In February of 1987, four heartbroken activists whose emotional, physical and conceptual labor had been stewing for over a year and a half had finally boiled over into action, they had arrived at design. Hunched over tissue paper, scissors and pens, Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (d. 1990), Charles Kreloff, Christopher Lione, and Jorge Socarras gave words to pain, an image to devastation, and hoped their anger would incite action. From a sea of black shines a bright fuschia equilateral triangle, under its bottom edge a stark message; SILENCE=DEATH. Paying a rag-tag group of wheatpasters a measly sum, their message covered the streets of Lower Manhattan overnight, its austere image instantly emblazoned itself on the public imaginary.
“We hoped the poster might stimulate some kind of collective action. But we were unprepared for what was actually coming”[i]
In the months following the posters arrival, a group called ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was formed, and through a volatile combination of action and knowledge singlehandedly changed the landscape of politics around health care, queer identity and AIDS. This pink triangle, with its cryptic calling, would be one of the central images of their effusively creative and unrelentingly radical protest tactics.
Act Up’s prolific output is virtually uncategorizable, their actions ranged from covering the conservative stalwart senator Jesse Helm’s house with a giant Condom, to bringing a dead body to the steps of the White house, and the eventual formation one of the preeminent citizen science treatment groups in History, the Treatment Action Group (TAG). The Silence=Death image, with its fuchsia triangle, is features prominently in all of these actions. But where did this pink triangle come from? How did it become synonymous with the AIDS Struggle and now a mainstay image of the queer community.
The pink triangle’s association with queers stems from its usage in Nazi Germany as one of the symbols used to demark populations of interest (Immigrants, non-social individuals, etc). The Die Rosawinkel was reserved for Homosexual Men, whose grave error was existence; an affront to Masculinity as it was constructed in Nazi Germany as well as a failure to propagate the Aryan race.
While Nazi’s believed gays could be cured of their affliction, they also declared this population (amongst many others) unfit, and accused them of tampering with ‘the pure German blood’.
Although under the liberal Weimar Democracy that preceded Nazi Germany there was Paragraph 175, the Criminal Code which considered homosexuality as a minor offense, Homosexuality was considered socially acceptable in many senses. Between 1919 and 1933, many Gay German Activists sprung up, the effect of their organizing efforts was felt worldwide. When the Nazis gained power, they expanded Criminal Code Paragraph 175, increasing homosexual activity to a felony, and considering it so grotesque as to outlaw ‘gay thought’. The expansion of Paragraph 175 also went so far as to includes a final clause in reference to bestiality.[ii] In 1934, the Gestapo asked local police to keep “pink lists” of men supposedly, or believed, to be engaged in such activities, in many cases the local police were already doing so. The years between 1933 and 1945 saw an estimated 100,000
men locked up for supposed homosexual activity and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of those interned at Concentration camps.[iii]
From the pink lists comes the pink triangle. And this form, the triangle, itself a loaded symbol, seems conveniently utilitarian in this context as its one half of the Star of David. However this aesthetic decision seems to rely heavily on the assumption that those who are part of (or made to be) such subjugated groups; gays, Immigrants etc. are considered to be half Jewish, or considered to be on the brink of Jewishness, the ultimate enemy, the ultimate other. This state, this demarcation of pink triangle then makes physical, and visible to others, the long arm of the state, and its ability to control, monitor those bodies which are discursive to the dominant paradigm. This seeing looks back, as it sees denotes visibility by the state, it is identity politics writ large on the body, a small bit of cloth to mark the murkiness of the unknown.
When the group of friends and allies who would create Silence=Death first started brainstorming images for their poster, they initially rejected the symbol, trying out a bevy of other symbols; rainbow flag, the Lambda symbol and even an image of a butt. All were deemed too specific, too niche, perhaps too inaccessible. Circling back to the pink triangle, they just decided they “hated less” and its choose it for its malleability.[iv] Perhaps they saw in the triangle the capacity to be legible to a mass audience, appealing to people across sexual identities, class borders, race and gender distinctions.
