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.

Korea Queer Culture Festival

Korea Queer culture festival is the largest queer cultural festival in Korean and second largest in Asia. It first took place in the year 2000 and usually happens in late May to early June annually for about 15 days. Different year the event takes place at different locations throughout South Korea. Korea is a conservative country and many people see homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon. Homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Korean society and same-sex people are seldom seen in public. LGBT people in South Korea face discrimination that heterosexual people do not. However, unlike many similar events photography is limited in this event. This is done to minimize public exposure of LGBT people to avoid discrimination.

Even though there is no law against homosexuality in Korean history, homosexual couples and households are not entitled any legal protection from the government, unlike heterosexual people. Transgender people are allowed to have surgery to reassign their gender after age 20. People in dominantly religious country are more likely to reject the idea of homosexuality according to the Pew Research Center survey published in Washington Post. According to the survey 18% people in South Korea support homosexuality only. Homosexual people are often stigmatized and sometimes not classified as humans, as the country remains largely conservative on matters of sexuality. Political parties and most elected politicians of South Korea tend to avoid addressing LGBT rights issues except the Democratic Labor Party. The Democratic Party is the third largest political party and has a political panel known as ‘Sexual Minorities Committee.’ Their agenda includes discrimination against homosexual people and discrimination based on sexual preferences and equal rights for sexual minorities. I chose this event for my post because it shows even though Korea is a developed country but still the way people thinks is greatly influenced by religion and political influence. It relates to our class discussion of how politics and religion shapes a person’s view and on a much border scale a nation’s view. Military service is mandatory for all men Koreans. Active homosexual military members are categorized as ‘personality disorder’ or ‘behavior disability’ and honorably discharged. Korean Queer Culture festival receives no support from the government except the Democratic Labor Party.

The festival normally begins with opening events followed by a parade and after-party at club Pulse in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, although celebrations continue in all LGBTQ clubs across the city People attending the event wear mask to avoid recognition on a website or newspaper for fear of reprisal by family, friends or co-workers. Demonstrators continue to disrupt the annual gay pride of South Korea where all gay and transgender Koreans meet together for a series of events and parades, recognized internationally as a gay pride month. The number of participants attending the event increased over time-but the increased visibility of LGBT supporters has also meant that the number of protestors also increased. Christian groups ran a campaign for weeks to try to block the parade. In May 2015, they camped out for weeks in front of the police station where parade organizers had to apply for permit and filed a counter request to hold the parade. Police initially ruled in favor of the anti-LGBT response committee, however a court ruled on June 2015 that the parade had to be allowed. The parade was banned in 2015 and this has attracted international attention to the event. This progressed LGBT rights in South Korea. Photography was banned in this event until 2010. The organizers issued no photography stickers, ribbons and bands. People who will allow photography will have to register or else faces will be blurred before publishing online.

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Largest counter-protests was organized by merging some of Korea’s largest Christian Church associations together as anti-LGBT response committee. The committee held a worship service across the street from the gay pride event and the committee was blasting sermons, hymns and prayers loudly enough to overwhelm the sound system of the event. Protestors held sign on their laps which says, “We pray for Korea not to be diseased/sick with homosexuality.” Girls performed ballet which resembles God’s angel and purity and to show what real beauty looks like. Some protestors laid down on the street to block the parade. But they were immediately removed and the parade went off without any major incidents.

korea-queerPictured, a demonstrator protested the 2014 Korea Queer Festival by holding a sign to obscure the view of the performance behind him

General awareness of homosexuality remains low among people in Korea because people are afraid if they come out, they will be face difficulty both in work place and among families. However there is increased awareness of homosexuality and gay-themed entertainment in the media can be seen now. According to a number of advocates for sexual minorities, two major issues are holding LGBT human rights- lack of awareness in society and strong opposition from the Christian Church.

