This is the second of four short essays about the man and his moment.
It’s the rare leader who is, simultaneously, a theoretician and practitioner. Most are one or the other, as it takes a certain kind of genius to be as good at deciding what is to be done as doing it. In fact, the phrase “What Is to Be Done?” brings to mind one such leader, Lenin, whose pamphlet by that name, published in 1903, foretold the revolution he later led, in 1917.
Kramer’s first most important contribution to the gay rights movement was his insistence that in order successfully to fight “gay cancer,” AIDS, gay men would themselves have to fight. As in “1,112 and Counting,” Kramer continued to argue that gay men would have to become angry and assertive enough first to organize, and then to take on the establishment, primarily but not exclusively the medical establishment.
Kramer’s second most important contribution to the gay rights movement was his willingness to put his money where his mouth was – his willingness to act on what he believed to be right and good and true. Kramer was one of several men who founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), established in the early 1980’s to assist those stricken by AIDS, providing them with supports, including financial, medical, legal, and social. It was the first organization of substance and size to represent this particular population, which of course had up to then been marginalized.
But Kramer was not content with what he had crafted. Congenitally demanding and impatient under the best of circumstances, he quickly grew dissatisfied with GMHC, considering it too careful and conservative in the face of a health crisis that each year was more catastrophic. So Kramer quit the group he had helped to found, subsequently to establish a more militant one, ACT UP.
ACT UP became famous, infamous, for tactics that were, to put it politely, histrionic, in your face, rude to the point of being outrageous. To realize its primary purpose – to force the pharmaceutical industry and, more importantly, the Food and Drug Administration to develop and distribute drugs to fight AIDS – the group was prepared to risk all, including ridicule and arrest. Kramer himself was typically front and center. He was perfectly capable, for example, of standing in the street, megaphone in hand, screaming “President Reagan, your son is gay!” Just as he was perfectly capable of joining ACT UP when its members tried to dump the ashes of a young friend on the south lawn of the White House, or when they shut down the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or when they chained themselves to the gates at the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche.
Kramer never however surrendered his pen. In fact, as the 1980’s dragged on, drugs made available only at a pace that he considered criminally sluggish, his pen and his protest merged, became one. In 1988 Kramer wrote an open letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading AIDS researcher and high ranking official at the National Institutes for Health. It read in part:
I have been screaming at the National Institutes of Health since I first visited your Animal House of Horrors in 1984. I called you monsters then… and now I call you murderers. You are responsible for supervising all government-funded AIDS treatment research programs. In the name of right, you make decisions that cost the lives of others. I call the decisions you are making acts of murder.
No wonder Kramer was never the most popular guy in town. No wonder Kramer is a leader whose name will endure.