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Mount (Larry) Kramer Rumbles: ACT UP Achieved Heroic Feats, But They Weren't the Only AIDS Heroes

In more than 25 years of reporting on AIDS, I have been honored to know many heroes of the AIDS epidemic. Not all of them have been as visible or vocal as Kramer and ACT UP, but the contributions they made, the prices they paid, the risks they took were just as real.
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Getting an email from Larry Kramer saying he's disappointed in you is like having your own personal Judgment Day, and God is not amused.

What got Mount Kramer rumbling was my online comments about New York Times columnist Frank Bruni's recent article on AIDS reporter David France's forthcoming documentary about the AIDS protest group ACT UP, How to Survive a Plague. Here is what I wrote:

ACT UP was hugely important in drawing media attention to AIDS through its colorful demonstrations. The group also produced a number of activists who later worked on the "inside," serving as consumer advisors on scientific research committees at the National Institutes of Health.

But for all the media coverage it got, the hard work of relationship building with political leaders and scientists was done mainly by "coat-and-tie" gay and lesbian advocates -- including some former ACT UP members -- who were more comfortable doing meetings in Washington than dumping cremation ashes on the White House lawn. In fact, there were regular clashes between these folks and ACT UP members who sometimes went beyond the accepted limits of protest -- such as chaining up the advocates during a meeting with CDC officials.

By all means, credit is due to ACT UP for the role it played during its brief five or so years of influence in the now 31-year-old plague. But we can't overlook the many, many more who worked as hard and took as many chances to stand up and speak out in their communities across this country.

Kramer didn't like my assessment that ACT UP's glory days had waned by the early '90s and that the group's "power" was in its ability to grab media attention rather than in what is typically seen as "political" power, in the sense of raising money or delivering votes to influence legislation. He implied that perhaps the group, formed in response to his March 1987 speech at the New York Gay and Lesbian Community Center, hadn't waned after all.

Marking the 25th anniversary of that speech and the formation of the original ACT UP chapter in New York, perhaps those glory days seem like yesterday, which is understandable. But I reminded Kramer that my assessment of the group's unraveling was based in part on a 1995 interview with him, when he lamented that ACT UP had been taken over by those he called "the crazies."

Even ACT UP members thought Kramer himself had gone off the track in 1990, when he called for a riot during the international AIDS conference in San Francisco. By then ACT UP was coming apart, with disagreements over priorities and whether or not direct action had run its course. Only a couple of weeks after the non-riot in San Francisco, lesbian writer Donna Minkowitz said in the Village Voice that ACT UP was at a "crossroads." In a profile of the group, she revealed that ACT UP was in fact struggling to restrain its internal divisions.

On Sept. 13, 1990 ACT UP/San Francisco split into two chapters: ACT UP/Golden Gate, devoted to treatment, and ACT UP/San Francisco, which remained committed to broader social change beyond merely pushing medical science to find a cure for AIDS. ACT UP's Mother Church in New York split over similar issues. In 1992 prominent members of the group's central Treatment and Data committee left to form the Treatment Action Group (TAG).

Long before these citizen scientists were invited to join the advisory panels and given the opportunity to influence American HIV medical research -- to the benefit of enormous numbers of people -- other gay and lesbian HIV/AIDS advocates were working day and night in Washington for an appropriate, and just, response to AIDS.

These "coat-and-tie" activists worked for influential national organizations, such as the American Public Health Association, or for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), or AIDS Action Council (known today as AIDS United), which advocated on behalf of community-based AIDS service organizations across the country.

Working together through the NORA (National Organizations Responding to AIDS) coalition, these activists achieved the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act, making hundreds of millions of dollars available for care and support services in communities across America. They achieved another big win that year -- as ACT UP was unraveling -- by getting people with HIV/AIDS protected against discrimination in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

To Larry Kramer and many other advocates of direct action, the gay Washington lobbyists were little more than sycophants of the system.

But ACT UP likewise had mixed reviews in Washington. Kristine Gebbie, President Bill Clinton's first AIDS "czar," told me, "I think the anger displayed through ACT UP protests was very useful. The intriguing thing it did was make 'the suits' look suddenly very wonderful and reasonable and paved the way for some conversations that might have been more difficult."

Tim Westmoreland, who was chief counsel to the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, provided a lot of political tutoring to Larry Kramer and other gay and lesbian activists during the early years of AIDS. He described ACT UP in a 1995 interview as "a sort of flashbulb going off on a topic." He said:

Most of ACT UP is situated in congressional districts that are already prone to be supportive on AIDS issues to begin with. People didn't go around taking over rural Georgia offices, or picketing [former California Republican Representative] Bill Dannemeyer's office in Orange County. It was usually to get the attention of people who were already sympathetic. That doesn't make a big difference in Washington politics.

The two "sides" were clearly essential. The street activists forced the media to focus on AIDS, using colorful and made-for-TV demonstrations, while the lobbyists helped write the laws delivering a lot of what the protesters were calling for. They all played vital roles. Just as the black civil rights movement included the Black Panthers and the NAACP, the AIDS movement has included people who march in protests and others who "do meetings."

History celebrates heroes, and Larry Kramer most assuredly qualifies as a hero. But in more than 25 years of reporting on AIDS, I have been honored to know many heroes of the AIDS epidemic. Not all of them have been as visible or vocal as Kramer and ACT UP, but the contributions they made, the prices they paid, the risks they took were just as real.

With all due respect to Kramer and ACT UP members, my job as a chronicler of the epidemic isn't to burnish heroic statues but to help make sure history will appreciate the human beings behind the heroism. I guess I could put it another way: "I've got your back."

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