Keith Haring’s AIDS Activism

Keith Haring was an American artist and activist in 1980s New York, whose artwork raised awareness on social issues at the time. One the main awareness campaigns Haring participated on was AIDS awareness and activism. As an openly gay man Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 19.40.18and someone who was suffering from AIDS himself, Haring wanted to break the silence and stigma on AIDS as “gay cancer.” Through Haring’s style and images he was able to reach a larger audience and spread the awareness of AIDS.


Haring’s main style for his artwork were cartoon like figures with bold colors and lines as seen in pop art and graffiti art. He believed that art was not only for the rich and elite but rather for the average everyday folk. He was quoted saying, “My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can.” Because of this, most of his artwork was seen in public spaces like subways and street. Haring would turn empty ad spaces into his artworks. This idea of art for the common person helped his AIDS awareness campaign as many people who would be affected by AIDS were able to see his artwork.

One of his more famous artworks for AIDS awareness and activism is called Silence=Death. In this piece, there are stick figures outlined in bold white lines inside a pink triangle. The figures vary from covering their ears, their eyes, and their mouths. The figures inside the triangle represent all of the people suffering from AIDS who felt as if they havSilence-Deathe been silenced and casted away from society because of this disease.The pink triangle the figures are inside of adds to this message of oppression since the pink triangle symbol was used during the Holocaust to indicate the people that were being singled out for their homosexuality. Haring wanted to give all the people
suffering from AIDS a voice and have their concerns be heard since at this time not much was being done on AIDS awareness.

Another artwork of his that raised AIDS awareness was a piece titled Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death. The piece has three yellow figures outlined in think black lines behind an orange background. Like the figures in the previous work, each figure has their eyes covered, their mouth covered, or their ears covered. The figures also have a pink “x” across their chest which represents that actual disease of AIDS. The figures again represent people with AIDS, who are too afraid to voice their concerns and have been silenced by society. The top of the piece has the words “Ignorance = Fear” and the bottom has the words “Silence = Death.” During this period, there was a lack of knowledge on what AIDS and HIV actually was because people were afraid to speak up about the condition. People were afraid of the stigma behind the disease. Before the term AIDS and HIV were used, it was called GRID, which means gay-related immune deficiency. So the lack of knowledge leads to fear of the disease. The “Silence = Death” part is about all the people that
refused to get tested or recognize the seriousness of the illness will die. The public’s silence on the issue of AIDS was leading to more death, and Haring wanted to make this known.

ActUpBThrough Haring’s artwork, AIDS awareness and prevention was brought to the public’s eye and it opened up conversations about the disease. As someone who suffered first hand from the disease, Haring wanted people to speak up about AIDS so more research could be conducted in order to understand a disease that was and still is affecting millions of people.

“HA! The Web Series” and Religion

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 16.17.58HA! the web series is a satire that centers on a young man, Roger, who enters homosexual anonymous (HA) at his local church to overcome his homosexual urges. Throughout the web series, the idea that through Christian faith and threats of a lifetime of sin, a person’s homosexuality can be cured. Although the series is purely satirical, it highlights the absurdity of Christian gay-to-straight reform groups as the name of group is commonly referred to among members as HA (a sign of amusement).

HA is just like all the other anonymous reform groups, but instead this group has a 14 step program for complete recovery. In the meetings, each member goes around and shares their stories of homosexual urges and actions. The group then prays for that person in hope that through God and faith, they will be cured. If Christian faith is not enough to cure the members, then the threat of a lifetime of sin will scare the members to be straight. This plot line sheds light on the ongoing issue of organized religion punishing and pushing away its homosexual members. Many homosexual people feel they cannot truly be themselves and love the people they love because their religion does not condone it and actually punishes it. The rigid beliefs in the Christian faith are made clear through Roger’s mom as she made the comment in episode 2 “We are not flexible. We are Christian.” She also constantly reminds Roger of the lifetime of sin he will be faced if decides to act on his urges. For a religion that prides itself on love and peace, it still excludes and persecutes its members and Roger’s mom is an example of that.
Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 16.16.43Although the web series was made in 2009, it is still relevant today. Most organized religions still do not accept homosexuality or “gay marriage.” The Catholic Church has made some progress in the more recent years with its announcement of accepting homosexual members, but it still does not recognize homosexual marriage. It still believes in the archaic notion that marriage is for a man and a woman. Some of the more accepting religions will still judge and punish its members because they may accept the concept homosexuality, they do not accept the actions involved with it. Organized religions’ complete or partial rejection of homosexuality, impacts queer society as it secludes many people and makes the process of coming out and acceptance harder because of the fear of rejection and persecution.

