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social sciences

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AIDS Activism  
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Lesbian Activism

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, lesbians have been active in fighting the disease. They often supported gay male friends as they struggled with the disease, participated actively in ACT UP and other AIDS organizations, and comprised a small number of those infected.

In spite of their involvement, lesbians were often thought to be at little risk for HIV infection. Yet lesbian AIDS activists repeatedly challenged such assumptions, arguing that lesbians participate in many risky behaviors. Women from ACT UP maintained that labeling lesbians as a low-risk group could lull them into a false complacency and put them at greater risk for infection.

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Lesbians also often brought a feminist perspective to AIDS activism, prompting many gay activists to consider the disease in the context of a broader movement for social change. Feminists within the AIDS movement have pushed for broader solutions to the crisis, demanding nationalized health care and universal sex education.

Decline of AIDS Activism

Although the disease continues to wreak havoc in the gay community, AIDS activism has waned since the early 1990s, at least in part because of the development of effective treatments for the disease and the lessening of the stigma associated with it. As AIDS has become a mainstream disease, activism has come to seem less urgent than it did in the 1980s and 1990s, at least for those with access to the new medications.

As people with AIDS live longer and the disease has come to seem chronic rather than acute, AIDS activism has become a long term and less explosive struggle. With many of their leaders dead from the disease or now absorbed into the AIDS service industry, ACT UP and other radical groups have grown moribund.

Notwithstanding the monumental advances in drug therapies in the mid-1990s, however, there is as yet no cure or vaccine for the disease.

Legacies of AIDS Activism

One of the legacies of AIDS activism is that it empowered people who suffer from a disease or oppression to take charge of their political lives and establish a greater degree of authority over what happens to them. As Steven Epstein writes, the AIDS activist movement "is indeed the first social movement in the United States to accomplish the large-scale conversion of disease 'victims' into activist-experts."

Yet not everyone believes that AIDS activism has succeeded in making the voices of HIV-positive people central in the debate. Michael Hallett maintains that AIDS activists continue to be marginalized in the struggle to determine the meaning of AIDS in our culture and its place in our social institutions.

He argues that much of what passes for AIDS advocacy fails to serve HIV-positive people, but rather caters to the interests of the AIDS industry, including government officials, non-profit employees, and scholars. He rejects the "assertion that activism has been a highly effective remedy to HIV-positive voicelessness," and "in the battle for control over the social construction of HIV-disease, AIDS activists have well been ignored and continue to be marginalized."

Given the complexity of the AIDS epidemic, there is truth in both assessments. AIDS activists may not have gained control over the disease and its meanings, but they certainly have transformed its political context. Certainly not all issues facing PWAs have been resolved, nor is every PWA able to become an activist-expert.

For those already on the margins because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or age, there are still barriers to treatment and education. Yet the past twenty years of AIDS activism has overwhelmingly improved the lives of PWAs and others. AIDS activists have sped the development of effective treatments for the disease and have helped create acceptance and compassion for those suffering from the disease.

Geoffrey W. Bateman

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arts >> Overview:  AIDS Activism in the Arts

In response to the AIDS epidemic, a number of activist groups, including Gran Fury and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, have used art as a means to raise awareness about the epidemic.

social sciences >> Overview:  AIDS Law

AIDS law comprises the legal principles contained in the body of statutes, regulations, administrative rulings, and judicial decisions that emerged in response to legal issues presented by the AIDS epidemic.

literature >> Overview:  AIDS Literature

In the twenty years since its first appearance in the West, AIDS has been the subject of a large body of literature, most of it written by gay men and much of it designed to expose readers as closely as possible to the emergency of the epidemic and the suffering of affected individuals.

social sciences >> Overview:  Circuit Parties

Circuit Parties refer to an ongoing series of gay-themed events that take place in major metropolitan areas throughout the year.

social sciences >> Overview:  Disability Issues

Disabled queers not only face physical obstacles and the prejudices of the larger society, but also sometimes feel marginalized and isolated within the glbtq community.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay Rights Movement, U. S.

