These days, the only ‘disruptors’ we hear about are in business – Uber, Airbnb, Netflix. Technology, convenience, money. The 21st Century form of revolution. Ho hum.
Meet activist, playwright, screenwriter and author, Larry Kramer. He knew a lot about disrupting but not the 21st Century version. Here he is at an ACT UP Meeting in 1991. Warning: rude language.
His fury had a purpose. This was a matter of life and death and he had plenty to be cranky about. Kramer’s talking about HIV/AIDS and ACT UP is an acronym for AIDS COALITION TO UNLEASH POWER.
Enraged about the ostracism, discrimination and lack of political action (also by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, GMHC), Kramer set up ACT UP, in lower Manhattan with only 300 people in 1987. Their motto was: Silence=Death. Hiding out, in shame, and dying wasn’t going to work. ACT UP forced the reality of people suffering with AIDS out of the closet and into the scorching light of day so it became everyone’s problem. And it was. (As of 2012, AIDS has caused 36 million deaths worldwide and more than 35 million are living with HIV/AIDS—the greatest number in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is still no cure but combinations of retrovirus drugs and early treatment mean people can live long lives with HIV/AIDS).
If you weren’t there, it’s hard to imagine how bleak and terrifying it was in the early eighties–early nineties when people—young and middle-aged mostly—were dying of HIV/AIDS, and the numbers diagnosed were climbing by the day. Asking politely, negotiating, and trying to engage in meaningful ‘conversations’ with politicians didn’t work back then. (It was a different story in Australia, we led the way—see my next post).
Early on, President Reagan and his administration had failed to acknowledge there was a health crisis and it took them too long to catch up. Larry Kramer, and others, believed it was because gay men and drug addicts were the people dying first and in the greatest numbers—and they didn’t matter. A crude analysis and blunt but hard to argue with given the slowness of response. (Here’s a disturbing transcript from 1982, ‘83 and ‘84 when Reagan’s press secretary joked over and over again about AIDS when asked by a journalist about the “gay plague”. Would they joke about Ebola? Probably not).
From the outset, ACT UP’s goal was to focus public consciousness on the necessity for a coordinated national response on HIV/AIDS: legislation, medical research, access to drugs and the creation of policies that would deal directly with the disease and minimize transmission.
Watching In Love and Anger, a film by Jean Carlomusto, about the life of Larry Kramer, you see a style of activism we don’t see much anymore (although feminist punk group Pussy Riot came close and they were put in a cage and sent to labor camps, but then it is Russia). Kramer wanted the activism to be about anger because he was outraged that the inaction was somehow acceptable in civil secular American society. Anger was central to the ACT UP platform and it worked.
I knew about Kramer’s activism, and his play The Normal Heart (now an HBO movie starring Mark Ruffalo) but I didn’t know that he came from a background in showbusiness—feature films to be exact. He spent his early adult life in the film business as a story editor, screenwriter and producer in London in the 1960s when studios like United Artists were making sophisticated films for grown ups. If you’ve seen the 1969 screen adaptation of D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love, you’d remember Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling nude in front of the fire—yes, written by Kramer. He also wrote one of the worst films ever made (by his own admission): the 1970s remake of the Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon. The film business was lucrative in those days and his Yale-educated lawyer brother who had always supported Larry, had negotiated a high fee on his behalf. He made enough on the embarrassingly bad film to give him financial independence. I think that’s a fair trade myself. Without Lost Horizon he might never have had the time to act up or write The Normal Heart, and then where would we be? You see, it pays to pay artists.
There was something else: Kramer had learned from the film business how to put on a show and he put that knowledge and experience to good use in the social-political arena.
Instead of keeping a low profile, ACT UP worked on the opposite principle. There was no social media and they knew the only way through to the broader community and politicians was to get to on television and into the newspapers. They got in people’s faces and the lenses of media cameras by staging loud, theatrical protests: they picketed medical bureaucracies; occupied Wall Street, demonstrated in St Patrick’s Cathedral during mass, poured the ashes of friends and family who had died from AIDS on the White House Lawn, chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange in protest against the cost of AZT and put neatly-dressed, highly articulate Harvard graduates (men and women) on popular television shows talking about condoms and sex education in schools.
One of my favorite fridge magnets/bumper stickers was
CALL THE WHITE HOUSE
1 (202) 456 1414
TELL BUSH WE’RE NOT ALL DEAD YET.
They got everyone’s attention with the media coverage and scared drug companies, and politicians into taking long-called for action.
In the end, ACT UP achieved what it set out to do: they got the life saving drugs out there. As one of the specialists and health professionals Kramer fought with, respected and worked alongside, says in the HBO documentary:
There was medicine before Larry Kramer and there’s medicine after Larry Kramer.
Photo in header by David Shankbone. Source: Wikicommonsact up, HIV/AIDS, larry kramer, Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger, pussy riot, the normal heart