Rent

Rent, a rock musical by Jonathan Larson, was first performed in 1994 off-broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and grew to demanding success by 1996. Still, 20 years later, Rent is a powerful and impactful story that touches hearts and lives despite the changes in time and culture. The show follows a group of New York City friends living in the shadow of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and while this was a frightening moment for many in history, the musical presents a lasting message of hope, friendship, love and living life to the fullest.

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In 1995, AIDS became the leading cause of death in the United States, taking an all-time high number of lives. This musical provided a message that was so cathartic at the time being and still continues to do so, even if the viewer has no personal connection to the disease. In Rent, we are exposed to a large, diverse cast of different genders, sexualities, races and interests, with people who are both diagnosed and not diagnosed with AIDS/HIV. Although the disease is a central concept throughout the show, it is not the most prevalent. We witness characters attempt to make their lives meaningful, whether it be through pursuing a career or finding love. An event that was so specifically focused on a certain group of people was given an important message with this musical: we are all still people and we all have the same desires.

This epidemic tore people apart due to multiple reasons: death, misunderstanding, etc. Rent was able to show the other side of the disease — the side that brought people together. Roger and Mimi, a couple who had multiple ups and downs in their relationship, found true meaning and understanding in their relationship the night they discovered that they were both HIV positive. Angel and Collins, two strangers who met on the street, developed a friendship and love by revealing they both had AIDS and attending support meetings together. Characters like Mark and Maureen, who did not have AIDS/HIV, remained a strong support system and were allies to the infected community. The network that this disease created built lasting friendships. The best example of the strength in these relationships is shown when Angel loses her fight against the disease and every character begins to deteriorate a little. A scene so beautifully tragic reminds us that every life was connected. Even after her death, she continued to act as a link that brought their family back together as Mark dedicates his film to her.

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A time period filled with grief provided so much hope because of this musical. While we have learned of the power of AIDS/HIV, we should not neglect the strength inside those associated with the disease that allowed victims to persevere and continue to live life to the best of their ability. Rent sheds light on these people through beautiful songs, both sad and optimistic, and character development that reminds the viewers that a disease does not define who we are. We all come from different socio-economic experiences that have made an impact on our lives. The conflict in Rent is interchangeable. Because of that, we see Rent as more than just a production about AIDS. It is a production about who we are, how we cope and why that makes us such powerful human beings.

Boy Wonder- James Robert Baker

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James Robert Baker was a transgressional gay themed fiction writer and filmmaker. He was raised in a conservative family in southern California and explored his sexuality when in high school and realized he was gay. However, he was afraid to come out as his dad was abusive and conservative. He committed suicide at the age of 50. His interactions with his family and society can be seen in most of his novel and film, but most extensively in Boy Wonder, written in 1988. Baker is best known for his novel, “Tim and Pete”, “Adrenaline”- about two gay fugitives’ lovers. Baker has a very strong voice in gay literature both in the mainstream literary culture as well as the gay community itself.

Boy Wonder was set in Orange County, California about a boy, Gale Shark Trager and how he led his life due to his different way of viewing life and feeling confined by the norms and expectations of the society and how he broke free of the confined. Shark’s father Mac Trager, was a racist bully and his mother, Winnie Trager was a hypochondriac. In both cases, Paul and Shark’s father’s had a conservative mindset. He always had a hard time fitting into the society and adjusting to his school peers similar to the writer Baker. He became friends with his gay neighbor, Kenny Roberts and fell in love with a blonde teen, Kathy Petro. Obsessed with Kathy he filmed her masturbating and while he went to develop the film, Kathy’s father pressed charges against him and Mac learns how perverted Shark was. Mac took Shark for a VD “drip check” and Shark accused Mac of being a homosexual. This can be related to “Paul’s Case” by Cather, where Paul had a hard time adjusting to his school where everyone bullied him. Later Shark moved out of his house and moved with his friend. Throughout his life he randomly hooked up with all kinds of people in his life to make movies and moved from place to place and never settled with anyone. Shark threw out Kathy (who was his girlfriend at that time) out of the car after a fight, the cops shot him afterwards. Even though there are queer people throughout the century, very few people have the strength to come out of the closet and most people either commit suicide or do something stupid that end up destroying their career or sometimes their life. Eventually Shark moved to a bigger city in Los Angeles where he attended UCLA, this can be related to Paul’s moving to New York. This represents that bigger cities have more opportunities and are more open towards LGBT people. He never got any support from his family or peers as he never fit in the traditional norms of society. Both the writer and the character, Shark suffered mental disturbance through their life.

