Laurence David Kramer was born in Bridgeport,Connecticut, the younger of two children to Rea (Wishengrad) and George Kramer.His family was Jewish.
George grow up really poor and his family’s finances dipped further after their move to Maryland. At one point,his father pressured him to get married to a rich woman,despite him being gay,making him enroll to Pi Tau Pi,a Jewish fraternity.
Kramer enrolled at Yale University in 1953,which had been somewhat a family tradition as his father, older brother Arthur, and two uncles were alumni. However,he had a hard time adjusting especially due to his sexuality, feeling like he was the only gay student on campus.Kramer’s failed suicide attempt through an aspirin overdose was his turning point and his experience left him determined to explore his sexuality and set him on the path to fight “for gay people’s worth.”
The next semester, he had an affair with his German professor,his first requited romantic relationship with a man but it was short lived as his professor was scheduled to move to Europe for further studies.
In 1957,Kramer graduated with a degree in English.
Kramer became involved with movie production at age 23 by taking a job as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures. Eventually, he earned himself a position in the story department reworking scripts and his first writing credit was as a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a teen sex comedy. Shortly after he worked on the 1969 Oscar-nominated screenplay Women in Love, an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s novel.
Kramer then began to integrate homosexual themes into his work, and tried writing for the stage. He wrote Sissies’ Scrapbook in 1973 (later rewritten and retitled as Four Friends), first produced at the Playwrights Horizons theater.Sissies’ Scrapbook was a dramatic play about four friends, one of whom is gay, and their dysfunctional relationships.
Although the play was given a somewhat favorable review by The New York Times, it was closed by the producer and Kramer was so distraught that he decided never to write for the stage again, later stating, “You must be a masochist to work in the theater and a sadist to succeed on its stages.”
In 1978, Kramer wrote Faggots,a novel about the fast lifestyle of gay men of Fire Island and Manhattan. He modeled the primary character on himself, a man who is unable to find love while encountering the drugs and emotionless sex in the trendy bars and discos.
The novel caused an uproar in the community it portrayed,to the extent of being taken off the shelves of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore,New York’s only gay bookstore.Kramer was even banned from the grocery store near his home on Fire Island.
On the reception of the novel Kramer says, “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. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met.”Faggots, however, became one of the best-selling gay novels of all time.
Initially, while living on Fire Island in the 1970s, Kramer had no intention of getting involved in political activism, however, he changed his mind when friends he knew from Fire Island began getting sick in 1980.
In 1981 Kramer invited the “A-list” (his own term) group of gay men from the New York City area to his apartment to listen to a doctor say their friends’ illnesses were related, and research needed to be done.In 1982, they named themselves the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and became the primary organization to raise funds for and provide services to people stricken with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the New York area.
When doctors suggested men stop having sex, Kramer strongly encouraged GMHC to deliver the message to as many gay men as possible. When they refused, Kramer wrote an essay entitled “1,112 and Counting”, printed in 1983 in the New York Native, a gay newspaper. The essay discussed the spread of the disease, the lack of government response, and apathy of the gay community.The essay was intended to frighten gay men and anger them to the point where they would respond to government indifference.
The essay accused nearly everyone connected with health care in America of refusing to acknowledge the implications of the AIDS epidemic and its harshest condemnation was directed at those gay men who seemed to think that if they ignored the new disease, it would simply go away.
Kramer’s confrontational style proved to be an advantage, as it earned the issue of AIDS in New York media attention that no other individual could get. The GMHC however ousted Kramer from the organization in 1983 as his preferred method of communication was deemed too militant for the group.
Astonished and saddened about being forced out of GMHC, Kramer took an extended trip to Europe. While visiting Dachau concentration camp he learned that it had opened as early as 1933 and neither Germans nor other nations did anything to stop it.This inspired him to write The Normal Heart, a play set between 1981 and 1984.
It addresses a writer named Ned Weeks as he nurses his lover, who is dying of an unnamed disease. His doctors are puzzled and frustrated by having no resources to research it. Meanwhile, the unnamed organization Weeks is involved in is angered by the bad publicity Weeks’ activism is generating, and eventually throws him out.
The play remains the longest-running play ever staged at the Public Theater, running for a year starting in 1985. In 2014, HBO produced a film version directed by Ryan Murphy with a screenplay by Kramer. It starred Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer (who won a Golden Globe Award for his performance), Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts just to name a few.
In 1987, Kramer was the catalyst in the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action protest organization that chose government agencies and corporations as targets to publicize lack of treatment and funding for people with AIDS. ACT UP was formed at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center in New York City.
Engaging in civil disobedience that would result in many people being arrested was a primary objective, as it would focus attention on the target. On March 24, 1987, 17 people out of 250 participating were arrested for blocking rush-hour traffic in front of the FDA’s Wall Street offices.Kramer was arrested dozens of times working with ACT UP, and the organization grew to hundreds of chapters in the US and Europe.
Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist
Kramer directly and deliberately defines AIDS as a holocaust because he believes the United States’ government failed to respond quickly and expend the necessary resources to cure AIDS, largely because AIDS initially infected gay men, and, quite soon after, predominantly poor and politically powerless minorities.
Kramer continued to write other great works including The American People: A History and The Tragedy of Today’s Gays just to name a few.
In 1997, Kramer approached Yale University, to bequeath several million dollars to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies and possibly to build a gay and lesbian student center.However, the proposal was rejected by the then Yale provost, Alison Richard, stating that gay and lesbian studies was too narrow a specialty for a program in perpetuity.
In 2001, both sides agreed to a five-year trial with seed money of $1 million Arthur Kramer endowed to Yale to finance the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. The money would pay visiting professors and a program coordinator for conferences, guest speakers and other events. Kramer also agreed to leave his literary papers and those chronicling the AIDS movement and his founding of GMHC and ACT UP to Yale’s Beinecke Library.The program was however closed down by Yale in 2006.
Kramer and his partner, architectural designer David Webster, were together from 1991 until Kramer’s death. Webster’s ending of his relationship with Kramer in the 1970s had inspired Kramer to write Faggots (1978). The two got married on July 24, 2013,at the intensive care unit of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
Although they disagreed on a lot of things,Kramer and his brother Arthur,the founding partner of the law firm Kramer Levin,still stayed close. Kramer Levin went on to become one of the gay rights movement’s staunchest advocates, helping Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on such high-profile cases as Lawrence v. Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court and Hernandez v. Robles before the New York Court of Appeals.Arthur Kramer retired from the firm in 1996 and died of a stroke in 2008.
Kramer died from pneumonia on May 27, 2020, at age 84.