It is four days after the death of Nancy Reagan when Larry Kramer picks up the phone to BuzzFeed News and, with his once thundering voice now more a quiver, delivers the following verdict on the former first lady: "The woman was a horror story."
“She was an over-sexed woman who was famous for it in Hollywood and she’s been made into some sort of saint," he says. "She was not at all what she appeared to be. Her husband was awful in terms of AIDS and one can only assume she was very much part of that.”
In the hours after Reagan’s death on Sunday, reports re-emerged of her refusing to help her friend Rock Hudson, the gay Hollywood legend, when he was dying of AIDS. Kramer mentions the 1988 play he wrote about Nancy Reagan – Just Say No: A Play About a Farce – the name of which references her much-ridiculed anti-drugs campaign. “It’s a farce,” he spits, as if to emphasise what is already in its title.
It would be a courageous writer who ever attempted to depict Larry Kramer’s life in similar terms.
There are two things people say when describing the 80-year-old, Oscar-nominated writer and totemic HIV/AIDS activist: He is furious and he has saved lives. Indeed, almost everyone who appears in the HBO documentary Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger riffs on these themes – themes that will play out again in two special screenings of the film in London this weekend.
They mention the fear he instilled (in just about everybody). They mention that he did not care what anyone thought. In the 1980s footage we hear his pickaxe words and firebomb speeches, fuming, vibrating, a primal scream fashioned into the purest rhetorical punches:
“AIDS is intentional genocide.”
“PLAGUE. We are in the middle of a FUCKING PLAGUE.”
“How long are you going to let your presidents get away with murder?”
Larry Kramer in the 1980s
He made scientists shake. He forced politicians to listen. He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the largest private HIV/AIDS service in the world. And he started ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the direct action group that transformed the response to the disease, bulldozing the bureaucracy and apathy many felt had infected the government and pharmaceutical companies.
Finally in 1996, after 15 years of AIDS and millions of deaths, the drugs came. Many credit Kramer with the fact that effective antiretroviral medication arrived at all. This year marks its 20th anniversary.
But there is more to Larry Kramer than fury and fighting. His writing, which earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay to Women in Love, a Pulitzer Prize shortlisting for The Destiny of Me, and an Emmy for The Normal Heart, is infused with love and obsessed with the quest for it. Even the inflammatory Faggots, his bestselling 1978 novel, which could have been subtitled Gay Men Are Fucking Up by Constantly Fucking Each Other, was really about longing for a profound, lasting connection. Kramer, finally, found it.
In the documentary – after more than an hour of archive film showing Kramer raging at demos, at politicians, even at fellow activists – we see him frail in hospital in 2013, recovering from a liver transplant. Barely able to speak, he marries his long-term partner, David Webster, an architect, from his bed. They first met in 1966 – Webster inspired Faggots. They've been reunited since 1991.
Afterwards, outside the hospital room, a friend called Louis Bonsignore says the following: “I’m alive today because of him. Larry Kramer is the one that spurred the government, spurred the [former New York mayor] Koch administration. He was the pain in the ass that everyone needed him to be. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of men, women, and especially children that are alive today because of Larry Kramer.”
But is he still a pain in the ass? It is mere moments into the conversation with BuzzFeed News when another question suggests an answer. The question was: Are you worried with this HBO documentary that you are in danger of being well liked?
He laughs briefly. “I don’t think about things like that. I have things to say and I say them, and I don’t care whether you like them or not.” As the interview builds and his opinions spill out, they look less and less likely to raise his popularity.
Just nine months after same-sex marriage was secured in the US, one of the great victories for the LGBT rights movement, Kramer says, “The gay population is still not very good at fighting, at being united for our rights.” He adds, “We don’t have any recognised leaders who speak for us and we’re facing an enormous backlash because of gay marriage.” Why does he think there is this apparent failure of LGBT activism?
