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Larry Kramer on the 20th Anniversary of ACT UP, the Government's Failure to Prevent the AIDS Crisis

Larry Kramer on the 20th Anniversary of ACT UP, the Government's Failure to Prevent the AIDS Crisis and the State of Gay Activism Today

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/03/29/1352252

This month, ACT UP - the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power - is marking its 20th anniversary. We spend the hour with ACT UP co-founder, Larry Kramer. A legendary - and controversial - figure in the gay rights movement, Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. He has also written many plays including "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me." Kramer was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over 70 years old. He joins us today in our firehouse studio for the hour. [includes rush transcript - partial]

Twenty years ago this week, 250 AIDS activists traveled to Wall Street to protest the high price of antiviral drugs and the Reagan's administrations failure to address the AIDS crisis. The date was March 24, 1987.

Activists lay down in the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, blocking traffic. Some held cardboard tombstones. Seventeen of them were arrested.

It was the first of many actions led by a newly formed group called AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power - or ACT UP. The group's motto was Silence Equals Death. ACT UP would go on to invade the offices of drug companies and scientific labs, storm Saint Patrick's cathedral in New York, cover the home of Jesse Helms in a giant condom and conduct die-ins at the FDA.

In October 1992, members of ACT UP headed to Washington where the AIDS quilt was on display. They decided to throw the ashes of loved ones who had died of AIDS onto the grass of the White House. The event was captured in the documentary The Ashes Action.

 

  • The Ashes Action - excerpt of documentary.

     

This month ACT UP is marking its 20th anniversary. Today hundreds of members of ACT Up are heading back to Wall Street. This time to demand a single-payer health care system and drug price controls.

Among the protesters will be the activist and writer Larry Kramer. In 1983 he helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the country's first AIDS organization. Four years later he helped form ACT UP.

He is a legendary - and controversial - figure in the gay rights movement. In the early 1980s Larry Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic. One article was titled "1,112 and Counting." At the time there were just over one thousand known cases of AIDS. He wrote, "Unless we fight for our lives we shall die... every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us." He has also written many plays including "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me."

Larry was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over 70 years old. Larry Kramer joins us today in our firehouse studio for the hour.

 

  • Larry Kramer, longtime AIDS activist, author and playwright. He helped found both the Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP. He has written many plays and books. His most recent book is titled "The Tragedy of Today's Gays."

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty years ago this week, 250 AIDS activists

traveled to Wall Street to protest the high price of antiviral drugs and the Reagan administration's failure to address the AIDS crisis. The date: March 24, 1987. Activists lay down in the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, blocking traffic. Some held cardboard tombstones. Seventeen of them were arrested. It was the first of many actions led by a newly formed group called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The group's motto was “Silence equals death.”

ACT UP would go on to invade the offices of drug companies and scientific labs, storm St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, cover the home of Jesse Helms in a giant condom, and conduct die-ins at the FDA.

In October 1992, members of ACT UP headed to Washington, where the AIDS quilt was on display. They decided to throw the ashes of loved ones who died of AIDS onto the grass of the White House. The event was captured in the documentary, The Ashes Action.

    ACT UP ACTIVIST: I think the quilt itself does good stuff and is moving. Still, it's like making something beautiful out of the epidemic, and I felt like doing something like is a way of showing there is nothing beautiful about it. You know, this is what I’m left with. I’ve got a box full of ashes and bone chips. You know, there's no beauty in that. And I felt like a statement like this, throwing these on the White House lawn, is like saying this is what George Bush has done. You know, this is what him and Ronald Reagan before him have done.

    DEMONSTRATORS: Bringing the dead to your door! We won't take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won't take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won't take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won't take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door! We won't take it anymore!

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, The Ashes Action. Well, this month, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is marking its twentieth anniversary. Today, hundreds of members of ACT Up are heading back to Wall Street, this time to demand a single-payer healthcare system and drug price controls.

Among those who will be walking will be the activist and writer Larry Kramer. In 1983, he helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the country's first AIDS organization. Four years later, he helped form ACT UP. He is a legendary and controversial figure in the gay rights movement. In the early 1980s, Larry Kramer wrote some of the first articles warning about the AIDS epidemic. One article was called "1,112 and Counting." At the time, there were just over a thousand known cases of AIDS. He wrote, "Unless we fight for our lives we shall die... every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us." Larry Kramer has also written many plays, including The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me.

Larry was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. He nearly died in 2001 from Hepatitis B in the liver. He is now over seventy years old. Larry Kramer joins us today in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LARRY KRAMER: Thank you for having me here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

LARRY KRAMER: Thank you. It moves me to see the footage of the ashes. I never saw that film, and so many of those faces are dead. And it’s still hard to look at that.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry, let's go back twenty years. Well, let's go back to when you wrote that very controversial piece, that wake-up call to this country: “1,112 and Counting.” What were the circumstances at the time?

