Before AIDS activists plastered posters reading “Silence = Death” on New York City walls and ACT UP shouted, “Fight Back, Fight AIDS,” the disease had already claimed the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. The first five years of the AIDS epidemic were characterized by a lack of information about the disease that triggered widespread panic and fear. Focusing on that time, from the appearance of AIDS in 1981 to the death of Hollywood icon Rock Hudson in 1985, which forced the disease into public discourse, the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition AIDS in New York: The First Five Years presents an incredibly important record of both the silence surrounding the growing crisis and the bravery of early activists and caretakers.
Curated by Jean S. Ashton, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years features an enormous variety of archival material — from newspapers to personal diaries and letters to posters and pamphlets — in an attempt to tell the full story of the first confused years of the epidemic. The exhibition also includes a companion audio guide of interviews with activists, AIDS survivors, scientists, and others who were involved at the beginning.
The first panic-filled years of the AIDS crisis are not as widely understood or even remembered by many New Yorkers who were either too young or unaffected by its devastation. Because it takes a wide look at the period, through the lens of scientific breakthroughs, political resonance, and creative legacy, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is a significant moment in the remembrance of the AIDS crisis.
When AIDS first appeared, it was characterized as a “gay plague” that only affected marginal populations such as the gay community and intravenous drug users. Newspapers buried stories about the spread of the disease, not realizing the impending scope of the crisis. Two striking banners in the first room of the exhibition feature newspaper pages that reveal the lack of public discussion or knowledge about the disease. Perhaps the most disturbing is from the New York Times from July 1981: a small vertical article with the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” is buried next to a gigantic ad for a bank.
Due to this near silence from the newspapers, as well as the actual silence from Mayor Ed Koch and his Health Department director, David Sencer, and the lack of concrete scientific research, fear swept the city. Rumors flew about how AIDS was transmitted, and the lack of discourse enhanced the sensationalism; certain funeral directors refused to embalm bodies of the deceased, and some hospitals rejected treating people with AIDS.
The hysteria quickly and understandably spread through the gay community, too. Bath houses and sex clubs like the Anvil were temporarily closed or completely shut down from the fear of anonymous sex. The exhibition presents several haunting photographs of shuttered bath houses and clubs that illustrate the terror surrounding the crisis.
Even more disturbing is a series of photographs of angry homophobic protests, with protesters carrying signs to “Quarantine Manhattan Island” and calling Manhattan the “AIDS Capital of the World.” When Moral Majority commentators Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell announcing that AIDS was punishment for the gay community’s unnatural behavior, AIDS quickly turned into a serious political, as well as a health, issue.
The real strength of the exhibition, however, lies in showing the uplifting bravery of the people with AIDS who refused to die unheard and unnoticed, the activists without the disease who protested alongside their lovers and friends, and the doctors and nurses who refused to abandon their patients despite the then unknown origins of the disease.
From memorial vigils to marchers in the pride parade with a banner dedicated to “AIDS victims everywhere,” the selection of photographs of early AIDS activism provides a glimpse into the dedication of these people to create a conversation about the disease. While ACT UP certainly drove the AIDS activist movement forward after 1987, images of events like the 1983 Central Park Memorial, in which attendees held up signs indicating the amount of people who had died from the disease, are eye-opening in regards to early protest.
One of the organizations whose significant input fills AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. First meeting in 1982 in playwright Larry Kramer’s apartment, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was one of the earliest organizations to distribute information about AIDS, reaching out to gay groups both in New York and Fire Island. Through posters publicizing safe sex and for benefits raising money for men with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and AIDS, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis emerges as an integral part of the dialogue.
The exhibition, along with the history of AIDS in New York, turns a corner in 1985, scientifically with the discovery of the HIV virus and artistically with the premieres of two plays: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at the Public Theater and William Hoffman’s As Is. Kramer’s was seminal, an attempt to drive the gay community toward activism via a semi-autobiographical play that brought the life-or-death struggle of people with AIDS and the gay community into the public.
A devastating yet important exhibition, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years deftly portrays the crippling isolation and fear felt by many in those early days of the epidemic. The New-York Historical Society plays an essential role in the preservation of the memory of the AIDS crisis and the continuation of the dialogue about the disease. The exhibition also reminds us that AIDS isn’t over, and it inspires viewers to think about how they would act in the face of future epidemics. As a quote from The Normal Heart on the wall of the exhibition reads:
… until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city into a visible community that fights back, we’re doomed.
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) until September 15.