It is this this ability to transcend traditional barriers that the Italian Fascists desired and cultivated from their onset. In Fascism’s rebukes against Socialism and Communism, it hoped to unite disparate groups, eschewing identity politics in pursuit of a pure Fascist state. As Asverto Gravelli affirms in Towards a Fascist Europe; “Fascism transcends democracy and liberalism. Its regenerating action is based on granite foundations..the participation of the whole people in the life of the state.”8[v] The propensity to reach the masses was achieved early on by the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, in the political party he ran that preceded the Nazis, the National Socialists Party. The uniting force of which was so strong it was said to have: “united the industrialists… Social Democrats..the white-collar workers who did not want to become proletarians…the middle classes who believed the sole cause of their economic plight to be finance, department stores, cooperatives and Jews… the peasants who regarded with hate and envy the high wages of workmen… the students who hated democracy..the impoverished declasses which had nothing to lose.”[vi]
Illustrating this unity would become central to Fascism’s rise in Italy, when in “1939, the last year of peacetime, fascist military aesthetics..mount[ed] a national spectacle…in which conventional signs of class distinction and social rank were effaced.” Umberto Eco describes the effectiveness of this “military liturgy” developed in aesthetic interventions such as these, and the remarks on the effectiveness of its uniforms, which were “far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be.”[vii]
you are now entering a WARZONE
Mussolini himself describes the utmost importance of a military presence, “we must have a powerful and respected Army, a proper Navy, an Air Force with air superiority, an intense spirit of discipline and sacrifice in every class of people.”[viii] In an effort to shift the narrative of the World War I, movements such as Italian Fascism and Nazism in Germany wanted to shift the focus to find blame for a war that left them broken and battered, and severely lacking a sense of self. In Paxton’s definition of Fascism, he states it is a “mass-based party [that]… pursues redemptive violence.” It was a commonly held notions among Nazis, Fascists and the like that there was a purity to War, and true men and heros are made during war time.
War language and mentality also surrounded all facets of the AIDS crisis. For Act Up, these terms and this framing are a central part of how they configure themselves in the “fight” against AIDS, and even descriptions of techniques in their arsenal are rampant with such terminology:
“On the “outside”
stood the majority of activists in their ranks—shock troopers who could
mobilize quickly and stage dramatic protests that garnered worldwide media
Humor and ridicule were among their weapons, as were embarrassment and no small amount of audacity. They became the angry, hopeful, forceful face of the plague. The goal of the “outside” ranks was to pry open the doors to the fortresses where decisions were being made—life or-death decisions for anybody with an HIV infection—so that a small elite group of them could go “inside.”[ix]
Although this language was not new for Social Justice and activist work, it specifically appeals to the masses, and aided Act Up in making AIDS a part of the political conversation at the time. War imagery and language also helped to pivot the blame away from the victims, and implicate the cavalier and deadly silence of political figures such as President Ronald Reagan, who broke his silence of 6 years in 1987, with some 3,000 AIDS deaths in the US, with victim blaming; “after all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”.[x]
Susan Sontag takes up this use of semantics in her highly contested book AIDS and It’s Metaphors. Although she is not to the first to unpack the metaphors of war and violence that medical industry also employs around disease; pathogens, fought, winning etc., she takes stock of the ways in which they affect those embattled by this crisis; the victims, their loved ones and caregivers.
Perhaps military terms so pervasive in both the AIDS Epidemic and Fascism because they play up an emotional logic that is as attractive and as it is useful. Philosophy that employs such emotion logic, as Umberto Eco details in Ur Fascism, subverts criticality in lieu of an oeuvre; the great calling to fight off evil. For the Fascists (and Nazis) this was the degradation of ‘pure’ society (see Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West), and for AIDS Activists, their communities, their lives, their everything.
LOGIC OF PHILOSOPHY:
For Fascism, was this emotional logic rooted in the failures of World War One? Giovanni Gentile, the self appointed philosopher of Italian Fascism, touches on this point as he calls the legacy of the Old Italy a sad one, “let’s be frank, it is our shame, a shame we want to expunge and make up for.”[xi]
Similarly, every action of Act Up is replete with a bevy of emotion reasoning. What types of feelings did they hope to conjure? Some actions seem to appeal to shame as well, directing scorn at politicians and Big Pharmaceutical companies alike, such as the historic shutting down of the Food and Drug Administration Headquarters in a suburb of Washington DC on October 11th, 1988 over what the activist deemed inappropriate banning of drugs proven to work in other countries. Footage of the Ashes Action of ‘92, where people marched on the white house and dumped the ashes of their loved ones on the lawn triggers a core emotional response, an undeniable reminder to the public of just what is at stake (October, 11, 1992). The range of these emotions mirror the incredible range of tactics in Act Up’s arsenal.
