• U.S.

LARRY KRAMER: Using Rage to Fight the Plague

7 minute read
Janice C. Simpson and Larry Kramer

Q. Why have AIDS activists decided to target the Catholic Church?

A. The church is perceived as being behind the times not only on abortion but also on sex education and gay rights. Even though it’s representing something that is thousands of years old, every once in a while, you’ve got to give the machine a lube job.

Q. But wasn’t it going too far when a protester destroyed a consecrated wafer during a demonstration in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

A. We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to raise the issues. We are an activist organization, and activism is fueled by anger, so people should not be surprised when that anger erupts in ways that not everyone approves of.

Q. Is the right to protest any more sacred than the right to practice one’s religion in peace?

A. If you’re asking me to apologize, I’m not going to. We’re prepared to leave the Catholic Church alone if the Catholic Church will leave us alone.

Q. You founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which organized the demonstrations. What is it?

A. ACT UP is a street-smart bunch of very courageous scrappers. We have protests, which include taking over the opening plenary session of the AIDS conference in Montreal, blocking the Golden Gate Bridge and protesting endlessly at city hall here in New York. We have telephone zaps where we tie up switchboards. We purchased millions of dollars of tickets when Northwest Airlines refused to carry AIDS people as passengers, tickets that weren’t paid for, of course. Because we are gay people and have wonderful taste and can put on wonderful shows, our demonstrations are usually very theatrical.

Q. Is ACT UP establishing alliances?

A. Because we are for universal health care, we have been approached by a good half a dozen unions, asking if we can somehow fund and organize a consensus organization. Because we are for the early release of drugs, we find ourselves quoted by right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation because they’re for anything that keeps government out of business. Because the release of the drug DDI has been so successful, Hoffmann-La Roche, an enormously conservative Swiss company, has now called us and said, Let’s talk about making the new drug DDC the next DDI.

Q. Wasn’t speeding the release of drugs ACT UP’s original mission?

A. The mission of ACT UP is to end the AIDS epidemic. I think the reason everyone is coming to us now is that they perceive us, quite rightly, as being able to fight the battle, to carry the ball, to raise the issues and follow through.

+ Q. But do you need to be so confrontational?

A. Even more so. We perceive it as a two-pronged attack. We send our experts in to negotiate with the Government’s experts, and at the same time we use our street troops as a threat.

Q. Don’t you worry about alienating people?

A. Gay people have finally learned the terrible lesson that we are always going to have enemies no matter what. So you can’t go through life being afraid of them. And that’s what ACT UP has finally put into practice: Don’t run from fear.

Q. You tested positive for the HIV virus just last year. How has that changed your life?

A. It makes life exceptionally precious. On the other hand, you have nightmares, and there are many nights when you wake up at 4 in the morning scared.

Q. Were you encouraged by the report from Johns Hopkins that bone-marrow transplants might provide a cure?

A. We’re always happy that research is going ahead, obviously. But the press really did the world a disservice by putting such an incomplete and unchallenged story on the front page, giving, in essence, false hope to a lot of people. Even if it worked, it would cost, minimum, $200,000 per patient, and there are very few people they could do it on because it is very hard to match up bone marrow.

Q. What is the most promising research going on right now?

A. One of the most interesting developments has been the appearance of what is called CRIs, community research initiatives, which are community-based treatment organizations. We have found ways to set up in each individual community, with doctors’ help, tests that are free from Government interference and can therefore work much more smoothly.

Q. Isn’t the Government funding some of these programs?

A. The grants are peanuts.

Q. But more people die each year from cancer or heart disease than from AIDS, and yet the Government spends more on AIDS than on them.

A. I’m so sick of that argument. AIDS is a transmissible virus. Heart disease is not. There is a new HIV infection every single minute in this country. There is a new death every half-hour. We found that Congress has indeed appropriated the money, but it’s not being spent, or it’s being spent foolishly. Someone has got to be put in charge. You need a Lee Iacocca.

Q. Where is the bottleneck?

A. The bottleneck is that George Bush doesn’t give a damn. We got the second inhumane, uncaring monster in the White House in a row. The Government is spending half a billion dollars a year to test drugs in Government research in local hospitals around the country, but those hospitals don’t have enough patients enrolled in the drug trials because the Government doesn’t tell anybody that these trials exist.

Q. Why, instead of setting up your own testing programs, aren’t you directing people into these?

A. We’re doing that too. We set up our own organization called the AIDS Treatment Registry. It’s an in-depth directory of every drug trial that you can get into in this area.

Q. Aren’t doctors the ones who direct their patients to the hospitals?

A. Don’t talk to me about doctors. I think doctors have probably one of the most shameful records in this whole epidemic, because they’ve known from the very beginning what’s going on. They have a very powerful union in the A.M.A., and yet they’ve done precious little about exerting pressure.

Q. Why has there been such complacency about AIDS?

A. Well, I think that there is no question because of who it’s happening to. I mean, you can say all you want about denial, but this is happening to black people and to Hispanic people and to people who take drugs and to gay people and to babies who are born out of wedlock, and these are all people that a lot of other people would just as soon weren’t there.

Q. How have you sustained the intensity of your anger over these past nine years?

A. I have a lot of dead friends, and I think that helps fuel my energy. I had a lover that I wrote about in my play The Normal Heart, and I remember him daily. And now, of course, I’m fighting even more for my own life.

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