164 new cases – and 73 more dead. The total death tally is now 418.….”
In the 1980s and 90s, worldwide, testing positive for HIV was equivalent to a death sentence. If you were employed, you were fired, no insurance company wanted to touch you, friends and relatives shunned you while many widowed through AIDS were disinherited. Just as Covid-19 burials today, AIDS burials in the early ’80s and ’90s ensured immense protection of the handlers. 

As a journalist, meeting Kramer changed the way I covered or viewed the disease henceforth. He emphasized that if I wanted to deal with stigma, I had to take it headlong – “do whatever it takes to make your government do something about it.” And so, just before graduation in June 2004, I was among six recipients of the Harvard Human Rights Committee’s new one year fellowship called, Third Millennium. I chose to research in Kenya under the Kenya Human Rights Commission on job discrimination of those who were HIV positive. 
I hate to imagine how HIV or AIDS would have turned out if activists such as Kramer, South Africa’s Zackie Achmat, Nkosi Johnson, Prudence Mabele, Uganda’s Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, Kenya’s Dorothy Onyango and James Kamau and many others worldwide had not taken the bull by its horn and fought to ensure strong policies and availability of medicine to all who have HIV or AIDS. Fare thee well Larry Kramer. 

*Dr Wanja Njuguna is a media and communication lecturer at the Namibia University of Science & Technology.


Staff Reporter
2020-06-02 09:28:31 | 1 months ago

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