Still Protesting: Honoring Larry Kramer's Legacy

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May 1, 2017
Larry Kramer

“Plague. We are in the middle of a f**king plague. And you behave like this... Plague. Forty million infected people is a f**king plague.”

Those were the words with which Larry Kramer exhorted the gay community 1991 – 10 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic – to stop the infighting and the skirting of the real issues, and to focus on the gravity of what the community was facing. He went on to say that the treatments at the time were essentially useless and that if people did not demand real action on the part of the government, then the whole community was “as good as dead.”

Tonight we will honor Larry Kramer with the Kevin M. Cathcart Legacy Award at our annual Liberty Awards. It is an opportunity for us to revisit just how dire the circumstances were for the gay, bisexual and transgender communities – and others disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS at that time – as well as for us to recognize and celebrate the fierce advocate Larry was for our community through those darkest of times.   

After founding and helping lead Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a direct service organization that was desperately needed because people with AIDS were being shunned and refused treatment elsewhere, Larry turned his passion, anger and energy to helping create ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), the groundbreaking AIDS activist group that forever changed the landscape of activism, the LGBT civil rights movement, the practice of medicine, and of course the AIDS epidemic itself.

“I can’t believe I still have to protest this f**king sh*t.”

When we told Larry we wanted to honor him at this year’s Liberty Awards, he specifically asked us to use this photo of him from a recent protest. It sums up the current political moment perfectly, as well as Larry’s commitment – and ours – to keep fighting whenever, wherever necessary.

One hundred days in to the Trump Administration, and no one has been appointed to run the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP). There has been no recommitment to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy or even a vague description of the broad policy goals around HIV over the next four years.

Meanwhile both Trump and congressional Republicans are actively attempting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act – which has done more to ensure the health of people living with HIV and fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. than just about any federal piece of legislation ever. A repeal vote could come this week.

We “still have to protest this f**king shit” not only because of government neglect and attacks, but also because we are facing a cataclysmic health crisis at this very time. Here’s a statistic that should make anyone blanch: at current rates of infection, one in two Black gay and bisexual men will have been diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. For Latino gay and bisexual men, it’s one in four. And current prevalence for transgender women – as best we can tell, because data collection for this community is so lousy – stands at around 28%, with Black transgender women facing prevalence of about 50%. 

One in two – 50%! Both for Black gay and bisexual men and Black transgender women. How is that not a “f**king plague?” 

How is that not a “f**king plague?”
—  Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director

Though it is true that deaths due to AIDS have declined considerably in recent years, the fact remains that some communities are still suffering a disproportionate number of fatalities. It was recently “touted” that over 90% of individuals with HIV survive three years after diagnosis. The depressing flip side of that statistic is that 10% of people die within three years of an HIV diagnosis. That is appalling given the medical breakthroughs that make HIV a chronic condition for those with access to them.

Just as Larry Kramer and the other leaders of ACT UP got angry – and exhorted all of us to get angry – during the worst years of the AIDS crisis, it is time to get angry again. We are once again facing a federal government that seems indifferent to the crisis at hand, because it is primarily affecting communities about which the current administration does not care – transgender people, gay and bisexual men of color and people of color more generally. 

It will take the members of the communities most affected, as well as the rest of the LGBT community as allies, to stand up and fight the indifference and apathy towards those most marginalized in our society that is now descending across our institutions of government. That is why the leadership of people like Javier Munoz, the openly HIV-positive, current star of Hamilton – and the other honoree at this year’s Liberty Awards – is so important at this time. We need strong leaders, who arise from the communities most impacted by HIV today and who speak with the authentic voice of the people, to get angry and to take a stand against the oppression that is being reinstitutionalized throughout the halls of government.

Members of our community are the most disproportionately impacted and people from our communities are still dying. If now is not the time to be angry, and to let that anger propel us into action, when is?