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His AIDS activism and protests changed minds and helped defeat an epidemic

Today, May 27, is the three-year anniversary of the death of Larry Kramer, a public health warrior who helped mobilize the fight against AIDS in the 1980s/90s. Ironically, Kramer’s death was overshadowed by another public health crisis — COVID — which muted the news of his death and prevented public gatherings and accolades that many people think he so richly deserved.

I’m one of those people who think it’s a shame that Kramer’s death occurred in the upheaval of those early pandemic months. Although I never personally met Kramer, his work to raise the alarm about AIDS opened my eyes to a problem I had been mostly ignoring. And the treatments and funding he helped bring about have become important to me in ways I could never have predicted when I attended a performance of “The Normal Heart” in 1988.

I had never heard of Kramer before that staged reading production. An 18-year-old Southern girl attending a small college in a small Southern town, I knew very little about this mysterious AIDS virus. Two hours later, I sobbed as I left the theater, acutely aware that far too many people were suffering horribly, with no hope for a cure and little hope for compassion.

Raising awareness and raising compassion were Kramer’s goals when he wrote “The Normal Heart,” which was first produced at The Public Theater in NYC in 1985. At the time, many Americans still believed that AIDS affected only isolated, marginalized groups, and routinely stigmatized those who were afflicted. To combat misinformation and maltreatment, Kramer wrote the play at the height of the epidemic, which went on to win several awards. It has since been performed on Broadway and internationally, and was featured in a 2014 television movie.

Kramer had been battling American complacency about the virus for many years before I became aware of him. Shortly after U.S. public health authorities began to notice high rates of mysterious illnesses among gay men, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, which became the singular entity focusing on support and information. But Kramer felt it wasn’t enough; he wanted to persuade the government to step up their efforts to find treatments and a cure. In 1987, Kramer helped organize the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which developed a highly visible, often confrontational style of protests and public campaigns. The group targeted specific public officials and entities, lobbying for a comprehensive policy to combat the virus as well as gain access to experimental drugs.

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“The Normal Heart” served as my wake-up call.

I moved to New York City to try to make it on Broadway. Before long, I realized that I had moved into the epicenter of a plague. In a few short years, I went from knowing almost nothing about AIDS to watching many friends, including my roommate, fighting for their lives. Witnessing my roommate’s ultimately futile struggle to survive as he tested several experimental drug cocktails devastated me.

Slowly but surely, progress was made, with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs offering life and hope to people living with HIV. Kramer and others like him were credited for heroically helping to slash the AIDS-related death rate through their tireless efforts.

But AIDS did not confine itself to the U.S., as I discovered during a 2010 humanitarian trip to South Africa. I visited several orphanages and discovered they were filled with children whose mothers had passed the virus to them in vitro. AIDS again became the background noise in my life. As did Larry’s voice. Because of “The Normal Heart,” I could never ignore or look askance at anyone who was suffering from AIDS again. My husband and I founded a nonprofit organization in order to help several of these orphanages on a long-term basis.

Larry Kramer died just shy of his 85th birthday, a gift of longevity he helped make possible to himself and millions of others through his activism. The COVID lockdowns denied him a funeral that would have been attended by many grateful, admiring devotees like myself. Although I was unable to pay my respects to him at his death, I am committed to showing my appreciation for his life by standing up for others the way he did.

The AIDS epidemic and COVID pandemic have made it clear that we are a global community and suffering in one group can eventually affect all others. On the third anniversary of Larry Kramer’s death, let’s honor his life by standing in the gap and speaking up when we see a wrong that needs addressing.

Ray Stanton is author of “Out of the Shadow of 9/11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation.”

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