Baker’s suicide can be related to Paul’s suicide for being gay. Even though Paul killed himself for being gay and afraid of the society, Baker’s suicide can be related somewhat for the same reason. Baker killed himself because several critics called his novel “Tim and Pete”-“The Last Angry Man”. He faced difficulty maintaining his financial position and publishing his last novel “Right Wing” primarily for its advocacy of political assassination in combating AIDS discrimination after the AIDS pandemic began to take a huge turn in the gay community.

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Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On

“By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world.

AIDS.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs.”

Randy Shilts graduated an openly gay man from the University of Oregon in 1975. In 1981 he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was also in this year that AIDS was becoming more prominent in the US. Committing himself to the disease he wrote on it years before he decided to write a book about it in 1983. The book was published in 1987 and Shilts died from complications of AIDS in 1994.

Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On is one of Shilts’ major works. Over the course of his journalism career he published 3 books. In 1982 he published The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. The biography of Milk was published about 4 years after Milk was assassinated with Mayor George Moscone by Dan White. White was about to finish his four year sentence for the murders when the book was published. His final book Conduct Unbecoming was about discrimination of gays and lesbians from the military. It was published in 1993 and he had performed thousands of interviews for the book. He dictated the final chapter from a hospital bed.

And the Band Played On stands out as an extensive and critical view of the AIDS crisis, covering all aspects of the disease, beginning with Danish doctor Grethe Rask in 1976 dying of Pneumocystis carinii in her lungs, and concluding with the death of AIDS activist Bill Kraus in January of 1986, when the amount of infected from AIDS in the US had reached over 30,000.

The work also stands out as a critique of the inaction during the crisis. Reagan first held a conference on the disease in May of 1987 and before that had not spoken the word AIDS at all. Several of his staff had consistently listed AIDS as a top priority for the administration, but in reality there were cuts to the funding given to AIDS over the years. On its budget of billions, the National Institute of Health gave only a few million each year to the disease. This was at a time when requests for AIDS research were reaching upwards of 55 million dollars. Shilts is frank in his critiques of the government and its apathy and inaction towards AIDS, and he points out homophobia as a primary cause of the apathy. It certainly seems to be the case, as certain incidents like Legionnaire’s Disease brought about quick action. It was estimated that $34,841 was spent for every death brought by that disease, yet only $3,225 was spent for every death of AIDS by the NIH in 1981.

Shilts also calls out the gay community in its inaction to prevent the disease. It was recommended early on that gay men should refrain from sex until the disease was better understood, but refraining from sex caught many as an anti-gay act. Some argued that telling gay men to stop having sex at a time when they were just starting to feel good about themselves would have dire consequences for the gay community. There was also the matter of the bathhouses, which Shilts advocated to shut down, despite harsh resistance against such an action in the gay community. Shilts noted that what little that was achieved in the bathhouses was small signs in corners warning about AIDS and condoms that were provided to those who asked. Nobody did. Shilts was harshly critiqued for his stance at the time.

New York activist Larry Kramer, who was part of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was featured heavily in And the Band Played On

And why was the public so seemingly disinterested in the crisis? Perhaps their opinion closely mirrored that of Epstein. Gays were something one could tolerate, but only at a distance. Epstein believed that gays were akin to pedophiles and at best perverts. With this mindset one could understand a public sentiment that would allow the deaths to continue to occur. And perhaps this was a just end for the gay community. Because, after all, Epstein would wish away gays if he could. There was simply too much pain for them in this world. If only Epstein could wish them away then perhaps the AIDS crisis in the US would not have occurred. At this time in the US such thoughts were still prevalent, and notable in actions, or inactions could be the product of this. Like the mayor of New York Ed Koch and President Reagan, who both seemed to avoid AIDS at all costs.