Act Up was staging its own war, a war of visibility. Although conservative response to the AIDS Crisis was rooted in a desire to keep it ‘behind closed doors’, even liberal bastions such as New York had but one funeral home that would cater to AIDS victims. Act Up’s confronted this head on, and they fought like hell to be seen, to be recognized and attended to. The severity of the situation wretched out of the dark those who were still in the closet, such as Peter Staley, a closeted investment banker with JP Morgan Chase diagnosed with AIDS who would go on to become on the most prominent members of Act Up.[xii] Public kiss-ins at hospitals where staff was homophobic, die-ins at the Catholic Churches around the country, these are just a few of the ways that Act Up made America stop and look. “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” they chanted in the streets. The world was watching, it was watching the death toll rise, and watching the young, famous and exquisitely talented amongst them die. AIDS, a sort of invisible affliction in it of itself, wrecked havoc on bodies in very physical manifestation, such as Kaposi’s Sarcoma, lipodropsy or AIDS wasting syndrome.[xiii]
As they worked alongside each other, tissue paper and scissors in hand, could these friends have known that a small pink triangle would fundamentally alter the way the world saw AIDS? It certainly made them look, forcing the general public to see, with a simple equation that complacency was not an option. While they worked, transmuting the color, from a light pink to a bright fuchsia, they wanted to eviscerate the symbol from its identification “with a sense of victimhood, a feeling they had worked hard as a group to get away from.”[xiv] In their reclamation, these friends also unwittingly transformed another aspect of the symbol, its orientation. This mistake, or happy accident, wasn’t realized by the group until they started shopping it around to local stores and shops, where it was rejected by places like the Oscar Wilde bookshop as it was ‘upside down.’18 “Sensing an opportunity, Kreloff suggested that they own the flip and tell people it was a reclamation of symbols of past violence — much like the vogue for the word “queer” that was soon to come.”
The politics of reclamation this has been a popular tactic for subjugated groups, from the use of the N-word, or use of ‘fag’ as a term of endearment. Looking over the long history of this reclamation, one can see how symbols such as this experience subtle or dramatic shifts over time, lending themselves to the fears, pride or inclinations of a political moment at the twist of a triangle. They fade from view, and re-enter public consciousness somewhere down the line, lending empowerment and a sense of a belonging to the group they were originally intended to demean.
However, these states of visibility often reveal less than they conceal, they tell a portion of a story, which invites the spectator to step into this space that is “consistently ignored by Western Philosophy, the gap between concept and reality” and to make sense of it on their own. [xv] To watch this space might look like noticing the way a symbol floats above identification, staying sticky and unhinged to traditional ideas of who it might serve and how. Umberto Eco underscored the importance of how Mussolini addressed the world in broad generalized speech, yet also appears to addressing a singular person, you.[xvi] “In any case, like good abstract art, it was powerful without being specific.”[xvii] Does visual language of protest wear, and logos such as Silence=death also benefit from or use this broad-ness? Absolutely. The staying power of that small pink triangle has to do with this very malleability, and to address something as controversial as the queer experience, without saying too much, or ‘being too graphic.’
The art of saying enough, and not too much, ie: identity politics, happens chiefly through the body and represenations of the body, hence Act Up’s useage of arm bands and the Nazi’s badges of shame. In Eugenia Paulicetti’s groundbreaking book Fashion under Fascism, she explores the ways in which fashion typically upholds these group distinctions while concurrently problematizing them; “the battle over fashion was also about social rank. Fashion as Georg Simmel observed, signals the cohesiveness of those belonging to the same social circles, at the same time it closes off those circles to those of inferior social rank.”[xviii] The dance between Fashion, fascism and political activism is nothing new, and nothing old; from George Washington’s silkscreened promotional scarf for his Presidential Bid, to Hugo Boss’s Nazi uniforms and Marc Jacobs ‘anarchy collection’ of 2010. In considering the effectiveness of Act Up’s campaign, it’s imperative to consider how fashion played a role. The sporty youthful look of screenprinted t- shirts, although not exclusively 100% American were born from a legacy of the Fascist dictatorships of the 20th century.
