A riddle for your thoughts-A mysterious illness seems to emerge from nowhere. It rages through entire communities. Few seem to understand it, and fear of the disease causes those who have it, or who are at high risk, into intense isolation.
The government doesn’t seem to be able to mount an effective response. The death toll continues to mount, with seemingly no progress towards effective treatment, cure or vaccination.
Sound like COVID-19, not really, because I’m not talking about today. I’m talking about the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country several decades ago. Larry Kramer, a writer, and activist watched in horror as HIV/AIDS tore through his community. He and many of his friends found themselves attending funerals with alarming frequency, sometimes more than once a week. His grief turned to rage, and his rage turned to action.
He began organizing activists to call out for a stronger response from the government. He spoke boldly and often caustically to and about those in charge, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Kramer’s efforts paid off. He got the attention of key leaders and change began to come. Today, HIV/AIDS is no longer a certain death sentence. Effective treatments have been found that make it possible for people who have it to lead long, happy, healthy lives.
Kramer, who was himself diagnosed with HIV decades ago, passed away recently just a few weeks short of his 85th birthday.
It takes moxie to speak truth to power, and Kramer had it.
Moxie is prophetic.
Prophets tell people the truth, even when it is uncomfortable. For that reason, prophets are often disliked.
That was certainly true of Larry Kramer.
He struggled with the culture of the gay community of 1970s Fire Island and Manhattan. He wanted real, lasting, genuine love and connection, but it was difficult to come by in hard-partying, fast lifestyle. He channeled his feelings into a novel called Faggots. The novel was received with shock and dismay.
“The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor. People would literally turn their back when I walked by,” recalled Kramer. “You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the … truth to everyone I have ever met.”
Kramer was a fearless truth-teller, even when it cost him relationships and opportunities.
Moxie knows how to get attention.
Kramer’s outrage at the lack of effective government response to the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980s focused on one man: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Kramer’s strategy was to be as incendiary as possible, knowing that the more outrageous he became, the more people would pay attention to what he was saying.
Kramer railed against Fauci, even calling for him to be put in front of a firing squad.
But a chance meeting on a street in Montreal changed everything. Fauci and Kramer began to connect and realized they might have different approaches and ideas, but they were on the same side. Fauci was willing to listen to Kramer and the activists and community organizers he worked with.
Over time, Kramer and Fauci developed a deep, lasting friendship. But that didn’t keep Kramer from busting Fauci’s chops.
After one particularly brutal joint appearance on a news show, Kramer called Fauci to debrief.
“He said, ‘That was really great, wasn’t it, Tony? We really did well.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we did well?’ He answered, ‘We made our point.’ I said, ‘I know, Larry, but you called me a dirty rat in front of 10 million people on Nightline,’” recalled Fauci.
That was Kramer’s whole point. He was concerned that people were becoming complacent about HIV.
“He figured that a good way to get attention was to trash Tony Fauci in front of 10 million people,” Fauci mused.
Moxie gets things done.
Kramer did far more than throw verbal bombs. He organized. He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to meet the needs of those affected by HIV/AIDS, and later the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, an organization that grabbed headlines with creative and confrontational protests.
His personal crusading and public organizing got results.
“In American medicine, there are two eras: before Larry and after Larry,” Fauci said in an interview with The New Yorker. “There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. When all the screaming and the histrionics are forgotten, that will remain.”
Larry Kramer’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Kramer