Skip Navigation Bar



In 1981, a new disease appeared in the United States. As it spread, fear and confusion pervaded the country. The infectious “rare cancer” bewildered researchers and bred suspicion, but the worry was not the same for everyone. Many feared contact with those who were ill. Others, particularly but not exclusively gay men, feared for their lives and the lives of loved ones.

Reactions to the disease, soon named AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), were as varied as the uncertainties about it. Early responders cared for the sick, fought homophobia, and promoted new practices to keep people healthy. Scientists and public health officials struggled to understand the disease and how it spread. Politicians remained largely silent until the epidemic became too big to ignore. Activists demanded that people with AIDS be part of the solution.

The title Surviving and Thriving comes from a book written in 1987 by and for people with AIDS that insisted people could live with AIDS, not just die from it. This exhibition presents their stories alongside those of others involved in the national AIDS crisis. Listen to them and consider the ever-changing relationship between science and society.

  • Group of 11 men, some of them holding a banner with white lettering that reads “Fighting for our Lives.”

    People with AIDS group, Denver, 1983

    Courtesy © John Schoenwalter

    First carried at candlelight vigils in San Francisco to call attention to the experiences of people with AIDS, this banner made its way to Denver for the Fifth National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference. Once in Colorado, the men pictured wrote the Denver Principles, a document that fundamentally shifted the debate about how to treat people with AIDS. Together, the sign and the manifesto animated the movement led by people with AIDS.

    Want to read the Denver Principles? (PDF | Transcription)

  • Aerial view of a New York City street completely filled with a crowd of several thousand people

    Protest over Food and Drug Administration ban on Haitian blood donations, Brooklyn, New York, April 20th, 1990

    Courtesy AP/Gerald Herbert

    In the early 1980s, particular types of people were blamed for the spread of AIDS. The theory of the 4 H’s—that AIDS was restricted to homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, and heroin users—inaccurately assumed that identity, not behavior, put people at risk.