France’s stronghold on Fashion, evidenced today with the proliferation of French style trends and influence of ‘haute couture’ started in 1675 with Louis XIV instatement of the first seamstresses guild. Italian Fascists and German Nazis were sensitive to this control and attempted to wrench influence from the hands of the French. Cesare Meano developed the Commentary and Italian dictionary of Fashion in 1936 (Commentario dizionario Italiano della moda), whose primary function was to “purge the language of fashion of all foreign terminology”.[xix] In Germany this took the form of expungement, where during the occupation of France, it is said that socialite Elisabeth de Rothschild was sent to a concentration camp after refusing to sit next to a Nazi wife at a Fashion Show.[xx] During the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-1944, the inability of US fashion reports to attend Paris Fashion week spurred the first “Press Week” for Fashion stateside in 1943. Organized by Fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert “the idea was to showcase American designers, now proudly designing without French influence, trying new techniques and using North American indigenous fabrics.”[xxi] The effect of this event would be long lasting, and the Press Week would evolve to its current iterations as New York Fashion Week, and help to develop a truly American style.
During the winter of 1973, America sent its best over to Europe to fight a different sort of war. The Battle of Versailles was established to pit the best of the burgeoning American fashion scene (Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows) against the old guard of the French (Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Lacoste, Emanuel Ungaro, and Christian Dior). The show featured performances by Elizabeth Taylor, hot off of her Emmy win, and event is widely regarded as the seismic shift in fashion from formalwear to “sportiness of American style”, as Robin Givhan wrote book in her book about the historic event, The Battle of Versailles.
One of the battle’s highlights were Stephan Burrow’s ethereal undulating dresses (pictured above), the out and proud designer was a sought after clothier for New York’s vibrant disco scene. Adorning the bodies of the glamorous dancing models, a bright fuchsia shines up, a curious ringer for the magnetic shade the Silence=Death designers would choose.
Looking back on these bodies dancing through time, I think of the celebration of openness just starting to blossom for queer culture in the US; a time of cruising, outlandish fashion and the beginnings of representation in popular culture, and the way it mirrors the exceptionally liberal Weimar democracy that preceded the Nazi’s reign of terror. In both moments, who could have foreseen what was to come?
Paulicelli reminds us that it is a “modern idea that the body and the self are not natural givens. Or better: that the cultural and political value of the body and self do not reside solely in their biological nature. Rather, what we call identity is socially constructed, made up according to a set of norms and tastes defined by the intellectual leadership of a given society.”[xxii] Fascist society developed a language, visual and corporeal, to differentiate between privileges and rights, and who they would be bestowed up. AIDS challenged our collective notion of care; whose bodies have the right and the privilege to live? Symbols such as the pink triangle give truth to this power, and remind us to pay attention to the who makes distinctions between rights and privileges, and what gets lost in the space between them.
In the same perplexing way, Act Up problematized notions of how these symbols work for, through and with activists. As a young activist myself, and an adult queer, Act Up gave and continues to give me pause, its actions and legacy prompt more questions than answers: Can movements of activist lineage be groundbreaking and revolutionary if they rely on the language, tools and tricks of oppression? Are symbols truly transformed by re-appropriation, is reclamation truly possible? What happens when we take symbols of oppression and use them for ourselves? Does the harmful history associated with symbols get rewritten in our reclaiming?
As visibility remains a central tactic of queer activism and a much-researched facet of Queer theory, many folks are navigating the waters that lie somewhere between invisibility and visibility, between mainstream understanding and underground life. Now the questions we are posing are about this space: what is lost and what is gained when we are seen? When we choose a group to align ourselves to? Is the queer experience flattened made accessible and digestible to the main stream? Is the fetishizing and aggrandizing of the other as bad and contempt for the weak?[xxiii]
About an hour from my hometown, every year since 1995, strangers and friends assemble before sunrise to unfurl large expanses of light pink vinyl atop Twin Peaks in San Francisco.[xxiv] With coordinated movements, stakes and plenty of coffee, they affix a giant pink triangle to the side of the city’s most visible mountain. Now an institution and citywide holiday, the triangle’s orientation and color are those of the Nazi badge of shame. Measuring over an acre, the scale of the triangle serves as a reminder of the atrocities that happen when we allow ourselves to be divided and let hate reign. No reclamation, just an austere message.
