Activist Larry Kramer tells Darrow students they can change the world


NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- Today, young people interested in becoming activists can pick from any number of hot-button issues: gun laws, immigration policies, the Defense of Marriage Act.

This week, students at Darrow School, the private, independent co-ed boarding school for grades nine to 12 in New Lebanon, spent time listening to and learning from activist, author and playwright Larry Kramer.

"An activist tries to change the world. It was considered a dirty word, when I was your age, to be called an activist," Kramer, 77, told a full theater of students during a question-and-answer forum held at the school on Wednesday.

In the 1980s, he founded Gay Men's Health Crisis, the nation's first AIDS/HIV support organization, and ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), known for its high-profile and controversial protests against pharmaceutical companies and government agencies.

Kramer's largely autobiographical 1985 stage play, "The Normal Heart," was revived on Broadway in 2011, featuring Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey, who both won Tony awards for their performances in the play. A new adaptation is currently in pre-production to become an HBO film featuring Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, and "The Big Bang Theory" star Jim Parsons, who also previously appeared in the 2011 stage revival. The HBO film will be directed by Ryan Murphy ("The New Normal," "American Horror Story," "Glee").

Kramer agreed to speak with Darrow students, faculty and guests this week at the request of trustee and alumni David Webster, who happens to be Kramer's partner of 25 years.

"You only have one story really to tell, and that's your story," Kramer said.

He told students he still writes seven days a week, and is currently editing his 3,000-page book manuscript, "The American People," which Kramer described as "the history of homosexuality in this country."

On Wednesday, Kramer discussed his work as prompted by two moderators, Erin Milin, Darrow's college counselor and writing reflections teacher, and Nina Tobin, a senior and student body president.

Though his writing has earned the acclaim with performances by glamorous celebrities, Kramer described to the students the dark, gritty and often devastating sides of grassroots activism.

Attempting to put the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980s into perspective for the teens, he said, "Half of your friends would be dead. I don't know if you could visualize that. No one wanted to know you. No one wanted to help you. The church didn't want you. And in some cases, your parents didn't want you. We were prepared to do almost anything for activism at that time."

Darrow junior Kate Andersen said she admired Kramer's spirit, and said students sometimes feel strapped for time to immerse themselves in a cause. "I have classes, I have papers, but I can still blog with veracity," she said.

Spectrum, a student gay-straight alliance group on campus, will be leading a "Day of Silence" on April 19, a national youth-run effort using silence to protest the actual silencing of LGBT people due to harassment, bias and abuse in schools.

Spectrum co-leader August Shah, a Darrow sophomore, said he hopes to see the fight of Kramer's generation continue with his own generation.

"I'd like to see gay marriage become legal in all states to have federal equality," said Shah. "It's going to take a lot more work, but our generation has a lot of power to change the future."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
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