Yale LGBTS Mourns the Death of Larry Kramer

June 1, 2020

Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.

How many of us must die before all of us living fight back?

These calls-to-activism bookend Larry Kramer’s famous, ferocious essay, “1,112 and Counting,” published in the New York Native in March 1983.  The “our”, “you” and “us” are gay men; the existential threat “we” face is not just the onslaught of AIDS but government inaction and citizens’ apathy.  

Two generations later, as we find ourselves engulfed by the public heath crises of COVID-19, incompetent governance, and lethal, state-sanctioned racism, the fury, truth-telling, and political genius of playwright, screenwriter, essayist, film producer and activist Larry Kramer speaks to all of us outraged by inequality, needless suffering, and premature death.

A towering figure of the modern gay rights movement, Larry Kramer’s activism brought life-saving attention to the AIDS epidemic, and pressured cities, states, and the federal government to fund research and drug testing. Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and later the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP, in 1987. Kramer’s and ACT UP’s protests creatively, confrontationally targeted centers of power: the New York Stock Exchange, the Catholic Church, (what is now called) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the days following his death, a photograph of Larry Kramer wearing a sweatshirt with ACT UP’s motto, “Silence = Death”, has circulated on social media.  For Kramer, silence was death but also complicity. He implored the gay community, straight allies, scientists, politicians, and spiritual leaders to speak out, to scream, against injustice.

Kramer graduated Yale College with a B.A. in English in 1957. Alienated by his sexuality, he attempted to take his own life his freshman year. Mercifully, Kramer failed. His writing and activism on behalf of (if infamously critical toward) gay lives and gay love helped bring about a world that celebrated rather than denigrated sexual diversity.  

In 2001, Arthur Kramer made a major donation in honor of his brother Larry, known as the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies (LKI), to Yale. LKI transformed our LGBT Studies program, enabling us to hire new faculty, broaden our curricular offerings, expand our library archives, and host a variety of symposia and lectures on sexuality. As part of the LKI, Larry Kramer donated his papers, including correspondences, manuscripts, and play drafts, to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where they are housed today.

Larry Kramer received an honorary degree from Yale in 2015. His most famous play, “The Normal Heart,” was recognized for “stirring our empathy and sense of social responsibility,” and Kramer himself was celebrated for his “courage and tenacity in speaking out and acting up.” 

Yale LGBTS mourns the loss of Larry Kramer, whose words and whose voice, whose leadership and whose activism, demand a world of love and justice.