A few summers
go, walking through the streets my current home of New York, I stopped outside
the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, situated in SoHo, a
neighborhood that was once a haven for artists and debaarous nightlife, and is
now an bastion of the hyper consumerism of American fashion, littered with
exclusive stores such as Alexander Wang and Acne. Covering all 20 windows was a
new configuration of the 30 year old equation, Silence=death. The
confrontational message, as impactful as ever, has an updated bi-line which
reads: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist.”[xxv]
Heller, Steven. “How AIDS Was Branded: Looking Back at ACT UP Design.” The Atlantic. January 12, 2012. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/how-aids-was–branded–looking- back-at-act-up-design/251267/.
Umberto, Eco. “Ur Fascism,” New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 11, (June 22, 1995)
Buckley Jr., Willam F. Crucial Steps in Combating the Aids Epidemic; Identify All the Carriers, New York Times Op Ed, March 18, 1986.
The New York Times. Accessed July 25, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20031208monday.html.
Kerr, Theodore. “How Six NYC Activists Changed History With.” Village Voice. June 20, 2017. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/06/20/how-six-nyc-activists- changed-history-with-silence-death/.
“Reclaim.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.merriam- webster.com/dictionary/reclaim.
“Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005261.
Steven Heller, “How AIDS Was Branded: Looking Back at ACT UP Design,” The Atlantic, January 12, 2012, accessed July 25, 2017, https://www.theatantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/how-aids-was–branded–looking- back-at-act-up-design/251267/.
Needle, Chael. “Chael Needle.” AU Magazine. June 13, 2007. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://aumage.org/2017/06/13/silence-death-30th-anniversary/ http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/a11385/versailles-french-american-fashion- show/
new york,” ACT UP new york, , accessed July 28, 2017,
“Pink Triangle,” Pink Triangle San Francisco, accessed
[i] “Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005261.
[ii] Theodore Kerr, “How Six NYC Activists Changed History With,” Village Voice, June 20, 2017, , accessed July 25, 2017,
[iii] Asvero Gravelli, Towards a Fascist Europe. Fascist Thinkers pg 66.
[iv] Theodore Kerr, “How Six NYC Activists Changed History With,” Village Voice, June 20, 2017, , accessed July 25, 2017, https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/06/20/how-six-nyc-activists-changed-history-with-silence-death/.
[v] Asvero Gravelli, Towards a Fascist Europe. Fascist Thinkers pg 66.
[vi] The Decay of German Democracy by Franz L Neumann
[vii] Umberto, Eco. “Ur Fascism,” New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 11, (June 22, 1995)
[viii] Benito Mussolini, Fascism as the Creator of the Third Italian Civilzation, Fascist Thinkers.
[ix] Learn Fight Love Published on Sep 15, 2012 , the Digital Magazine for How to Survive a Plague
[xi] Fascist Thinkers, pg 53. Giovanni Gentile Fascism as a Total Conception
[xii] whose story is closely followed in the seminal documentary How to Survive a Plague.
[xiv] Theodore Kerr, “How Six NYC Activists Changed History With,” Village Voice, June 20, 2017, , accessed July 25, 2017, https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/06/20/how-six-nyc-activists-changed-history-with-silence-death/.
[xv] Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), xvi.
[xvi] Umberto, Eco. “Ur Fascism,” New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 11, (June 22, 1995)
[xvii] The New York Times, , accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20031208monday.html.
[xviii] Paulicelli, Eugenia. Fashion Under Fascism
[xix] Ibid, 24.
[xxii] Paulicelli, Eugenia. Fashion Under Fascism, 29.
[xxiii] Umberto, Eco. “Ur Fascism,” New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 11, (June 22, 1995)
[xxv] Chael Needle, “Chael Needle,” AU Magazine, June 13, 2017, , accessed July 25, 2017, https://aumag.org/2017/06/13/silence- death-30th-anniversary/.