Friends Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás gathered over several months in 1985 to provide support for one another during the AIDS crisis. Together they came up a poster design to address the epidemic then decimating their world. Their eventual creation — a pink triangle set against a black background, with the words
Silence = Death
Which would eventually become iconic and be taken up by the activist group ACT UP as their central visual.
Those men (minus Johnston, he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990) told the Village Voice the story of how it was created.
The origins of Silence = Death, which stands alongside We Shall Overcome, Sí Se Puede, We Are the 99%, and #blacklivesmatter as a touchstone of social justice movements, can be traced to a New York diner in 1985. Nights earlier, Socarrás recalls, he was “walking down Broadway towards Astor Place and having this irresistible impulse to throw myself on the sidewalk and pound my fists on the ground. I had to stop myself. I wanted to wail to heaven.” Over the previous few years he had lost so many men he loved that he stopped writing down their names after his list reached 100. That night, he remembers, he “watched that potential scenario [play out in my mind] and thought, ‘I can either do that or I can try to do something with this energy.’ ”
He reached out to Finkelstein, whose boyfriend had recently died, in hopes of connecting with someone who could empathize. They made a plan to meet, and Socarrás invited his friend Johnston to tag along.
Inspired, the trio decided to form a consciousness-raising group, a form Finkelstein and Socarrás were familiar with from having grown up in left-leaning political households. Finkelstein suggested they each invite someone the others did not know. Socarrás invited Howard, Johnston invited Kreloff, and Finkelstein invited Lione.
During these early months, Johnston received a positive diagnosis. He did not tell the group for weeks — something everyone understood was his decision to make. But, together, they had to process feelings of pending loss and confusion — what did it mean that one of them didn’t feel able to disclose even within the consciousness-raising group? “It was one of the saddest nights we ever spent together,” Lione remembers.
Kreloff recalls how, on the first anniversary of their meetings, there was a sense that something had to shift.
Johnston, Kreloff, and Lione were already established in their careers as graphic designers; Howard was fast on his way to becoming an art director, already working for the photographer Kim Steele; Finkelstein had a visual arts practice; and Socarrás had been a full-time touring musician, having formed the influential band Indoor Life and collaborated with Patrick Cowley (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1982).
Eventually, the discussion steered toward iconography, taking into consideration what it meant to feel left for dead and the historical resonances that brought up. The group settled on the pink triangle the Nazis had used to brand gay men during the Holocaust, which had been reclaimed a decade or so earlier as a symbol of gay pride — the members had rejected it at first, but then decided they hated it less than the other options: rainbow flag, labrys, lambda.
As for the wording, Socarrás and Finkelstein hammered out the small type at the bottom of the poster — which challenged President Reagan’s silence on AIDS and concluded, “Turn anger, fear, grief into action” — while the creation of the historic tagline was a group effort. Finkelstein brought in a line he’d come across in an unrelated newspaper article, “the silence is deafening,” and suggested to the group, “How about ‘Gay silence is deafening?’” The volley of responses, Finkelstein recalls, took maybe fifteen seconds: Johnston suggested, “It should be ‘Silence is death,’” then another group member proposed “Silence equals death” — and then “someone immediately said, ‘It should be an equals sign.’ ”
Thirty years later, these creators of Silence = Death have unveiled a new of the poster, reconfiguring the black, fuchsia, and white elements across twenty windows of Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on the corner of Grand and Wooster.
At the entrance of the museum, the creators have added to the last lines of the original poster: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist.” It’s both a nod to the current era we find ourselves in and a testament to how echoes of the early crisis remain. Three decades after the poster first hit the streets, a positive result no longer means an automatic death sentence, but that does not mean the dark days are over: More than six thousand people a year still die of causes attributed directly to HIV in the U.S., and more than a million worldwide. There are still battles to be fought.
A day before the installation went up, CBS This Morning ran a segment on the history of AIDS that drew criticism for singling out white men as heroes of the epidemic and for blaming the crisis on irresponsible sex. Around the same time, the Times’ Linda Villarosa reported the largely ignored ongoing crisis of high HIV infection rates among black queer men, particularly in the South, while the state of Mississippi announced that it would now be charging $25 for previously free HIV tests. Though there may seem to be less AIDS-related silence, the specter of death still hovers, often over communities that remain unheard.
The installation in Soho will be up for a year, providing tourists and New Yorkers alike ample opportunity to consider the parallels between the poster’s creation and our present moment. Here, too, is a renewed chance to take stock: of our rage, of our communities and our commitment to them, and of what to do when, despite decades of speaking out, death and suffering remain.
Speaking of Gay Pride, two of these guys –Jorge and Brian (top two pictures)– I’m sure proud to call my friends. So, don’t say what we do doesn’t matter and that you can’t change the world. They did.
(Portraits, Brad Trent, vintage photo, Brian Howard; via Village Voice)