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social sciences

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AIDS Activism  
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These two organizations worked hard in the early years of the epidemic to provide much needed medical and social support to people living with the disease. They helped educate gay men at risk for contracting the virus, and they organized politically, advocating for the rights of people with AIDS.

Safer Sex Practices

AIDS activists and the early leaders of these organization also pioneered safer sex practices. As it became increasingly clear that HIV caused AIDS, gay men began creating guidelines for preventing the transmission of the virus through sexual contact.

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These guidelines began to emerge as early as 1983. In a forty-page booklet called "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic," Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz created an almost exhaustive list of practices that set the standard for safer sex in gay male culture.

In their early activism on behalf of safer sex, gay men insisted on making it erotic, both to encourage its practice and to celebrate male-male sexuality. Practicing safer sex allowed gay men to continue to participate in gay male sexual culture and still protect themselves from infection. By promoting safer sex, they challenged the demonizing of gay sex that had accompanied the initial discovery of the disease.

Assimilation of AIDS Service Organizations

In the mid-1980s, as Cindy Patton has noted, a major shift occurred in AIDS activism and the ASOs that had been created to respond to the epidemic. Most notable was the change of focus at the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which according to critics lost sight of its original mission.

Patton observes that "The shift was away from gay liberation-inspired resistance to a hostile government and indifferent medical empire, and toward an assimilation of activists into a new AIDS service industry, with its own set of commitments and its own structuring logic."

The assimilation of AIDS service organizations helped transform AIDS into a more mainstream disease, and it certainly helped make possible a governmental response to the disease.

ACT UP and Radical Activism

The institutionalization of ASOs led to a growing division between their supporters and other AIDS activists, prompting a resurgence of radical activism in New York City and elsewhere. In 1987, activists formed ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and ignited a new phase of AIDS activism when it staged a Wall Street protest against the Federal Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome, developer of AZT, the first drug that proved efficacious in fighting AIDS.

Frustrated by what they saw as the political complacency of GMHC, ACT UP activists began to organize protests and demonstrations, using bold tactics and flashy images to pressure governmental officials and community leaders to respond more thoroughly to the disease. ACT UP demanded more effective and accessible treatment options, challenged the public's bigotry surrounding AIDS, and promoted safer sex and other prevention messages to stop the spread of HIV.

Two of the most striking accomplishments of ACT UP were in improving treatment for people with AIDS and in generating visibility for AIDS issues. Much of ACT UP's initial activism focused on protesting the FDA and drug companies that controlled access to early AIDS drugs and working with them to streamline clinical trials. One of its most striking and visible images was its striking graphic, a pink triangle with the slogan SILENCE = DEATH in black.

Artistic and Cultural Activism

Activism in response to the AIDS crisis was expressed in artistic and cultural terms, as well as in more traditional political forms. A distinguished body of literature, art, dance, poetry, music, film, and performance art kept the disease in the public eye and gave expression to the gay community's sense of rage, pain, and loss.

Prominent writers such as Paul Monette, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Terrence McNally, Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, and Tony Kushner put AIDS at the very center of their varied work. Visual artists such as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz devoted their skill to recording responses to the epidemic. Dancers and choreographers such as Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane and composers such as John Corigliano used their talent to heighten awareness of the disease, as did a host of performance artists.

Two important collective projects that promoted AIDS activism were the Red Ribbon Project, which established the red ribbon as the international symbol of commitment to people with AIDS and to the AIDS struggle, and the Names Project's AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was conceived as a means of commemorating the lives of those who succumbed to the disease. Not coincidentally, the Quilt's national debut was at the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

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