Nuremburg Trials for AIDS

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by Larry Kramer

Remarks for the New York Times “Times Talks” AIDS at 25: What Next? Panel

The New School, Monday, June 19, 2006


AIDS has been a plague since 1982 although officially it never has been called one.

This panel has been summoned to talk about the future of what is incorrectly called a pandemic. But you don't learn much about how to live in the future until you understand the past. Surely Freud taught us this. Unfortunately the future and what is going to happen is obvious. Many millions more people will die, drug companies will continue their insatiable and never-ending evil greed, and governments, particularly our own, will not stop their base, mean behavior in the face of so much death. None of this will change, no matter how many panels or Bill Gateses there are. It is deeply disheartening that 25 years later the message remains the same. No, we must face up to the past and ask why this plague has happened.

From the beginning AIDS has been a disease inextricably and irretrievably bound up in the minds of the world with homosexuals. There is not one person in the world, even South African wives infected by their itinerant truck driver husbands, who, when hearing the word “AIDS” or “HIV” does not think the world “homosexual.” Homosexuals are hated everywhere in the world. That is why there is a plague. And why the plague will continue.

The mayor of New York when this plague started was a closeted homosexual. The ballet-dancing son of the President of the United States was thought to be a homosexual even by his father and mother, who had her own sexual proclivities to hide. The original Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that division of the National Institutes of Health which should have been responsible for HIV and AIDS, was a homosexual. His assistant was a homosexual. The editor in chief of the New York Times that covered this plague so abominably stingily and destructively was virulently homophobic. Even Mrs. Iphigene Sulzberger, the matriarch of the Sulzberger clan that owns the New York Times, became exceedingly unsettled when anything about homosexuals appeared in her paper. It is deeply disheartening that the actions of all of the above remain uninvestigated and unreported and unchallenged 25 years into 70+ million infections.

Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien and Dr. Linda Laubenstein and Dr. Mathilde Krim and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and Dr. Lawrence Mass were the only doctors I know of who warned outright and from the very beginning: a virus is at large and immediate caution is required by all. Their warnings were in no way heeded. Dr. Laubenstein was the only doctor anywhere in the world who said, bluntly and immediately, “stop fucking each other to death”; the director of her NYU Medical Center, Dr. Saul Farber, branded her a crazy person and put a cap on the number of patients she was allowed to admit. NO WARNINGS OF ANY SORT ever came from any official anywhere, in the New York government, in the San Francisco government, in the Federal government, in the NIH, in the Public Health Service. By the time the virus was actually identified, on the eve of 1985, pretty much every gay man in the world who had sex had been exposed to this virus or to someone who had been exposed to this virus.

We are currently witnessing endless commemorations of various aspects of HIV/AIDS, as it now is called. To commemorate something without even knowing and acknowledging its history and how the actions and inactions of individuals and institutions and governments caused and shaped that history is a harsh joke. This country still admits to shockingly little, even when it is staring us in the face. A formalized and honest process to establish the facts of this history must be initiated.

I do not expect the New York Times to own up to its own huge role in allowing this plague to progress any more than I expect the New York Times to honestly and completely own up to its repellant record of reporting the Holocaust. On this latter unbearably sad subject I refer you to Buried by the Times, by Professor Laurel Leff, (Cambridge University Press, 2005). As with AIDS, it should blow everyone's mind what this “newspaper of record” did not report about the Holocaust. Additionally, just prior to the Holocaust, the New York Times Moscow correspondent from 1921-1934, a most peculiar man named Walter Duranty, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for actually denying the gigantic famine and widespread starvation going on in Russia under Stalin's purges. He completely whitewashed Stalin. What is it about this newspaper that it is so cowardly in fully and honestly reporting the horrors of our times? It is no small feat to falsely report three of the biggest tragedies of the 20th Century. It makes one forever suspicious of the veracity and validity of their coverage of any of the world's horrors today. When the leading newspaper in the world behaves like this, setting the template for all other papers all over the world to follow, which they unfortunately do, how are we to have a true history of anything?

