Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944
Larry Kramer grappled with his sexual identity from childhood but did not acknowledge to himself that he was gay until the spring of his freshman year at Yale University, when one of his professors seduced him. This seduction made the young Kramer aware for the first time of his true...
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- Critical Essays
Larry Kramer grappled with his sexual identity from childhood but did not acknowledge to himself that he was gay until the spring of his freshman year at Yale University, when one of his professors seduced him. This seduction made the young Kramer aware for the first time of his true sexual nature.
The son of a Bridgeport attorney, George L. Kramer, and his wife, Rea Wishengrad Kramer, a social worker, Larry entered Yale in 1953 and was plagued by health problems including a persistent cough that soon landed him in the infirmary. Before his first semester ended, Kramer had attempted suicide, perhaps gleaning what his sexual orientation was and being terrified by the prospect. When one of his professors seduced him, a new world opened to the unhappy youth, who then was able to settle into his studies and complete his undergraduate degree at Yale.
Upon graduation, Kramer entered the United States Army for one year, after which he joined a training program with the William Morris Agency, often a step that led talented young people into pursuits in film or theater. This program helped land Kramer at Columbia Pictures in 1958. By 1960, he had become an assistant story editor in New York City for that corporation. He was promoted and transferred to London as a production executive, where he served from 1961 until 1965. In 1965, he became an assistant to the president of the United Artists Film Company.
His career as screenwriter and producer proceeded with his production of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush in 1967 and his celebrated screenplay of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, a controversial film that received considerable attention and several awards. Kramer’s screenwriting continued until the publication of his novel Faggots in 1978 brought him to the attention of the homosexual community nationally. He then devoted himself to working with the problems of gays and lesbians in contemporary American society.
This concern broadened and deepened in the years following 1981, when AIDS began to cast its long and intimidating shadow over gay enclaves across the nation. With AIDS emerging as a national threat, Kramer was outraged at public and governmental indifference to the illness, which was at that time viewed as a gay disease unworthy of much public support. Kramer was strident, indeed often shrill, in trying to arouse a lethargic public.
In 1981, he became a cofounder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was actively involved in its daily operation until 1983, when he came under fire from the organization after his article, “1,112 and Counting,” appeared in the March 14-17, 1983, issue of New York Native and was widely disseminated in gay publications throughout the country. This piece authenticated 1,112 cases of AIDS and 418 deaths. Some in the gay community, still apathetic toward the disease, accused Kramer of overstating its dangers and of running the risk of creating a panic.
Relieved of his daily involvement with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Kramer had more time to write, turning his attention to writing one of the earliest plays about AIDS, The Normal Heart, which was well received by audiences and critics alike. It ran for more than a year on Broadway.
On March 10, 1987, purely by chance, Kramer was asked to replace Nora Ephron as the speaker at a meeting of gays at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Community Center. This speech was possibly the most effective in Kramer’s career as a gay activist. He called on gays to demand that government give increased attention to the AIDS plague. He outlined how difficult it was for physicians to obtain new drugs for treating the disease and urged his audience to force the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate the testing procedures for AIDS medications and to pressure the pharmaceutical industry to intensify its research to create drugs to treat and possibly eliminate the disease.
It was this speech that convinced an inflamed audience to join Kramer in establishing ACT UP, a radical organization that demanded that the public focus on the AIDS problem. The organization used unconventional tactics—including the outing of public officials—that threatened many people. In the end, however, these tactics succeeded. The Normal Heart had given Kramer increased credibility within both mainstream and gay communities, and its sequel, The Destiny of Me, produced in 1992, increased this credibility. His farce, Just Say No, which played Off-Broadway in 1988, was neither a critical nor a popular success.
Faggots condemned the sort of gay life Kramer found in New York, which centered around gay bars, bath houses, and Fire Island weekends. Kramer had long considered stability more important than sex in gay relationships but had been unable to find a compatible partner who shared his views. This situation changed, however, in 1993 when he met and fell in love with David Webster, an architect, with whom he shares a vintage Connecticut house.
Fully dedicated to the gay causes to which he devoted his life, Kramer in 1997 offered Yale University, his alma mater, several million dollars to establish a tenured professorship in gay and lesbian studies. This offer was rejected as too narrow a specialty to justify an endowed, tenured professorship. Kramer’s papers, however, have been bequeathed to Yale.
Despite the domestic tranquillity he has achieved, Kramer’s later years have been plagued by illness. He has had to cope with HIV, and as Newsweek reported in its June 11, 2001, issue, he suffers from cirrhosis of the liver. He was initially denied a place on the waiting list for a badly needed liver transplant but was later placed on that list. His physician at the time of the Newsweek report estimated that Kramer had no more than eighteen months to live.