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The New-York Historical Society presents the exhibition AIDS in New York: The First Five Years
Mayor Edward I. Koch at a Press Conference to Announce the City’s Establishment of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns, Designed to Help in the Fight Against AIDS, 1983. Courtesy of the Municipal Archives, New York City.

NEW YORK, NY.- The early history of the AIDS epidemic in New York City—from the first rumors in 1981 of a “gay plague” through the ensuing period of intense activism, clinical research, and political struggle—is the subject of a major new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years, on view from June 7 through September 15, 2013.

With a wealth of materials drawn from New-York Historical’s archives as well as the archives of the New York Public Library, New York University, and the National Archive of LGBT History, the exhibition uses artifacts including clinicians’ notes, journal entries, diaries, letters, audio and video clips, posters, photographs, pamphlets, and newspapers to revisit the impact of the epidemic on personal lives and public culture in New York City and the nation.

“For those who lost partners, children, siblings, parents, and friends, the memory of the fear and mystery that pervaded New York at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic remains vivid,” said curator Jean S. Ashton. “For many people today, though, these years are now a little-understood and nearly forgotten historical period. Yet the trajectory of HIV/AIDS changed paradigms in medicine, society, politics, and culture in ways that are still being felt, and the disease remains with us, affecting some 100,000 New Yorkers and more than one million Americans today. This exhibition explores a history that we continue to live.”

The exhibition begins by recalling life in New York in the pre-AIDS period, especially the exhilarating sense of artistic and sexual freedom that followed the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which establishes the social and political context for the earliest reports from medical professionals of the physical decline and deaths of previously healthy young people afflicted with diseases usually found only in the aged. This section features the personal stories of the first AIDS patients and their caretakers and give voice to the doctors who cared for these patients. Because more than 80 percent of those infected were homosexual males, rumors of a “gay plague” circulated. Anchor objects in this area of the exhibition include a copy of the national medical bulletin Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report that first mentioned the disease, the July 3, 1981 New York Times article that was the first national media story, and a variety of reports published in the gay press.

As cases of this new epidemic were discovered outside the gay community, in heroin drug injectors, babies, and people who had had blood transfusions, the challenges posed to researchers and those caring for the sick intensified. Racing at once to discover the possible cause or causes of the disease in order to contain its spread and to alleviate the social and political impact of the growing rate of infection and death, scientists, social workers, and members of the affected populations and their friends struggled together to raise funds and influence research priorities. By the middle of 1983, responses from the community, including increasingly militant victims of the disease, began to take shape to demand support for social services and raise new monies for research. In New York, even more than elsewhere, AIDS was a political issue, pitting the Mayor against a vocal constituency that demanded action.

The second section of the exhibition explores the impediments that prevented any quick solution to the growing problem. An epidemic of fear swept the city, fueled by rumors and stoked by exploitative news coverage, as funeral directors refused to embalm the bodies of AIDS victims, parents protested the admission of AIDS victims to public schools, and some hospitals refused to admit people suffering from the disease. It soon became clear that the spread of AIDS resulted from the exchange of bodily fluids, primarily blood and semen, and that it could not result from casual contact. Yet the general panic was slow to subside. “Safe sex” recommendations, restrictions on blood donations, and the closing of bathhouses appeared to threaten the social and cultural identity that members of the gay community had spent the previous decade trying to assert. This section of the exhibition uses excerpts from contemporary news broadcasts and interviews to establish the climate of anger and distrust that would in later years be transformed into activism, as well as early responses by medical ethicists, civil liberties lawyers, and religious organizations that worked to establish networks of support.

The third and final section traces both the progress of research on the causes of the epidemic, the development of AIDS philanthropy, and the growth of the anger and mistrust that would explode after the founding of ACT UP in 1987. On display in this section are slides and documents from the 1984 Park City Utah conference where Jean-Claude Chermann, a virologist from the Nobel-Prize winning team at the Pasteur Institute in Paris electrified the room by presenting evidence announcing the discovery of the retrovirus which would ultimately be identified as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and would make possible the development of the first commercial test kit for the presence of the virus (also on display). The founding of amfAR and other philanthropic organizations, and the strengthened role of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, also documented here, would enable the successful public outreach of the following decades. The gallery focuses on the landmark New York production of Larry Kramer’s powerful call to action, The Normal Heart, and ends with the highly publicized illness and death of movie star Rock Hudson in October, 1985.

Also included in the exhibition is a panel from the AIDS quilt memorializing Roger Gail Lyon, an early victim of the epidemic whose plea that he not die of “red tape” articulated the frustration of the AIDS community.

The years documented in AIDS in New York: The First Five Years preceded the founding of ACT UP, whose commitment to activism and dramatic achievements will be illustrated in an exhibition at the New York Public Library entitled "Why We Fight: AIDS Activism and American Culture" running October 4, 2013-April 6, 2014.

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