“I’ve just published a book called The American People, which is my attempt to write the history of homosexuality in America from the very beginning,” he says. “And you realise how hated everyone gay was since the very beginning. You can understand how hard it is for gay people – it’s almost as if that fear of being hated is genetically born into us because there are all these centuries of our hiding. And that is the closest I’ve come to a reason as to why we’re not fighting any more.”
BuzzFeed News asks Kramer, whose parents were Jewish, whether he thinks there is more hatred towards gay people than Jewish people. “In this country? Yes I do,” he replies.
But perhaps the most incendiary comments come when the discussion moves on to Truvada, the antiretroviral drug that prevents people becoming HIV-positive and that was approved by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) in 2012. Kramer was widely criticised for comments in the New York Times in 2014 in which he opined: “anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads. There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you.” Last year, his stance seemed to soften. Has it?
“I never was against it,” he begins. “I never said don’t take it, I just said it’s complicated – this was at the beginning and I’m still being hung for something that was several years ago when we knew very little.” In what some might consider an exaggeration of what life is like on Truvada, he adds, “I just said we don’t have enough information and I wonder if people realise that taking it requires constant monitoring of your blood – constant visits to the doctor to take the blood to see if it’s working – and are only taking it to be able to return to the kind of life that got us into this turmoil in the first place.”
Such judgment will likely not be well received by many, but he emphasises, “I’m still worried about that.” What, asks BuzzFeed News, is wrong with that “kind of life”?
He pauses for a while. “Well, the statistics are beginning to show that certain things are happening: People don’t take Truvada regularly, or for instance, there’s been an enormous rise in [other] sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis suddenly going through the roof – Truvada doesn’t take care of them and why are they suddenly going through the roof? Because we’re now back to the days where sex was like a candy store.”
There is no time for BuzzFeed News to point out that studies have not yet shown a correlation (or causation) of Truvada with increased STIs because Kramer is still holding forth: “There’s responsibility involved in all of this, that people seem very much to overlook, the fact that infected people are capable of murdering other gay people by their behaviour.”
Publicity material for the original ACT UP (left) and London's unofficial offshoot
What does he think about the fact that in the UK the National Health Service has still not made Truvada available to patients at risk of infection?
“Well our [the US] government isn’t providing it either,” he replies, before adding, “Where are the protests and making demands such as ACT UP was doing here constantly? You don’t get anything without being very in-your-face angry and in large numbers. That’s when they’re scared of you. I don’t see much on the internet that says the [UK] gay population is angry and protesting.” Has he heard of a new, British version of ACT UP?
“No. What do they do that’s different from the old ACT UP?” Partly they campaign for Truvada in the UK, says BuzzFeed News. “Why isn’t the old ACT UP doing that too?” he asks.
The British government has recently blocked attempts to make sex education compulsory in all schools. What does Kramer think about that?
“You will pay the price for that,” he says, adding that the price is death “in many instances”.
While he is still in full flow – despite his partial deafness meaning questions sometimes have to be repeated several times – we return to US politics.
“I would like Hillary Clinton to win because I think she is smarter at how power and government works than Bernie [Sanders] is,” he says. But just as Kramer is about to explain his doorbells goes. He screams: “COME IN, COME IN. HELLO.”
A voice – male and, it seems, a neighbour – replies, “Larry, I’ve got dessert for you and David.” Kramer’s tone immediately sweetens, “Oh bless you, thank you”, before he picks up the receiver and the invective continues: “She’s been through such shit since day one and she knows how to play that game and unfortunately power is a game.”
What will he do if Donald Trump wins?
“Move to Canada.”
Has Obama helped in the fight against HIV/AIDS?
“Yes and no,” he replies. “There hasn’t been one single president since 1981 who has taken AIDS on as an issue to discuss publicly and that includes Obama. Congress right now is in the process of chopping away at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget for research so it would be nice if Obama said something about that publicly. But he hasn’t.” That said, Kramer adds, “He certainly helped us with the marriage thing and has been a better president for us than any of his predecessors.”