And the Band Played On stands out as an essential text for understanding the people and the politics of the AIDS crisis. And even though it is a book full of answers one is left with even more questions after finishing. Perhaps the most prominent being “Why did it seem like nobody cared?” To Shilts and activists like Larry Kramer, the answer was clear: because those suffering were gay.

We All Need A Normal Heart

The Normal Heart Front Cover

The 2014 film The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer, is a recreation of Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart. With a star filled cast, The Normal Heart is a beautiful drama that shows the unfortunate troubles of gay men at the start of and through the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Although this film existed in play form first, it was recreated as a way to reach a larger audience and show how seriously terrifying and mysterious the AIDS epidemic was for those living through it.

The Normal Heart starts off by showing the sexual liberty gays have recently acquired along with the happiness from their freedom. But the film quickly changes tone once gays realize they are being diagnosed with a rare and nebulous homosexual cancer. Once the main character, Ned—an openly gay writer, has a friend who becomes infected with this gay cancer, they start to seek out help. At this point, they go to Dr. Emma Brookner who is the one of the only doctors willing to work with patients infected with this mysterious disease. Dr. Brookner is looking for someone to be a leader and share her information with gay men; she finds Ned to be that man. At a meeting with Dr. Brookner, Ned, and many other gay men, Dr. Brookner shares her research and information with these men about how she thinks the cancer is sexually transmitted, and that the men should “cool it” because there is a high chance they will infect each other and die. The sexually liberated men scoff at her, but Ned knows how serious this disease is and decides to start an organization to get help and raise awareness for the disease. The rest of the film focuses on the development the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) organization intermixed with the personal struggles the gay men are facing at this time. The GMHC becomes one of the leading fighters to get support politically, publicly, and medically to combat the gay disease.

The film does not strictly focus on the disease, but also how this disease affects the personal lives of the gay men at the time. As if gay men weren’t already misunderstood enough, the gay cancer (which we now know is AIDS) adds another level of the struggles gay men face. The film depicts how gays during this time receive little to no help from anyone apart from other gays, how they become more feared than ever due to the rise of this mysterious cancer, how being gay is still full of doubt, fear, and confusion in addition to this crisis, and how it still is not safe nor secure to be openly gay to the public.

Although this film is largely about the AIDS epidemic, it still showcases many things presented in our sexuality unit. One specific aspect from our unit that The Normal Heart focuses on is Ned’s sexuality, his understanding of it, and his relationship with his family because of it. Until the latter half of Ned’s life, he always believed his sexuality was wrong; he had been told a plethora of times that he could change his ways, become straight, and finally be normal. This is very similarly to our reading of Merle Miller’s “What It Means To Be a Homosexual,” where he says,

I have spent several thousand dollars and several thousand hours with various practitioners, and while they have often been helpful in leading me to an understanding of how I got to be the way I am, none of them has ever had any feasible, to me feasible, suggestion as to how I could be any different.

In both cases, we see that these gay men realized that no amount of therapy can change who they are; although it may be a more stressful life, they know who they are, what they are, and nothing is going to change that. In fact, we even see that after this epiphany, both individuals become happier and more at peace with themselves.

We also get to see how gayness crosses over to family life with Ned and his brother, Ben. Ben is a lawyer at a very successful law firm and Ned is seeking his assistance for the GMHC. Ned believes that the support of not just his straight brother, but Ben’s straight company will drastically help their movement. On the other hand, Ben thinks that the “straightness” of him and his company will not make a difference. It is at this point that Ned realizes his brother still doesn’t see him as a healthy equal, that Ben still thinks he is “sick,” and that his brother still doesn’t understand him, even though he accepts him; this is exactly the struggle Martha Shelley describes in “Gay is Good.” Here, Shelley explains that she is sick of liberals saying that it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, but what one does outside of bed; to her, this isn’t good enough anymore. She states,

[w]e want something more now, something more than the tolerance you never gave us. But to understand that, you must understand who we are. . . I will tell you what we want, we radical homosexuals: not for you to tolerate us, or to accept us, but to understand us.