Flag Wars and Gayborhoods

Imagine a utopia. Queer paradise. A place where you were constantly surrounded by pleasant, like-minded people that all get along. A place where you never had to worry about discrimination or prejudice. Life is just easy-going without any unnecessary negative experiences. Theoretically that’s what a gayborhood, or a neighborhood with a large number of LGBTQ+ residents, is supposed to be. And while there are plenty of benefits to living in a place filled with people like you, there also comes some strong negative impacts.

In George Chauncey’s Gay New York he discusses the queer communities in the late 1800s that were established in different parts of New York. Contrary to popular belief, prior to World War II gay men were able to congregate and share their identities and were not forced to live solitary lives. These are the first gay neighborhoods in the United States that we know of, granted they consisted primarily of cis gay men so they are fairly different from the ones we see in large cities today. These queer oases facilitated the creation of a very strong gay culture and gave members of the queer community outlets to showcase talents, socialize with people that had similar identities, and form romantic relationships with one another. They also served as a sort of barrier to the policing of queerness by creating a safe space.

Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’ 2003 documentary Flag Wars depicts a more modern version of gay neighborhoods. It follows the conflict in a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood between the gay and African American communities as a large white, LGBTQ+ population begins moving in and gentrifying the neighborhood. Throughout the film the queer population uses civil law to speed up the process of removing the African American community. This includes having parts of the neighborhood declared historic to create restricted housing codes, fighting the presence of low-income housing, and continually making code enforcement complaints. The displacement of these people is treated with such nonchalance. At one point in the documentary, while attending a neighborhood meeting a member of the queer community states, “If you can’t take care of your house then don’t live there.” If only it was that easy. I understand the want to have a clean, beautiful neighborhood but most of these people simply do not have the money to allocate funds to the upkeep of their homes. The woman they were following in particular had a disease and was living off a $500 per month disability check. It is important to remember that people sharing one or both of these identities are all in need of safe spaces and that it is always better to be allied than at each other’s throats.

This is not an isolated incident. Gay neighborhoods typically begin in low-income neighborhoods that are then revamped and given higher taxes, pushing the existing population out of their homes. An influx of LGBTQ+ peoples is now seen as a early marker of gentrification to come.

In addition to gentrification, gay neighborhoods are often not always inclusive to all members of the queer community. Since these neighborhoods are usually of higher income, residents tend to be white and wealthy. There is usually a higher concentration of gay men than women since research shows that lesbians are less likely to live in close proximity to one another. And of course there are populations that are unwanted as in any community, such as prostitutes and those with “strange” kinks, which are pushed out either because of the gentrification or because of harassment by other residents.

I am not saying that gayborhoods are the worst places in the world. I am sure there are some people that have really benefited by living surrounded by others similar to them, especially in the past, knowing they will be safe where they sleep and not hated solely because of their sexual orientation. But it is important to recognize and change the faults of our queer community rather than pretend they don’t exist.

Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color

Society itself has come a long way with the representation of queer peoples in the everyday culture, but there are still a few gaps. Last year, the Lambda Literary Foundation recognized these missing narratives and created Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. Their mission is to “nurture, celebrate, and preserve diversity within the queer poetry community.” They celebrate the multiple voices and experiences within the community, while keeping the content specific enough that it can be a safe space. They emphasize that this journal is not a place for any type of prejudice, oppressive language, or fetishization of the lives of queer people of color. It invites the reader to contact them if they ever feel discriminated against by the language used. Along with the literary journal, this past summer they also put on a reading series where some of the Nepantla poets visited various US cities to share some of their poetry aloud.

In Joseph Epstein’s Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity, he makes it very clear that he is not a fan of the queer community. He throws around words such as cursed and appalling, as well as claims there is nothing that would make him sadder than if one of his son’s came out to be gay. He states, “If I has the power to do so I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, I would do so because I think that it bring infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it.” I selected three poems from the first two issues of Nepantla that I see as responses to the previous statement.

Danez Smith’s On Grace speaks on the beauty of the black, male body. He uses metaphor to compare their physique to religious concepts, such as gospels and miracles,
and their sex to Danez Smithworship. He loves both his blackness and his queerness to the point where he calls out God’s name. Considering that to religious peoples God is perfect and all that is good, the comparisons used in this poem make it pretty clear that Smith does not believe queerness causes widespread pain and anguish, but that it is beautiful and something to be praised.

