Silence = Death: This was a battle cry for we AIDS activists in the ’80s. Those with the virus, or a positive exposure test, needed to speak up so that the size and scope of the epidemic could be understood. So that it could no longer be ignored. The first outbreak recognized as being of something previously unlabeled occurred in gay male communities, and called G.R.I.D. (Gay Related Immune Disease). It was soon recognized within intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs. Then “MSM” (Men who have sex with men, but don’t self-identify as gay) and women who had sex with infected men.
The poster that launched the phrase in NYC was created by a political collective before the formation of ACT UP. See Avram Finkelstein. writing on the NYC Library site for more background on that initial poster, and its call to action. The inclusion of the Pink Triangle clearly speaks to gay men. The posters hit the streets of New York in February of 1987; as Avram notes “just weeks before the formation of ACT UP” (“AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power“). The motto, the use of the Pink Triangle, the black background- all were adopted by ACT UP.
As Michael Petrelis wrote in 2012: “As a co-founder of ACT UP, I must point out that while there were many gays and lesbians in the group and we had a pro-gay agenda, our ranks were filled with lots of straight people infected with HIV or affected by the epidemic.” This is not to suggest that we gay folk have to surrender our claim to having been the first community identified with, and decimated by, the virus and the syndrome. But it is also important to recognize that the virus infected and affected diverse communities all along.
The expression “SILENCE=DEATH” had been used in previous protests; above is a screen grab (apparently of a contemporary news report photograph) in this documentary (via youTube) on the 1967 Blackcat Tavern protest. It joins a growing collection of info on pre-Stonewall agitation.
I don’t casually re-purpose such an iconic phrase; it’s an important aspect of gay history. I know the price we’ve paid as queer folk, and in the larger society; the millions of deaths, the hatred, the politicking. The power of the image and of the history it represents speaks to me of what we survived, and how**.
Then, Now, Always
Sadly the message is still valid. The federal US election of 2016 has reminded we who survived the 1980s of just how quickly our reality can be upended. Queer folk, minorities, anyone oppressed for their ethnicity, heritage, financial situation, or personal beliefs will be ignored if unheard. Our stories, our voices, must be heard. Our history must be shared and preserved. The lessons we learned must not be lost.
With that in mind, I have decided to offer my version of the message, updated, as part of my Pride With a Touch of Snark shop at CafePress. The Pink Triangle is a large element as a reminder of the source of the phrase and its potency. Please note that the bulk of the selling price goes to Cafepress for custom production of your order and all the back-end work involved in processing your order. Our Designer Royalty for each t-shirt sold is just $3.00. It joins dozens of other designs that express queer pride and support my work as an independent Creative.
** Related Posts:
Re-Seeing– reflections can be tricky; they often hide or distort;
December Rose: World AIDS Day 2010;
Canadian Queer History– bathhouse raids;
Queer Progress– measured against the Romanovsky & Phillips songbook.