NEW YORK — When the sixth International Conference on AIDS opens today in San Francisco, the city will be on edge. There are predictions of massive demonstrations by gays and lesbians, threats of disruption, and fears some activists will splash infected blood on police officers.
The anxiety has been building for months. But the man who played a key role in stoking the fire says he will not be there. Larry Kramer, an author and playwright whose rage over the AIDS epidemic has become a legend in gay circles, plans to sit this one out in his Greenwich Village apartment . . . and brood.
"I didn't want to fight anymore with my own people," he says quietly, staring out the living room window on a sultry afternoon. "I was depressed. I think the battle against AIDS has been lost. I think millions of people are going to die. So I decided to just stay home."
It's a puzzling turnabout for the man who issued an incendiary "Call to Riot" at the convention in a widely read gay magazine article. How could a writer who has denounced his friends as "Nazis" for not working hard enough against AIDS stay away from the fray at a time like this?
If \o7 anyone\f7 should be in San Francisco raising hell, it seems, it would be Kramer, who may be the Angriest Man in America when it comes to AIDS.
"In some ways, he has been like a prophet in the wilderness," says Dr. Mathilde Krim, founding co-chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and a leading international expert on the disease.
"A lot of people do not like his methods, and he says things that are extreme, that I do not agree with. But Kramer was a catalyst in rallying public awareness on this disease, especially at a time when a lot of people were not willing to focus on it."
A prolific pamphleteer and tireless public speaker, the 54-year-old writer has inspired thousands of gay men and women to battle an epidemic that has killed more than 80,000 Americans and may have infected an additional 1.5 million. Like others, he has lost scores of close friends to AIDS and, in 1988, learned he tested positive for the HIV virus.
Pushy, abrasive and sometimes obnoxious, Kramer helped establish Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), two of the nation's most influential AIDS-related organizations. He also wrote "The Normal Heart," perhaps the best known play about the politics of the AIDS epidemic, which has had more than 600 productions around the world, including Los Angeles.
In a former life, back in the early 1970s, Kramer was a Hollywood motion picture executive who produced and wrote the award-winning film "Women in Love." A graduate of Yale who once kept his homosexuality carefully under wraps, he never expected to become a controversial public figure.
But Kramer was galvanized by the crisis sweeping through gay America, and his agenda now is much the same as it was in 1981, when the first cases of AIDS began appearing: More federal money for research and treatment, quicker release of potentially life-saving drugs and, most important, confrontation and militancy when dealing with all levels of government.
"I'm tired of the gay community acting as if we were good little boys and girls, waiting for the government to save our lives," Kramer says, swiveling behind his desk and shuffling through copies of his more recent essays.
"We are being exterminated just like the Jews were in the Holocaust, only we have the chance now to fight back. If it means taking disruptive action, then we have no other choice. I don't understand why every gay person in America isn't as angry as I am. I don't want to be nice anymore."
These tactics haven't won Kramer many friends. He has alienated politicians and scientists who could have been his allies; he has heaped abuse on President Bush, former President Reagan, former New York Mayor Edward Koch, Cardinal John J. O'Connor, New York Times Editor Max Frankel and gay leaders.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, got a taste of Kramer's style in 1987 before he even met the man. He learned the activist had bitterly criticized him for not moving fast enough to release AIDS treatment drugs.
"I was jolted, because here you are working 18 hours a day to save lives, and then this comes out of the blue," he says. "I asked myself, who \o7 is\f7 this guy? I finally learned it's Larry Kramer, a really well-respected writer.
"So I invite him down to Washington to visit us, to see that we're not all monsters. And he comes across as a very thoughtful, friendly man. I thought we hit it off really well. Then he went back to New York and denounced me again. I thought, hmmm . . . this is going to be an interesting relationship."
On the other hand, Kramer's tactics have produced results. Randy Klose, a gay Beverly Hills developer, credits Kramer for sparking his own full-time involvement in national AIDS fund raising with the Human Rights Campaign Fund.