These are the writers who covered HIV/AIDS for the New York Times: Richard Flaste, Erik Eckholm, Dr. Lawrence Altman, Nicholas Wade, Philip Boffey, Gina Kolata, and Philip Hilts. Each was as bad as the others. How bad? Read my book, Reports from the holocaust, St. Martin's Press, for details on how badly this newspaper has reported AIDS. Kolata was so bad that ACT UP plastered New York and the Times building with stickers: “Gina Kolata of the New York Times is the worst AIDS reporter in the world.” They took her off that beat. But they never replaced her with a reporter who covers AIDS specifically. And the job they are doing is still awful. The New York Times has never, ever, covered the politics of HIV/AIDS, particularly in America, as they cover the politics of other serious issues. But then the politics of AIDS are inextricably embedded in all that I am writing about here. All grist for a Nuremberg Trials, no?

Yes, I would like to see something set up to document the real history of this plague akin to the Nuremberg Trials, which nailed Nazi responsibility for the Holocaust,. Why did or didn't Edward Koch do X? Why did or didn't Ronald Reagan do X? Ron Reagan, Jr.? Nancy Reagan? Dr. Richard Krause and Dr. Jack Whitescarver of the NIH? Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times? Sulzberger mother, son, and grandson of the New York Times? The drug companies that made Factor VIII? The list is an extensive and far-reaching one. Each one of many many people committed acts of inconceivable inhumanity that must be documented. Without such official documentation the politics of homo-hating and bigotry will continue to rule the world and this plague will never end.

The world does not know this and it should: HIV made its entrance into the gay population through infected Factor VIII as injected by gay hemophiliacs. Factor VIII is a treatment that prevents hemophiliacs from bleeding to death. It was available in trials beginning in 1975 and in distribution from 1978. It was manufactured and sold by these companies: Baxter Travenol Laboratories, Alpha Therapeutic Corporation, Armour Pharmaceutical Co. (a division of the Revlon Cosmetics Corporation), and Cutter Laboratories. Each single individual treatment of Factor VIII contains blood parts that have been spun down from the pooled blood of tens of thousands of people. This blood was collected from paid donors all over the world. Only one donor had to be infected for the whole vat of pooled blood to be infected. All of these companies came to know that the blood plasma they had bought all over the world and which they had used to make their Factor VIII was infected with what would become known as HIV. They did not heat-treat this blood, even though early methods to do so had been available since World War Two. Even when they possessed the knowledge that their product was infected these companies did not cease selling their Factor VIII. It will not be until 1987, in this country anyway, that Factor VIII would be completely cleared of poisons. (I am grateful to Pulitzer-prize winning science writer, Laurie Garrett, for first presenting this awful information in her book The Coming Plague, Penguin.) As I said, by then the gay population was well on its way to being wiped out. One single gay hemophiliac on infected Factor VIII having sex with only one other man on Fire Island in 1975 or so was all it took to get the whole chain rolling. Thanks, Baxter Labs, et al.

I have just discovered that the first cases of AIDS in America were not in gay men. Five cases of extreme immune deficiencies were discovered between 1975 and 1981 in HETEROSEXUAL WOMEN. They were reported by Dr. Henry Masur (et al) then of Cornell now of NIH. For puzzling reasons this report was not published until October 1982. Had this vital information been published, as it should have been, before the July 1981 New York Times report of “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” (and let us not here parse Dr. Altman's repellently loaded and inaccurate constipated homophobic prose in that announcement), HIV/AIDS would not be forever labeled, with such disastrous results, as a gay disease. From this very first announcement in the New York Times, the gay population of the world has been and continues to be targeted for extinction.

Because the world hates homosexuals the world is dying and will continue to die from HIV/AIDS. This plague is the result of a series of individual acts of commission and omission, a huge number of them intentional, which killed people and were committed and continue to be committed by people who knew better. Many of the same people who were around in the beginning are still around committing the same actions today. Perhaps Nuremberg Trials would sort such awful behavior out.

It has proved impossible to get any reputable and honest historian or journalist to write about any of the above. Telling the truth about this plague has so far proved impossible.

Seventy million plus infections later HIV/AIDS is still not called a plague.

Sean Strub, Rodger McFarlane, and Will Schwalbe contributed information.


Note: Larry Kramer's brilliant article, quoted by me with his permission above, also appears on two other places on my website, which it is intimately related to, namely my article on Homosexuals in the Holocaust, and my book on Outing.

Finally, today, (June 25, 2006), | The New York Times acknowledged not only this article, but much of Larry's lifetime achievements, including the struggle with his brother, which resulted in A Normal Heart.

