Commentary

Activism doesn’t need to be peaceful. Larry Kramer taught us that.

Activism doesn’t need to be peaceful. Larry Kramer taught us that.
In this June 12, 2011 photo, Larry Kramer accepts the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play for "The Normal Heart" during the 65th annual Tony Awards in New York. Kramer, the playwright and AIDS activist turns 80 on Monday, June 29, 2015, and neither recent illness nor the glow of a new marriage has softened the urgency of his demands.Photo: Jeff Christensen, AP

Larry Kramer died May 27 at the age of 84.

His play The Normal Heart is the singular piece of art that woke me up to the gravity of the AIDS epidemic and what it means to be gay a generation later. It made abundantly clear that had I been born in the 1960s, I would be dead. 

Related: Larry Kramer taught us to grow up, fight for our rights & be proud of being gay

The gay men in New York City who have chosen to not take social distancing seriously throughout the current pandemic would benefit from watching the HBO film of Larry’s play.

The play is about the lack of response from those in power because they were not personally affected by thousands of gay men dying. (Nancy Reagan knew a lot of them personally and still didn’t care.) At its heartbreaking core, it’s about the tragic repercussions of selfishness and only caring about oneself.

There is a cruel irony in Larry passing away during another pandemic, during which some gay men have ignored protocols because they thought they probably weren’t going to die. If they were alive in the 1980s, they would be furious that older people weren’t caring enough about their imminent deaths.

Activism should be furious

Larry’s style of activism was the “furious” kind. Larry was mad as hell that politicians didn’t do all they could to stop AIDS. He also attacked gay men themselves who refused to change their ways, which made him very unpopular in many circles for years.

He called out the media, particularly the New York Times, for severely under-reporting the AIDS crisis. Larry stayed angry about widespread silent complicity. His relentless activism saved thousands of lives in the 1990s.

When The Normal Heart was revived on Broadway in 2011, Larry personally handed out flyers in the lobby after most performances explaining how the people and events in the play were real, that “AIDS is a worldwide plague,” that “pharmaceutical companies are among the evilest and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind,” and that leadership is continuing to fail patients.

He was over 75, HIV-positive, and still pounding the pavement to raise awareness, even to Broadway theatergoers who might think the play was fiction. 

In The New York Times’ obituary of Larry last Wednesday, they wrote, “Kramer enjoyed provocation for its own sake — he once introduced Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York to his pet wheaten terrier as the man who was ‘killing Daddy’s friends’ — and his abusive ways sometimes overshadowed his achievements as an author and activist.”

No one doubted this was a final dig at a man who had repeatedly dragged their publication, and within hours, they replaced the word “abusive” with “confrontational.”

The point of Larry’s activism was to be confrontational and to get results. 

We look back now and thank him for being mad and loud and teaching us that SILENCE = DEATH. The legendary drag queen Lady Bunny tweeted upon Larry’s death, with regard to the Times’ dig, “I wish today’s LGBT leaders had more confrontations and fewer galas with straight celebs. RIP to a hero.”

He died during another epidemic

There’s a final irony here that can’t be left unsaid: we are deservedly celebrating a man whose angry and relentless activism made a huge difference. Larry died less than two days after George Floyd, also the victim of an epidemic: racism.

Massive #BlackLivesMatter protests have sprung up nationwide demanding police officers be held accountable for their systemic brutality. A handful of the protests haven’t been peaceful and devolved into riots, complete with looting, breaking windows and burning businesses.

Whether these actions are courtesy of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or white supremacists and anarchists trying to create chaos and discredit the protesters’ message seems to vary. Often, the police are the ones who blatantly escalated the protests they were supposed to be guarding.

There has been widespread condemnation from both the right-wing that continually professes “all lives matter” and from liberal celebrities and politicians touting “violence is not the answer” by evoking Martin Luther King, Jr.

If white people have taken it upon themselves to incite violence and alter the narrative under the guise of defending Black victims of police brutality, few would condone them, Larry included. But what about the “violence” incited by Black people who are fed up with a system that has never worked to protect them?

Should we be telling them it’s “not the right way”? Should we value property like a lamp looted from Target over the life of George Floyd?

Was Larry wrong for trashing politicians and publications and straight people who were ignoring AIDS? People said so then, but upon his death, we are exalting his bravery and aggression. That’s what is happening now because peaceful protests by Black people like Colin Kaepernick have not lessened widespread police brutality. Dr. King called rioting “the language of the unheard.”

Civility doesn’t matter when they don’t value your life

Larry would tell these non-peaceful protesters to have at it. While he generally wasn’t known for physical violence, he also didn’t listen when people, including fellow gay men, said his aggression was counterproductive to the movement and that he had to maintain civility.

Civility did not work when the system didn’t value the lives of gay men. It wasn’t the place of the non-oppressed to condemn rioting back then.

Civility will not work when the powers-that-be don’t value the lives of Black men and women. It’s not the place of white people who will never be able to understand what it is like to be Black in this country to critique their aggression.

Larry defied societal standards of “acceptable” protesting to make substantive change happen, and decades later, we thank him for it. We don’t get to police (no pun intended) how Black people are expressing their rage and grief.

When LGBT demonstrators threw bricks at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 at police officers who were terrorizing and brutalizing them for their sexuality, it was more effective in igniting the LGBT rights movement than any of the prior peaceful demonstrations.

It cannot be ignored that as Pride Month begins, we have a riot to thank for its existence. We have Larry’s aggressive style of activism to thank for eventual government and pharmaceutical involvement with the AIDS crisis. Neither Marsha P. Johnson nor Larry Kramer protested “the right way,” but we look back on them as heroes. 

A few years ago, Will Smith said, “Racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting filmed.” That’s a fact.

It’s time to Act Up again

So many died from AIDS who could have been saved by earlier government intervention. So many are dying from the coronavirus for the same reason. So many Black men and women are being murdered by a police force inundated with systemic racism.

Larry called on straight allies to “ACT UP. FIGHT NOW. END AIDS.” Ultimately, it was LGBTQ people like Larry who got a systemic change to occur, but without the help of these bystanders, it took way too long and a generation was lost.

Racism in America won’t be cured with experimental drug trials or a flattened curve. And Larry also had the white male privilege to be able to attack those turning a blind eye without risk of being shot.

It’s not on Black people to fix police brutality or educate the naive who say “all lives matter.” They are calling on white people to put their money where their mouths are, and so far, there has been a significant white presence in protesting and allyship.

There are, of course, many who have remained silent, and the ways in which their complicity has been called out in recent days evokes Larry’s credo of “SILENCE = DEATH.” It’s on white allies to rise to the occasion and fight for the lives of people of color even after police brutality stops “trending.”

That’s what Larry would support, and he wouldn’t say it has to be peaceful. Today’s protesters demand justice before peace, just as Larry fought with aggression over civility.

Silence = Death. Act Up. Fight Back.

Rest In Power, Larry Kramer.

 

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