In the heat of Ned and Ben’s argument, we hear a very similar frustration expressed by Ned towards Ben’s understanding and acceptance of Ned. Ben tolerates and accepts Ned, but he doesn’t truly understand Ned which, as Shelley agrees, is not good enough for Ned.

In yet another example from the film that connects to our unit, we see that to many in the straight world, one’s sexuality is extremely important and can influence someone’s opinions or actions towards a homosexual. During this time, Ned is one of the few open, politically active gay men; many of the other GMHC are closeted out of fear of having their lives ruined from the rest of the world not accepting them. Even the mayor and his assistant are gay, but they neglect the epidemic due to the potential of them being outed even though they are struggling through the epidemic themselves. As we saw from Joseph Epstein, he stated in “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity” that,

[f]or this reason, and from an absolutely personal point of view, I consider it important [to] know whether a man I am dealing with is a homosexual or [not].

In a scene in the hospital at which Dr. Brookner works, we see this exemplified when a maintenance worker won’t go into the gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) section of the hospital to fix a TV because his union says he “doesn’t have to risk his life over some contagious fairy.” Another situation like this occurs when two gay men, one of them severely sick with the disease, are asked to leave a plane they are on because the pilot will not fly while they are still on the plane. These scenarios truly demonstrate the struggles gay men faced during this time period.

The Normal Heart is quite an outstanding film that explains a difficult period for gay men. The story encapsulates many of the struggles gay men have faced to get to the point they are today in a powerful story that can open the eyes to many who do not know about or who who do not understand the struggles gay men have gone through. Because of its excellent depiction, I highly recommend this film and believe it rightly deserves its place in this archive.

To get a glimpse of the film, here is the trailer:

Longtime Companion

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I just want to start off by saying that I knew that I was going to cry at some point while watching this movie, but I had no idea it would hit me as hard as it did. It tore my soul to pieces and I could not form coherent thoughts until 45 minutes after I watched this movie, so here we go!

For this blog post, I watched Longtime Companion which was a movie released in 1990 (5 years before I was born) and it follows the story of groups of gay men, who are all related to each other in some way, and it follows their journey from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 and finishes the story in 1987 after AIDS has infested their lives. The title itself refers to the term that was used in newspaper obituaries to describe the loved one that was left behind after a death.

I do not want to spoil anything in this movie in case any of you do want to watch it, but I will just have a spoiler alert in here anyway.

First of all, I could not find this movie to watch anywhere. Amazon wanted me to pay $100 just to buy the DVD, but our dear friend YouTube had the movie in its entirety. The quality was horrible but it was still pretty watchable. The story was hard to follow at first because names aren’t important to mention in the beginning, I guess, but after a while, I got the hang of who was who and how they knew each other. Bear with me here:

The beginning starts off in 1981 with Paul and Howard, a couple living in an apartment in New York, and then it pans to their neighbor Lisa, and then it introduces Allen (Fuzzy), and a group of friends: Willy, John, and David. They being this story by reading in the newspaper about this new epidemic amongst gay men that they believe is caused by frequent sexual partners and drug use. No one really knows what it is. Fuzzy and Willy eventually meet each other on the beach, with John’s help. Fuzzy and Willy fall in love, and we are later introduced to David’s lover, Sean. These men are all faced with the possibility that this epidemic will catch up with them and their carefree ways, but because it is so new, they don’t take things as seriously as they should. However, this movie is structured so that every so often, a year passes and a member of the group either dies or receives news that he has the disease. The movie ends so that one of the couple just wishes that it could be over and compares the finding of the disease to the end of WWII.

