‘The Normal Heart’: The LGBTQI legacy of Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, renowned playwright, screenwriter, and LGBTQI+ activist, passed away on May 27 of this year. He was 84 years old, and this month he would’ve been 85.
Kramer leaves behind him a long legacy of activism and a catalog of raw and unflinching works in every major written medium: screenplay, theater, and the novel.
Kramer was inspired to take up activism due to his harsh and emotionally unsatisfying upbringing. But his true catalyst was a suicide attempt while attending Yale due to feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of his sexuality and struggles to adapt to the campus.
Kramer, having survived, decided to dedicate himself to campaign “for gay people’s worth” and his works from this point onward focusing on the challenges of love, how to find it, if it’s even possible, and all the other complexities of life & human romances.
Kramer’s work has been controversial, on and off the page/stage. Early in his career, he penned an Oscar-nominated screenplay in 1960 called Woman in Love. Kramer and his older brother Arthur, a lawyer, also negotiated a very good paycheck for writing a musical remake of Lost Horizon, despite said film bombing at the box office.
However, his most personal works were what really made Kramer a well-known figure, and a subject of divisive opinions. His novel Faggots remains a bestseller in LGBTQ+ literature, yet was (unsurprisingly, given the title) a storm of controversy.
The book focuses on a young man in New York’s gay community of the 60s and 70s floating through life and engaging in the sex & drugs club lifestyle, only to feel lonely and disillusioned, unable to find some great, true love. Kramer based most of it on himself and on experiences he’d heard from friends in the community.
Faggots was banned from gay lit bookstores, and several members of the gay community in New York at the time simply turned their backs on Kramer for his portrayal, while the straight populace labeled him as a deviant smut peddler.
Kramer seemingly couldn’t win with either audience, and yet his book still sold – funny how that works.
Kramer maintains Faggots only made people uncomfortable because it was so raw and true, and didn’t shy away from his own negative experiences.
But probably his best-known work is his play The Normal Heart, which he published shortly after being ejected from the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) organization for being too militant and aggressive in his delivery.
Ned Weeks, the protagonist of The Normal Heart, is a clear literary avatar for Kramer, being a firebrand activist who prefers confrontation to negotiation, and who is fighting for the US government to recognize the HIV/AIDS crisis as legitimate.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when the American public and the US government largely denied the existence of the AIDS health crisis, and it was this denial Kramer was responding to.
Kramer took all of his anger and sadness and betrayal at being ejected from the GMHC, while channeling it through art to create something timely and important in The Normal Heart.
Kramer was also inspired by a trip he took to Germany to visit the concentration camp Dachau, where he learned that it opened nearly a decade before WWII began, and neither the people of Germany nor the neighboring nations would raise their hands to stop it.
Kramer, of Jewish heritage, was immensely disturbed by this and felt watching his government deny the crisis he saw firsthand in his community, as it claimed more and more lives, was comparable. He set out to do something about it; he wouldn’t be on the wrong side of history like those who allowed for places like Dachau.
The Normal Heart, more than anything, is also about Kramer’s personal life and his rocky relationship with his brother: Arthur. Arthur was Larry’s protector in childhood, shielding him from their parents, who they both resented. The brothers were bonded, and yet Arthur could never fully accept Larry as he was: gay.
Ben Weeks, the brother of Ned in Normal Heart, cares more about building a million-dollar home out in the Midwest than in helping his brother fight for gay rights. It’s not a very favorable portrayal, yet Arthur’s estrangement can sometimes be understandable, because Larry was often difficult to deal with.
According to humorist Calvin Trillin in a New Yorker piece about their friendship, during the height of his activism, Larry Kramer wrote to a CEO whose company he felt was a detriment to the gay rights movement. Larry claimed that Arthur’s law firm would stop representing them if the company didn’t pivot. Arthur, of course, wasn’t briefed on this beforehand.
But, despite all their battles, the brothers has an unmistakable love between them, and ultimately Arthur’s firm Kramer Levin became a massive advocate for the gay rights movement. Arthur even personally donated $1 million to an LGBTQ+ history program at Yale named for his brother: the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Despite his legacy and status as an icon today, Kramer was controversial and belligerent within his own movement at the time. In the same piece by Trillin, he recalls that Kramer considered “Anthony Fauci ‘and incompetent idiot,’ and even managed to insult Fauci’s wife, a nurse who was treating AIDS patients and developing protocols to alleviate their suffering.”
But Trillin, along with his daughter Sarah in her own op-ed piece, readily admits that Kramer possessed an incredibly sweet and sensitive side, unlike the militant aggressor known by the larger public. It’s perhaps this incredible empathy and kindness Kramer carried in his heart that led him to be so passionately angry about injustice.
All of these emotional nuances and searing anger were channeled into The Normal Heart, Kramer’s first stage production in many years after his first show’s cancellation left him dejected.
The Normal Heart was widely acclaimed on release. The New York Times critic Frank Rich admitted he felt Kramer’s writing was underdeveloped in comparison to his playwright peers, but that the sheer ferocity of the material elevated the piece immensely.
Kramer’s intense outrage and empathy was infectious in his audiences. Every major critic in the city called The Normal Heart an incredibly important production that you couldn’t help but be upset and challenged by.
The Normal Heart was the first major work of art to tackle the AIDS crisis and fight for gay rights from the LGBTQ+ perspective. It has since been widely recognized as one of the greatest stage plays in American history, with its revival winning a Tony Award in 2011 and being nominated for several others, and Ryan Murphy directing a film adaptation for HBO in 2014.
Trillin says that his friend Larry Kramer would have been happy to only be known as a writer. In fact, he wanted to be known for his writing, and that his activism was out of sheer principle, not a want of publicity.
The Normal Heart solidifies his legacy as author and activist in one seminal work, and that is the best way to remember him and his impact. Kramer was both the tortured and sensitive artist, and the righteous and angry freedom fighter, and his fury and melancholy and love radiates from Normal Heart so powerfully it’s as though a piece of him will live on in its words forever.