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AIDS Crisis: the LGBT Response and Aftermath

In the 1980’s, the ongoing AIDS crisis brought many artists of the LGBT community who were addressing their concealed identity to the forefront of their artwork in a more direct way, confronting viewers with subject matter and themes previously hidden away, destroyed or outright denied throughout history. This allowed the artists to explore their own identity as an individual and as a community and bolster its existence under a scrutinizing and often disapproving public eye. Many of the people in the art world from film producers to visual artists were affected by AIDS during the 1980’s, whether getting the disease themselves or having friends and sometimes family dealing with the loss of someone with it. Artists used their talents and skills to promote AIDS research and outreach, to provide information and to record what was happening when a majority of the population turned a blind-eye and to cope with their own feelings and journey on the matter.

When AIDS emerged in 1981, those most affected were urban gay men and drug addicts, as the disease is passed through unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of unclean and infected needles. Not only did this disease necessitate the emergence of the LGBT community from hiding to address and acknowledge the insidiousness of the unknown disease that was starting to file through their ranks, but it also guaranteed the emergence of the Christian Right who came out to prevent any sort of funding, research and information to never be sought after or distributed to the greater community, for AIDS was often seen as many other massive ‘moral’ diseases of the past as a punishment for those in unsavory and sinful lifestyles. Under Reagan, AIDS was chronically underfunded even as doctors asked for more funding for their research on AIDS. However, it was always denied until May 1987 when President Reagan finally acknowledged there was a crisis yet only after allowing nearly 48,000 men and women to die[1]. Because of this lack of public and governmental help to a problem that people written it off as theirs to deal with, many of the LGBT community and their allies turned to the arts, not only to cope and to raise money to combat the disease themselves, but also as a way to openly discuss and explore that part of their identity that they were now beginning to openly address, whether publicly, in their small group of friends, or just to themselves.

Throughout history most art, novels, plays and forms of art hid their LGBT overtones for fear of retribution, censorship and/or outing of their sexual identity. If it was discovered that one’s tastes were not of the ‘norm’ as dictated by Western society at that time, the artist could find themselves denied or even thrust out from their family, any evidence of their lifestyle and identity destroyed, killed and/or erased into obscurity. For example, one of American’s most beloved artists, John Singer Sargent, was a gay man and highly accomplished artist but upon his death, any personal correspondence that pointed to this was destroyed by his family and all art with homoerotic undertones forcibly denied by family and art critics alike. This act of denying artists’ identity and lives and/or censoring continue to this very day, with books like The Picture of Dorian Gray still being censored of its gay protagonist and his obvious adoration for the bisexual Dorian Gray.

Overt or covert, any hint of these particular identities or lives were almost always washed over into a palatable history for modern society. What makes today’s LGBT artists different from those before the 1980’s is the fact that during and after the AIDS crisis, is that more of them were not only openly embracing their identity with popular musicians, actors and actresses, and artists coming out with alternate sexualities or as transgendered. Also, they were openly including this aspect of themselves in artwork for public consumption and the global populace at that, not always just limited to the overall LGBT community as such art is usually made for.

Before the onset of the AIDS crisis, though LGBT issues were on the rise and more out in the open than ever before with gay clubs and bars and marches, there was still a need to disguise one’s sexuality even within the gay subculture as well which was reflected in the art of the time.[2] Art produced within the community was not always overt either for the same reasons it wasn’t open to the public at large, as that part of themselves can bring along danger if seen by the wrong person or to hide a deep sense of shame at who they are. Another aspect to this was that their art had to cater and be disguised under the veil of what is acceptable and ‘correct’, so subjects and themes such as sexual and gender identity, AIDS and sex were taboo and often got artists into a mess of career trouble with their shows being cancelled or being no longer purchasable.

So for the most part, LGBT artists had to function in the confines of what is permissible if they wanted to make a living and possibly to survive in more ways than one. However, no artist is free from themselves and their identity, and many artists would hint at this aspect of themselves, a coded language that LGBT people could easily recognize and understand but not so by the heteronormative society often viewing it. Any physical aspect of being gay however were hardly depicted, even chaste intimate acts such as touching, hand-holding or sharing a bed in sleep, for these acts were often aggressively sexualized to the point it was seen as taboo and off-limits, to the point that many gay men internalized the idea that physical intimacy was bad, as stated by Marlon Riggs.[3] Even today, the sexual aspect of the LGBT identity is often the only one associated with it to the point that gay safe places are always seen as overly sexual and intimate gestures that are deemed wholesome in a heterosexual or even platonic context such as sleepovers or bathroom spaces, are given explicit disapproval for being ‘sexual’ when associated with LGBT people. During the 80’s, artists such as Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe tackled this and many other issues plaguing the LGBT community head-on and thrust them into the public forefront, paving the way for many artists afterwards to start to feel comfortable about exploring and illustrating these previously taboo subjects and themes.

