Remembering Larry Kramer

It's Gay Pride Month, but the spirit of celebration that traditionally grabs hold of our city feels lost this year. Amid the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, our nation experiencing an awakening to Black Lives Matter, and profound sadness surrounding the killing of George Floyd, it's been a lot to take in. During all of this, we lost a national treasure, Larry Kramer. He was arguably the most vocal and powerful AIDS activist, a man whose raucous and unbridled advocacy ultimately changed the way governmental bureaucracy and our nation's health care system reacted to contagion. In the interest of learning from the past to set a course for the future, I can't help thinking about this amazing man's incredible 84 years on earth, the lasting impact he made on the AIDS pandemic and how he continues to affect the world. Kramer was a rare combination of critically acclaimed talent and, later, hugely effective advocate for reform. In 1969 he received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of the film, "Women In Love," based on the book by D.H. Lawrence. As he moved through the course of his life, he would become a noted author and playwright himself, penning the controversial novel "Faggots" and creating the Tony Award-winning "The Normal Heart." His success in tackling the AIDS crisis was due in large part to his bravado. He would loudly and definitively use his mastery of words to grab attention for the cause. Kramer was a Jew, and his activist bent was informed by the atrocities of the Holocaust. He saw the pending pandemic as just that, a systematic killing by a government that wouldn't acknowledge it and a medical industry that was mired in greed. He was angry that the system was failing the gay community, and he was furious at his community for not caring as much as he did. He lashed out at anyone and anything he thought could draw attention to the cause. A young Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of the first in the medical community to realize a connection between a mysterious cancer and the gay population. He researched and wrote about it the way the medical research industry always had, but his efforts weren't urgent enough for Kramer. The longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would soon come to know Kramer's rage first-hand when Kramer called him "an incompetent idiot" in a 1988 open letter published in the San Francisco Examiner. As with anyone in Kramer's line of fire, he got his attention. Despite their on-again off-again battles, they went on to become life-long friends. This brings us to COVID-19. From the onset of this coronavirus, I couldn't help think it felt somewhat similar to the AIDS crisis. Yet, its likeness is an oversimplification. In fact, while AIDS was first reported in the mainstream media by the New York Times in 1981, it wasn't until 1985 that President Ronald Reagan even uttered the word AIDS. It's hard to fathom now the huge stigma surrounding AIDS in the early 1980s. Before scientists understood it well enough to give it a name, AIDS was referred to as a rare cancer infecting otherwise healthy young gay men. The more we learned, the more fearful we became, particularly surrounding the uncertainty of how you contracted AIDS, how many were infected and the rapidly increasing death rate. Had you not lived through it, it's hard to articulate how shocked and horrified we were as well-known celebrities like Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Eazy E and Freddie Mercury lost their lives to this uncontrollable plague. The stigma that was and in some unfortunate cases still is associated with AIDS, doesn't exist with COVID. One striking commonality: both pandemics seemingly came out of nowhere. Each was cloaked in its own mysteries. And while AIDS was once a death sentence, it's now manageable with drugs. Yet, there has never been a vaccine for AIDS, and time will tell when and if we develop one for COVID. Now back to Kramer. Because of his early success writing for the film industry, Kramer was able to retire and focus on his passions, which included writing books and plays. By 1980, he witnessed the early spread of what would later be identified as AIDS among his friends on Fire Island. By 1981, he would convene 88 men in his apartment to do something about it. They formed the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which remains the world's largest private organization assisting people living with AIDS. In time, Kramer grew frustrated with the organization's inability to move beyond its focus on social services, so he left and founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. Using the mantra Silence=Death, ACT UP is largely credited with changing the public's perception of people with AIDS. Silence=Death seems to have impacted the message from the Black Lives Matters movement with their mantra: Silence=Violence. It's interesting to note, three decades later, Kramer's words still resonate. As an activist, Kramer took a blanket approach to his targets. He shamed the FDA for not expediting approvals of life saving drugs, Wall Street for making the drugs cost prohibitive (when the FDA approved AZT in 1987, it cost $10,000 per year), Reagan and New York City Mayor Ed Koch for not funding research and gay men in general for continuing to participate in unsafe sexual activity after it was shown that AIDS was transmitted by unprotected sex. Kramer's hard work and tireless advocacy is credited with saving thousands of lives. While he wasn't the gentlest of activists, it's clear now more than ever that the power of words can make change. When I started my PR company in the mid-1990s, I called the city's largest and most comprehensive AIDS service organization, AID Atlanta, to volunteer my time (I had a lot of free time to give). I became an "AIDS Buddy" to a very interesting patient who had previously run a big advertising agency in San Francisco. When he was diagnosed, he was told he had six months left to live, so he got his affairs in order and waited to die. By the time I met him, 11 years had passed. Needless to say, his outlook on life was a mixture of bitterness and comedy. Still, I enjoyed our time together taking him to doctors' appointments and shopping. He left me with some profound tips on how to run an agency. The experience reiterated my commitment to the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam, which means "repairing the world" and refers to any activity that makes the world a better place. Over the years I've been fortunate to be able to incorporate my passion for giving back into my professional career. I worked closely with AID Atlanta on its inaugural "Shopping For Life" retail promotion as well as galas and other fundraisers. Many of the connections I made then remain some of my best friends today. I continued to promote the AIDS Walk Atlanta 5K & Run for years. My firm went on to represent Jerusalem House, the oldest and largest provider of permanent housing for low-income and homeless individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS. And I held a seat on the board of directors for the AIDS Memorial Quilt for years, helping build the board, finding real estate for its office and warehouse, handling social media and press and eventually putting into motion the transferring of its stewardship to the National AIDS Memorial. In the interest of learning from the past to set a course for the future, Larry Kramer's efforts stand as a lesson to us all that engaging in tough conversations isn't an option. It's an essential requirement both to show that Black Lives Do Matter and for our country to eventually recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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