Life

Dinner With Larry

For years, I viewed Larry Kramer as an obstacle to progress on HIV prevention. Now, facing a new plague, I worry what we’ll do without him.

Four men pose together on sofas and chairs in a living room with a wine bottle and wine glasses on a nearby coffee table.
James Krellenstein, Peter Staley, Jim Eigo, and Larry Kramer at the “PrEP Dinner Summit” in December 2015. Peter Staley

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

My war with Larry Kramer began in 2014, after a New York Times interview where he described people like myself—people who used the drug Truvada as PrEP to prevent HIV infection—as “cowardly,” with “rocks in their heads.”

On balance, this was pretty tame vocabulary for Larry. But for me, the comments were not only personally hurtful; they also represented a fundamental betrayal of our community. After watching one too many friends get newly diagnosed with HIV, in the fall of 2012 I had joined ACT UP NY, the infamous AIDS activist group that Larry helped found in 1987. HIV was spreading fast in New York City in the late 2000s and early 2010s—one paper showed that 5 percent of gay men and trans women were becoming positive each year, with people of color being especially vulnerable. To ACT UP, PrEP—which is more than 99 percent effective at preventing infection if taken daily—was one of our best hopes at turning around the epidemic. How could Larry of all people not understand, after two decades of the number of new infections going up year after year in queer people, that shaming people for protecting themselves with PrEP, rather than just condoms, was not only stupid but deadly?

In my then 24-year-old mind, Larry represented everything that was wrong with HIV prevention—a field that, until recently, has been more successful in shaming young queer people about their sex lives than in actually preventing HIV infections. We expressed our mutual disdain privately at first, over barbed emails and a furious phone call. But in early 2015, something Larry said in the Advocate pushed me to go public: On the ACT UP NY alumni Facebook group, I remarked that here was “a man who managed to pervert his own internalized homophobia into a narrative that would stifle HIV prevention for decades.” My post was ironically Kramer-esque—provocative, rude, and most importantly, true. Hundreds of people chimed in, including Larry himself, most slamming me for daring to disparage the holy saint of AIDS activism. I didn’t hold back, and neither did he.

A couple of days later, Peter Staley, a mutual friend and ACT UP alumnus (who unlike Larry was an early and vocal supporter of PrEP), called me. He wanted us to sit down with Larry, break bread, and make our case. I demurred—I was simply too angry and, in hindsight, too petty and immature, to try to make peace. But fortunately, Larry was not. A couple of months later he showed up at an ACT UP action that I, along with other ACT UPers, had organized to protest the shuttering of the Chelsea public health clinic in Manhattan, and vocally showed his support. The week after that, Peter (with the help of fellow ACT UP alumnus Jim Eigo and of my ex-boyfriend) convinced me that the time for fighting was over. Peter thought we could convince Larry to recant his PrEP denialism and officially support increasing access to it—an endorsement that would hopefully help end the ridiculous debate about the “morality” of using one of the most effective methods of HIV prevention at our disposal.

Larry invited us to his apartment off Washington Square Park for a “PrEP dinner summit” in early December of that year. As an olive branch, I agreed to cook the meal. I broke out my well-worn copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and prepared boeuf bourguignon, purée de pommes de terre, mousse au chocolat, and even baked a baguette. I had printed out about 130 scientific papers on PrEP and HIV epidemiology, and as the beef stewed, I reviewed each paper, preparing rebuttals for what I was sure would be a screaming fight with Larry.

As I drove down, Peter and I worked by phone on a written statement that we were hoping to have Larry physically sign, not only endorsing PrEP but also calling out what we in the PrEP access movement view as pharmaceutical company Gilead’s price gouging on Truvada. Once I got there, and began reheating the food, we all sat down. Before I could get to citing the studies and correcting misapprehensions, Peter mentioned the statement. Within a minute of reading it, Larry agreed to sign. I was shocked. The final battle was all over before it began.

Larry did have one requirement, though: Before signing, I had to promise he could keep the leftovers.

I am still angry at Larry for his deadly multiyear opposition to PrEP. But I also understand that the tools of activism that I and so many other people use to protect our communities, and to fight to increase access to PrEP, wouldn’t have existed without him. His stubbornness could be maddening, and his sudden shift on PrEP after so much resistance, though welcome, was exasperating. He was far from perfect, and yet he was a hero all the same.

Larry’s genius was understanding how to ignite people’s rage at some of the fundamental injustices in our society—at homophobia, at the evil indifference our government exhibited toward communities devasted by a plague—and to get people to then transform that into actions that would save millions of lives. His infectious anger alone was not sufficient, but it was necessary. He died in the midst of, to paraphrase him, another fucking plague—and on the day that the COVID-19 death toll in the United States crossed 100,000 no less. Like HIV, the COVID-19 epidemic is a plague that was allowed to happen, by the malignant indifference and incompetence of a government that does not care if whole swaths of the population live or die. The question we all need to ask all ourselves now, I think, is that in a world without Larry, who will make sure we are angry enough? Who will make sure that we remake the system that allowed this mass murder to happen? Because once again, we find ourselves in a situation where, unless we act up and fight back, we are as good as dead.

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Bryan Lowder, Christina Cauterucci, and Rumaan Alam host this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.