Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture

By Erika Mills

The advent of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s bred an atmosphere of fear and confusion as people fell ill and died, questions abounded, and answers, like solutions, were in short supply. Those with the disease faced stigma and many politicians ignored the issue or took a moralizing stance. In this climate, people with AIDS and their communities mobilized, mounting efforts to ensure their needs were met and fight discrimination, while scientists and public health workers struggled to understand the disease and come up with medical solutions.

“We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘People With AIDS.’
—Denver Principles, 1983
A group of men stand holding a banner that reads Fighting for our Lives

People with AIDS group, Denver, 1983
Courtesy © John Schoenwalter

Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture, a new traveling banner display and online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine, is an exploration of the rise of AIDS in the early 1980′s and the evolving response to the epidemic over the last 30 years. Curated by Jennifer Brier, PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the exhibition illustrates an iconic history of AIDS alongside lesser-known examples of historical figures who changed the course of the pandemic, utilizing a variety of historic photographs, pamphlets, and publications. Dr. Brier places a special focus on the contributions of those with the disease. “[C]entering the experience of people with AIDS in the exhibition allows us to see how critical they were, and continue to be, in the political and medical fight against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS.”

Surviving and Thriving online includes a Digital Gallery, an assortment of over 230 HIV/AIDS public health posters from the History of Medicine Division collection. The exhibition is also supplemented by education resources that investigate the exhibition content, including two lesson plans for grades 10-12; three six-class higher education modules; and two online activities. In addition, a selection of published landmark HIV/AIDS articles are provided by NLM’s PubMed Central, which freely provides access to over 2.8 million life science journal articles. Current health information is provided by AIDSInfo/InfoSIDA.  Here are some highlights from the exhibition:

A man writes at a typewriter while another looks on.

Michael Callen (at typewriter) and Richard Berkowitz, 1984
Courtesy Richard Dworkin
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men with AIDS living in New York, wrote How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach. The short manifesto described ways for men to be affectionate and sexual while dramatically lessening the risk of spreading and contracting AIDS. This booklet was one of the first times men were told to use condoms when having sex with other men.

Robert Gallo looks through a microscope while a colleague looks on.

Robert C. Gallo, MD, at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980s
Courtesy National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health
In April 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute at NIH isolated HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus III) as the cause of AIDS. Scientists later determined it was the same virus identified as LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus) by Dr. Luc Montagnier and his team at the Pasteur Institute a year earlier. Despite disagreement over who made the initial discovery, French and American researchers eventually agreed to share the credit. In 1986, the virus was renamed HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Identifying a viral cause enabled the scientific community to develop a test for HIV and better confront AIDS with treatment.

A poster combining the female symbo and the caduceus that reads: Women Don't get AIDS. They Just Die from it.

Poster for Department of Health and Human Services demonstration designed by ACT UP/DC Women’s Committee, 1990
National Library of Medicine
In October 1990, ACT UP descended upon Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, carrying signs that demanded the formal definition of AIDS change to include women. Excluded from the diagnosis of having AIDS, women could not access potentially lifesaving care and treatment, even as they died of the disease. By 1992, activists succeeded in their efforts: women were officially recognized as people who could have AIDS.

Three female officers stand holding a sign that reads Ask for the Test.

“Ask for the Test” poster, 2012
Courtesy HAHSTA (HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, TB Administration), District of Columbia Department of Health
In the 21st century, testing for HIV is the first line of defense in the battle against AIDS. But when the test was released in 1985, many people refused for fear that their names would go on a registry to deny them health care. Municipal unions in Washington, DC, are at the forefront of fighting this persistent myth and explaining how testing helps keep people healthy.

Check out Surviving and Thriving online by heading to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/survivingandthriving/index.html. To book the traveling exhibition or see when it comes to your town, visit the traveling exhibition page at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/about/exhibition/survivingandthriving-bookinfo.html.

Erika MillsErika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.