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Symbols

By Raymond A. Smith and Kevin E. Gruenfeld

1998

Given the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, a wide variety of objects and images have become vested with symbolic resonance. Many are objects associated with some aspect of HIV transmission or prevention, such as needles, syringes, condoms, and dental dams. Others relate to elements of illness, including the purple lesions caused by Kaposi's sarcoma, the emaciation caused by wasting syndrome, and the virus itself. On a more abstract level, however, three images specifically created to raise awareness and to commemorate the dead stand out as symbols of AIDS: red ribbons, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the slogan "SILENCE = DEATH" accompanied by a pink triangle.

A loop of red silk ribbon, typically fastened on a lapel or pinned to a shirt, shows the wearer to be sympathetic and supportive of those with HIV/AIDS. Designed by the graphic arts activist group Visual AIDS to increase awareness and promote action to combat AIDS, the red ribbon symbol was introduced in the United States at the 1991 Tony awards ceremony by the group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

In the early 1990s, red ribbons figured prominently at the Academy Awards ceremony and other events in the entertainment industry. As early as 1992, they were also being worn by some national political figures, such as former California Governor Jerry Brown during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and First Lady Barbara Bush during parts of the Republican National Convention.

The red ribbon has become a widespread symbol throughout the world, particularly among gay and lesbian communities, and has appeared in many different forms and versions. In 1993, for instance, the U.S. Postal Service released a red ribbon stamp with the caption "AIDS Awareness." The AIDS ribbons also provided the impetus for other groups to designate variously colored ribbons for their own causes, such as the pink ribbon worn for breast cancer awareness.

Over time, a small backlash against the use of the ribbons developed, with some AIDS activists adopting the slogan that "red ribbons are not enough" and deriding the symbol as more a politically correct fashion accessory than a meaningful social or political statement. Others criticized what they perceived to be the commercialization of the epidemic by means of such items as red ribbon coffee mugs, key chains, and Christmas tree ornaments. Advocates noted that proceeds from the sale of some red ribbons go toward AIDS care and research and that, despite some commercialization, red ribbons continue to raise consciousness about the epidemic and demonstrate support for and solidarity with those living with HIV/AIDS.

Alongside red ribbons, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is probably the most widely recognized symbol of the epidemic. Since the first panel was created in 1986, the entire Quilt had grown by 1996 to include nearly 50,000 individual three-by-six-foot panels covering more than 32 acres.

Designed by lovers, family, friends, and others in honor of one or more persons who died of AIDS-related causes, the colorful panels typically include photos, quotations, and other mementos of the deceased. As a cultural phenomenon, the Quilt recalls the practice of quilt making as a communal activity and evokes the folk traditions of "memory quilts" composed of old clothing, blankets, and other items from different family members. As an educational tool, the Quilt offers an emotionally moving yet unthreatening and, some argue, sanitized focus for HIV/AIDS awareness.

The idea for the Quilt was first conceived by Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist who was an organizer of the annual candlelight march commemorating the 1978 assassination of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. In 1985, learning that the number of San Franciscans who had died of AIDS had exceeded 1,000, Jones encouraged marchers to write the names of friends and relatives on placards. Many of the placards were then taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building until the building resembled a quilt.

Jones created the first formal panel in 1986 in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman, to whom the Quilt as a whole is dedicated. In 1987, the NAMES Project Foundation was created, and additional panels were created for the Quilt by individuals throughout the world. The Quilt, then composed of 1,920 panels, was displayed for the first time in 1987 on the Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, during which time it was viewed by an estimated half million people.

The Quilt has been displayed, in whole and part, thousands of times since 1987 and has been viewed by more than five million people altogether. Displays are usually staffed by local volunteers, and it has become traditional to have the names of the people represented by the Quilt panels read aloud during displays. By 1995, quilt-related activities had raised over $1.5 million for AIDS service organizations. Panels were included in U.S. president Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural parade, the project was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and the entire phenomenon was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt. Other artistic spin-offs have been The AIDS Quilt Songbook and Quilt: A Musical Celebration. The NAMES Project Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, includes dozens of local chapters, as well as international, direct service grant, and display programs. On December 1, 1996, the first online display of the Quilt was unveiled on the World Wide Web of the Internet in commemoration of World AIDS Day.

The third major symbol of the epidemic is the slogan "SILENCE = DEATH" beneath a bright pink triangle pointing upward. Although this design is widely recognized among those living in urban areas and those knowledgeable about AIDS, it is probably less well known among the general population than either red ribbons or the Quilt. It is also far more overtly political than the other major symbols and refers specifically to the struggles of gay men.

The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s. Its precedent lay in World War II, when known homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges as identifiers, much in the same manner that Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. Wearers of the pink triangle were considered at the bottom of the camp social system and subjected to particularly harsh maltreatment and degradation. Thus, the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation.

In 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project and began plastering posters around the city featuring a pink triangle on a black background stating simply "SILENCE = DEATH." In its manifesto, the Silence = Death Project drew parallels between the Nazi period and the AIDS crisis, declaring that "silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival." The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference. The six men who created the project later joined the protest group ACT UP and offered the logo to the group, with which it remains closely identified.

Since its introduction, the "SILENCE = DEATH" logo has appeared in a variety of manifestations, including in neon as part of an art display and on a widely worn button. It was also the forerunner of a range of parallel slogans such as "ACTION = LIFE" and "IGNORANCE = FEAR" and an entire genre of protest graphics, most notably including a bloodstained hand on a poster proclaiming that "the government has blood on its hands." Owing in part to its increasing identification with AIDS, the pink triangle was supplanted in the early 1990s by the rainbow as the dominant image of "gay pride." By force of analogy, however, the rainbow itself has, in some countries, become an image associated with AIDS.


Related Entries:

ACT UP; Artists and Entertainers; Bereavement; Film; Marches and Parades; Media Activism; Music; Television Programming; Visual Arts; World AIDS Day


Key Words:

AIDS Memorial Quilt, pink triangle, Quilt, red ribbons, SILENCE = DEATH, symbols


Further Reading

Baker, R., The Art of AIDS: From Stigma to Conscience, New York: Continuum, 1994

Harris, D., "The Kitschification of AIDS," in The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, New York: Hyperion, 1985

Ruskin, C., ed., The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project, New York: Pocket Books, 1988

Seidner, D., "The Red Ribbon," The New Yorker 68 (1993), p. 31

Stucken, M., Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997


The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Encyclopedia of AIDS $25 US/832 pp/Illustrated

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