When Larry Kramer ’57 was a freshman in Branford College, he swallowed 200 aspirin on Old Campus in an act of desperation fueled by his perception that he was the only gay man on campus.
“It was so hideous, so grotesque to be gay in ’53 to ’57,” Kramer said of his years at Yale. “For all I knew, nobody else was gay. We weren’t recognizable to each other — we were totally invisible.”
Scared by his suicide attempt, Kramer called the police and underwent psychiatric counseling for the remainder of his undergraduate career. In the years since, he has become an avid AIDS activist and gay rights advocate, learning along the way to “be angry, not to care what anybody thinks.” His self-described “stark” tactics were highlighted by a lengthy and noisy quarrel with Yale that led to the creation of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies in 2001. Still, Kramer professes, the University has a long way to go before realizing his vision for LKI.
Kramer’s friends and foes have expected little less from LKI’s ever vocal namesake.
“I didn’t expect the peace to last forever, and it hasn’t,” said Calvin Trillin ’57, Kramer’s friend and a former member of the Yale Corporation. “It would be uncharacteristic of Larry’s endeavors thus far.”
A respected playwright, Kramer — who is HIV positive and had a liver transplant in 2001 due to complications from Hepatitis B — first offered his papers and a bequest to Yale in 1995 with the stipulation that all funds go toward gay faculty.
“Some day I hope we can have a building like Slifka, a gay building,” Kramer said. “That was my dream.”
The University ultimately rejected Kramer’s offer. But in 1997 his brother, Arthur Kramer ’49, donated $1 million to the University and left Larry Kramer to wrangle with administrators over the terms of the donation. For a while, it seemed that Kramer had finally gotten what he wanted: a program supporting Yale’s gay and lesbian community. But recently, Kramer began to publicly pressure administrators into altering LKI’s direction, which he thinks focuses too much on gay theory and too little on gay history.
“Everybody’s got a different definition of history,” Kramer said. “I want to know who we were, not as much as what we are.”
Although some gay and lesbian studies academics said Kramer’s views hold some merit, he is not considered a scholarly figure in the field.
“He’s a playwright and a passionate activist,” said Carolyn Dinshaw, an English professor and director of New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
But Kramer is hoping to add “historian” to his resume. Since 1977, he has worked on a book on gay history titled “The American People.” It is already 3,000 pages long, but Kramer says he is not nearly finished yet.
“It’s a history of America and how it’s treated gay people, black people, Jewish people,” he said. “I actually became a historian in all this.”
Kramer became a full-fledged activist at the time of the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. After his brother invested earnings from Kramer’s adapted screenplay for the 1969 film “Women in Love” in the stock market, Kramer was relieved of the need to earn a living.
“He was able to devote his time to writing, to his crusade,” Arthur Kramer said.
After founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis with five friends in his Greenwich Village living room in 1981, Kramer started Act Up in 1987 to increase awareness of AIDS. To draw attention, Act Up invaded the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and wrapped the North Carolina home of former Sen. Jesse Helms, a strident conservative, in an “enormous” yellow condom, Kramer said proudly.
“It was really guerrilla warfare. We were always thrown in jail,” Kramer said. “The activism was an incredible experience — it was the first time gay people had worked together side by side.”
Initially, some of Kramer’s friends thought his tactics were over the top.
“I was arguing for him to temper his language a bit, but he was right,” Trillin said. “I think he knew he had to make noise. He was saying things that were unpopular, not just among straight people but among gay people. It took a lot of guts.”
After meeting with Kramer in October to discuss LKI’s future, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he appreciates Kramer’s forthright manner.
“He’s very passionate, articulate about his opinion,” Salovey said. “You don’t have to guess what his opinion is.”
Graham Boettcher ’95, GRD ’05, who first encountered Kramer as an undergraduate when the playwright gave a speech before the Yale Political Union, said he admires Kramer’s relentlessness.
“The nice thing about Larry is he’s never complacent,” Boettcher said. “He’s very persistent, tenacious. Kramer is a force to be reckoned with.”
Ruffling feathers remains central to Kramer’s strategy. In an angry e-mail to Yale officials earlier this month, Kramer continued to press the University to change its handling of LKI.
“My name in the title was bought for the $1 million gift plus my papers to your library,” Kramer wrote in the e-mail. “So I can keep hurling well-deserved words of venom at you until I die.”