June 25, 2006
Gay Brother, Straight Brother: It Could Be a Play
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
In his wrenching autobiographical play about AIDS in New York in the 1980's, Larry Kramer made his brother the face of evil in an uncaring world.
The conflict between the brothers in that play, "The Normal Heart," was the consummate coming-out story, a tale reflected in many families. The straight brother couldn't find it in his heart to renounce his gay sibling, yet couldn't wholeheartedly accept him as normal, either.
Their story came to define an era for hundreds of thousands of theatergoers.
More than 20 years after the play opened, Larry and Arthur Kramer are talking again. Their lives have trumped art. Their relationship has gone through a series of changes, and in the last decade, the brothers have become close collaborators on gay rights issues.
Last month, Arthur Kramer's law firm was among those arguing for gay marriage before New York State's highest court, and a decision in that case could come as soon as this week. His firm has spent countless hours of overtime working on other gay causes across the country, from adopting children to serving as scoutmasters. How true was the fictional account of Kramer v. Kramer? Have times changed at the same pace as the brothers? In some ways, the arc of their relationship is, writ small, the arc of the culture war raging across the stage of American life and politics.
The changes didn't happen overnight, like a religious awakening. They happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. "It was me learning through my activism and growth that being gay wasn't bad, and I wasn't going to let it be bad," Larry said. "And having to convince him and the world it wasn't bad, and him coming around." Now, he said, "He and my lover are the two most meaningful people in my life." For Arthur, the reconciliation came as he accepted that his brother was not going to change, and that being gay was a matter of biology, not choice or family dysfunction. "I was persuaded over time that there was nothing you could do about it, and it was my problem," Arthur said. "That's the way he is." Ned: You can only find room to call yourself normal.
Ben: You make me sound like I'm the enemy.
— "The Normal Heart," by Larry Kramer
In the play, first produced at the Public Theater in 1985, Larry is Ned Weeks, the Cassandra of the nascent AIDS epidemic, and Arthur is Ben, his diffident brother, more concerned with building his $2 million house in Connecticut than with taking to the ramparts. Arthur recalls that Calvin Trillin, the humor writer and a friend of both brothers, once called "The Normal Heart," "the play about the building of your house." Sitting in his living room the other day, with a majestic view of the Washington Square Arch, Larry, who found out in 1987 that he was H.I.V. positive, said he still gets "the shivers" from the scenes between the brothers, which he pronounces "the best written stuff in the play."
He is so fond of his alter ego that he uses Ned Weeks as his e-mail identity.
His brother and two lawyers from his brother's law firm joined him for the interview to talk about gay marriage and the family drama in "The Normal Heart," which Larry said was "true, all true."
Sinking into a black leather couch, Larry nestled his head against Arthur's shoulder. They still bicker affectionately over the smallest things, like how old they are.
"I'm nine and a half years older than Larry," said Arthur, who is 79.
"Eight and a half," corrected Larry, who is turning 71 today.
How did they get to this point? "You have to take it back further in our relationship," Larry said. "Arthur more or less brought me up, and looked after me, because we both shared a mutual distaste for our parents." "No," Arthur begged.
"What, you don't want to see that in print?" Larry insisted. "They're both dead."
Capitulating, Arthur explained that Larry was the unwanted second child of a lawyer who was a Phi Beta Kappa member at Yale but never lived up to the promise of his early brilliance.
Arthur became Larry's protector. As a lonely Yale freshman in 1953, Larry tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin. He confessed to his brother that he was gay, and Arthur hired a psychiatrist to cure him.
Thinking Larry needed to be cured, Arthur says now, was the well-intentioned mistake of someone taken in by the prevailing psychoanalytic wisdom of the time. Larry forgives him because the psychiatrist — one of many — did some good.
"Ben always dresses in a suit and tie, which Ned never does. Ben's approval is essential to Ned."
— Stage directions for "The Normal Heart"
The brothers wear their differences on their sleeves. Arthur sticks to his lawyer's uniform, a gray suit and a blue oxford shirt. He retired from Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel 10 years ago, but maintains strong emotional ties to the firm, which still bears his name.
