The AIDS Epidemic - A Resilient History Through Graphic Arts

Dear parents,

Growing up in India and Vietnam, we knew nothing about the AIDS pandemic besides its negative relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. AIDS was used to discourage queerness and spread hate against same-sex relationships. However, after taking the Histories & Movements of Gender & Sexuality course with Dr. Julie Shayne, we have learned that the fight against the AIDS pandemic is beyond medical justice. It is the battle for the rights and dignity of the LGBTQ+ and marginalized communities. Therefore, today, we decided to write this letter to show you how institutions purposely ignored the AIDS pandemic and the resilient response of our community through graphic arts. 

From Silence To Violence

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"AIDS? No Comment" by Riots, [No Date Available], from ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archive. A poster emphasized the ignorance of Ronald Reagan and George Bush towards the AIDS epidemic.

As we started researching, it broke our hearts into pieces to see the pandemic was treated with silence from politicians. The poster “AIDS? No Comment” emphasizes the intentional ignorance of the two presidential administrations - Ronald Reagan and George Bush. While the first cases of AIDS infection in the United States were reported in June 1981, Reagan and his administration did not even bother addressing and tackling this issue until 1984. The silence during those four years caused thousands of deaths. The silence was an unseen deadly disease.

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"Community meeting and torchlight march on LaRouche headquarters" by Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee, 1986, from ONE National Gay and Lesbian ArchivesSignage calling Californians to vote no on proposition 64 which required people with HIV/ AIDS to be quarantined.

When AIDS became a concern to the public, silence became violence. In 1986, proposition 64 was introduced on the ballot in California. Proposition 64 suggested an initiative to add HIV/AIDS to the state’s list of regulated diseases. This would give county health officers the power to quarantine and detain people with AIDS. The idea of “concentration camps'' and “repressive measures” targeted the LGBTQ+ community, took away their jobs, and blocked them from accessing healthcare and treatment. Proposition 64 reminded us of the discrimination against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine we, your children, were detained due to the belief in the “Asian virus,” how upsetting would that be?

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Like A Prayer (1990) by DIVA TV, 1989. From ACT UP Oral History Project: Stop the Church

Besides legislation, religion also imposed violence on the LGBTQ+ community and women’s bodies. The video “Like A Prayer,” taken by DIVA TV, brought to light the 7 sins of the church and Cardinal O’Connor, especially the “ignorant denial.” In the video, Cardinal O’Connor was recounted for saying “good morality is good medicine.” He implied that the treatment for AIDS was to stop using condoms and stop having same-sex relationships.  It angered us to know the church and Cardinal O’Connor misused their religious power to promote homophobia and ignore the importance of medical assistance as well as safe-sex practices. 

From Protest to Protect - Responses Through Graphic Arts

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"'Silence = Violence' Pin" by Pride Alliance UW Bothell, 2018, CC BY-NC 4.0. From Feminist Community Archive of Washington

In class, we have learned about the major contribution of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) organization to the fight against injustice. However, coming to this exhibit, we were amazed by the way ACT-UP utilized graphic arts to express their anger, frustration, and resilience. The slogan and logo “Silence=Death” were a direct response to ignorance. With stark white letters on top of a black logo, the slogan addressed the urgency of the situation. The logo also included a pink triangle as a reference to the symbol that Nazi Germany used to identify gays and lesbians in the concentration camp during World War II. The logo was designed to embrace the resilient history and resistance of the LGBTQ community.

Furthermore, the slogan and logo also played an important role in funding during the AIDS activism movement. In the article “ACT-UP Has 100 Chapters; Use Slogan ‘Silence=Death’,” the author emphasized the sale of buttons and t-shirts with the logo was used mainly to operate the organization. Even though more than 30 years have passed, the slogan still carries on power and resilience. The button from Pride Alliance at UW Bothell reinforces that the fight against AIDS has not come to an end.

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"Women Get AIDS Too" by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, 1986 - 1997, from ACT UP Oral History ProjectA poster that addressed women, regardless of race, could also get AIDS and demand equal healthcare services and treatments.

Posters were also powerful weapons during the AIDS activism movement. While the homophobes perceived the pandemic as a “gay disease,” women were left behind in the race for medical assistance. The “Women Get AIDS Too” poster created by ACT-UP emphasized AIDS did not only affect white gay males nor white cis-women. Instead, women, especially women of color, were heavily affected by the pandemic. For this reason, the poster demanded government officials to provide medical resources for women such as healthcare, childcare, access to AIDS treatment and drug rehab programs, and education on safe sex practices.

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"Cardinal O'Connor Won't Teach Safe Sex" by ACT UP New York, 1989, from ACT UP Oral History Project.

Besides raising awareness, posters were also used to gather communities and spread information about protests. “Stop The Church” was an initiative taken by ACT UP and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization to fight for not only safe sex education but also abortion rights. The poster “Cardinal O’Connor Won’t Teach Safe Sex” was a part of this initiative. It displayed the specific time and date for the massive protest taking place outside St. Patrick's Cathedral. The poster was a form of street activism that successfully invited the public to rally, “fight its opposition towards abortion,” and “fight its murderous AIDS policy.”

