How artistic activism propelled the fight against Queer prejudice

Art is a powerful tool in social mobilization

Image supplied by: Graphic by Amna Rafiq
Visual aids in the 1970s questioned how the system treats the LGBTQ+ community.

Political and creative realms have long overlapped. 

From propagandic poster art to films that glorifying military, we’ve seen time and time again how art is used to shape social perception. Social activist movements have historically coincided with artistic expressions of the implications of bigotry. 

From the 1960s to late 1980s, the Western world experienced an upsurge in queer creativity and beauty against the heteronormativity and homophobia of the time. 

The Gay Liberation Movement and the AIDS Activism movement were propelled by visuals that directly called on the negligence of politicians at the time. The trials and tribulations of queer people were represented by artists advocating for a society free from ignorance and hate, or at least one not governed by a non-inclusive heteronormative agenda. 

Gran Fury, a collective formed during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s, used historical symbols to depict the persisting persecution of the LGBTQ+ community by the government. The group reclaimed the upside-down pink triangle once used to identify queer people during the holocaust by turning it right-side-up with an accompanying message: “Silence = Death.”

This powerful imagery served as an uncomfortable callback to a horrific historical event, linking the past to the then-present. It helped challenge ignorant claims that AIDS was only a disease only affecting queer people and therefore unworthy of care. 

Gillbert Baker, a prominent artist and activist in the 1970s, sought to remake a symbol for LGBTQ+ folk that invoked celebration and positivity for the future rather than a representation of a dark chapter in queer history. 

The Rainbow Flag imagery commonly associated with the LGBTQ+ community was initially inspired by the powerful symbols of identity and freedom in national flags as queer people defied heteronormativity. Baker felt it provided rioters and protesters on the front lines of the Gay Liberation Movement with a necessary identifier of liberation, hope, and prosperity. 

The late Keith Haring, the connoisseur of the graffiti pop art, created many bright calls to action to rid the ignorance and fear of AIDS and encourage the messaging of love is love. His legacy lives on and is popularized by continued allegiance to his talents. 

The “Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do” bus poster from ACT UP, another AIDS activism organization, is another powerful statement. 

Featuring a lesbian, gay, and straight couple, the poster aimed to show how corporate greed, government inaction, and public indifference exacerbated the AIDS crisis. The inclusion of a straight couple alongside the queer ones unifies all those in relationships to mobilize against this disease that does not care what your sexual orientation is. 

As we now see Fortune 500 companies slapping rainbows on their logos in honor of Pride month, we must be cognizant of who this serves and how it helps them profit. 

Pride is a time for celebration and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, not one to be capitalized upon in the name of faux-solidarity in hopes of increasing sales. 

When observing Pride and enjoying the celebration from the community, it is important to remember how we got to where we are today. Our freedoms are directly built on the back of artists and activists using their creative skills as calls to action. 

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