Protest: Past & Present
Silence and Noise: What AIDS Activism and Social Memory Can Teach Us

Silence and Noise: What AIDS Activism and Social Memory Can Teach Us

In the mid-1980s, when I was a twenty-something college dropout, I met people my age or older who knew a lot about history, about our history, the history of queer people. Part of this history included that of the men who were forced to wear the pink triangle in the Nazi concentration camps. And maybe we didn’t always get this history right, but we passed the social memory of gay men and the Holocaust from person to person, pledging: we will do everything in our power to never let this happen again.1

Since November 8, the friends I still have from that era who didn’t die or disappear have been reminding each other of our history of AIDS activism. With each new named cabinet appointment and each new tweet, we ask each other: “Remember when we changed the world?” And we tell each other, “We didn’t want to do this again, but we can.”

"Silence = Death" poster by Gran Fury, published by ACT UP in 1986. (Silence = Death Project/New York Public Library Digital Collections)
“Silence = Death” poster by Gran Fury, published by ACT UP in 1986. (Silence = Death Project/New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Shortly after the election, on every social media platform I use, I included a picture of the most iconic poster of the AIDS crisis: a stark black background with an inverted pink triangle, and the words, “SILENCE = DEATH” across the bottom. The poster inverts the pink triangle worn by the men sent to concentration camps. The triangle was inverted “as a gesture of a disavowal of victimhood.”

Silence was everywhere. It came in the amendment that Jesse Helms offered, which was added to the fiscal 1988 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. It read as follows: “To prohibit the use of any funds provided under this Act … from being used to provide AIDS education, information, or prevention materials and activities that promote, encourage, and condone homosexual sexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs.” We read this as: we would rather you die than have you talk about sex.

The silence was also cultural. Queer people had not yet started coming out of the closet in large numbers. Even after death, silences were maintained. Liberace’s New York Times obituary was typical of this silence. According to the obituary, he did not die of AIDS. Instead, the cause of death was described as “cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure brought on by subacute encephalopathy.”

The silence came from families. As some gay men came out to their family members about their disease and their sexuality, many of the family members reacted with fear and shame. In Arkansas, a woman named Ruth Coker Burks, became, by sheer accident, an advocate for men dying of AIDS. As she tried to connect dying men to their families, parents told Burks that their sons were sinners. Mothers and fathers rejected their gay sons, but Burks stepped in to love and care for them: “Burks estimates she worked with more than a thousand people dying of AIDS over the course of the years. Of those, she said, only a handful of families didn’t turn their backs on their loved ones.”2

14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. (Mario Suriani/Associated Press)
14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. (Mario Suriani/Associated Press)

“Silence = death” also invokes the power of noise, of speaking up. It was clear, in the 1980s that if we did not speak up, no one else would. If we did not speak up, there would be more deaths. If we did not speak up, the government would continue to ignore that our friends, family members, and loved ones were dying.

Hateful noise came from politicians and pundits who called for men with HIV to be sent to camps or to be tattooed on their buttocks. I was not yet a sophisticated activist when I first started hearing this noise, but I knew the codes. The “solutions” posed by men like Lyndon LaRouche and William F. Buckley, Jr. sounded like the “solutions” posed by the Nazis. We, the activists, responded with noise of our own including the use of social memory and the invocation of the Holocaust.

Not everyone was comfortable with that response. Susan Sontag felt as if the Holocaust as a metaphor for AIDS went too far. She told a Vanity Fair reporter: “The Holocaust was inflicted by human beings on human beings. It’s wrong to compare a situation in which there was real culpability to one in which there is none…. The word, like the word genocide, should not be used metaphorically.”

For many of us, it was not a false metaphor. We believed that there was real culpability. In 1989, Larry Kramer, one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), published an anthology of some of his speeches and publications called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. Kramer was not shy about using the language of the Holocaust, as can be seen in a 1988 open letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci, at that point the National Institute of Health’s AIDS Coordinator. In it, Kramer wrote:

[gblockquote]“WHY DID YOU KEEP QUIET FOR SO LONG?! … I don’t know (though it wouldn’t surprise me) if you were ordered to keep quiet by Higher Ups Somewhere and you are a good lieutenant, like Adolf Eichmann.”3[/gblockquote]

Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi who, in his trial for war crimes, claimed he was not guilty as he had only been following orders. To Kramer, Fauci was a Nazi, as responsible for the death of human beings as Eichmann had been. Other AIDS activists agreed, focusing our anger on those who stayed silent.

Gran Fury, AIDSgate, 1987, Silence = Death Project.
Gran Fury, AIDSgate, 1987, Silence = Death Project.

We believed many were culpable. One of the posters from the art collective Gran Fury named some of these. Those who said nothing included “Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Michael Dukakis, the NIH, the FDA, the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucus, our national media, our national minority leaders.” We shouted their names and with our voices and with bodies in the streets, we demanded to see change.

I think about my small part in 1980s AIDS activism every day. I am still an activist. I no longer live in a big city surrounded by like-minded people. Now I live and teach in a red corner of a blue state and have to summon my activist self every day to negotiate the silences that are thrust upon me. To the annoyance of those above me institutionally, I speak up against injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I demand change and when it isn’t coming from above, I try to create it from below.

In this election season, and in the aftermath of the general election, we have seen the forces of prejudice unleashed to a greater degree than they have been in recent years. And for those of us who fear for our civil rights or even for our lives, we turn again to social memory. Like in the 1980s, concerned citizens now ask questions that reflect an understanding of history: Are they seriously thinking about camps for Muslims in the United States? What about that alt-right rally where they used the Nazi salute? What does that mean for queer folks, for women, for racial or ethnic minorities? What can we do?

Poster by ACT-UP for an AIDS demonstration on October 6, 1989. (B. Rader/Wikipedia)
Poster by ACT-UP for an AIDS demonstration on October 6, 1989. (B. Rader/Wikipedia)

While we call on the social memory of past human rights violations, it is also important to call on the social memory of resistance to those violations, and AIDS activism is as good a place to start as any. AIDS activism unleashed the energy of young, queer, and often creative people who massed together to march in the streets, to march on government agencies and pharmaceutical companies, to speak up and speak out against the killing silence of oppression. In the midst of all the death and suffering that accompanied AIDS, there was love, laughter, creativity, and light.

In a New York Times blog post by Jesse Green titled, “When Political Art Mattered,” he revisited the Silence = Death poster. He found “that it still has the power to move and disturb. What’s new is that it now has the power, at least over me, to comfort. ‘People did something,’ it seems to say. ‘People are good.’”

We have seen the worst of many people since November 8, as they taunt school children with threats of deportation and leave notes on the cars of queer people telling them that this is now Trump Country. But people — many people, my people — are good, and many of us are ready to take to the streets and to make noise. If silence = death then noise = life. That noise can come in our voices, combined together in protest, and it can come through simple acts of love.

I want to end with one of my most vivid memories of this activism. During the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the police not only armed themselves with riot gear, but also with latex gloves. They were afraid to touch the infected and dying. During that march, part of our activism was to literally reach out and touch those same men, to lay our hands on their shoulders or to embrace them as they sat, lesion-covered, in their wheelchairs. We summoned compassion and we summoned fury, and the world has never been the same.

Remember when we changed the world? We can do it again.


  1. Heinz Heger, The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps, trans. David Fernbach (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1994). Return to text.
  2. David Koon, “Ruth Coker Burks, The Cemetery Angel,” Arkansas Times, January 8, 2015. Return to text.
  3. Larry Kramer, Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 266. Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.