HIV stories as they found out

Living with HIV: The Other Story of AIDS

Living with AIDS is like a war that only happens for those in the trenches. Every time a grenade explodes, you look around and find that you've lost even more friends. But the others don't notice. They walk the streets like we're not living through a nightmare. And only you yourself hear the screams of the dying. " This is what the LGBTQ activist and filmmaker Vito Russo said at a rally in New York in 1988, two years before he died of complications from his AIDS illness.

He accused the US government of ignoring the AIDS epidemic until 1987. After all, over forty thousand people in the United States had died of AIDS before President Reagan even spoke up. Russo also said that a puritanical majority society that consistently looks the other way, or even more perfidiously, considers the virus to be a punishment from God for those who deviated from their own lifestyle, must be shaken up.

It was only through initiatives by the LGBTQ community that they were forced to look. During the 1992 Ashes Action, activists scattered the ashes of their loved ones and friends on W.H. Bush, over the White House fence. You were part of Act Up, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power. “SILENCE = DEATH”, silence means death, is Act Up's best-known slogan. Getting loud was the only chance for life.

Although the US and Western Europe are still a long way from coming to terms with the catastrophe, the history of HIV / AIDS activism there is increasingly becoming known to a broad mainstream public. Highly successful films and series such as “Call Me By Your Name” or “Pose” that have appeared in recent years focus on queer realities. The French film “120 bpm” won the jury's grand prize in Cannes. Here the director Robert Campillo processed his own time as an HIV / AIDS activist at Act Up in Paris in the early 1990s. He tells directly from inside the community how the young activists are discussing in plenary, spraying the glass doors of a pharmaceutical manufacturer with fake blood, going dancing and falling in love. Also how they have to look after their loved ones and prepare them for their funeral at some point. And even the most unsuspecting is taught what it was like to take turns fighting and grieving and being angry with swooning.

It is important that these stories are told. But what is not happening at the center of major movements in Western Europe and the USA is quickly forgotten. The exhibition “HIVstories. Living Politics ”in the Schwules Museum Berlin wants to shine for the first time where it was previously dark.

The exhibition follows the three-year EUROPACH research project at several European universities. The results are also made available to a non-academic public in works of art and interviews with contemporary witnesses, photos and documents. Two of the sections deal with activism in Poland and Turkey. The history of HIV / AIDS in these countries is doubly invisible. On the one hand, the topic of HIV / AIDS hardly ever appears in the public discourse of the countries themselves to this day. On the other hand, from a western point of view, they are on the periphery and receive little international attention.

Activism and politics

It is precisely them that deserve attention. Especially to find out how different political systems reacted to the AIDS crisis and what form of activism arose here. AIDS hit both countries just as major upheavals were taking place. These could not be more different: while Poland was liberated on a large scale as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, minorities had to expect political repression and arrest after the Turkish military coup of 1980. This shows in a variety of ways what “HIVstories” should be about: How activism and politics affect each other.

For example, there is a photo in black and white. It shows a protest with signs, actually not unusual for an exhibition about activism. But if you take a closer look, you don't see an AIDS demo, but an anti-AIDS demo. "Protestant Action - Drug Addicts to Their Families" and "Old People's Home Instead of Monar!" is on the banners. Monar, a Polish non-governmental organization, works with drug addicts and the homeless. In 1990, in the city of Głosków, HIV positive people were to be accommodated in their facility. Local residents protested loudly and threw stones at the building. There were riots like this in various places, but also arson attacks, physical attacks and general exclusion.