Accepting an Emmy on Monday for Outstanding Television Movie, The Normal Heart director Ryan Murphy urged young people to become activists in the mold of the film’s author, Larry Kramer.
“We’re going to use the rest of our time to ask young people watching to become Larry Kramers: to find a cause you believe in, that you will fight for, that you will die for. Go online. Look up amfAR. Look up the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation,” Murphy said, before dedicating the Emmy to “the hundreds of thousands of artists that have passed from HIV/AIDS since 1981.”
Murphy’s call was for those who did not live through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s to become active in the fight today — on HIV/AIDS or another cause of their choosing. The 79-year-old Kramer, who was present on stage but did not speak, may have been an unfamiliar name to those young viewers — many of whom likely know Murphy more from Glee, The Glee Project, or The New Normal than from his sweeping HBO adaptation of Kramer’s 1985 play.
Kramer wrote his first produced screenplay in 1969. Nine years later, he published the controversial book Faggots. The Baltimore Sun noted that in so doing, “Larry Kramer has more than come out of the closet, he’s housecleaned the neighborhood.”
But when the AIDS crisis hit New York City in the early 1980s and Kramer saw his friends in the gay community become sick and die, he moved into action. In 1982, he and five friends co-founded the Gay Men’s Heath Crisis (GMHC), an organization that provided patient services to thousands of New Yorkers dealing with a disease for which there was no known treatment.
The Normal Heart is a slightly fictionalized recounting of the early days of that fight, first produced in 1985. Like the character of Ned Weeks (played by Mark Ruffalo in the film), Kramer was frustrated that not enough was being done to combat the disease and its spread. In 1983, he resigned from GMHC and started the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) in 1987. “Everybody was dying. How could you not respond to that in some sort of way?” he recalled in a 2003 oral history.
ACT-UP took a significantly more militant approach, using direct action to demand the government respond to the growing epidemic and that HIV/AIDS drugs be made available to those in need. The groups tactics included pamphlets, protests, and civil disobedience — “good cop” and “bad cop.” As Kramer later explained:
“Anyway, we made it up as we went along. It was all pro — whatever the word is — reactive, to what the government was doing, or not doing. Or doing! In the city and the state and the country. There was plenty to deal with, and how are you going to deal with it, with the limited resources we had? All we had were voices. All we had were a lot of very creative people who could make beautiful posters and had big healthy lungs. And because so many people were sick — that gave us our spirit. What the fuck?”
GMHC has provided service to more than 11,000 people over the years. ACT-UP was instrumental in raising awareness and helped spur some federal action — though not enough for Kramer.
His confrontational spirit has not waned with age. In 2011, when The Normal Heart ran on Broadway, Kramer stood outside of the theater, handing out a letter to audience members, noting that AIDS continues to be a plague, blasting every president from Reagan to Obama for lack of action, and accusing the pharmaceutical industry as “among the most evil evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind.” Kramer continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, suggesting earlier this year that anybody who would voluntarily take Truvada (the brand name for PrEP) “has got to have rocks in their heads.” PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) allows HIV-negative individuals to take antiretroviral medications, which have been shown to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing HIV infection when used as directed.
Nearly three decades after he wrote the story of The Normal Heart, Kramer continues to fight. And with AIDS remaining an unsolved problem — and countless other issues facing the nation and world — there is plenty of room for others to follow Murphy’s call and take up one of them.