THE LOUD LEGACY OF SILENCE=DEATH

Decades after its formation, the Silence=Death collective continues to impact contemporary queer voices.

In 1986, a group of six friends (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (1952–1990), Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione and Jorge Soccarás) formed the Silence=Death collective. Together they designed a stark graphic over a period of nine months: a pink triangle (a reappropriated symbol originally assigned by the Nazi regime to queer prisoners) on a solid black backdrop with "Silence=Death" written boldly across the bottom.

A response to both Audre Lorde's pioneering writing and the Reagan administration's total inaction during the early days of the health crisis, the phrase Silence=Death has endured as shorthand for queer resistance decades after its inception. New generations of artists and organizers have taken up its call to action, each with their own interpretation of the powerful declaration.

In conjunction with David Zwirner's More Life exhibition marking 40 years since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, Platform is selling the first-ever fine art print of the collective's original poster, with proceeds benefiting Visual AIDS. We spoke with four leaders in contemporary queer culture to learn what Silence=Death means to them, how the work of the original collective serves as a source of inspiration and which causes today require the collective's form of confrontational activism.

WRITER, MUSICIAN, FILMMAKER & PERFORMANCE ARTIST

BRONTEZ PURNELL

Brontez Purnell; Melissa Dale Neal
Platform

What does Silence=Death mean to you?

Brontez

I always intuited it as a direct quote of the Audre Lourde quote, "Your silence will not protect you," but even as I write it, I know Lorde may have taken that quote from someone else. The ethos in this all is eternal. I think some form of this statement has been echoed by every person whose throat has been against the sword throughout history. I want to say I first heard this quote in some form by a famous intellectual who was a Holocaust survivor, but the name of that person escapes me. 

Platform

How have you been inspired by the Silence=Death collective and the enduring legacy of early AIDS activists? 

Brontez

I am an HIV positive man in the year 2021 who does not like the immediate generation before me and does not have the same sense of death around my diagnosis. As the first generation of queers who these people fought and prayed for, I think the phrase that comes to mind when thinking about them is "eternal gratitude" more so than "inspiration." 

Platform

What causes today do you think are in need of the kind of creative, confrontational activism demonstrated by the Silence=Death Collective, ACT UP and others in the early fight against AIDS?

Brontez

This question is unanswerable as even a simple five-minute scroll on social media shows that there are too many of us still living an existence with a knife at our throat. "We" are the only ones who are going to save us. 

MODEL & PHOTOGRAPHER

RICHIE SHAZAM

Richie Shazam
Platform

What does Silence=Death mean to you?

Richie

For me, Silence=Death is a historical call to action that is not only political but also about an awakening of one's spirit. It is about the need to be of service in any way you possibly can, whether that's raiseing awareness, raising money or offering physical support. It is a call to action that says using our voice and whatever resources we have is the most essential thing we can do. It is the idea that if we see harm being done to our community, we must do something about it. 

Platform

How have you been inspired by the Silence=Death collective and the enduring legacy of early AIDS activists?

Richie

Our queer ancestors and predecessors give me so much hope and strength. A large part of my advocacy is always being authentically myself in everything I do. By doing this, I hope to pay homage to those who came before and honor their work and sacrifice. The Silence=Death collective used artistic means to bring people together while also raising awareness. I hope to continue this tradition of an open door policy, reciprocity and mutual support. 

Platform

What causes today do you think are in need of the kind of creative, confrontational activism demonstrated by the Silence=Death collective, ACT UP, and the others in the early fight against AIDS?

Richie

Right now, there is a global call to action to support our queer brothers and sisters who are living in places that actively legislate against us expressing our identities. Another important call to action is to #ProtectTransYouth as over 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year that make it very difficult for us to be who we are.

It's crazy for me to think of the families, the parents and the brothers and the sisters of our trans and gender nonconforming siblings who have to endure the vilification and legal ramifications – including possible jail time – all because they are trying to do right by their family members. 

There are so many causes that need our attention visually, logistically, financially and verbally. In my experience, a huge component of that is using social media, which can be such a powerhouse of providing information, first-hand accounts and experiences. Social media is a new iteration of how Silence=Death is able to manifest – it is a place where we can articulate, have conversations and unite both digitally and physically. 

WRITER & COMMUNITY ORGANIZER

ADAM ELI

Adam Eli; Ryan McGinley
Platform

What does Silence=Death mean to you?