LARRY KRAMER: Whatever was happening happened in my group of friends in 1981, when the first article appeared in the New York Times saying forty-one cases. And I immediately went to the doctor had made the announcement, and he said, “I think this is just the tip of the iceberg” -- Dr. Friedman-Kien at New York University. And I just knew he was right. And as I say --

AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand it was at the time?

LARRY KRAMER: Well, I mean, he said he thought it was a virus. He said the same thing that the government refused to say: I think it’s a virus, and I think you should stop having sex, and I think you should cool it, certainly. And no one wanted to hear any of that. And, of course, the virus wasn't discovered officially until 1984. So people didn't want to believe that terrible news.

I just knew it. We had had so many illnesses in our population before, a lot of syphilis, a lot of gonorrhea, a lot of amoebas, a lot of hepatitis. And it was like everything was being escalated. And I said, “That's the next thing that’s happening to us.” It just made so much sense to me. I don’t know why. Everyone says, “Oh, you were so prescient.” I don’t think it was prescience. I thought it was as clear as the nose on everybody's face, if they cared to look.

And, as I say, my friends first died; in my population, the kids on Fire Island, all the houses around us at Fire Island Pines, were the first people who died. So I called a meeting in my apartment and invited everybody I knew and said, “We've got to do something.” Dr. Friedman-Kien spoke to us. A lot of people didn't want to believe. Most people didn’t want to believe. And there were just a handful of us who started meeting regularly, as regularly as you could get a bunch of people together in those days.

And then, in February of ’82, I said, “We've got to formalize this,” and I invited six people to my apartment. And I said, “We have to make a formal organization or something.” And somebody said, “Gay men certainly have a health crisis.” And I said, “That's our title. That's what we'll call ourselves.” And I got my brother's law firm to -- not easily -- to do the pro bono work for us, and we established ourselves.

And, unfortunately, Gay Men’s Health Crisis became a pastoral organization, rather than an activist organization. That was a major disappointment to me. They would not take a stand. The president was in the closet, and all they wanted to do was pass out information about what might be happening -- no recommendations, no political pressure of any sort.

I was not a political person in 1981. I had been a film producer. I had been assistant to the president of United Artists and then Columbia Pictures, never participated in gay politics, never marched in a gay parade -- basically a shy person. And I learned my lesson slowly, what you had to do to fight. And it’s a long lesson, and one is still learning it, and one is still sad to see that so few other people have learned it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean the president was in the closet?

LARRY KRAMER: The president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, whose name was Paul Popham, now dead. He was an executive with what was then called Irving Trust Company. And he was in the closet at work, so he would not appear in public. He was a very handsome man, and I would say -- this is all dramatized in my play, The Normal Heart -- I would say, “Look at you. You’re so handsome! Go out there and be our spokesperson.” You know, I’m too live a wire. I scare people. And he couldn't do it. He wouldn’t do it. So there were a lot of fights about visibility. And one realized then, in those days, you didn't bring people out of the closet. Now, you do. I mean, now, when a public official is gay, we bring him out of the closet fast, if we can, because they are basically helping to murder us, if we don't.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? How do you see that?

LARRY KRAMER: Well, you know, I’m telling everybody not -- I’m telling the gay world not to vote for any of these candidates now, right now, that are up for election, because they’re all against us. They all -- there isn’t a public official out there, there isn’t anybody running for public office now who would not sell gay people down the river given half a chance. And so, I brought a piece in the LA Times recently saying this is hate. You know, this is hate, that we're so treated this way. And if you're voting for these people, then you're basically saying you hate us, too. It's been never-ending.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the actions, to say the least, they were creative over the years, quite astonishing actions.

LARRY KRAMER: That's gay people for you.

AMY GOODMAN: Among them, the ACT UP action on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

LARRY KRAMER: That was our very first -- no, it wasn’t. It was a further demo -- bunch of guys who worked in Wall Street, who were ACT UP members, put on their suits and ties and managed to make fake IDs, and they, for the first time in history, infiltrated the floor of the Stock Exchange, and they showered the floor with fliers saying “Sell Wellcome.” That was Burroughs Wellcome, the maker of AZT, who said -- antivirals. That was the only one then, and it was very expensive, and it wasn't very good. And we were basically making the statement: it's not good enough, and it’s too expensive. And they did lower the price because of that. However, they raised the price of another drug, but we made a point.

We had success from the very beginning, I must say. The very first demo that you talked of, that night a bunch of guys infiltrated the Evening News on CBS with Dan Rather, and he's making his news -- you know, he's reading the news, and suddenly there are all these ACT UP kids in the back with signs.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break, but we’re going to come back to that action against the news media, against -- it was CBS, it was the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and they had made their way onto the sets of the Evening News. Larry Kramer is our guest. We'll be back in a minute

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