On November 28, American University’s American Studies Program and Department of History sponsored a panel that focused on the pivotal role played by DC’s queer activist community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s.
The panel was titled Activism & the AIDS Crisis, and it explored the grassroots politics of OUT! DC (Oppression Under Target), which fought for better sex education, healthcare, and support for HIV+ positive individuals. OUT! (Oppression Under Target), a group of DC lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men, engaged in nonviolent direct action and street theater to demand justice for AIDS patients and advocate for safer sex and LGBTQ rights. At the time, Washington, DC, had one the highest HIV infection rates in the nation and was immersed in a public health crisis. But organizations such as OUT! DC drew together individuals determined to speak out and act.
The panel began with a reading by Amelie Zurn, co-founder of OUT! In her “love letter” to her organization, Zurn painted a moving picture of her affinity group of radical queers who marched, picketed, and protested their way across DC. They did everything they could to inform people of safer sex practices. They handed out free condoms, used guerilla-style tactics to post safer sex ads on the metro (ads initially refused by the WMATA board), and lobbied to put an end to anti-sodomy laws. Eventually their campaign against WMATA restrictions succeeded, and advertisements were placed to inform the public about safer sex. At a time when “Silence=Death,” Zurn and OUT! DC were undoubtedly some of the people shouting the loudest.
After Zurn spoke, public history graduate student Hannah Byrne explained why she set out to study the history of DC AIDS activism while she was interning at Whitman-Walker, a DC-based community health center with a specialty in HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ healthcare. Byrne was tasked with interviewing several individuals for Whitman-Walker’s 40th anniversary, and one of the people that Byrne interviewed was Zurn. Over the course of their interviews, Zurn showed Byrne her OUT! memorabilia, including t-shirts, posters, and fliers. This encounter sparked Byrne’s interest in archiving objects and documents related to AIDS activism and learning more about the movement. Since then, Zurn and Byrne have been working together to preserve these items that help to tell an overlooked history.
The final speaker was Tanja Aho, a professorial lecturer in American studies. One of Aho’s primary research interests is the ethical reclamation of oral and marginalized histories that are frequently deemed unworthy of preservation. Aho emphasized the importance of community building, and explained that preserving, exploring, and celebrating untold stories such as OUT! can create solidarity and connections across difference. Mary Ellen Curtin, director of American studies at AU, chaired the discussion.
The Critical Race, Gender & Culture Collaborative (CRGC), the AU Library, and Amelie Zurn are currently in talks to house the papers and artifacts from OUT! DC, including t-shirts, pamphlets, posters, and organizing documents in the AU Library archives. This collection will create an institutional memory of the importance of grassroots organizing for educating the public and pushing for change.
Dakoury Godo-Solo, an American University sophomore majoring in environmental science, shares his thoughts on a recent panel, Activism & the AIDS Crisis.