One of the major things that blossomed with LGBT artists during this period was many of them finally breaking free of those constraints of society, whether it was because they knew they had not long to live, the society they were catering to forsook them to die, or many other various personal reasons from having a loved one with the disease to depicting their community as a whole for future record. Does one’s creative spirit expand when one is allowed to be wholly themselves in their artwork and to finally explore those aspects of oneself previously unexplored, denied or kept hidden? Many artists thought so and their art is proof of this. For others, sometimes being constrained forces them to be creative in ways they may not have explored if given the freedom they would have liked, but as pointed out before, it stoppers their creativity to fully and unabashedly seek out topics the rest of the world is allowed to.

Set free to create art for themselves and about themselves into the public space regarding the LGBT community, it was frankly shocking and confusing for a lot of people to see what they actually had to offer. Most people were fed on stereotypes of what it meant to be gay, that they either where the highly flamboyant man, who more often than not was also depicted as predatory, or the languishing man wrought with desires thrust upon him like a burden that if given the chance, he’d cast them aside for a chance at a ‘normal’ life bereft of these ‘urges’.

What they weren’t expecting was how normal LGBT people were depicted in some of these artworks, often very personal and honest instead of this stereotypical ‘other’. It was even more shocking and hit close to home at the idea that literally anyone could be LGBT: friends, family, children, historical figures, etc. It was a realization that caused a lot of uncomfortable feelings in the public as well as outright cries of denial, maybe even more so that this identity was one that some art depicted not as life-time sentence of pity, scorn, sadness and debauchery but as something to be celebrated, which went against many long held religious, cultural and societal beliefs. Though this is something that culminated with the AIDS crisis, it is still an ongoing battle in today’s culture as well. It is not to say that AIDS was necessary for LGBT artists to achieve this, much like it is wrong and demeaning to state that a mentally ill or physically disabled artist would not be the artist they are without their disability and trials. Many people fall prey into romanticizing the suffering of others when it produces something of value and we must take care not to do this.

The AIDS crisis was another addition to a line of devastating ‘moral’ diseases, the other two being the bubonic plague and syphilis, where the people with the disease were seen as ‘deserving’ for their crimes against morality.[4] There is a correlation between the art produced during and after these outbreaks and how it is portrayed, since art is not only a personal means of expression but also used as a means of communication and record. Art was only seen as acceptable regarding these diseases if it railed against and warned people of partaking of such sinful activities. What made art produced during this crisis different however, was that it not only rallied against the disease itself, but the public’s moral outcry and neglectful treatment and disdain of those struck down with it or lived the lifestyle that seemed to propagate it.

Art produced during the crisis served as a cornerstone for aid within the LGBT community as a means of garnering support for their plight, to record and to raise funds for research. Cindy Sherman’s piece in Figure 1 is one such piece, a contribution to the Art Against AIDS gallery show and included art from every decade of the 20th century displayed in 72 galleries across New York City ranging from unknown LGBT artists, to AIDS activists like Keith Haring and famous ones from the early 20th century like Pablo Picasso. It was a show that had everyone within the art community involved, from donating personal pieces of art, to pieces from personal galleries or allowing the use of their own gallery space and time.

Fig. 1: Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1987, Color Chromogenic Print, framed 73 1/8 x 49 ¼ x 2x ½ in, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

In Sherman’s piece, it is a photograph that depicts a young person of an indeterminate gender with a plethora of condom wrappers and used condoms, some of which are on a variety of sexual toys and fruit. The delicate lighting gives an intimate taboo feeling to the piece along with the discarded sex tools, which lends itself to the juxtaposition of a drug addict with their paraphernalia and drawing a connection with the two lifestyles hardest hit by both the AIDS epidemic and the righteous scorn of the ‘morally superior’. What is also an interesting choice is the inclusion of the androgynous figure lending the audience no clue as to what part of gender spectrum they may be, whether they are transgender, a young gay male or a young woman. This is telling for these three kinds of people are often the ones most demonized for accepting their sexual needs and desires and always seen as promiscuous and predatory for having them, from the tales of siren women and gay men preying on straight men to the unfounded belief that transgendered people seek out children in bathrooms.

Although some artists’ work depicted the normalcy of LBGT life as no different than that of the heteronormative culture in which they lived like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work Untitled, which depicted an empty and recently slept in bed, a lot of others openly used art as a way to express the pain and struggles they go through at having an identity not seen as ‘normal’, even to the point of persecution even now.