Adam

This graphic served as one of my earliest entry points into queer history. The pink triangle was originally used by the Nazis to mark “sexually deviant prisoners,” many of whom were gay men. In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reappropriated by queer activists and then flipped over by Avram Finkelstein and used in this image. As a queer Jew, I saw both aspects of my identity reflected back to me. 

Earlier this week, I spoke to Sarah Schulman, author of Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, and she explained how the connection was deeper than I had initially realized saying, “Jews were very overrepresented in leadership in gay liberation and in feminism, because we had been trained in that post-Holocaust generation with some kind of social justice orientation, and sense of responsibility, but our own community didn’t want us. Our families were so homophobic, and the Jewish community had no place for us. That [Jewish] leadership got transferred to the gay movement. That’s why you have [leaders] like Marty Duberman, Adrienne Rich, Lillian Faderman and Larry Kramer. And on and on and on. The Holocaust was a central metaphor in the lives of that generation, and in the early AIDS days, it was very present. As younger people got involved, that changed.”

Platform

How have you been inspired by the Silence=Death collective and the enduring legacy of early AIDS activists? 

Adam

I always say that the best part of being a queer activist is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As such, it is impossible to properly articulate the impact of the Silence=Death collective and the legacy of early AIDS activists on my generation. It is like asking what role a foundation plays in supporting a house. 

As it pertains to this specific image and print, I’d say the lesson is that a key tool of activism and community organizing is to articulate your message in a clear and easily accessible way. The Silence=Death collective teaches us that this articulation can be done with words and images. The image of the pink triangle on a black background has become a universal symbol of the fight against AIDS and systemic oppression. The phrase Silence=Death identifies in a succinct and digestible way the reason why people took it upon themselves, instead of waiting for the powers that be, to unite in anger and commit to direct action. 

In some ways, the phrase “Silence=Death” can be seen as a precursor to the hashtag. They both relay information quickly, provide an access point into a greater cause and are meant to be widely shared. It does not feel like a far leap from “Silence=Death” to #ProtectTransYouth, #EndIntersexSurgery, #NoTerfsAtPride, #OrlandoStrong and more. 

WRITER, DIRECTOR, EDUCATOR, & MANAGING DIRECTOR FOR ADVOCACY & ORGANIZING AT PREP4ALL

KENYON FARROW

Kenyon Farrow
Platform

What does Silence=Death mean to you?

Kenyon

I’ve always thought that the Silence=Death phrase had a two-fold meaning. For LGBTQ people, it was a clarion call for folks to come out of the closet. The silence of living without naming the truth of one’s romantic and sexual life, or one’s gender expression, would mean the death of your potential individually, but also the death of the possibility of liberation and community. Similarly, it also meant that people living with HIV needed to speak out, come out about their status and to get involved in the organizing and activist work to save lives.

Platform

How have you been inspired by the Silence=Death collective and the enduring legacy of early AIDS activists? 

Kenyon

I was about 12 years old and living in a public housing project in Cleveland, Ohio when the Silence=Death collective was founded. It was the MTV era and my mother was very politically engaged. For me, that now iconic graphic represented what I could see as a growing political force of LGBT folks fighting for the rights of LGBTQ people and people with AIDS (in the parlance of the day). I remember seeing that symbol on MTV. I remember seeing it in Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied when I was about 15 when it aired on PBS. Seeing it in that film helped me specifically relate to it as a symbol that also spoke to Black gay men as I was beginning to understand my own sexuality. Tongues Untied's central thesis is also Silence=Death, and it helped provide me with a sense that it was my responsibility to live my truth and fight for justice.

Platform

What causes today do you think are in need of the kind of creative, confrontational activism demonstrated by the Silence=Death Collective, ACT UP and others in the early fight against AIDS?

Kenyon

I think that in order to really end the HIV epidemic, we need Medicare for all. It alarms me that neither the LGBT movement nor the HIV movement has invested resources in making this a primary site of struggle. That would mean so much to so many of us and would literally reverse the HIV epidemic that still disproportionately impacts LGBTQ folks.  I think we are going to need mass organizing, militant activism, civil disobedience, and smart/sexy/incisive visual culture to inspire us to fight for an end to corporatized health care where profit is the main motive. To me, this is one of the key areas of work that is imperative to transforming the nation.