Behind the Iconic Protest Posters of the AIDS Activist Movement

By Avram Finkelstein, author of After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images

Early in the 1980s AIDS epidemic, six gay activists created one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolize a movement: a protest poster of a pink triangle with the words “Silence = Death.” Here, Avram Finkelstein, cofounder of the collective Silence = Death and member of the art collective Gran Fury, reveals the process behind some of the most iconic protest artwork associated with the early years of the pandemic. #WorldAidsDay#DayWithoutArt.


Silence = Death, The Silence = Death Project, 1986 poster, offset lithography, 33 1/2 × 22 in.

In 1981, the man I was building my life around started showing signs of immunosuppression, before AIDS even had its name. By 1984, he was dead, a year before Rock Hudson was outed by the disease and died, and years before Reagan ever uttered the word.

It was a time I felt very alone, so in late 1985 I co-founded a men’s consciousness raising group with five friends. We met every week, loosely assembled around feminist organizing principles. We began each session by talking about our new lives in the age of AIDS, but by the end of every meeting we were talking about the political crisis that was forming.

Because of my upbringing, the political poster had always played a role in my understanding of social change, but to be young in the late 1960s was to be political anyway. By 1968, the East and West Villages in New York were papered with manifestos, meetings announcements, and demonstration flyers. When young people needed to communicate with each other, we used the streets.

So I proposed we do a poster about AIDS.

We worked on the poster for months, and put it to bed in late 1986. I had no idea what might happen, but I knew we couldn’t be the only ones who were enraged. We weren’t. Within weeks of our posting them in early 1987, the activist community it came to represent formed, ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

AIDSGATE, The Silence = Death Project, 1987 poster, offset lithography, 34 × 22 in.

AIDSGATE was the second poster by the Silence=Death collective, designed specifically for the third ACT UP demonstration, a June 1, 1987 action in Washington DC. It was the first national civil disobedience addressing AIDS, which we saw as a unique opportunity to formally indict Reagan for his lack of response during the early days of the crisis, and its disproportionate impact on women and communities of color. The text crawl across the bottom of the poster reads: “54% of people with AIDS in NYC are Black or Hispanic… AIDS is the No. 1 killer of women between the ages of 24 and 29 in NYC… By 1991, more people will have died of AIDS than in the entire Vietnam War. What is Reagan’s real policy on AIDS? Genocide of all Non-Whites, Non-males and Non-heterosexuals?… Silence=Death.”

When collective member, Oliver Johnston (1952-1990), was finalizing the mechanical for the printer, he unilaterally decided Reagan didn’t look evil enough, and made his eyes hot pink. I’m convinced it is the sole reason this poster was included in the 2012 Metropolitan Museum of Art Andy Warhol exhibition, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years. 

The Government Has Blood on Its Hands, Gran Fury, 1988, poster, offset lithography, 31 3/4 × 21 3/8 in.

On July 19th, 1988, the New York City Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, suddenly halved the number of estimated AIDS cases in NYC, a move that threatened to drastically reduce funding for AIDS services. The cut was purportedly based on cohort studies in San Francisco’s gay community.

ACT UP NY declared war against him. During a sit-in at Joseph’s office a copy of his itinerary was taken, and it became the basis for a campaign spearheaded by an ACT UP affinity group. Several Gran Fury members were involved in the effort to remove Joseph from office, myself included, leading Gran Fury to design a pair of posters featuring bloody handprint images. One read “You’ve Got Blood On Your Hands Stephen Joseph. The Cut In AIDS Numbers Is A Lethal Lie,” and the other targeted then mayor of New York City with the text, “You’ve Got Blood On Your Hands, Ed Koch. NYC AIDS Care Doesn’t Exist.”

That same year, ACT UP decided to target the regulatory agency responsible for the testing of potential AIDS therapies in the US, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given the high and rapid mortality rate, it had become clear that any risks the medications carried could not exceed the risks of non-intervention, and that the clinical trails for the safety and efficacy of these drugs were de facto healthcare for individuals confronting the fatal disease.