The U.S. gay rights movement has made significant progress toward achieving equality for glbtq Americans, and in the process has become more inclusive and diverse, but much remains to be done.

social sciences >> Overview:  Nursing

Nursing, which has been both welcoming and hostile to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered, is important to glbtq history.

social sciences >> Overview:  South Africa

The diverse South African glbtq community both thrives and struggles amid the contradictions between a conservative traditional culture and some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world.

social sciences >> Achmat, Zackie

South African activist Zackie Achmat has been a pivotal figure in his country's progress in the area of glbtq rights and in its response to AIDS.

social sciences >> ACT UP

Using bold images and confrontational tactics, ACT UP worked to promote awareness of AIDS and challenge the complacency of politicians and government officials in the early years of the epidemic.

social sciences >> Altman, Dennis

Australian political scientist and self-described "international activist-academic" Dennis Altman has studied both the glbtq political movement and the globalization of sexual identities.

social sciences >> Aron, Jean-Paul

French writer and public intellectual Jean-Paul Aron is widely credited for giving a human face to AIDS and thereby changing the public perception of the disease and those who suffered from it.

arts >> Corigliano, John

American composer of symphonies, chamber works, choral settings, operas, and film scores, John Corigliano has created some of the most moving music inspired by the AIDS epidemic.

arts >> Haring, Keith

In his all-too-brief lifetime, gay American artist Keith Haring produced simple yet sophisticated images that reached a worldwide audience and transcended differences of race, nationality, gender, age, and sexual orientation.

social sciences >> Hattoy, Robert

Political operative and advisor to President Clinton, Bob Hattoy was deeply concerned about glbtq rights and the environment.

literature >> Holleran, Andrew

The pseudonymous Andrew Holleran has placed his homosexuality at the center of his commercially and critically successful novels.

arts >> Jones, Bill T.

A charismatic performer, gifted choreographer, and long-term survivor of AIDS, Bill T. Jones has created an impressive body of dance that frequently merges the private and the public.

social sciences >> Jones, Cleve

Activist Cleve Jones is best known as the originator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, but his life as a gay man has always been firmly interwoven with his life as a political organizer.

literature >> Kramer, Larry

Controversial playwright, novelist, and essayist Larry Kramer has been a pioneer in the gay political response to AIDS in America.

literature >> Kushner, Tony

In addition to being a prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner has become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

social sciences >> Maddow, Rachel

Political commentator Rachel Maddow became the first out lesbian to host a prime-time television news program when "The Rachel Maddow Show" premiered on MSNBC in September 2008.

arts >> Mapplethorpe, Robert

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial images typically combine rigorously formal composition and design with extreme subject matter.

literature >> Maupin, Armistead

A sharp social critic, novelist Armistead Maupin places his gay characters within a large framework of humanity, creating a social history of San Francisco during the tumultuous decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

literature >> McNally, Terrence

Texas-reared Terrence McNally, whose first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was one of the great scandals of the 1964 New York season, emerged in the 1990s as America's most important gay playwright since Tennessee Williams.

literature >> Monette, Paul

In novels, poetry, and a memoir, Paul Monette wrote about gay men striving to fashion personal identities and, later, coping with the loss of a lover to AIDS.

social sciences >> Nkoli, Tseko Simon

Simon Nkoli was both the founder of South Africa's black gay movement and a prominent participant in the campaign for black freedom.

literature >> Saint, Assotto

Through his contributions to literary and popular culture, Haitian-born American poet, performance artist, musician, and editor and publisher Assotto Saint increased the visibility of black queer authors and themes during the 1980s and early 1990s.

literature >> Shilts, Randy

Randy Shilts pioneered as an openly gay journalist in the 1970s and 1980s and was an astute interpreter of the various issues affecting American gay men and lesbians.

literature >> White, Edmund

One of the most prominent and highly acclaimed figures of contemporary gay literature, Edmund White works in many distinct categories of fiction and nonfiction.

social sciences >> Wilson, Douglas

Canadian human rights activist Douglas Wilson is also remembered as the life partner of American-Canadian writer/performer Peter McGehee; together they married activism with art and entertainment.

arts >> Wojnarowicz, David

The first gay American artist to respond to the AIDS crisis with anger and moral outrage, David Wojnarowicz used his art as a polemical tool with which to indict those he held responsible for the AIDS epidemic and to document his own suffering.


ACT UP/New York Women and AIDS Book Group. Women, AIDS, and Activism. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Altman, Dennis. Power and Community: Organizational and Cultural Responses to AIDS. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994.

Corea, Gena. The Invisible Epidemic: The Story of Women and AIDS. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

_____, ed. AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

Epstein, Steven. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Hallet, Michael A., ed. Activism and Marginalization in the AIDS Crisis. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1997.

Patton, Cindy. Inventing AIDS. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Stockdill, Brett C. Activism against AIDS: At the Intersections of Sexuality, Race, Gender, and Class. Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

Stoller, Nancy. Lessons from the Damned: Queers, Whores, and Junkies Respond to AIDS. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Treichler, Paula. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bateman, Geoffrey W.  
    Entry Title: AIDS Activism  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated March 7, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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