They called him America’s angriest activist.
When Larry Kramer and a handful of friends founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center in 1982 New York City, they did so out of an unimaginable fear for their own lives and the lives of their friends. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing – countless friends and loved ones had been ravaged by illness as government and public health agencies stood idly by. They received over 100 phone calls in the first night of operation. They listened to the grief and anxiety of the dying, many of whom had been evicted from apartment buildings and fired from jobs due to the social stigma surrounding this opportunistic infection. 35 years later, GMHC is the leading provider of and advocate for support of those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. The life saving medical advancements that have occured in the meantime did not come without a hard-fought battle for justice and medical equity. GMHC and the social justice movement surrounding it was forged in the fire of intense anger and the will to survive. As we continue to grapple with the social stigma surrounding HIV and lack of equal access to medication and care worldwide, we must not lose that fire.
Over spring break I, along with eleven other students from the College of Charleston, volunteered with GMHC through the Office of Civic Engagement’s Alternative Break program. In our time there, we had the chance to meet and serve food to clients, sort interview clothing, pack safer sex kits, become certified in opioid overdose care, etc. We were also provided with various workshops and educational experiences, even getting to meet Eric Sawyer, one of the founding members of the activist group, Act Up. Throughout all of this, my group and I were filled with an overwhelming sense of hope and drive. Even as we allowed ourselves to become overwhelmed by the sorrow and enragement brought on by injustice, we found ourselves equally motivated to do something about it.
As an organization dedicated to serving all people affected by HIV/AIDS, GMHC provides outreach programs for at risk communities, mental health services, advocacy/support groups, youth programs, wellness services, a client run advocacy center, substance abuse counseling (sobriety not a prerequisite) and legal services. People come from all over to receive care from GMHC, largely because this sort of support cannot be found on such a scale in much of the country. For New Yorkers living with HIV under the poverty line, local government will sometimes even cover housing and medical expenses. Learning all of this was something of a double-edged sword for us South Carolinians, who in our wildest dreams could not imagine such comprehensive public health policies. What about the people in our state whose lives are ruined by lack of education and access?
There are 1,503 people in Charleston county alone living with HIV. South Carolina ranks 8th in HIV/AIDS prevalence nationally. The only way to address this crisis is the implementation of honest and comprehensive sex education. We have to stop being afraid to talk about sex. We must fight to educate and reduce the stigma surrounding HIV and those infected. Most importantly, those with the privilege to do so must fight for equity in health care. Whether that means planning or attending protests, going into a public health/advocacy career, or even just educating your community in any small way that you can, we all have the power to make a difference. It may sound like a cliche, but Larry Kramer proves that the anger of one person can incite a revolution. May the passion and hope of twelve bring that revolution home.