Larry Kramer, age 84, co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, founder of ACT UP, admired and award-winning playwright, novelist, and essayist, died on May 27, 2020 of pneumonia, an infection that keeps oxygen from filling the lungs and getting into the bloodstream. Kramer died two days after George Floyd, age 46, died from asphyxiation, caused by the lack of oxygen to his lungs and bloodstream due to having a knee forced to his neck for over eight minutes by a Minneapolis police officer named David Chauvin.
There are no words. It is the beginning of July. The pandemic death toll continues to rise. African-Americans continue to be murdered by white men who hide their fear-rooted hatred and toxic masculinity behind police badges. Thoughts, prayers, and Facebook posts don’t bring justice, reconciliation, or right action. Protests and violence demand them, and those who have fear, rage, and no space to grieve will continue to scream, kick, punch, and set the country on fire until they are heard. We must listen deeply to them. Larry Kramer knew this, lived this, and died for this. He screamed his outrage in the streets of New York City. He transformed anger, grief and compassion into art with his essays and plays. He empowered those on the margins, he grieved the dying, the dead, and those left in death’s wake, and he offered fierce compassion until his last breath.
Kramer’s words to blind-eyed, apathetic leadership from his 1983 essay 1,100 and Counting still pack a punch of truth, today more than ever: “I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren’t 195 dead New Yorkers enough?”
This is an epic time; a breathless, groundless, punch-in-the-gut time. As a nation, we are experiencing asphyxiation, a loss of oxygen to our lungs, our bloodstream, and our collective souls from COVID-19, racial injustice, and a lack of compassionate leadership. The US reported pandemic deaths of over 98,000 on the day George Floyd was murdered by asphyxiation, and over 100,000 two days later, when Larry Kramer exhaled his final breath. There are no words.
When asked to write this piece to mark Larry Kramer’s death, I tried poetry, and it fell flat. Lofty poetic language doesn’t honor Kramer–a man with feet firmly planted, marching forward, one fist raised in a punch toward heaven with a bullhorn in the other, screaming the gospel of righteous rage, leading an army of the walking wounded in a battle against injustice. Larry Kramer must be honored with earth-bound truth. He taught us to see through the fog of bullshit and speak truth, march it, and protest until truth is heard.
The oppressed and marginalized, the sick, the dead and dying have stories to tell us. There are no more words until these stories are heard–from a whisper, to a scream. Larry Kramer never ceased telling the stories of those living with HIV and dying from AIDS. He protested and marched, yelling with angry lungs at those who would suffocate him. He taught us Silence equals Death by loving and living fiercely, listening deeply, and never, never giving up, even when there were no words left. May we all do the same. Shalom aleichem, Larry.