Andy Chen | Essays

Not Queer, But Human

Cover of Book
Silence = Death from ACT UP

In the last several years, the LGBT movement has made significant strides: same-sex marriage is now legal in five states and the District of Columbia. And earlier this month, Federal Judge Virginia Phillips issued an injunction banning the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that has prevented gays from serving openly in the military.

Despite these advances, homosexuality is still portrayed as something alien or pathological to mainstream sexuality. This “otherness” is the basis on which discriminatory attitudes are built and sustained and where designers play a significant role in engaging the struggle for LGBT rights.

The stigma surrounding LGBT status is intricately tied to its pathologized history: it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Nevertheless, the movement for LGBT rights has remained deeply connected to the history of the AIDS epidemic. Originally referred to as GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency) or the “gay plague,” AIDS was thought to be transmitted exclusively through homosexual contact and was characterized as punishment for sexual promiscuity. [1][2] This “serves them right” mentality led to the design of slogans like “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” (a play on the bug spray tagline “RAID Kills Bugs Dead”) and “AIDS Cures Fags.”

Cover of Book
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by Jeff Sheng

Activists faced a daunting task: they had to dispel homophobic misperceptions surrounding AIDS as a “gay disease” while coping with the reality that the epidemic seemed to disproportionally affect men who had sex with men. [3] The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) decided to confront this challenge head-on and invented the tagline “SILENCE = DEATH” set in stark white type on a solid black background. They cleverly adopted the pink triangle — a downward-pointing version once used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals in the concentration camps — and turned it upright, taking a symbol of shame and discrimination and reclaiming it to represent the fight for survival.

In a single breath, the “SILENCE = DEATH” campaign enjoined LGBT people to speak out about their sexuality and release themselves from the shame of getting tested for HIV. By registering mainstream anxieties about the connection between “gay” and “plague,” ACT UP used graphic design to attack stigma by exposing it. According to sociologist Joshua Gamson, this mentality galvanized activists into staging raucous, theatrical kiss-ins that usurped public spaces — like baseball games and cocktail parties — commonly considered the domain of middle America: “ACT UP here seizes control of symbols that traditionally exclude gay people or render them invisible and take them over, endowing them with messages about AIDS; they reclaim them, as they do the pink triangle and make them mean differently. In doing so, they attempt to expose the system of domination from which they reclaim meanings and implicate the entire system in the spread of AIDS.” [4] ACT UP’s campaign put the onus on LGBT people to speak out fiercely and engage with participatory democracy as a matter of life and death, effectively linking individual accountability with social activism in the battle against disease.

Cover of Book
ACT UP Archival Photo

In recent years, much of the urgency surrounding HIV/AIDS activism has waned. Anti-retroviral therapies have been successful at confronting the virus, and as a result, HIV is no longer regarded as the death sentence it once was. The prevailing view today is that protection against sexually-transmitted infections is a matter of how you have sex and not whom you have it with.

This relaxing of attitudes, however, is not uncomplicated. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who self-identify as “men who have sex with men” (MSM) continue to be the cohort most severely affected by HIV, accounting for more than half of all new infections in the United States.[5]  While the incidence of HIV has declined among the general population since the 1990’s, the rate of new infection has steadily increased in the MSM population, especially among the youngest age group (13-29). The CDC posits that the MSM population is particularly at risk because of a lack of knowledge about HIV issues, complacency about risk and fear of social discrimination. Especially among the younger population, who did not experience the illness and death indicative of the early AIDS epidemic, HIV is not a serious reality. Younger gay men are less likely to speak openly about their HIV status and more likely to make false assumptions about their partners’ status. Many participate in “serosorting,” or having sex with people they believe to be of the same HIV status.

For my generation, the “SILENCE = DEATH” design is relatively meaningless. On a superficial level, we simply don’t believe that AIDS will kill us or that our proclivity for disease is affected by our degree of “out-ness.” On a deeper level, a campaign couched in the bifurcated language of outrage, on the one hand — and the fear of death, on the other — has less significance for younger LGBT people. Though it is arguably easier to come out than it ever has been, those who are still uncomfortable committing to the “gay” label are unlikely to align themselves with the proposition that their silence is inherently self-destructive. Strangely enough, the very slogans and symbols that once empowered a generation of activists have now become effete and even self-stigmatizing.