Gran Fury, nationalized the bloody hand specifically for the FDA action the statistic “One AIDS Death Every Half Hour.” The FDA action was the turning point for the AIDS activist movement, leading to the streamlining of the drug approval process, the parallel track drug access and compassionate use protocols, and the inclusion of People Living With HIV/AIDS, people of color, and women on research advisory boards.


Avram Finkelstein is a founding member of the Silence = Death and Gran Fury collectives. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

His book, After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images , is available now.

After Silence is an important contribution to the history of AIDS activism. It tells the personal story of a key designer of a crucial political movement and demystifies how design decisions are made amidst political crisis. Compelling and potentially empowering to future visual activists.”—Sarah Schulman, author of The Gentrification of the Mind

“This book is essential for understanding the politics of resistance and the impact of ACT UP in building a movement. After Silence will be an invaluable resource for artists and activists of all ages.”— Ken Gonzales-Day, Professor of Art, Scripps College


National Coming Out Day: Important Moments in Queer History

Encompassing a number of historically important days, this October is set to remind both the LGBT and wider communities of the important roles lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have taken in creating the social, legal, and political worlds we live in today. This National Coming Out Day 2017 marks both the 29th anniversary of the day’s observance and the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which called for President Ronald Reagan to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Check out important moments in queer history with these selected UC Press titles.


After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images
By Avram Finkelstein, available this November, pre-order now

After Silence is an important contribution to the history of AIDS activism. It tells the personal story of a key designer of a crucial political movement and demystifies how design decisions are made amidst political crisis. Compelling and potentially empowering to future visual activists.”—Sarah Schulman, author of The Gentrification of the Mind

Early in the 1980s AIDS epidemic, six gay activists created one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolize a movement: a protest poster of a pink triangle with the words “Silence = Death.” The graphic and the slogan still resonate today, often used—and misused—to brand the entire movement. Cofounder of the collective Silence = Death and member of the art collective Gran Fury, Avram Finkelstein tells the story of how his work and other protest artwork associated with the early years of the pandemic were created. In writing about art and AIDS activism, the formation of collectives, and the political process, Finkelstein reveals a different side of the traditional HIV/AIDS history, told twenty-five years later, and offers a creative toolbox for those who want to learn how to save lives through activism and making art.

Has the Gay Movement Failed?
By Martin Duberman, forthcoming June 2018

“Martin Duberman gets to the heart of what has gone wrong with the LGBT movement and why it has not fought for—or has even impeded—a comprehensive vision of freedom for everyone. Has the Gay Movement Failed? is his most challenging, provocative, and visionary book to date. An imperative read for anyone interested in a truly liberated queer future.”—Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States

The past fifty years have marked significant shifts in attitude toward and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the United States and the West. Yet the extent of this progress, argues Martin Duberman, has been more broad and conservative than deep and transformative. One of the most renowned historians of the American left and LGBTQ movement, as well as a pioneering social justice activist, Duberman reviews the fifty years since Stonewall with an immediacy and rigor that informs and energizes. He relives the early gay movement’s progressive vision for society as a whole and puts the Left on notice as having continuously failed to embrace the queer potential for social transformation. He acknowledges successes as some of the most discriminatory policies that plagued earlier generations were eliminated but highlights the costs as radical goals were sidelined for more normative inclusion. Illuminating the fault lines both within and beyond the movements of the past and today, this critical book is also hopeful: Duberman urges us to learn from this history to fight for a truly inclusive and expansive society.

Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability
By Jack Halberstam, e-book available now

“This lively and smart book by Jack Halberstam offers a new way of approaching the politics of ‘naming, claiming, speech, silence, and protest.’ This is the treatise on the asterisks for which we have been waiting; it cracks open a future, resisting transphobia and ushering in a new horizon for anybody struggling with the norms they oppose and the forms of life they desire and deserve to live.”—Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

In the last decade, public discussions of transgender issues have increased exponentially. However, with this increased visibility has come not just power, but regulation, both in favor of and against trans people. What was once regarded as an unusual or even unfortunate disorder has become an accepted articulation of gendered embodiment as well as a new site for political activism and political recognition. What happened in the last few decades to prompt such an extensive rethinking of our understanding of gendered embodiment? How did a stigmatized identity become so central to U.S. and European articulations of self? And how have people responded to the new definitions and understanding of sex and the gendered body? In Trans*, Jack Halberstam explores these recent shifts in the meaning of the gendered body and representation, and explores the possibilities of a nongendered, gender-optional, or gender-queer future.

Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left
By Emily K. Hobson

“Hobson succeeds in painting a rich portrait of a vibrant gay and lesbian left that flourished in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s and saw itself as connected to the international left… the book has certainly made me rethink the way I write and teach LGBT history and has added some very necessary complications to that standard narrative.”—Daily Kos

LGBT activism is often imagined as a self-contained struggle, inspired by but set apart from other social movements. Lavender and Red recounts a far different story: a history of queer radicals who understood their sexual liberation as intertwined with solidarity against imperialism, war, and racism. This politics was born in the late 1960s but survived well past Stonewall, propelling a gay and lesbian left that flourished through the end of the Cold War. The gay and lesbian left found its center in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where sexual self-determination and revolutionary internationalism converged. Across the 1970s, its activists embraced socialist and women of color feminism and crafted queer opposition to militarism and the New Right. In the Reagan years, they challenged U.S. intervention in Central America, collaborated with their peers in Nicaragua, and mentored the first direct action against AIDS. Bringing together archival research, oral histories, and vibrant images, Emily K. Hobson rediscovers the radical queer past for a generation of activists today.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
By Sarah Schulman

“The book that’s inspired me more than any other this year… a razor-sharp memoir of New York in the heyday of the AIDS crisis.”—Jason King, Slate

“Schulman is brilliant at conveying how devastating and surreal it was to live during the AIDS crisis… [the book is] teeming with ideas, necessary commentary, refreshing connections and examination of the status quo.”Lambda Literary

In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side and brings it to life, filling these pages with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings
By Harvey Milk, Edited by Jason Edward Black &Charles E. Morris

“An extremely important, timely, and significant book. Full of inspiration and hope, this book is highly relevant to anyone interested in activism, politics, and social change.” —Gust A. Yep, Professor of Communication Studies, San Francisco State University

Harvey Milk was one of the first openly and politically gay public officials in the United States, and his remarkable activism put him at the very heart of a pivotal civil rights movement reshaping America in the 1970s. An Archive of Hope is Milk in his own words, bringing together in one volume a substantial collection of his speeches, columns, editorials, political campaign materials, open letters, and press releases, culled from public archives, newspapers, and personal collections.

 


The Artist Behind the Iconic Silence = Death Image

This fall, UC Press will publish After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, written by acclaimed artist and activist Avram Finkelstein, who was one of the creators of the major protest posters and graphics deployed during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s.

Finkelstein was a part of every major radical queer activist group, including Gran Fury, ACT UP, and the Silence = Death collective, which produced one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolize the AIDS activist movement: a protest poster of a pink triangle with those same words “Silence=Death.”

The graphic and the slogan still resonate widely today and are often used — and misused — to brand the entire movement, appearing in a variety of ubiquitous manifestations. Finkelstein previously addressed the issue of authorship and ownership on the New York Public Library’s blog, saying that once a political poster reaches the public sphere, “it belongs to those who respond to its call. So while I had a hand in producing Silence=Death, I would argue that it was the AIDS activist community that actually created it, a community in search of its voice, one that went on to find it through the activation of its own social spaces.”

In the following video, Finkelstein also discusses the design decisions that were made to create the famous image, and the weight of the meaning of “silence,” eloquently stating that: “Institutionally, silence is about control. Personally, silence is about complicity.”

 

With After Silence, Finkelstein exposes us to a different side of the traditional HIV/AIDS history through his writing about art and AIDS activism, the formation of collectives, and the political process while also providing a toolkit for how art and activism can save lives.

After Silence is available this November. Pre-order your copy today.