Larry has a "Queer Eye" fashion sense, mixing denim overalls — to hide a waistline misshapen by the liver transplant he got because of hepatitis B — with an incongruously GQ pair of tasseled brown loafers. His hooded Eskandar T-shirts, to ward off chills, make him look like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia." To his delight, they have attracted stares in Muslim neighborhoods of London. Being an outsider becomes him.
When Larry was studying English at Yale, a fortune teller told him turquoise would protect him, and he has followed her advice ever since, adding more rings and bracelets as his health has worsened.
"When the photographer comes, I have to put on my 'Where is the outrage' T-shirt," Larry said. Not just any T-shirt: This one is sold by Marc Jacobs.
They have clashed over Larry's outrage, and Arthur's lack of it, many times.
In the 1980's, when Larry asked his brother to take on Gay Men's Health Crisis, the fledgling nonprofit organization he helped found, as a client, Arthur said he had to run it past his firm's intake committee, an answer which Larry saw — "rightly," Arthur says now — as a dodge.
Behind Arthur's back, Larry went to another partner, Maurice Nessen, who said, basically, 'Why not?' Larry, furious, stopped talking to Arthur in the first of many rifts.
Around the same time, Larry threatened to call a gay boycott of MCI, one of the Kramer firm's most lucrative clients, because MCI was being accused of discrimination by a former employee who was gay.
"I thought this was a hostile act towards me," Arthur said. He stopped speaking to Larry. In the 1990's, after Colorado voters passed an anti-gay rights referendum, Arthur refused to cancel a ski trip to Aspen. Once again, Larry stopped talking to him.
Yet in 2001 Arthur gave $1 million to start a program in gay and lesbian studies in Larry's name at Yale. Times had changed, says Arthur, also a Yale alumnus, and so had he — and Yale, which had rebuffed Larry's previous attempts to do something similar.
"Act 1 is me screaming at him to be our lawyer, and Act 7 is him giving $1 million to Yale," Larry said. Ned: Why didn't you guys fight for the right to get married, instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity? — "The Normal Heart"
At the end of "The Normal Heart," a sympathetic doctor symbolically marries Ned and his dying lover, Felix, in Felix's hospital room.
Gay marriage, however, is an unfinished act of the play that is the brothers' life.
To the consternation of Jeffrey S. Trachtman, co-counsel with Lambda Legal on Hernandez v. Robles, one of the gay marriage cases now before the Court of Appeals, and Norman C. Simon, a gay associate working on the case, Larry Kramer is not their biggest advocate. His ambivalence is surprising for someone who has been portrayed by detractors as the gay Jerry Falwell, hectoring gay men to "grow up" and repent their hedonistic ways.
At the moment, he says, he is interested in marriage only to take advantage of federal estate tax laws, which the piecemeal, state-by-state approach to gay marriage will do nothing about. "I want to get married if it means the U.S. government will allow me to pass along my estate, which is not inconsiderable, to David," he said, referring to his partner, David Webster, an architect. They have been together for 15 years. What about marriage as a publicly sanctioned declaration of love? Mr. Simon asks.
His parents' strained marriage was hardly the model of a loving relationship, Larry says. "Why are we perpetuating such a terrible thing?" he said of the institution of marriage. "I'm amazed by how little support for gay marriage comes from gay people."
Maybe, he concedes, if David — who has been resistant — agrees to marry him, he will feel differently. Arthur, married 53 years, with four children, derides the opposition to gay marriage as politically driven "hoo-hah."
But Arthur pointed out that Larry once thought about getting married to David. "You asked me to ask Nick," Arthur said, meaning Eugene H. Nickerson, a former partner at Kramer, Levin, who became a federal judge in Brooklyn.
"As a federal judge, he had the power to marry people. It was not an appropriate request to make, but I did it. You were trying to establish the principle."
As Arthur remembers it, Judge Nickerson, who has since died, said he didn't perform marriages of any kind. Larry remembers his saying it wouldn't work, because it would not be legal.
Later, Larry consulted Eve Preminger, a friend and surrogate judge at the time. "She offered to do it anyway and see what would happen, but that didn't come to pass," he said.
Yet for all his cynicism about marriage, Larry is delighted when Mr. Simon tells him that he and his partner have been together for 13 years. "Holy moly," he said, making it sound like congratulations.
For a famously angry man, he can be awfully sweet. "Everybody says that," he agreed, and then proceeded to bait his brother.
"Benjamin Disraeli was gay," Larry said to Arthur, as they went out to lunch.
"He was married," Arthur retorted. One has the funny feeling they have been down this road before.

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