This movie highlights what it was like for the gay population when the AIDS epidemic first came about. It was written about in the papers without a name at first and the lack of information on this disease lead to the continuous “carelessness” that came about in this time. As time went on and more homosexual males died from this disease, the panic grew, and rightfully so. AIDS is such a scary disease. I had had some experience with it reading some fanfiction that a friend recommended to me (no judgments here, right guys—also it’s called Twist and Shout but standbyme on AO3), and it hurt my soul, but watching it happen is such a different story. This movie does a good job of showing what it was like to live in the constant fear of just kissing your partner, much less make love to them, because there was a constant fear of contracting this disease. It hit me so hard, I think, because I know so many gay men and I can’t help but think that if they had been alive during the rise of this epidemic, there would be no hope for them. I think that the rise of this epidemic is so important to know about just because it lead to a complete shift in the gay lifestyle and lead to research on the disease, where they found out that it could be caused by other things. I also think this epidemic is important in understanding the stigmas that surround the gay community even now because for so long it was believed that gay equaled to having AIDS. This movie was so beautifully written and delivered, and I would definitely recommend sitting through the movie on YouTube.

Sex by Madonna

Madonna is undeniably an icon. Despite starting her career in the 1980s, she is still a prominent public figure. Her vast media presence even to this day includes such websites as Wikipedia, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, IMDb, and even madonna.com. Her 2003 VMA performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, 1984 song “Like A Virgin,” and “Vogue” dance style are just a few of Madonna’s lasting cultural impressions. Madonna is more than just the “Queen of Pop”; she is an idol to the queer community. She has used her years as an actress, singer, songwriter, producer, dancer, businesswoman, and author as a platform for her to advocate for the gay community.

Coming in at #3 in advocate.com‘s “10 Times Madonna Put the ‘Homo’ In Homoerotic” is SexThis 1992 coffee-table book caused an uproar, prompting her then-boyfriend Vanilla Ice to break up with her, despite appearing in the book himself. Additional celebrities featured include Naomi Campbell, Joey Stefano, and Isabella Rossellini. Photographed by Steven Meisel Studios and published by Warner Books, Sex is a spiral-bound book with a metal cover, released to stores with a Mylar cover to prevent non-buyers’ prying eyes. Despite the bans and bad press, the book sold 150,000 copies its first day and eventually cracked the New York Times bestseller list.

Sex is an uncensored work following the character’s exploits via images and anecdotes. (For a detailed look at many of the pages in Sex, click the image above.)

madonnasex5_20081216_1792207242The first page advocates for safe sex, stating, “If I were to make my dreams real, I would certainly use condoms. Safe sex saves lives. Pass it on.” Specifically citing AIDS as the impetus behind this, Madonna brings a queer issue to the forefront. This is a responsible message whose LGBT+ positive tone persists throughout the book. In addition to heterosexual sex acts, the book contains depictions of many controversial sexualities (including but not limited to: BDSM, male homosexuality, female homosexuality, bestiality, sex with a minor, sex in public, group sex, childhood sexuality, interracial sex, and masturbation). Chapter 9 of Gayle Rubin’s From Gender to Sexuality explores the history behind the aversion to these expressions of sexuality, and it calls into question the established norms of sexuality via the “charmed circle.” Madonna’s Sex completely ignores Victorian tradition and provides the entire sexual community with soft-core porn for thought.

The images are powerful not only by their content but also by their reality. Madonna and/or her character in the book, Dita, writes,

“Everyone has their sexuality. It’s how you treat people in everyday life that counts, not what turns you on in your fantasy… A movie like In the Realm of the Senses turns me on because it’s real… I wouldn’t want to watch anyone get hurt, male or female. But generally I don’t think pornography degrades women.”

The use of “their” as a singular/gender-neutral pronoun may be alluding to acceptance of the trans community, although admittedly it may just be loose grammar. The idea that fantasy should not define you and that your attitudes toward people should is important to queer culture. The real emotions and feelings behind Madonna/Dita’s fantasies are crucial to book’s message; this is not fake. Interior: Leather Bar publicizes gay male sexuality by showing a real gay couple acting out a staged sex scene. Although staged, the intimacy is real, which norms the otherwise “deviant” activity of homosexuality. By incorporating true longing, intimacy, and fantasy into Sex, Madonna norms many controversial sexualities.

