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Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism


Historically, the national and international response to the HIV epidemic lagged behind the passionate work of dedicated individuals who tended the sick, challenged prejudices against people living with HIV, educated their communities, and fought for resources and research. In a 1988 speech entitled “Why We Fight,” writer and lifelong activist Vito Russo presciently realized the need to remember the work of these pioneering forces for change:

AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we're going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us. Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes—when that day has come and gone, there'll be people alive on this earth—gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.

American Flag [Our governement continues to ignore the lives, deaths and suffering of people with HIV infection . . . ], Digital ID 1582124, New York Public LibraryAcknowledging the crucial work of all AIDS activists, Why We Fight focuses on the contributions of those whose work was undertaken in New York City, which was an early epicenter for both the recognition of the disease and the grassroots response to the epidemic. The New York Public Library is a major repository for this history, preserving the archives of key organizations and individuals that have been pivotal in the response to AIDS. All materials, unless otherwise noted, are from the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), is among the most severe epidemics in modern history. HIV attacks the human immune system, which, once compromised by the virus, makes a person susceptible to a range of opportunistic infections and cancers that comprise a syndrome known as AIDS. Since first being identified in 1981, AIDS is now the sixth highest cause of death annually worldwide.


Changing Perceptions of People Living with HIVWomen Don't Get AIDS.  They Just Die from It. (Poster), Digital ID 1580856, New York Public Library

From the beginning of the epidemic, those most affected by HIV were among the most stigmatized populations in American society: gay men, injection drug users, and immigrants. The association of the disease with marginalized groups hindered the development of prevention and treatment strategies. AIDS was viewed by some as a deserved punishment for homosexuality and drug use, and as a foreign-borne menace to mainstream society. Growing panic stoked by a lack of information about the disease led some to advocate for quarantining and branding the ill. People with AIDS thus wrestled not only with the ravages of their illness but also with societal prejudices.

Activists endeavored to destigmatize HIV, challenging the perception that it was a moral punishment and insisting that the epidemic be addressed as a matter of public health. Rejecting their portrayal in the media as “victims,” those affected by the disease renamed themselves “People with AIDS” and “people living with HIV.” As such, they became active participants in their own treatment, and asserted their right to take part in any discussions that determined the trajectory of scientific research and the measures taken to protect public health.


Safer Sex and Needle Exchanges

Men Use Condoms or Beat It (Sticker), Digital ID 1580805, New York Public LibrarySince HIV can be transmitted through sexual contact or the use of non-sterile injecting equipment, early prevention efforts were complicated by major cultural controversies in 20thcentury society, namely sexual liberation and the so-called War on Drugs. Many activists and experts counseled people at high risk to refrain from sexual contact or, at the least, to limit their partners. However, activists concerned with both saving lives and expanding sexual freedoms promoted guidelines for “Safer Sex” that supported sexual choices while reducing the risk of infection. Their efforts were met with resistance from both social conservatives concerned with a perceived acceptance of promiscuity and from those who rejected any restrictions at all on their sexual lives.

Halting the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs faced similar obstacles. Most states banned access to clean needles without a medical prescription as part of the War on Drugs, and organizations engaged in needle exchanges were denied federal funding. Activists across the country resisted these laws by operating illegal needle exchanges—acts of civil disobedience with the aim of saving lives. Many would later pioneer programs in cooperation with government agencies as needle-exchange programs became legal in many states.


Public MourningOne AIDS death every thirty minutes., Digital ID 1583385, New York Public Library

AIDS activists strove to transform personal grief into a collective political voice while maintaining the dignity of people living with HIV. They feared that too great a focus on mourning could easily devolve into morbid sentimentality and voyeurism, and serve to deny the daily struggles and victories of people living with HIV.

Large-scale public memorials such as the 1983 candlelight vigil were among the earliest efforts by activists to honor those who had died and raise awareness of the crisis. Perhaps most famous of these commemorations is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which memorializes the deceased with panels sewn by their loved ones. The red ribbon worn in AIDS remembrance is a similar project that references 19th-century customs of wearing ribbons during times of mourning. Although many activists have been critical of the sentimentality aroused by memorializing efforts, bold public rituals such as “die-in” demonstrations and political funerals have been used to galvanize a political response.


Healthcare Activism

City Hall action. [Police arresting Act Up activists.], Digital ID PSNYPL_MSS_1103, New York Public LibraryIn the earliest years of the HIV epidemic, medical professionals were working in unexplored territory, and there was little useful information for people affected by the disease. People living with HIV created communities to exchange information and test potential treatments, both medically approved and alternative, as they became available. They also created an infrastructure of community-based organizations that provided essential care and services while demanding support for healthcare, research, and social services from national and local governments.

AIDS activists were impatient with the bureaucratic structure of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and pharmaceutical companies. Activists exerted pressure on both the federal government and private corporations to speed the testing and approval of medicines and to make the process more humane, respectful, and responsive to people living with HIV. Their work had a direct impact on accelerating the development of the combination therapies that have saved so many lives. These gains have had a tremendous influence beyond the HIV/AIDS crisis, fundamentally changing the political expectations and tactics of many other healthcare advocates.


HIV Today

The AIDS epidemic is far from over. In the United States, more than 600,000 people have died from the disease, and over one million others are living with HIV, many not knowing that they contracted the virus. HIV continues to disproportionately affect minority communities, people who inject drugs, the incarcerated, and transgender people, and new infections are at epidemic rates in poorer urban areas. Men who have sex with men, particularly those in the African American and Latino communities, followed by African American and Latina women, currently have the highest rates of HIV infection in the United States.

Worldwide, as many as 30 million people have died of AIDS, and more than 34 million are living with the virus, with over two million new infections annually. Despite scientific advances, most do not have access to treatment. The majority of cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in every 20 people is now living with HIV. For women aged 15 to 44, AIDS is the leading cause of death worldwide. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) have asserted the need for prevention and treatment on a global scale, and insist that the response to HIV be grounded in human rights and gender equality. They have developed ambitious healthcare strategies for 2011–15 that aim to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment, care, and support for all those in need.


is the Lead Corporate Sponsor of the Why We Fight exhibition and related programming.

This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Hermes Mallea and Carey Maloney, with additional support from the LGBT Initiative of The New York Public Library. Time Warner is a founding supporter of the LGBT Initiative.

Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman.