Project Showcase: Still Fighting For Our Lives

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Still Fighting For Our Lives uses artifacts of multiple mediums to highlight the central role that visual culture has played in Philadelphia’s HIV/AIDS history. Photo credit: GVGK Tang

Still Fighting For Our Lives, an exhibition sponsored and hosted by the William Way LGBT Community Center, commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Philadelphia AIDS Library. Founded to disseminate information on HIV/AIDS to community members, the AIDS Library is housed at Philadelphia FIGHT, a local AIDS service organization. Still Fighting highlights the central role that visual culture plays in HIV/AIDS activism, education, and prevention in the Philadelphia community, with a special focus on its impact in communities of color.

The John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives (housed at the William Way Center) is the largest repository of LGBT primary source material in Philadelphia. In the summer of 2017, I processed the AIDS Library Graphics collection, which the archives inherited from the AIDS Library several years ago. The collection contains nearly 5,000 posters, flyers, pamphlets, and comic books related to international HIV/AIDS activism.

These materials became the foundation for Still Fighting For Our Lives. John Anderies, archivist for the Wilcox Archives, formed an advisory committee of community leaders and elder activists, local scholars, and staff from William Way and Philadelphia FIGHT. We helped refine which materials would be included in this community-based exhibit.

Most histories of HIV/AIDS focus on white gay men. But Still Fighting showcases materials from groups like Unity, Inc., the first grassroots organization in Philadelphia run by Black gay men for Black gay men. Unity addressed needs not being met by the city’s AIDS Task Force. Early in the crisis, Tyrone Smith, Unity’s co-founder, saw HIV/AIDS “marketed as a white gay man’s disease.” Unity’s campaigns, along with those created by other organizations like Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (founded in 1989) and AIDS Services in Asian Communities (founded in 1995), were essential to preventing the spread of the disease in communities of color.

The exhibition title highlights the fact that not everyone in the community has access to health care. One recurrent political narrative (often propagated by white gay men) is that the LGBT community has arrived. But queer people of color (QPOC), especially poor and homeless youth, do not have equal access to PrEP, medical support, or housing. QPOC history needs to take precedence because our legacies have been doubly obscured and destroyed by homophobia and racism.

In Philadelphia, several recent controversies—ranging from the use of slurs to the exclusion of POC from governance in LGBT organizations—exposed racism in the local community to the wider public. We hoped the exhibit would be especially empowering for QPOC and educational for young people who feel disconnected from this part of our community history.

Still Fighting contextualizes contemporary battles through the devastation, courage, and pathos of early HIV/AIDS activism. The exhibit gives our audience the opportunity to empathize with this history through engagement with its artifacts, a material culture shaped by the lives of activists, created and used for protest. If an exhibit can encourage our audiences to have a more personal connection to their past and feel inspired to do something for their communities today, then we’ve succeeded as public historians.

~ GVGK Tang is a public history MA student at Temple University in Philadelphia with a specialization in transnational queer history and politics, nascent community-building, and identity construction. Tang is a member of NCPH’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.

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