Cover of Book
Still from Fall From Grace by K. Ryan Jones

In part, this has to do with the disease-prevention premise of slogans like “SILENCE = DEATH” or “Don’t Die of Ignorance.” While powerful at the time they were produced, designs aimed at using fear and shame to compel at-risk audiences to be tested for HIV/AIDS now only redouble stigma. Many LGBT people are already afraid of playing into society’s beliefs about the “unnaturalness” of their sexual orientation and would sooner silence themselves than admit to participation in risk behaviors.

To successfully address these issues, we should not merely aim to prevent disease; we should strive to promote health — that is, the right to a fulfilling, satisfying life free of stigma and shame. The visual language we use to confront HIV/AIDS should empower people to choose lives that are consistent with their own ideals and not merely lecture them to use condoms. On a broader level, this approach invites people to participate in defining what health is on their own terms, as opposed to forcing them to restrict that understanding to the terror and dread of disease.

This is not to say, however, that we should fail to register the sense of loss that accompanies the onset of HIV. Sunny, optimistic campaigns like LIVESTRONG might succeed in raising money for cancer research, but they often fail to provoke real awareness for the struggles that survivors, their families and the bereaved face on a daily basis. The branding approach has a tendency to reduce the complexities of disease to a colorful fashion accessory, emotionally detaching audiences from the stakes of inaction. Particularly with a disease so complexly intertwined with issues of sexual orientation, a wristband or ribbon doesn’t cut it.

Instead, we need to recognize the specific challenges the LGBT population faces, while couching those challenges in a broader, empathic narrative about the universal desire for health. As an example, our designs could tell the stories of young LGBT people who are living with HIV — living on their own terms and not dying on somebody else’s. Instead of emphasizing the link between silence and death, we should draw a connection between openness and life. Being tested for HIV and asking about HIV status before sex should be regarded as an essential part of this openness.

In addition, we need to provide a basis from which non-LGBT people can relate to these stories by making the case that every person living with HIV/AIDS — gay or not — is somebody’s son or daughter and deserves an equal measure of respect and dignity. Broadly speaking, we need to portray LGBT people as part of the collective human tapestry rather than external to it. We need to put a stop to the “us against them” mentality that has typified the thinking behind the previous generation’s design solutions: instead of trying to reclaim words like “queer” in attempts at resistance, we need to get mainstream society to see LGBT people as “human.” Instead of staging kiss-ins intended to elicit feelings of disgust among the heteronormative mainstream, we should strive to create a condition where two men kissing in public is just as acceptable as a man and woman kissing. Social dissent is not more powerful simply because it aims to antagonize.

Cover of Book
Vigil for Matthew Shepard. Photo by Reuters

To be clear, I am not arguing that we should diminish the individual ways in which LGBT people express their sexuality or abandon the impulse to speak out against discrimination and homophobia. Matthew Shepard was tortured, beaten, and hung on a fence to die because he was gay; it is our responsibility to keep his story alive. But in a world where the “unnaturalness” of the LGBT population is still used as an excuse to withhold otherwise inalienable rights, we can and need to do better.

Rather than pitting LGBT rights against mainstream values, we need to celebrate the individuality of LGBT people within the context of the rest of the population. Even as we focus on individual cases of intolerance to illustrate specific experiences with homophobia, we need to connect the dots and show how discrimination damages our values as a society. Otherwise, our laws might very well change, but ignorance and bigotry will remain.

A graduate of Princeton University, Andy Chen recently completed a Fulbright Scholarship at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre in London, where he researched sexual health outreach to older adults. He is currently a graduate student in Graphic Design at RISD.


1. Helene Joffe, “Social representations of AIDS: towards encompassing issues of power.” Papers on social representations, 4.1 (1995): 1-2.

2. Peter Conrad, “The Social Meaning of AIDS,” in Ray C. Rist, Policy Issues for the 1990’s, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 78-79.

3. Joshua Gamson, “Silence, Death, and the Invisible Enemy: AIDS Activism and Social Movement ‘Newness’,” in Michael Burawoy et. al., Ethnography Unbound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 39-41.

