Sexy images of nearly naked muscle men promoting latex condoms. A moving 1985 poster from an early candlelight vigil for those dead from AIDS-related causes. Banners proclaiming "AIDS Drugs for Africa." T-shirts reading simply "HIV Positive," worn by AIDS activists both living with and not living with the virus in South Africa in the early 2000s. (Remember when Annie Lennox wore one in solidarity with people living with HIV?)
And, of course, a fabulous black and red ball gown, its skirt bearing the iconic ACT UP-era slogan, "SILENCE = DEATH."
All this and more can be seen at Philadelphia's William Way LGBT Community Center through the end of December. They're included in an exhibit called "Still Fighting for Our Lives," showing part of the collection amassed by the city's acclaimed AIDS Library, which for 30 years has connected Philadelphians to cutting-edge information on HIV/AIDS research, treatment, and activism.
"We wanted to show things that combine text and images, and also to show underrepresented communities that are still struggling with the disease," says John Anderies, the archivist at the Way Center who curated the exhibit, for which about 50-60 items were culled from a collection of 5,000. Anderies says that the majority of the exhibit is from the early 1980s to the mid-late nineties, at which point both effective HIV treatment and the rise of the internet led to a drop-off in printed information about the epidemic.
Some of the earlier items in the exhibit were created in 1983 by a group named Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives, which had formed as an LGBT health group in 1979, a few years before the emergence of AIDS. The group created subway and trolley posters that read, "ONE NEW CASE PER WEEK" -- but then, as the epidemic grew, they would cross out "ONE" and replace it with "THREE," then "FIVE," and so on.
The posters featured not just white but Latinx and black men -- which, says Anderies, sparked backlash at the time from some black Philadelphians, who insisted that AIDS was a gay white man's disease. "They were surprised to see themselves pictured on these posters," he says.
Most of the work originated in Philadelphia, Anderies says, "But if something was really iconic, like the "Silence = Death" slogan or the pink triangle, we included it." "The same for anything with lesbians or transgender people," he says, because those groups were rarely addressed in the context of HIV/AIDS until recent years.
The crown jewel of the exhibit might be the red and black SILENCE = DEATH ball gown made by Dominic Bash, a Philadelphia hairdresser, drag performer, and AIDS activist who died from causes related to the disease in 1993. The exhibit also showcases three videos, including the first candlelight march for AIDS in Philly in 1986 and news footage of a 1991 ACT UP Philly protest that turned into a riot.
Nearly as seismic an event was the exhibit's November 10 opening, which drew an extraordinary 370 people, including many local longtime survivors of HIV/AIDS and activists. "People would recognize a work or a model in a poster and say, 'Oh, I remember him,' or, 'I was at that protest when I was 17 years old.' It was incredibly meaningful for me," says Anderies. "People have a real hunger to think through both the past and the present when it comes to HIV/AIDS."