Artists Advocating for Human Rights During the HIV/AIDs Epidemic

Fear. Panic. Death. These words describe what it was like to be a queer person during the AIDS crisis. Artists came together to fight these words and in the process reclaimed neglected human rights and saved countless lives.

June 30, 2022


(Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation)

By Orion Hower ’24

Fear. Panic. Death. These words describe what it was like to be a queer person during the AIDS crisis. Artists spoke up and shared their stories and creative works. They changed the narrative about HIV and AIDS, reclaimed neglected human rights, and saved countless lives.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights; the AIDS epidemic reflected a time where this basic human right, among others, was disregarded for queer people.

During the 1980s having the space to safely “be out” and not have to hide your sexuality was rare. In New York City there was a thriving gay community where actors, dancers, directors, singers, businessmen, politicians, and artists could live their life authentically and still have access to employment opportunities. But even in NYC queer people often were out socially but not publicly – meaning that friends and loved ones knew that someone was gay but employers and coworkers did not. During the AIDS epidemic, even in places where queer people were historically safer to be out, the fear and hatred of gay people was amplified by the high concentration of gay people in one place.

The first published report by the Center for Disease Control about the disease we now know as HIV and AIDS appeared in the summer of 1981. By 1982, HIV/AIDS had become an epidemic. People were dying at astounding rates and the federal government’s response was marked by disparity, discrimination, and silence.

Because queer folks were the primary group being infected with the virus when it first started spreading in the U.S., it was characterized as a “gay disease” and even publicly referred to as the “Gay Plague.” The American government and populous used the epidemic as a fear mongering tactic directed against queer people.

The characterization of HIV and AIDS as a disease that primarily impacted gay men, and the discrimination directed against infected people, made it hard for HIV positive people to seek help. It also interfered with meaningful information on how the disease actually was transmitted. Instead, those living with HIV were shamed and blamed for their own illness. Article 21 of the UDHR recognizes that everyone has the right of equal access to public serve in their country. Queer and HIV-infected people in the U.S. were denied this right.

A drug to treat HIV infection called AZT was developed and released in 1987 but the high cost made it inaccessible to most HIV infected people. When it was released, it cost $10,000 for a one year supply making it the most expensive drug in history at that time. Making the life-saving medication nearly impossible to obtain is a violation of Article 27 of the UDHR which guarantees all people the right to share in scientific advancements and their benefits. It is also inconsistent with Article 25 which states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families, including access to medical care.

Negative public opinion of and government apathy toward HIV-infected persons was partly responsible for the astronomical costs of treatment. The general public blamed those dying from AIDS as responsible for their own demise. Meanwhile the federal government seemed unwilling to help gay people by adequately funding research or regulating treatment costs. The American government’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic violated the rights of queer people in the United States.

Most queer people were able to find a community of like-minded people: artist communities. Artists transformed how the public understood the HIV/AIDS epidemic by showing it was a public health crisis and not a gas disease. At the time, many “out” queer people were artists and as death ravaged the queer community taking many talents from Broadway stages and other dominant art scenes, the loss was felt by the entire artist community. Those who watched their friends die, and saw how hard it was to get assistance, decided that they must respond. The nation was silent, so artists decided to speak out and make change.

Keith Haring, an HIV positive gay man living in New York City used his graffiti style art to break that silence that surrounded the HIV crisis. Haring coined the term “Silence=Death” which become a symbol of the fight to have HIV prioritized by the U.S. government. Keith Haring shone a light on the silent struggle of HIV-infected people and their loved ones. He gave voice to those who needed to be heard because their lives depended on it.

No community saw and felt the loss of HIV the way the New York theatre community did. While prominent figures were dying yearly, many NYC artists reported going to a memorial every week. So many friends, loved ones, and family were dying and to them it seemed as if no one cared. Out of this devastating impact came the Tony Award winning play, Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The play follows the lives of a group of people living in NYC during the AIDS epidemic and portrays themes of class, spirituality, and loss. Angels in America illustrated the horrors of living with HIV/AIDs during the political conservatism of the mid-1980s. The show brought the heartache of the disease into the minds of millions. The death and destruction became real for those who watched it.

Rent by Jonathan Larson broke the stereotype of what a person living with HIV looks like. The rock musical shows that the disease impacts all races, all sexes, and all sexualities. Larson made people care about the AIDS epidemic. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning show had a tremendous impact on destigmatizing HIV and contributing to efforts to end the epidemic.

Without artist advocacy, HIV would not be as well understood or as treatable as it is today. So many more people could have died because of the stigma that was placed on the disease. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was a public health crisis exacerbated by exclusionary politics. It represents a time when the federal government ignored the needs of its citizens because of their sexuality, and a time in which some of the only people not demonizing those living with HIV were artists.

From tragedy and the deafening silence of a nation came some of the most iconic and impactful art of the modern world. Without art, the human rights of HIV-infected people would still be neglected. Art saved lives and helped restore people’s human rights.

Orion Hower ‘ 24 is a Theatre major and political science minor from Columbus, Ohio. They are a researcher with the Albion Human Rights Lab. The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily represent those of Albion College.