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Kramer vs. Kramer : Activism: Even friends say that incendiary AIDS activist Larry Kramer is sometimes a man at war with himself

June 20, 1990|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An independently wealthy man, Klose has given $600,000 out of his own pocket to the cause and says Kramer's widely read 1983 essay, "1,112 and Counting," influenced him to become more political.

"Larry has tapped into the wellspring of anger that exists over this disease in the gay community across America," Klose says. "He changed my life and got me involved, because I used to be apolitical. He's one of the most intense activists I've ever known, and that's because he's a real fighter. He was born to be a troublemaker, to make waves."

The mere mention of Kramer's name produces laughter and disgust in some circles because many activists say privately that they are tired of Kramer's 10-year temper tantrum and nearly hysterical tone of outrage.

Yet even his worst enemies believe he has made an important contribution.

"Larry Kramer is about as rotten a person as I've ever encountered," says Richard Dunne, a former director of GMHC who has clashed bitterly with Kramer. "He's shrill and tiresome . . . he's a bully. But on the plus side, he was there from the beginning. In the early 1980s, his rage and anger were appropriate."

For all these reasons, many gay leaders fully expected Kramer to be in San Francisco this week. Yet to those who know him, his absence is no surprise. The volatile author, they say, is a jumble of human contradictions.

Gentle and reflective one minute, Kramer can turn viciously on his friends the next. A genius at political organizing, he is fundamentally a loner. Kramer helped form GMHC, the world's largest AIDS service organization, in 1982. But he was later forced out of the group for refusing to adopt a more moderate tone with city officials, especially Koch, whom he has repeatedly accused of ignoring or trying to cover up the epidemic.

In 1987, Kramer helped create ACT UP, which specializes in street demonstrations and guerrilla theater tactics designed to embarrass and harass governmental officials. It has also played a key role within the system, prodding scientists to speed up the release of AIDS drugs. Yet Kramer says he is now estranged from this group as well.

The signs of this most recent break surfaced in March, when Kramer called for massive San Francisco disruptions in Outweek magazine.

In a raging, obscenity-laden broadside, Kramer blasted the government for its response to the epidemic. Gay people are dying, there are no drugs being developed to save their lives and straight leaders don't care, he thundered.

"Every human being who wants to end the AIDS epidemic must be in San Francisco . . . screaming, yelling, furiously angry, protesting at this stupid conference," Kramer wrote. "We have been lined up in front of a firing squad and it is called AIDS. We must riot!"

Asked to be more precise, Kramer looks grim and says that "the new phase is terrorism . . . I don't know whether it means burning buildings, or killing people or setting fire to yourselves. . . ."

Kramer's words might be dismissed as the ravings of a crackpot were it not for his long, respected track record in the battle against AIDS. Leaders of ACT UP have disavowed his latest rhetoric, noting that he speaks only for himself. Other gay leaders have taken a harder line.

Dana Van Gorder, the official spokesman for this week's conference, says disrupting San Francisco will accomplish nothing. "Anger has it's place," he says, "but in this case, I think anger's got the better of him. Everyone across the political spectrum is offended by his call for violence."

It's an old battle, and some friends speculate Kramer is only being rhetorical, that he really does not want an outbreak of violence. But the cumulative weight of these polemics appears to have taken a toll on him. The writer says he is depressed and wants to be left alone. Angered that he was not invited to speak on behalf of ACT UP at the conference, he is staying home.

"People are usually surprised that I'm soft-spoken. I don't think I'm angry 24 hours a day. There's another side to me, too."

A short, neatly dressed man with close-cropped hair, Kramer gestures proudly to the photos and memorabilia on his walls. Less than 20 years ago, he was riding high in Hollywood, after producing and writing "Women in Love." By the age of 33, he was a respected executive at Columbia Pictures and had worked on such films as "Dr. Strangelove" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

But that was in 1970--long before Kramer came out of the closet. Until then, like thousands of other gay men and women in this country, he lived a secret life. The one clear link between now and then seems to be anger.

Randy Shilts, a journalist and the author of "And the Band Played On," a tough critique of the nation's laggard response to AIDS, says his friend Kramer has always been filled with rage, even toward those he cares about.

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