Larry Kramer’s fight against HIV isn’t over yet

Author turned activist, Larry Kramer, recently passed away at the age of 84. Having lived with HIV for over 30 years of his life, Kramer’s activism played a key role in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

Larry Kramer was angry. HIV and AIDS activists in the 1980s were angry.

The 1980s US government had ignored them. By 1985, President Ronald Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS” in public: by then, HIV had already been catastrophic for many.

HIV is most commonly spread through unprotected sex, but also through the sharing of needles. Many people live unaware that they are infected with HIV, which develops into AIDS when left untreated.

In 2018, it was estimated that 79% of people with HIV globally were aware they had the virus. The remaining 21% didn’t know and were yet to be tested. Approximately 37.9 million people worldwide were infected with HIV in 2018. 36.2 million were adults and 1.7 million were children (below the age of 15), as HIV can be transmitted from mothers to their children during pregnancy and childbirth.

In the 1980s, the US government had failed to support those with the condition through its lack of funding. This meant that US citizens living with the virus were compelled to fight for their lives alone. The Reagan administration was conservative: its lack of interest was attributed towards its belief that it was the homosexual and drug-using communities’ own fault for becoming infected with HIV through immoral behaviour.

In the US, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) investigated the federal government response and found that insufficient funding had been provided for research and educational resources on HIV. Moreover, it implied that homophobic attitudes had caused this lack of interest.

Kramer’s fight has left a lasting legacy around the world. After founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, Kramer and other activists were able to force the US government to address the issue, saving many from an early grave.

In 1995 in an interview with The New York Times, he said that “What’s really required to get attention in this country, I’ve learned, is being extreme.” He claimed that “nobody listens to you unless you’re loud.”

He was infamous for making provocative accusations towards leaders and authority figures. This included Ronald Reagan, a “monster” in Kramer’s eyes who was “responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler”. It was this inflammatory language which provoked action.

Even Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the time, admitted that there was “no question in [his] mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country.” Kramer had written that Fauci’s “refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers”.

However, it remains an issue that HIV is most deadly in low and middle-income countries which don’t have the resources to fight it. Donor funding for these countries has started to fall back, meaning that national governments are starting to take action. Global funding for the crisis is therefore ambiguous, as increasing cuts are being made.

There is still a huge lack of education surrounding HIV/AIDS. It has become increasingly clear that education is a huge part of impeding the spread of the virus and that HIV and AIDS awareness should be included within the curriculum.

This lack of understanding not only risks spreading the virus but also generates stigma, which leaves HIV-positive people feeling isolated and alone. It is important to remember that although certain groups are at higher risk, anyone can be affected with HIV.

There is still no cure for HIV, but as Kramer demonstrated, it is possible to live a long, healthy life with it. HIV was not solely a problem on the 1980s: Kramer’s legacy must be continued.

Ana Hill Lopez-Menchero

Image: Wikimedia Commons.