In 1986, thousands of people took to the streets of Philadelphia for a vigil mourning those who had lost their lives to AIDS, which killed more than 200,000 people between 1981 and 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They held candles and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Fighting for Our Lives.” The shirts were sold to raise money for the AIDS Library on Locust Street near 12th.
The William Way LGBT Community Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for the acceptance of LGBTQ people, receives hundreds of historical items donated to its archives each year.
While scouring the center’s John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives — the city’s largest collection of artifacts and periodicals documenting LGBTQ history housed in the Way Center — archivists found a T-shirt from the 1986 vigil and wanted to use it in an upcoming exhibit.
This discovery inspired the center to name the exhibit, “Still Fighting for Our Lives.” It runs until Dec. 29 and honors the 30th anniversary of the AIDS Library. The exhibit, which was co-curated by first-year master’s of public history student GVGK Tang, includes historical artwork, photos, video and posters about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and LGBTQ communities around the world.
The AIDS Library provides information on HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system and causes AIDS.
With books, periodicals, medical journals and videos, the AIDS Library educates people about the proper treatment of HIV/AIDS, history of the pandemic and referrals to local and national resources. The library shares a location and is affiliated with Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS health service organization.
Tang said HIV/AIDS is still an issue within the LGBTQ community.
“We need to focus on who’s still not getting proper medical care, healthcare and medicine to treat HIV/AIDS,” Tang said.
According to UNAIDS, a global organization that treats people with HIV/AIDS, there were 36.7 million people living with AIDS globally in 2016. Only 53 percent had access to treatment. One form of treatment is antiretroviral therapy, which is a method of slowing the rate at which HIV destroys white blood cells.
“We just wanted to honor these people,” Tang said. “Those who passed away, and those who are still here…to honor their legacy and everything they’ve done for the community.”
Maeve Coudrelle, a fifth-year Ph.D. art history student, is on the advisory committee for the exhibit. She met one of the archivists, John Anderies, while she was teaching a course on activism art at Temple and wanted to see archived materials to show her students. Later on, Anderies asked her to join the advisory committee for the exhibit.
“I didn’t realize what a treasure trove of materials were [at the William Way Center],” Coudrelle said.
One artifact is a bright pink, satin dress displayed on a mannequin in a corner of the exhibit. The dress is embroidered with a message: “Silence = Death,” a phrase used in the 1980s by a group of activists in New York City. They placed posters of the phrase around the city to raise awareness about the consequences of remaining silent about the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“Although Philadelphia was not hit in the same way New York and [Los Angeles] were, we aim to share the rich, rich history of Philadelphia’s involvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Anderies said. “It did devastate the community, but Philadelphia, I think, reacted quickly and strongly.”
Hung on the walls at the exhibit, TV monitors show protest videos from the 1980s, and an iPod plays the locally produced 1985 rap album, “Respect Yourself,” which was partially funded by the Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives — an LGBTQ health care provider now known as the Mazzoni Center. The record is considered one of the first rap albums about HIV/AIDS.
“To do both a historical exhibit, but also make it relevant to the present, was certainly a central theme that we wrestled with,” Anderies said.
The exhibit highlights groups still underrepresented in the LGBTQ community, like people of color and transgender people. The exhibit incorporates images of lesbian and gay couples and posters advertising safe sex practices from organizations like the Minority AIDS Project and the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative.
“We worked to get particularly, trans, non-male, non-white voices,” Coudrelle said.
This focus on including the perspective of minorities within the LGBTQ community was important to people working on the exhibit, since the majority of the material produced in the 1980s and ’90s focused on gay white males.
“To put the spotlight on underrepresented communities at risk was the main message, and to let these communities know we are with you, we support you, you are us,” Anderies said.
Tang said the LGBTQ community needs to be invested in preserving their own legacies.
“I see this history as a means of empowerment…that if you get in touch with your roots, and you learn about the people who came before you, what they did to contribute to your circumstances, you are able to relate to [the past] more,” Tang said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to show more recent information.