Larry Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on June 25, 1935. He is best known as a playwright, author, LGBTQ activist, and public health advocate. He is also famous for his controversial, aggressive, and confrontational methods of writing and activism. His first novel, Faggots, written in 1978, created great controversy in gay neighborhoods in New York for its portrayal of the community as shallow and promiscuous. In 1981, as the AIDS epidemic began, Kramer, along with five other concerned gay men, held the first meeting for an organization that would later become the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). When doctors suggested gay men stop having sex with one another in order to prevent the spread of AIDS, Kramer wrote an essay entitled “1,112 and Counting.” The article, published in the gay newspaper The New York Native, was an aggressive call to action criticizing the lack of governmental response and denial in the gay community. The article sought to scare gay men and other citizens into AIDS activism. Kramer’s controversial methods and aggressive style garnered much media attention, but gave him a reputation as a radical. His comments often alienated other organizations or individuals, further polarizing the fight against AIDS.
Both frustrated by bureaucratic stalling and inspired by a trip to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, Kramer wrote his critically renowned play The Normal Heart in 1984. The Normal Heart focuses on Ned Weeks and his perception of the burgeoning AIDS crisis in New York City. The play is largely autobiographical; the character of Ned Weeks was based on Kramer. The play opened at the Public Theater in 1985 and quickly became both a hit and a controversy. It was revived for a stint on Broadway in 2011.
After leaving GMHC and writing The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer cofounded the militant AIDS-activism group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, in 1987. The group targeted governmental agencies and medical corporations by protesting outside of national corporation offices or headquarters in order to publicize the lack of treatment and funding available for people living with AIDS. ACT UP’s main goal was to draw as much attention to the disease as possible and it often achieved that mission through radical protests that led to arrests. The group is credited with making more treatments and medical options available to more people. Larry Kramer continues to write and remains an authoritative voice on LGBTQ issues.
Dr. Linda Laubenstein
Linda Laubenstein was born on May 21, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts. After a bout with polio, she was left in a paraplegic state at the age of five. Yet her disability never prevented Laubenstein from becoming a physician and compassionately caring for disenfranchised communities during the frightful AIDS epidemic. She was known for traveling to the hospital on public buses in the middle of the night in order to care for people with AIDS. In 1982, she cared for one quarter of the recorded national total of people with AIDS in 1982. Laubenstein and her associate, Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, wrote the first published journal article about the alarming rise in Kaposi’s sarcoma among young gay men, and in 1983 they organized the first major AIDS health convention at New York University. Her benevolence went beyond medical treatment: Laubenstein also created an organization called Multitasking, which sold office services to other businesses and employed people living with AIDS. The nonprofit was created to benefit people with AIDS who were being fired from their jobs but needed work for financial and emotional fulfillment. Her fervent service inspired the character Dr. Emma Brookner in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. Linda Laubenstein passed away in 1992. She was 45.
Dr. Joseph Sonnabend
Joseph Sonnabend was born in 1933 in South Africa. After attending medical school, he moved to New York City in the early 1970s to become an associate professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. After his time at Mount Sinai, Sonnabend went on to become the director of continuing medical education at the Bureau of Venereal Disease Control for the New York City Department of Health. In 1978, he began a private clinic in Greenwich Village. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, he noticed that his patients, predominantly young gay men, were becoming sick with rare immune-suppressed illnesses. As an active practitioner and researcher, Sonnabend hypothesized that AIDS was caused by multiple exposures of the immune system to an attacking agent. This model is known as the multifactorial model. These multiple exposures included sharing infected needles and unprotected sex, which inspired two of his own patients, Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, to write How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, a guide to safer sex and AIDS prevention.
In 1983, Dr. Sonnabend became the center of a monumental court case in which he was represented by Lambda Legal, the first organization in the U.S. dedicated to achieving full legal equality for gay and lesbian people. After receiving a sudden eviction notice, Sonnabend sued the co-op board of his office’s Greenwich Village building. The co-op board had decided to evict Dr. Sonnabend out of fear that AIDS might spread and the office would lead to a decrease in the building’s value. Lambda sued the co-op board on violation of human rights and civil rights laws, claiming discrimination against Sonnabend and his patients based on AIDS disability. Sonnabend and the co-op board eventually reached a settlement and the doctor continued to practice out of the West 12th Street building. This was the first legal case for Lambda as well the first case in which someone was being sued on the grounds of AIDS disability discrimination.
Sonnabend remained an active voice during the AIDS epidemic and was a founding member of organizations like CRI (Community Research Initiative, later known as ACRIA), the PWA Health Group (which aimed to increase access to promising AIDS therapies otherwise not available in the U.S.), the peer-reviewed medical journal AIDS Research (later called AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses), and AMF (AIDS Medical Foundation, the predecessor to amfAR). Dr. Sonnabend is praised for his empathetic loyalty to his clients and fierce criticism of medical institutions failing to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Yet his unorthodox beliefs on AIDS treatments and the causes of illness often left him in direct opposition of the medical mainstream.
Sister Miriam Kevin Phillips
Sister Kevin Phillips was born and raised in Greenwich Village in New York City. She left New York temporarily in 1950 to join the Sisters of Charity, but returned to her beloved neighborhood in 1966 to begin her work at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The hospital was considered the epicenter of initial response to the AIDS epidemic, with the first and the largest AIDS unit on the East Coast at the time. As the lethal and still mysterious illness spread, many hospital personnel were afraid to interact with people who had the disease or discriminated against gay patients. Despite the hysteria, Sister Kevin Phillips, as well as the other staff at St. Vincent’s, remained true to their tenets of providing excellent treatment to individuals with respect, integrity, and compassion. At the time of the burgeoning AIDS crisis, Sister Kevin Phillips was the director of the school of nursing at the hospital. In the face of fear and backlash, she taught her students to accept, love, and care for their patients regardless of their condition. Throughout her forty-six years of tireless devotion to St. Vincent’s hospital, Sister Kevin Phillips held many positions, including senior vice president until the hospital’s closing in 2010. She continues her acts of kindness and community care with the Sisters of Charity in New York.