** AIDS Activism **

By: Cassy Boff


Social Movements are a very important part of history, because these movements often become catalysts activating change in society to combat many different forms of injustice. When the AIDS virus emerged on the public scene in the 1980s, it soon became a topic of concern and action.  Around 1980, physicians detected an illness that was quite surprising, which they termed a “new” disease because physicians thought this was the first time they had seen it.  Viewed as strange and foreign, this newly discovered disease caused massive hysteria when it was publicized as being linked to drugs, sex, and blood.  Once recognized as AIDS, its expansion was rapid and widespread. It fully hit center stage in June of 1981, however it was not until the summer of 1982 that the disease was officially named and proof of its viral etiology was readily available (Grmek 1990: 13). Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, otherwise known as AIDS, can be viewed as “not a single distinct disease but rather a disorder characterized by a severe suppression of the immune system.  This immunodeficiency renders the body susceptible to a variety of normally manageable infections, cancers, and diseases” (Smith 1998:2).  Caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, it results in the attack of white blood cells, specifically T cells or CD4+ cells. Normally, these cells work to remove disease-causing substances from the body, and when they become low, the human immune system cannot fully function.  The term AIDS refers to the late stage of HIV infection where the immune system is significantly impaired.  HIV can be transmitted by behaviors that involve the transmission of bodily fluids between people including sexual activities, shared needles, pregnancy, and breast feeding (Smith 1998:2-6).                            

  It is important to note that “people become infected with HIV due to behaviors, not because of membership in any particular “high-risk group” making HIV infection a possibility for almost everyone, but an inevitability for almost no one” (Smith 1992: 6).  Although this is widely known now, at the time AIDS was first discovered, many did not realize this. "This diabolical AIDS virus, malignant in every sense, first disrupts the organism’s iImmune defenses, disorganizes its internal regulation. It then ricochets outward to disturb sexual relations and finally, dangerously, to poison social habits in a new way, more subtle and more insidious than medieval leprosy, Renaissance syphilis, or machine-age tuberculosis" (Gremk 1990: xi-xii). As people with AIDS and their loved ones soon learned, the disease was painful and slowly but surely took its course in the human body making everyday functions increasingly difficult and making social interactions hard to manage.  However its symptoms and harmful nature were not as obvious as with many other diseases, causing many outsiders to be unaware of its existence or to downplay its severity.

            As a result of the quickly spreading epidemic, people began to notice that much of the public was unaware and many felt that the government was not doing enough to fight the disease. As it continued to spread and more people were affected by it, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was founded.  The Quilt was started in November of 1985 by a San Francisco gay rights activist, Cleve Jones. The main goals of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were to “provide a creative means for remembrance and healing, effectively illustrate the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, increase the general public's awareness of HIV and AIDS, assist others with HIV infection-prevention education, and raise funds for community-based AIDS service organizations” (AIDS Quilt). Every piece of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is about twelve feet square, and each block usually contains eight individual three foot by six foot panels sewn together. With more than 40,000 colorful panels that make up the Quilt, many patches memorialize the life of someone lost to AIDS (AIDS Quilt). With similar goals of raising awareness about the AIDS epidemic and fighting against society’s indifference, AIDS activism began to gain momentum in the late 1980s.


Smith, Raymond A., Ed. The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and

            Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic. 1998. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

“The AIDS Memorial Quilt.” 2005. The NAMES Project Foundation. Retrieved Nov. 12,

            2006. (http://www.aidsquilt.org).

Grmek, Mirko D. 1990. History of AIDS. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Want more info?? Check out the links below to read more about AIDS Activism and how music was used in the movement:

* AIDS Activism History (Focusing primarily on ACT UP)

* Collective Identity and Music of AIDS Activism

* Frame Analysis- "Fury" (From the AIDS Quilt Songbook with Music by David Wheelock and lyrics by Susan Snively)


Other Relevant Links

* ACT UP New York

* AIDS Memorial Quilt

* AIDS Quilt Songbook

* AIDS Quilt Songbook Recording


All work on this page was produced by Cassandra Boff from The College of New Jersey in December 2006.  All information not cited is thought to be public domain, if any problems with intellectual property arise, please email me at boff3@tcnj.edu and they will be fixed immediately.