Obama is also the first president to preside over an era in which survivors of the 1980s AIDS crisis grew old. A recent report by the San Francisco Chronicle depicts elderly people living with HIV since the 1980s as forgotten: left unsupported facing old age with little security, community, or assistance from the government. Does Kramer think the few, like him, who made it have been forgotten?
“That’s a very good question,” he says. “It’s beginning to be talked about a little bit. Finally. But the answer is many of these people don’t have partners and as you get old and your health becomes more complicated you really need a partner to help you get through all of this. A lot don’t have proper insurance and they lead sad lives with decreased mobility. It’s not a subject you hear much talked about, but it should be.”
When BuzzFeed News probes into Kramer’s current health he seems sanguine, offering, “I don’t feel well a lot of the time. The things bothering me now are mostly due to old age. My T-cells [the chief markers of the immune system] slowly continue to decline although I’m told it’s still within the safety range. I don’t know what happens when they aren’t and I worry about that, but I tend to worry about almost anything.”
He laughs again. He says the most painful part of watching the documentary was seeing himself in hospital recovering from the transplant. “Fortunately I’m married to a wonderful man and he hasn’t let me feel too sorry for myself.”
Larry Kramer and his husband David Webster
In any case, Kramer is still furiously busy working. He’s finished the sequel to The Normal Heart, and says he is awaiting details from HBO about a televised adaptation. He has the second instalment of The American People to finish – the first is 777 pages long. And he is working on a production of his play A Minor Dark Age.
Did he ever think he would live this long?
“No, I did not,” he says flatly. “But I still have things to say. I’m grateful that my mind is still very healthy. If I couldn’t write I would rather be dead.”
There is a piece of footage in the documentary in which Kramer likens living amid the AIDS crisis – or "plague" as he would have it – with living through a war. BuzzFeed News asks what psychological effects remain from that war, but Kramer sidesteps the question. “The war is still going on,” he says, with a glimmer of his old rhetoric. “It fuels my anger. It gives me energy to fight.”
Entwined with this notorious fury is something else: unstinting certainty.
"I don’t regret anything I’ve done," he reflects. "I don’t know whether they were mistakes or not. I don’t think they were. Everything I say, and said, to me seems so obvious."
Attempts by BuzzFeed News to prompt self-examination are not wholly successful. What was beneath all that anger? He replies: “You mean, am I a pussycat?” He roars with laughter.
No, says BuzzFeed News, what was really informing the anger? Was it hurt? Frustration?
“I don’t think there’s anything behind the anger that’s not upfront – I just believe that gay people deserve the same thing as straight people have in every possible field and it’s not fair we don’t," he says. "So the fact that something is so patently unfair continues to be on top of my anger and underneath it.” Without pausing he adds, “I’m just as angry now as I was in the very beginning, it’s just that I’m older and it may sound different coming from an older man – it’s not yelling so much as explaining.”
In the spirit, then, of passing down knowledge, what would Kramer’s advice be to a young gay person today?
“Be proud that you are gay,” he says. “You belong to a very distinguished history and culture. Be proud of it. Be proud of yourself. Make being gay the most important thing in your life. Stop hiding behind it and fight for whatever you’re not getting.”
The warrior, the man who buried 18 friends in as many months before burying many more, who has lived with HIV since 1988, who has won fame and acclaim while being attacked from every side, seems in the end more like a lioness, protecting, roaring. He adds that he loves gay people, loves being gay, and simply wants everyone to feel that way.
And so, as the conversation reaches the end BuzzFeed News thanks him, not only for his time but for his work. A writer, after all, who does not at least infuriate some people is not worth much. Despite the many plaudits he has received, along with decades of praise from various quarters, Larry Kramer’s tone suddenly changes, brightening with humility.
“Oh thank you,” he says, touched. “Thank you. God bless,” and puts the phone down.