Fig. 2: Carlos Almaraz, The Struggle of Mankind, 1989, Screenprint on paper, 28 ½ x 37 ¾ in, Smithsonian American Art Musuem, Renwick Gallery, Washington DC

In Figure 2, we can see how Carlos Almaraz depicts this duality of identity in his piece, The Struggle of Mankind, where feelings of shame and being punished infiltrate many of his works thanks to his Catholic upbringing.[5] In this piece, with the use of garish colors, bold lines and sweeping gestural lines, Almaraz shows us the primal basic urges of his gay identity unlike the soft sweetness of Gonzalez-Torres’. This one aligns with how many cultures and religions see the gay lifestyle, the sexual act between the two men almost bestial or invoking images of rape. It brings to mind certain kinds of Christian themed art such as Dante and Virgil in Hell, where one man is subduing another and devouring him, lending an almost hellish and demonic bent to The Struggle of Mankind. What is interesting to note about this explicit piece is that despite the overt depiction, it is still censored to this day as it is categorized on the gallery website as ‘Sports-Wrestling’ in their current archives.

The last piece we will examine is another one for the Art Against AIDS fundraiser, but by prominent AIDS activist Keith Haring, who was diagnosed with HIV and died of AIDS in the late 80’s. Keith Haring is an example of one of many LGBT artists that contributed highly overt and sometimes explicit works in message, theme and subject matter, yet all of this is erased when he is presented to the public at large. Unless one delves deep and looks at his identity as a sexually active gay man and AIDS advocate, looking for his art specifically in this subculture, one will only know of his cartoonish and safe art that deals with other political advocacies or of a more tolerable and consumable subject matter. As stated before though many artists, especially those diagnosed with AIDS, unleashed a storm of creativity and took the cap off of this suppressed part of themselves as an announcement of ‘we exist, we have always existed’, the erasure of this key part of themselves is still alive and strong, yet not as overt as it once was; more so in that gay identities are not expanded upon (such as discovering Walt Whitman was a gay writer or A Streetcar Named Desire had homoerotic undertones) or the contributions and struggles of prominent LGBT men and women are never mentioned as if they do not exist.

Fig. 3: Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984, acrylic on leather hide. Location unknown.

In Figure 3, Keith Haring’s piece has many elements of his style from the simple cartoonish men to the use of his patterns make of up bold, almost symbolic lines. However, unlike most of his pieces that most of us are exposed to, this one is highly explicit showing this almost demon or monstrous entity having and receiving sexual favors from men, which could be seen as a symbol for AIDS itself or perhaps as with Almaraz’s piece, how the world at large views the natures and interactions of gay men as a whole. Also, his style lends a very stark and garish light to the serious topic with the writhing cartoon men and overly happy looking beast, which makes it even more striking than if this was done in a more realistic or romanticized style.

The AIDS crisis pushed many LGBT artists into openly stating and proclaiming their sexuality, identities and struggles, an aspect of humanity and a trial much of the modern world would rather have remain hidden and ignored for generations to come, despite their contributions otherwise. Although we will not romanticize their pain and struggles, we must bear in mind that it did indeed pave the way for such topics to now be discussed openly and explored not only in the LGBT community itself, but the global community as well with openly LGBT characters and stories now being published in the mainstream instead of underground or behind a heteronormative veil (though this still happens), LGBT artwork being more embraced and more and more artists openly being part of the community. However, the struggle is still continuing in his new century with both modern and past artworks being censored of its overall meaning, deceased LGBT pioneers’ identities being forgotten and erased, as well as representation in modern media and art still being a novel and often controversial idea.


Almaraz, Carlos. “The Struggle of Mankind.1989. Screenprint on paper, 28 ½ x 37 ¾ in. Smithsonian American Art Musuem, Renwick Gallery, Washington DC. Accessed November 22, 2016.

Art Against Aids. New York, New York: The American Foundation for AIDS Research, 1987.

Haring, Keith. “Untitled.” Acrylic on Leather Hide, 6 x 6 1/5 ft. April 25, 1984. Location Unknown. In Art Against Aids, by The American Foundation for AIDS Research with Robert Rosenblum, page 192.

“HIV and AIDs---United States, 1981-2000.” CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. June 8, 2001.

Sherman, Cindy. “Untitled.” 1987. Color Chromogenic Print, framed 73 1/8 x 49 ¼ x 2x ½ in. Metro Pictures, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Accessed November 22, 2016.

Vaucher, Andrea. Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists and Art. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

[1] “HIV and AIDs---United States, 1981-2000,” CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 8, 2001,

[2] Andrea Vaucher, Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists and Art. (Grove Press, 1993), 109.

[3] Andrea Vaucher, Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists and Art. (Grove Press, 1993), 135.

[4] Robert Rosenblum, Art Against Aids. (New York, New York: The American Foundation for AIDS Research, 1987), 8.

[5] Andrea Vaucher, Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists and Art. (Grove Press, 1993), 124.

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