4. Gamson, 46.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 2010). “HIV and AIDS among Gay and Bisexual Men.” Available from http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/FastFacts-MSM-FINAL508COMP.pdf

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [13]

Great, great article Andy! Thank you
Charles M. Lloyd / LGBT VOICE

This was a great read.

Along the topic, a good friend of mine has been working on a documentary closely capturing the meshing of this topic with the religious community. It's been a fascinating project to be loosely involved with and has brought a lot of clarity to my perspective on these issues.

Here's a link if anyones interested in learning more:



Kyle Fletcher

As much propaganda as anything on FOX news. Too bad.

Well, if you’re urging us to put the phase of reclaiming “queer” behind us, you’re going to have to stop calling us “LGBT.” Seems like a fair trade. There is no one who has ever spontaneously called himself (especially) or herself “LGBT.”
Joe Clark

Dear Jesus,
This was a boring article. I did not finish it, who cares about gay people? I mean that in a good way. Honestly if people just stopped freaking out then whatever is whatever. The majority of stereotyping comes from LGTB's themselves, creating a culture where you place yourself in a category like being gay. It's just whatever, no big deal. Stop rallying and having gay pride days and people would stop caring. You act like everyone should be gay. When I have my straight pride week don't come "out" bringing your signs and lawyers.

Ian, the fact of the matter is, a lot of people are extremely obsessed with us gay folks in a very negative way and are completely bent on taking away our rights, freedoms and deny us respect and dignity. This is not our fault, people just have dirty, evil minds. If it were not for Gay Pride, Iceland, my home country, would not have propelled from a place where everyone was mostly apathetic but somewhat disgusted by gay people to a place where we have complete equality, both legally and socially, in just a decade. I watched this transformation myself. Iceland is a country of only 300.000 people and 80.000 people show up for Reykjavík Gay Pride every year. Needless to say, most of these people are not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They are straight people with their kids, moms, dads, grannys and granddads and so forth. It's a celebration of people's diversity and of Iceland's respectful atmosphere. I want this for the rest of the world—I want this for New York, where I live right now—and it's not gonna happen by being silent and take whatever bitchin' comes our way. Sorry, it just doesn't work like that.
Kári Emil Helgason

I understand what you are saying here, but this is hands down one of the most poorly written articles I have ever read on Design Observer, it's dismissive of an important part of gay history, it's revisionist and filled with rhetoric. To begin, five nationwide suicides by gay teenagers during the month of September is hardly what I would call a stride, and those strides you write about; same-sex marriage, DADT are not legally binding or recognized nationally. So far, gay, queer or transgendered people in the U.S. do not have the same civil rights as those who self identify as straight. Sorry, but we have not come a long way, these are still not "good times".

But let me address the situation at hand and what you missed in your article. The Silence that appears in the Silence=Death symbol is the "closet", the gay closet. You simply cannot ignore the fact that the The Silence = Death design was a direct response to the U.S. Government, and specifically the Reagan Administration's response to the AIDS crisis. As far back as 1981 the Reagan administration knew a national health crisis was developing, by 1983 1,025 AIDS cases were reported, and at least 394 had died, by 1984, 6,000 Americans died and the response of President Reagan was silence, and indifference, oh wait, his communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men." It wasn't until 1987, at the end of Reagan's second term did he even mention the word AIDS, by then 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. This was the "real" silence, the real shame.

For the first time in history it was more dangerous to be silent and in the closet then out of it, it was an impossible time to remain silent when hundreds and thousands of people were dying of a disease that people knew very little about, and the greatest, most powerful country, with the best scientists in the world remained silent. Even the surgeon general of the time was denied access to information in the administration because AIDS was a low priority, having then being thought of as a "gay disease".

It's easy for younger people, or those who are "coming out" to be dismissive of gay history, the importance of such a symbol and the work of ACT-UP, anti-retroviral therapies "manage" the disease therefore "the younger generation" don't have to deal with seeing their friends die off from AIDS. Yet this is quite ignorant if you look at the statistics, 40 million people are living with HIV worldwide, and 3 million die of AIDS each year, and I bet that's a conservative stab at a number.

