Larry Kramer, in Spite of Himself, Gave a Young Gay Generation Sexual Freedom

Without affordable PrEP, the pill I take to defend against HIV, young queer men could still live in fear of fucking

Fuck, I’d gone too far uptown. I was standing on West 38th Street between Eighth and Ninth in front of an unassuming Midtown Manhattan office building when I quickly realized I’d overshot my destination by nine blocks. I guess I was a bit distracted.

It was a sunny weekday morning last spring, my first in New York. After moving into a shitty garden apartment in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood three months earlier, during the middle of winter, I was finally momentarily settled (and horny) enough to do what I’d pushed off: get on PrEP, the daily pill used to keep HIV-negative people from becoming infected.

The coveted drug would make sex safer and less stigmatized for me, a newly sexually active 21-year-old gay man with unresolved midwestern Catholic guilt toward fucking men.

I hustled down Eighth Avenue, my backpack bouncing against my J.Crew gingham shirt soaked in sweat. My calves cramped, and I wished I had more cushioning in my Vans. Ten minutes later, I strolled into another unassuming office building — the correct one, with “GMHC” decaled on the glass door.

The irony isn’t lost on me that Kramer spoke out against gay promiscuity. His book Faggots is a satire of gay sexual culture. He still gave generations of gay men the sexual freedom and peace of mind we take for granted today.

And it’s poignant walking around New York, occupying the same spaces Kramer and his peers did — without their fears (or their hangups).

For 38 years, GMHC, also known as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, has served greater New York’s LGBTQ population and individuals living with HIV/AIDS. GMHC is a queer institution, born during the AIDS epidemic.

While the early years focused primarily on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention for gay men, the center has expanded to include counseling, youth services and meal programs for the community. In 2019, it served more than 9,500 clients.

GMHC is my only direct connection to Larry Kramer, the tireless gay advocate and playwright, but I’ve learned to be grateful for it. Kramer died Wednesday morning after a lifetime holding the government — and his own queer community — accountable for progress. Kramer was loud and bombastic, but I see his lasting impact today everywhere in small, incremental ways.

Not the least of them is how we gay people fuck.

Kramer’s Organization Is as Vital as Ever

In 1982, Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis at home alongside five other AIDS activists. It was six months after the New York Times finally reported on a “gay cancer.”

Kramer’s roman à clef The Normal Heart chronicles his involvement with the organization. GMHC initially operated as a volunteer-run crisis-counseling hotline; it would later run in first executive director Rodger McFarlane’s home. The hotline received over 100 calls the first night. Later, after the GMHC became a formal, tax-exempt entity, Kramer left and founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a grassroots political group focused on direct action and protest. Over the years, Kramer remained a distant but inextricable link to GMHC.

Nearly four decades after it opened, GMHC isn’t just a historical landmark. For young queer New Yorkers like myself, the organization is a legacy destination still kicking — a health treatment center offering urgent and specialized care that insurance companies and for-profit hospital systems fail to offer at affordable prices.

Just look at the numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gay and bisexual men are the population most affected by HIV. In 2018, Black gay and bisexual men accounted for nearly 9,500 HIV diagnoses, while Latinx men account for 7,543. Still, the CDC later reported, Black and Hispanic men who have sex with men are less likely than white men to be aware of PrEP, to have discussed the drug with a health care provider or to have taken the pill.

This makes services like GMHC so vital in providing a simple and easy understanding of PrEP and other HIV drugs. GMHC’s client demographic data is a screenshot of socioeconomic groups often left out of general health services. In 2019, 58 percent of its clients were HIV positive, and 42 percent were Black.

Larry Let Me Be Gay in a Way I Never Could

Kramer’s legacy is in each young gay person who gets to dance, to fuck and to see a world with fewer limitations. The gay teens unabashedly on TikTok posting publicly about high school romances and taking it up the ass (however trite) get to do so because of Kramer. He cried out for queer culture not to sputter out years before we were born.

The social media memorials for Kramer have settled around his righteous anger, but he had anger for a purpose: widespread government action to stop the HIV/AIDS crisis. As Kramer agitated in the field, the suits in establishment organizations lobbied and made nice. “They were a good tag team, even if they sniped at each other,” the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman writes in his obit.

Even in his final years, when many of his contemporaries and the country at large had moved on from AIDS, Kramer continued to fight. He stood outside the theater of The Normal Heart‘s 2011 revival, handing out flyers about the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis after the performance.

On Wednesday, I commiserated with other young queer people about how Kramer occupies the same headspace as other 20th century activists and living historical figures, like Gloria Steinem and Malcolm X. He’s the father of a gay rights movement that now counts us as descendants. In achieving the future he deemed necessary, Kramer opens himself up to one day be replaced. More colorful queer activists who didn’t get mainstream recognition during their lifetimes — leaders like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — have forced us to rewrite our queer histories, while high-profile figures like Janet Mock and Edith Windsor drive us forward.

I feel Kramer daily. It’s through the GMHC that I first felt comfortable enough to get tested for HIV and STDS as a newbie to New York. Without these resources, I would not have received a referral to my primary care physician or access to the Gilead coupon card through which PrEP is free and not a $2,000 monthly out-of-pocket charge.

Kramer wasn’t always a proponent for Truvada, biopharmaceutical company Gilead’s brand name for PrEP. “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything,” Kramer told the New York Times in 2014. (Though some gay men do not use condoms when taking PrEP, health care providers recommend using condoms in conjunction with the pill. PrEP is not a substitute.) Kramer would later reverse his stance, calling the drug an “essential public health tool” in an open letter to Truvada, taking them to task for “abusive pricing.”

I wonder what Kramer would think of us baby gays. Would he chide us for being too naive about the world? Too complacent? Would he be happy that we’re blurring sexuality and gender lines? Or would he be upset that I’ve let a pill dictate my life?

Being on or off PrEP determines when I go out and how I fuck. I’m also worried about what damage PrEP is doing to my kidneys. I guess I still have some Catholic guilt to work out.

Still, PrEP, and before it GMHC and Kramer, helped me be gay in ways I never allowed myself to consider before moving to New York. That, to me, is Kramer’s legacy. I unlock him every morning from the white bottle, plop him in the back of my throat and swish him down with lukewarm water left on my bedside table overnight. Kramer is the reason I get to take PrEP, have sex and demand a full, robust life.