The AIDS crisis has been one of the most prominent health crises of the past century, yet it is often overlooked or misunderstood. With the lack of education and scholarship on the topic, many people are unfamiliar with the activism that was ongoing in the 80’s and beyond and the significance of community organizing for and by queer people. This exhibit aims to present narratives of queer people who were experiencing the AIDS epidemic, either directly or through their loved ones who had the virus. The narratives are presented in different mediums, including posters detailing protests, music, and poetry. Art has been central to activism for decades and it allows for a deeper understanding of the AIDS crisis in its capacity to portray emotion and function as a revolutionary act. Queer people mobilized local efforts in efforts to fill gaps where the government failed to support people with HIV, which occurred alongside the creation of art by affected groups. With the narratives presented in these pieces, they demonstrate how queer people were organizing during the AIDS crisis to advocate for healthcare, promote solidarity, and fight for their liberation.
ACT UP, which is an abbreviation for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is a grassroots organization that formed in 1987 to help people with AIDS and still exists today. Some of its main chapters were located in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, and they organized protests, hosted workshops on civil disobedience, and advocated for sex education. It was one of the most successful and groundbreaking organizations formed during the AIDS crisis, with its success lying in the community based work it was based upon.
The six artists who created the widely known Silence=Death poster were involved with ACT UP, and the poster became central to the organization’s activism and is still circulated today. Intended to encourage conversation, the poster was placed around cities and encouraged people to get involved in fighting the AIDS crisis. The design was carefully thought out, with the large block text intending to resemble an advertisement to draw attention to it and the pink triangle referencing the symbol used in the Holocaust to identify gay people. The symbol had begun to be reclaimed by gay activists in the 70’s, and their choice to include it alludes to the systemic violence against queer people at the hands of the government. As described in an analysis of art made during the AIDS crisis, the author writes of Silence=Death, “Through ACT UP’s sophisticated use of image, language, and performance, the group advanced new analyses of the epidemic and attracted the attention of the mainstream media that had, up until that point, focused most of its attention on images of persons suffering with AIDS or on sensationalized accounts of transmission routes and events” (Sember et al.). By representing the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and a call to action, the Silence=Death poster became central to organizing within ACT UP and is still significant today.
The following poster from ACT UP is promoting a protest in New York City against Rudy Giuliani, who was the mayor from 1994-2001. The protest was in direct response to his decision to cut funding for services for AIDS, which occurred in combination with cuts towards higher education and social services. Activists often confronted politicians and other well known authorities who were actively worsening the protective services of vulnerable communities. Similar posters exist condemning Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Ed Koch, the mayor of New York in the late 80’s. Written in both English and Spanish, ACT UP sought to make the poster accessible to a wider audience, which is furthered by them giving directions for public transportation to take to the protest location. This poster also demonstrates how activism for people with AIDS continued past the 80’s, especially in locations where the government was actively decreasing the resources allotted to fighting AIDS.
Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 4 was commissioned by Geoffrey Hendricks, who married Brian Buczak in 1976. Glass is a highly regarded composer who was prominent in defining late 20th-century music. In his commission, he aimed to create “a musical impression of [Buczak] as a person as well as a tribute to his life’s work.” Buczak was an artist who died of AIDS at 33 years old and was well known within queer artist communities. The physical display features excerpts from the artist book The search for accidental significance for Brian Buczak, which was created by his friends and family to commemorate his life. This piece emphasizes the importance of art in both fighting against and coping with the AIDS crisis.
The poem “Elegy for Two Who Died of AIDS” is featured in The search for accidental significance for Brian Buczak and was written by Michael Andre. It references Brian by name, and an unidentified person named Tom, who also presumably died of AIDS. It acknowledges the pain of experiencing the deaths of friends and the severity of the disease. Andre and Buczak published a limited edition book featuring Andre’s poetry and Buczak’s drawings, so the poem is fitting as a piece of art made in his memory.
America Responds to AIDS
The public information prevention campaign “America Responds to AIDS” ran multiple series of information guides on the AIDS crisis during the 80’s and 90’s. While they had effective campaigns that raised awareness around the spread of HIV, they often failed to acknowledge how queer communities were more vulnerable due to the lack of government help. This particular poster acknowledges how HIV can spread from non-sterilized needles, but they had others that destigmatized the myth that you could HIV from sharing food or through touch. It is possible that the campaigns were less directed towards gay people because most people in the community were more aware of the virus and how it could spread, but the absence of any mention of sexuality is apparent. However, they worked alongside the Center for Disease Control, which could have directed them to other audiences. The poster suggests the significance of informational posters and art as a means of educating the public, as statistical information is not always effective in encouraging safe practices and awareness of diseases.
AIDS Memorial Quilt
The AIDS Memorial Quilt project began in 1985 to commemorate the deaths of people who died of AIDS. There are now tens of thousands of panels, each handmade by loved ones and documenting the person’s life through fabric arts. The photo shows the quilts in their first display on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1987, where they were exhibited for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As an ever growing project, it has been significant in commemorating the lives lost to AIDS and also as a means for raising money to fight the epidemic. Featured in the physical display is an excerpt from The search for accidental significance for Brian Buczak, which documents the process of the making of his quilt. Being the largest community art project in the world, the AIDS Memorial Quilt emphasizes the work of community organizing and the role of art in response to the AIDS crisis.
ACT UP (1987), Silence=Death. Wellcome Images. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_pink_triangle_against_a_black_backdrop_with_the_words_%27Silence%3DDeath%27_representing_an_advertisement_for_The_Silence_%3D_Death_Project_used_by_permission_by_ACT-UP,_The_AIDS_Coalition_To_Unleash_Power._Wellcome_L0052822.jpg
AIDS Quilt in Front of the Washington Monument. National Institutes of Health
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