When Heroes Fall

As I wrote my novel Sally Field, not a day went by that I didn’t remind myself of Larry Kramer’s work, and what an important impact his play The Normal Heart had on an entire generation. And I am very excited that a new generation finally will see it this weekend, thanks to HBO. I would be lying if I didn’t confess this dream for Sally Field: I hope my novel could follow in The Normal Heart’s tradition in inspiring both understanding and a call to action.

I am very excited that a new generation finally will see The Normal Heart this weekend, thanks to HBO.

So you can imagine my dismay to learn that in a New York Times profile this past Wednesday, Larry Kramer called users of PrEP “cowards.” This was especially disheartening, given that the launch party for my book was just the night before this statement made headlines. 

It must first be acknowledged that Larry Kramer has always been a contrarian; he is known for his divisive, take-no-prisoners politics. But I have hoped that Kramer, of all people, would remember that the fight he started was not just about protection and education; it was a call for a cure. PEP and PrEP represent the best chance for an end to AIDS.

It is because of PEP and PrEP that President Obama and U2’s Bono have spent the last few years educating toward an AIDS-free generation. The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and Bono’s (RED) are dedicated to ensuring that babies are born HIV-free after 2015. With the proper use of PEP and PrEP, that generation can also avoid contracting the disease. But given the negative reaction of the community that should most embrace these prophylaxis medications, we are all becoming less optimistic about that. In calling PrEP users cowards, it seems to me that Larry Kramer has lost sight of the very initiative he started. No matter what Mr. Kramer says about the effectiveness of condoms, they have failed to stop the spread of HIV for more than two generations.

I arrived in New York at the height of the first phase of the AIDS epidemic. Like Mr. Kramer’s generation, I saw horrible things. Coming to Manhattan in that era meant walking down the street and seeing KS lesions on nearly every other face. At the worst peak, I remember how my group of friends had to divvy up attendance at the memorial services, so that one person from our group could represent us at them all.

I have two younger friends – one 33 and one 29 – who have both been positive for several years. Neither of these young men are cowards. But they are unaware. Unaware of the monstrosities that we witnessed, unaware of the reality of the disease before treatment. But I believe it is both unfair and morally wrong to expect them to feel the panic and horror we felt.

Larry Kramer has always been a contrarian, known for his divisive, take-no-prisoners politics.

Through the leadership of Mr. Kramer, and many activists like him, we became a single voice that demanded enough respect to effect change that resulted in better AIDS drugs and civil rights. I cannot imagine anything more antithetical to that legacy than denying or shaming a young person for exercising his personal freedoms. I find the controversy and hate speech surrounding PEP and PrEP to be surreal, especially since this shame-oriented speech comes from the men who fought for these advances.

To be fair, these men have many valid personal reasons not to trust Big Pharma and Government. I remember those reasons well, as anyone over the age of forty will. But those reasons are mostly in the past, and we have earned freedom not to live in fear of the drugs that keep many of us alive. And we did all of this for the generation that would follow us. We should not let our old fears stand in the way of allowing them to enjoy the less-fearful life we earned for them. We should take pride in those achievements, and stay focused on what Mr. Kramer originally called us all to do: end AIDS forever, at whatever cost. In 1990, he would have settled for nothing less. Now, it seems, he will only accept an end to AIDS if it comes wrapped in a condom.


Photo Credit: Catherine McGann.