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"Captain Condom's Original Party Pack Booklet" by Beowulf Thorne, 1991, from GLBT Historical Society.

Beyond using graphic arts to fight against violence, AIDS activists also created booklets to promote safe sex practices as a form of self-protection. The booklet “Captain Condom’s Original Party” written by Beowulf Thorne was a great example. While healthcare authorities hesitated to discuss safe sex guidelines for the LGBTQ+ community, the booklet took the initiative to educate people on how to use condoms and where to get them when supplies were limited. For this reason, graphic arts during the AIDS movement were twofold. They not only protested societal brutality but also protected the LGBTQ+ and marginalized community.

Even though ACT-UP has gained major success during the movement, we still acknowledge that the wound is still far from healing. Therefore, we invite you to learn more about the historical pandemic by visiting the online exhibition AIDS Treatment Activism: A Bay Area Story from the GLBT Historical Society Museum & Archives. Most importantly, to fight against AIDS is to teach your children safe sex education and abolish the negative relationship between AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community.

Henry Nguyen & Hanan Rouf

About The Curator

Hanan Rouf (they/she): Hanan lived in India for the majority of their life and 3moved to Seattle in 2019. Although there was initial culture shock, they greatly enjoyed expanding their ideas and growing by being surrounded by a diverse crowd. They plan to major in Biochemistry with a minor in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington Bothell.

Henry Nguyen (he/him): Henry spent 18 years living in Vietnam before moving to the United States. He studies Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, and Media & Communications Studies with a minor in Business Administration at the University of Washington Bothell.

Acknowledgment

This exhibit includes the research and artifacts from the ACT UP Oral History Project, Archive of Sexuality & Gender, Feminist Community Archive of Washington, GLBT Historical Society, and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archive

As the curator of this exhibit, we also want to express gratitude and appreciation to:
Dr. Julie Shayne (she/her), Faculty Coordinator of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the UW Bothell, for giving space to feminist knowledge production and the detailed guidance for this exhibit.
Denise Hattwig (she/her), Head of Digital Scholarship at UWB Library, for the support with working with metadata and the Omeka platform.
Penelope Wood (they/them), Research & Instruction librarian, Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Engineering, for assisting with finding archives and artifacts.
Jesse Blaire (they/them), Undergraduate Teaching Assistant and Writing & Communication Center Tutor, for revising the curatorial essay.

Lists of Artifacts Cited

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. “The extent of AIDS among teenagers is going to be the next crisis… Cardinal O'Connor Won't Teach Safe Sex.” ACT UP Oral History Project, 1989, https://actuporalhistory.org/actions/stop-the-church?itemId=6hut0p2bzjqcsbhaxp4k1ywr4igz6w

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. “Women Get AIDS Too.” ACT UP Oral History Project,1986 – 1997, https://actuporalhistory.org/actions/women-aids?itemId=jiav3qy4gx7lyy0hcks45x1w6p508t

Boughner, Terry. “Act-Up Has 100 Chapters; Uses Slogan ‘Silence=Death’.” The Wisconsin Light. Archives of Sexuality and Gender, August 12, 1988 - September 8, 1988, p. 12 https://link-gale-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/apps/doc/SSOHWG634451947/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=bookmark-AHSI&xid=1cdfdc94

DIVA TV. “Like A Prayer (1990).” ACT UP Oral History Project, December 10, 1989, https://actuporalhistory.org/actions/stop-the-church

Pride Alliance at UW Bothell. “‘Silence = Violence’ Pin.” Feminist Community Archive of Washington, 2018, https://cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16786coll12/id/518/rec/1

​​Riots. “AIDS? No comment.” ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, https://digitallibrary.usc.edu/asset-management/2A3BF1OOW5308?WS=SearchResults

Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee. “Community Meeting and Torchlight March on LaRouche Headquarters.” ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, 1986, https://digitallibrary.usc.edu/asset-management/2A3BF1OOY9T10

Thorne, Beowulf. “Captain Condom's Original Party Pack Booklet.” GLBT Historical Society, 1991, https://calisphere.org/item/6bb1ba69-6734-48cf-b4ad-447c6cd952ac/

Embedded Link Citations

ACT-UP New York. “Keeping The Pink Triangle In Context.” ACT UP NY, 13 May  2021, https://actupny.com/keeping-the-pink-triangle-in-context/.

Human Rights Campaign. “Glossary of Terms.” Human Rights Campaign, https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms?utm_source=GS&utm_medium=AD&utm_campaign=BPI-HRC-Grant&utm_content=454854043833&utm_term=lgbt+community&gclid=Cj0KCQiAmpyRBhC-ARIsABs2EAqrWUsYFhHLarx4FdrBtI3E5v7sr9uiCjJeb15oAxl8gdX04cQBBfkaApYdEALw_wcB

Lein, Brenda. “Online Exhibition - AIDS Treatment Activism.” GLBT Historical Society, https://www.glbthistory.org/aids-treatment-activism.