Opinion | Anthony Fauci on Larry Kramer and Loving Difficult People

I recently attended a memorial service for Larry Kramer, the award-winning playwright, author and provocative gay activist. It has been three years since Larry’s death, and a number of friends and colleagues gathered to pay him tribute at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, where his Obie Award-winning play, “The Destiny of Me,” opened in October 1992. I had a genuinely unique relationship with Larry for more than three decades, which I reflected on at his memorial and wanted to share here.

The date is June 26, 1988. A one-way conversation from Larry Kramer to Tony Fauci via the written word, in The San Francisco Examiner, reflecting a booming voice before I even knew him: “I Call You Murderers,” the headline read. “An open letter to an incompetent idiot, Dr. Anthony Fauci,” it continued. Fast-forward 32 years to May 2020: A brief two-way telephone conversation ending in a simple phrase. Larry, in a voice halting and weakened by years of a series of chronic illnesses, whispering, “I love you, Tony.” Tony holding back the tears, replying, “I love you, too, Larry.”

What happened during those 32 years that brought us to that last encounter was truly historic, since Larry was the initial driving force that changed forever the relationship between the advocacy community and the scientific and regulatory establishment. Larry was the battering ram who not only opened the door for his younger acolytes to participate in the formulation and implementation of the scientific and regulatory agenda of H.I.V./AIDS; he crashed it down. Along the way, Larry and I developed, as he often described it, a “complex relationship.”

I would become all too familiar with the tactics that he had mastered to an art form: confrontation, outrageous behavior, anger and insults followed by insight, rationality, sensitivity, vulnerability, empathy and even humor. I began to appreciate that it was pure passion related to his concern for the plight of what he called “my people,” the gay community, which drove him to outrageous behavior in order to gain the attention of the government and the general public concerning the disaster of the AIDS epidemic.

As we got to know each other better over the years, it became clear to me that despite his confrontational behavior, Larry had a pure, simple and unselfish goal — there were no hidden agendas with Larry. His passion was pure and his commitment unflinching in his attempts to jar people into realization of the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic. I quickly realized that despite his sometimes provocative behavior, he was as noble as the most respected scientist and public servant. And so we became brothers in arms.

Nonetheless, Larry became ambivalent about his closeness to me, his former nemesis, and he continually pushed me to do more. A typical example: He felt strongly that I should chain myself to the White House fence and, as he put it, embarrass President George H.W. Bush into speaking out more on AIDS and providing more funding for AIDS research. I explained to him that this would be 15 minutes of attention and I would immediately lose all access to the White House. No matter. He still felt I should do it.

In another moment of complexity in our relationship, Larry graciously invited my wife, Christine, and me to be his guests at the New York opening of “The Destiny of Me.” Although Tony Della Vida, the character who represented me, was trashed, as expected, he emerged as a nuanced person in a subtly sympathetic light. At the end of the play, Larry rushed toward me and asked apologetically, “Are you pissed off at me?” I told him that the play was masterly and that I was not offended at all. His relief was palpable.

Years later, as his physical condition deteriorated, I occasionally visited Larry in his apartment and in the rehabilitation center on the few times that I went to New York City. During a dinner that he threw for just the two of us in his Greenwich Village apartment, we reminisced like two aging warriors who recalled the battles that we fought together, how despite our initial adversarial relationship, we ultimately became partners in an important struggle and how differences of opinion and even a history of antagonism are entirely compatible with friendship and even love.

On that last occasion when I was leaving his apartment to return to Washington, we gave each other a prolonged hug, and as we parted, he said with a mischievous smile, “I still think that you should have chained yourself to the White House fence.” A complex relationship indeed. I am so pleased and grateful that the last words we had the opportunity to say to each other were, “I love you.”

Anthony Fauci is a former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

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