Mariah L. Richardson’s Butter Cream is more abstract when it comes to describing the love of queerness. In this poem she is speaking on one specific partner, rather than a group of people. In the first stanza she describes her as “soft cake / butter sweet / and light,” and what is more pleasurable than cake? I would argue nothing. She uses various beautiful, intricate language to emphasize the pleasantness of their surroundings, which can also be read as the pleasantness of their intimacy. “Bouquets of / myrrh sandalwood / wafts and billows”, “faux ming vase / bursting of cattails / and pussy willow / tease in the corner”, “the big, big bed / royal purple / gold sheets / satin raw silk /  gregorian chants / whisper lusty devotions”. The most obvious depiction of pleasure is in the last stanzs: “I hear the color red.” Their sex is so wonderful that it is making the impossible Danez Smithpossible. Once again, I do not see any form of pain.

The third poem I selected is by far the simplest of the three. Nashon Cook’s Imagine explains what an orgasm feels like for him. While this does not comment on queerness specifically, given the nature of the literary journal we know that he is a member of the queer community. Once again there are references to churches and preachers as to show the purity of intimacy. The feelings he describes in this poem most definitely can be seen as powerful, but none painful.

Many of the pieces we have covered in this class are fairly old and clinical; while I do think it is important to know the history and theory, there is a need for more contemporary representations of queerness, especially regarding QPOC. In the 16th century when the Spanish were colonizing Aztec land, the indigenous people described their experience and culture as nepantla, a state of in between. In between two identities, two cultures. In between the person you are and the person you wish to be. Nepantla celebrates the in between, and I think we should too.

Queer Culture in Japan

When the nail sticks out, it gets hammered down. Although Japan continually leads as an innovative country, it is still a very traditional nation. While queer culture in Japan has been apparent since ancient times, it has always been overlooked. Even today, queer culture is almost entirely ignored in Japan.

In Japan today, most people in the queer community are not open about their sexuality. They will even marry someone of the opposite sex (if they are homosexual) to conceal their sexual identity. While there are currently no laws in Japan that completely prohibit homosexuality, there is one in place for ‘safety concerns’. This particular law regards to the age of consent, which is higher for homosexual adults than heterosexual adults.

Same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Japan. As of 2009 couples can now able to travel to countries where same-sex marriage is legal and get married there. However, these marriages still are not fully recognized in Japan. In modern Japan, there are a few individuals that are leading the way for a progressive queer community. 640_b86a7bfefcb2c094dbc129e4ccf2c0f3Aya Kamikawa was one of the first elected officials that was a part of the transgender community. Just two years later in 2005, Kanako Otsuji (who was an assembly woman) came out as lesbian. Today, legal rights in the queer community are mainly overlooked in Japan. They are a very minor topic in Japanese politics and national laws do not extend to sexual identity discrimination. Although there has been little progress, Tokyo is leading the way in a progressive queer community. The city has banned discrimination based on sexual identity.

In Japan’s popular culture, a handful of ‘idols’ have come out as homosexual. However, they have almost all been males. The comedian Ramon Sumitami uses homosexual stereotypes to gain popularity. Increasing in popularity is the anime/manga category Yaoi which typically features two masculine men in an equal relationship. While this may have helped spread awareness for the queer community, the Yaoi genre is almost entirely pornographic. The Yuri genre focuses on lesbian relationships. Some shows and stories in the Yuri category do contain pornographic plots, however, the majority of the time it does not contain that so it can easily market to straight and homosexual (mostly lesbian) viewers. The majority of homosexual identity that Japan has access to is often hypersexualized and thus is looked down upon by the real homosexual community.

Because of the progress Japan has made over the years, I believe they will slowly move towards a day where the queer community can openly exist. For now, as long as queer culture stays a minor political subject and homosexuality is seen as a pornographic tool in popular media, it will not be taken too seriously. In Women’s Studies 247, queer culture is often discussed and readings date back to time periods in America when homosexuality wasn’t part of the public scope. However, Japan is progressing today in very different ways than America. They focus on technological innovations rather than the individual. As long as Japanese culture still follows traditional gender roles, there will likely be no progress. However, like the rest of the world, growth and change is inevitable, especially when so many other countries have already begun to openly accept the queer community.