From the black panther to Banksy street art to the power fist, art has consistently been used as a political tool within social activism. The queer community has an extensive history of using artwork during public demonstrations while fighting against issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1980’s, art pieces surrounding the HIV epidemic began to arise. AIDS activist Cleve Jones created the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. Soon after, one of the possibly most iconic art pieces to emerge from this period, the SILENCE = DEATH poster, was created.
Created by Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras in New York as part of the Silence = Death Project, the poster sought to draw parallels between the gays in Nazi Germany and the AIDS crisis. In the Silence = Death Project manifesto, it was declared that ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The poster also read in small print, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable…Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”
Shortly later, an organization that would closely identify with the Silence = Death poster formed in New York City. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) NY, founded by Larry Kramer in March of 1987, became iconic for their vocal demonstrations and non-violent direct action methods, which drew attention to central issues of the AIDS crisis.
Although the specific HIV/AIDS issues have changed with time, artwork surrounding HIV/AIDS activism has remained present. For example the AIDS memorial quilt is still growing with over 48,000 3 by 6 foot memorial panels. More interestingly, symbols and the spirit from early AIDS activism, particularly radical civil disobedience and the upright pink triangle, remain existent in many forms of current activism. Queerocracy, a relatively new NY activist organization that seeks to challenge and fight against structural inequalities that punish people living with HIV/AIDS, relies heavily upon political art in their direct action. Shown below are various art pieces that appeared during some of their events.
Ranging from “HIV IS NOT A CRIME, CRIMINALIZING IT IS” to “MY + PUSSY IS NOT POISON” and “MY + PENIS IS NOT A PISTOL” to “KISS ME I AM HIV +,” each art piece has a frank statement. It’s notable that while some of these pieces focus upon government funding and education, many are geared towards destigmatizing and decriminalizing PLWH/A (people living with HIV/AIDs). These new forms of art and activism fight to reduce the criminlization of HIV+ people. HIV criminalization laws exist in 34 states and 2 U.S. territories. These laws punish HIV exposure through sex, shared needles, and in some cases bodily fluids including saliva. Many people are prosecuted regardless of whether transmission occurred or the sexual act posed a transmission threat. In some cases, a person can even be proscecuted if they disclosed their status and the sex was consensual. The Center for HIV Law Policy reported that 180 such prosecutions have occurred from 2008 to 2013 alone.
Another art piece coming from this movement of decriminalization is a beautiful new take on the original SILENCE = DEATH poster recreated by Aids Action Now.
The new poster reads SILENCE = SEX, under which is written “The criminlization of HIV + people perpetuates stigma and prevents prevention. HIV+ people are often caught in a ‘Catch 22,’ wherin disclosure is required by law, but often leads to immediate rejection. Inform yourself: overcome stigma and get laid!” Accompanied with the poster is a brilliant poem by Jordan Arseneault titled, “The New Equation.” Included below is a short excerpt from his poem.
“It’s that awkward moment where you look up at the
SILENCE = DEATH poster
On his cluttered bedroom wall
And say the words
I AM HIV POSITIVE
Only to see him freeze, lose his boner, sigh,
And explain trippingly that he has an anxiety disorder
And “just can’t take it right now.”
It’s that awkward moment when you want to rip a hypocritical poster
off someone’s wall
Or at least half of it:
SILENCE = riiippppppp crumple crumple
SILENCE = SEX
All those posters say THAT to me now:
Silence equals sex.”
Jordan highlights a story that is all too common, in which disclosure leads to immediate sexual dismissal. This altered recreation of an iconic poster accompanied by Arseneault’s poem produces disheartening, uncomfortable imagery. The feelings triggered by this imagery are what make it so powerful. I think that’s one major reason why art and activism are so heavily connected. Art evokes feelings, and feelings make people uncomfortable. Activism is not comfortable.