You're wrong, Silence = Death was not about "fear and shame to compel at-risk audiences to be tested for HIV/AIDS" it was about survival, if it was trying to shame anyone it was the government into legislation, medical research, and treatment at a time when the only AIDS drug available cost a patient $10,000 per year.

What you're suggesting is dangerous, you're suggesting that gay people go back in the closet, to be nice, and acceptable to not make any waves, to not be such a big contrast to the norms of society, to be "less gay". It wasn't gay people that created a 'us against them" mentality or any of the repression for that matter, and why are behaviors like kissing in public deemed atagonistic? Sure, it's still dangerous to be openly gay and out in some parts of the U.S., and I understand why some are still in the closet, yet we also understand that is even more dangerous to be silent.
james alex


First of all, I do think we have to recognize that SOME progress has been made over the last two decades, but I agree with you that this progress cannot be equated with anything close to equality.

I don't at all dismiss the experience of the closet. In fact, I very much address it when I argue that younger MSM are less likely to come out to their partners about their HIV status than their older counterparts. People are STILL so afraid of being labeled as unnatural that they are willing to risk their health to avoid stigma. I think that this variation of closetedness is no less pernicious than in the past, and that the suicides we are seeing are a direct result of it. I nowhere suggest that people should somehow go back into the closet. In fact, I argue precisely the opposite point -- that designers should visualize and promote an ethic of openness within the context of recognizing the hate and discrimination that is still pervades LGBT experience.

Also, I specifically write that -- at the time of the creation of SILENCE = DEATH -- coming out of the closet was very much a matter of "life and death." I think the argument you are making about Reagan is precisely the point: people were dying in huge numbers, and the administration did nothing. In no way do I denigrate the work of ACT UP or claim that it wasn't vital at the time.

Where I disagree with you is that the social context hasn't changed and that the visual language we use to communicate about these issues should stay the same. I think your question is well-taken: why is kissing in public still deemed antagonistic? I think we need to consider whether the anger that is evident in your comment is the most productive emotion when it comes to fighting for LGBT rights, or if it instead a hindrance to building empathy. It is dangerous to be silent. It is tragic to be shouting and not heard.
Andy Chen

forget all this yapping, damn it. where's the cure for HIV AIDS, all this talking over the last two and a half decades is just bollocks

"While powerful at the time they were produced, designs aimed at using fear and shame to compel at-risk audiences to be tested for HIV/AIDS now only redouble stigma."

No concept of what gay life was like 20 years ago. Your lack of historical depth is pissing me off.

"We need to put a stop to the “us against them” mentality that has typified the thinking behind the previous generation’s design solutions"

Where are you seeing this? Don't worry, man. It's done. We're all happily assimilationist and dreaming of marriage now.
Peter A Jacobson

"For my generation, the “SILENCE = DEATH” design is relatively meaningless. On a superficial level, we simply don’t believe that AIDS will kill us or that our proclivity for disease is affected by our degree of “out-ness.”

Grrrrr. This is a touch before my time as well, but it makes me sad to think gay people in their 20s don't know or don't care. I know younger are not as phased by AIDS... but you're also missing what 'silence = death' even means. It wasn't just about being 'out' it was also a frickin CALL TO ACTION. Maybe you're too busy on Facebook and blogging about yourself to know what that is. I know that statement makes me sound old, but yeah. Really.
Peter A Jacobson

Great article. Thanks for your insight and effort at linking visual communication and messaging with true, effective human communication. Dare I call it transformative communication? 

In 1991, my research toward my MFA led me down related pathways. I was writing and designing about the role of a designer in a movement of social change. Specifically, I focused on AIDS activist design, and began to untangle the complex web of interrelated roles played by designers. When is it appropriate or necessary to transgress, in service of a message? Can and should designers express their own identities, through their practices? What is activist design, and why is it important?  

Your article reminded me, in a powerful way, of the true power of design, and the responsible exercise of that power. Thanks. 
Jimmy Moss

Excellent article! For more arguments against the "reclamation" of "queer" and other hateful slurs, see my blog, Ignorance Is Plentiful . . .


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