 

AIDS ART and ACTIVISM

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.

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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.

queerocracy

 

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.

silence=sex

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 =
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.

Allen Ginsberg Poetry

allen_ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg is remembered as perhaps the most influential queer poets of his time. Writing during the post World War II era and having led a full life which included drugs and a brief period of time in a mental institution, Ginsberg has all the makings of an intimate wordsmith full of experience.

Ginsberg was a prolific writer and many of his poems can be found here.

Among his multi-faceted works are included several poems directly speaking about sex. One of his more graphic poems, “Please Master,” describes a scene between a Master and sex slave of the BDSM world. BDSM refers to a kink community that can incorporate any or all of the following; Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism.

Check out the full poem here.

Alternatively, listen to Allen Ginsberg reading his poem via this video.

To read this poem is to become the sex slave, as the poem is written in in first person by the submissive partner. Over and over again as we read we beckon for the Master to give us permission. At first the poem starts out gentle, like foreplay; “can I touch your cheek… can I kneel at your feet.” Then we ask the Master for clothes to be removed; “can I have your thighs bare to my eyes…can I take off my clothes below your chair.” As the sexual act progresses we ask the Master for permission to “…pass my face to your balls…” and “…to lick your thick shaft…” The act has progressed to oral sex, however we beckon the Master for more, eventually culminating in anal sex until the Master comes. As the poem continues the requests of the Master become more graphic, “more violent.” The rigid “Please Master can I…” structure becomes a little less rigid and the sentences become longer. This feels a little more wild like the sexual act itself would feel.

The poem is such a beautiful description of a BDSM sexual scene between two men. There is “tenderness” in the act as their is in the poem describing the “sweat fuck.” Despite a very clear power dynamic in this poem and in BDSM, we read the pleasure that the submissive partner receives; “please master make me go moan on the table.” The submissive position that Ginsberg is describing is not one of oppression or degradation. It is one of pleasure giving and pleasure receiving. It is one of having power and giving it to the Master by asking for permission. It is one of conversation and openness (something that BDSM communities assert in every sexual encounter).

A major point being emphasized here is the power and pleasure received by a man who gives himself fully to his male partner. This is much like the anonymously written essay “Cocksucker” which was published in the Boston gay magazine, Fag Rag, in 1971. This essay opens with the discussion of how men who get fellatio are thought of as more masculine, but men who give fellatio are thought of negatively because “who would want to suck the cock of someone who had sucked the cock of every male in the room?” However, to be the submissive partner is not something that should be frowned upon or thought of negatively. It is the submissive partner in this poem who tells the Master what to do and sets up the entire scene to be pleasurable for both parties; and in a sexual act, is that not the very essence of power?

Another fantastically sexual poem by Allen Ginsberg is “Sphincter” which you can read here.

In this poem Ginsberg talks about his anal rectum, just as one might assume given the title. At the beginning of the poem, Ginsberg reflects on how over the past 60 years his sphincter has served him well. He hasn’t experienced any major medical complications, and it has been very receptive to pleasurable insertables.

This poem touches briefly on a more somber topic of queer sexuality; the AIDS epidemic. Ginsberg says in his poem that he will have to start using condoms to protect himself:

Now AIDS makes it shy, but still
eager to serve –
out with the dumps, in with the condom’d
orgasmic friend

As the poem comes to a close he looks towards the future hoping to still have an active, healthy sex life into his old age. He recognizes however that age can create changes to his sex life as he begins to experience aches and pains, yet he “Hope the old hole stays young/ till death, relax.”

Again with Sphincter as with Please Master, Ginsberg writes about empowerment through submission to other men. In Sphincter he speaks of his body part as “eager, receptive to phallus,” and he says he is “unashamed wide open for joy.”

Through both poems readers gain a sense of power through pleasure. Tearing down the fallacy that a man being receptive and submissive to another man in sex is a strong message being incorporated into these two erotic poems.

If you like all of this, check out the Allen Ginsberg Project.