Much has been written about the early breakup of Larry Kramer and GMHC, most notably by Kramer himself in his celebrated play and film, The Normal Heart, but also by me in my Larry Kramer anthology, We Must Love One Another or Die, and more recently by David France in his history of AIDS, How To Survive A Plague. The crux of the play is that the greater activism Kramer was pushing for was rejected by GMHC’s other co-founders in favor of thinking and acting inside the box. The apposing view is that Kramer wanted GMHC to become a lot more like the organization he then went on to found, ACT UP, a transformation that felt too drastic for the fledgling information, education and service organization that GMHC was in those early pre-gay-civil-rights years. Should GMHC have become more like ACT UP?
While the answer to that has seemed to be that we were all better off for having both organizations, Larry Kramer himself is now upping the ante. Two years ago, working with current GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie, Kramer re-emerged as a major presence at GMHC, after years of estrangement and disparagement of the organization in the wake of his earlier ouster-resignation. That night, May 24, 2015, to an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation, Kramer became the first recipient of the new Larry Kramer Activism Award. Although frail and with limited vocal strength, Kramer not only accepted the award with a rousing speech, but stayed for the full 5 hour length of the event.
The evening crackled with new energies, likewise on display the following year when Mary Fisher received the Larry Kramer Activism Award for her brave speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, where she came out as a person with AIDS and exhorted the Republican leadership to begin dealing with AIDS more forthrightly, robustly and humanely.
This year, as GMHC marked its 35th anniversary, these energies were even more palpable. Kramer was a tough critic of GMHC’s move to its current location, just north of the High Line, when the area was an even worse nightmare of construction obstacles, and much harder to get to and navigate. But all that seemed to fade in the excitement of being in the epicenter of what is now indisputably Manhattan’s hottest neighborhood. The High Line is an explosion of cultural and real estate development that seems to boast every big name in art, design, fashion, architecture, culture and real estate, except one: Donald Trump.
Louie began the proceedings by affirming GMHC’s proud history as a leading provider of supportive services, which are now expanding to include substance abuse treatment, mental health resources and housing. Paying tribute to Larry Kramer, he then noted that in the current governmental and humanitarian crisis looming under the Trump presidency, which has proposed massive cuts in AIDS funding, GMHC will need to become much more activist. At this juncture of the Trump onslaught, no one could disagree with him.
Larry Kramer is legendary for not mincing words. He never did. He still doesn’t. At 82, and with some physical and vocal weakness, he is still exactly the same passionate, galvanizing firebrand he always was. Since that GMHC 33rd anniversary gala, there have been several notable appearances by Kramer, including a recent historic visit to South Florida as well as the 35th Anniversary Gala. In both situations, sell-out crowds hung on every word. On both occasions, the atmosphere was electric. What everybody was responding to so strongly was not only Larry Kramer, the great gay and AIDS activist hero, but Kramer in his role as visionary and leader as we once again face a terrifying, potentially overwhelming life-and-death crisis—i.e., the Trump presidency.
Alas, though a part-time South Floridian myself, I was not at the Fort Lauderdale-Wilton Manors events, but I heard about them from multiple sources. The stretch of coast between Palm Beach and Miami Beach is called South Florida and boasts one of the largest gay communities in the world. Halfway between Trump’s Palm Beach compound Mar-A-Lago and the South Beach stretch of Miami Beach is Sunny Isles Beach, where more properties boast the Trump logo than any other trademark. Many of the residences here have been bought up by wealthy Russian investors, hence the eponym for that area, “Little Moscow.” Apart from bigger questions of the relationships between Russia and Team Trump, aren’t these buyers worried about the beachfront erosion from global warming that is already causing frequent and ever-worsening flooding? I don’t think you’re any more likely to find that detail in Trump property brochures than you are likely to find Trump promoting initiatives for climate control.
During his recent visit to Florida, and on the eve of ACT UP’s 30th anniversary, Kramer paid tribute to the landmark World AIDS Museum and Education Center that was established in Wilton Manors in 2011. In the course of several events, he signed copies of Volume 1 of his magnum opus, The American People, was interviewed by Vanity Fair’s Kevin Sessums, author of Mississippi Sissy, and showcased by the Gay Men’s Chorus. Holding up ACT UP’s new t-shirt that reads: “I Can’t Believe I Still Have to Protest This Fucking Shit”, he reminded us that “We have to be seen and shove it in their fucking faces!”
Not surprisingly, activism was the GMHC 35th anniversary Gala’s keynote and theme. After Louie presented the first award to corporate and financial leader, Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley, his brother Peter Staley was given this year’s Larry Kramer Activism award, presented both by Kramer and David France, whose book on the history of AIDS I’ve recently commented on (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58c92b90e4b0009b23bd948e). Staley is the celebrated ACT UP activist showcased by France, first in his 2012 documentary film, How To Survive a Plague, and now in the book with that same title. Notwithstanding some bruising observations about Kramer’s role in ACT UP reprising personality-centered confrontations with GMHC, France’s great respect for Kramer’s surpassing role as the august figure of AIDS activism was palpable, just as I trust my own is, even after comparing (in my commentary on Plague) Kramer’s penchant for confrontation with that of Donald Trump!
Staley’s self-taught knowledge of pharma, business acumen, gay pride and street activist savvy—inspired by and occasionally in some conflict with the strategies of his acknowledged “activist father” Kramer—has resulted in the saved lives of countless millions. As France noted, the superlatives may have been exhausted, but the wonder and gratitude just keep growing. Staley graciously accepted the award, but with characteristic generosity, insisting it be on behalf of all those in ACT UP and activism, and with special appreciation for younger activists.
President Bill Clinton was to have received an award for his tireless, not forgotten efforts on behalf of AIDS globally. On short notice, he left to attend the funeral of Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinniss with whom he’d worked closely to broker peace in Northern Ireland. In his place, daughter Chelsea Clinton spoke from the heart (no notes) about her family’s commitment to the LGBT and AIDS communities. Honestly confronting her father’s early, much-resented endorsement of DOMA, she noted how he subsequently committed himself not only to acknowledging what a mistake that was (in an Op Ed piece he wrote for the Washington Post), but committing himself to a wide range of initiatives in support of LGBT rights, the gay community, and AIDS globally. I’d no idea she was such a confident and effective public speaker.
Concluding the evening was the Larry Kramer of legend—of hope and courage in the face of crisis. He had written an open letter to President Bill Clinton that he had planned to read before the gathering, which was to have included Clinton. Kramer called on Clinton and former Presidents Carter and Obama to join any other past presidents willing to take a much stronger public stand in new efforts to “GET THAT MONSTER OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE!” This was vintage Kramer, asking more than what might seem reasonable from people who are otherwise friends and allies in circumstances that might seem questionable. Putting people on the spot. Making demands. Denouncing enemies in the strongest terms. Demanding activism from all of us, NOW!
As the evening’s special guest star Billy Porter, fresh from his triumph in Kinky Boots and on the eve of a new blues album, put it, “We’re galvanized again!”