HIV & AIDS in the shadows: Mementos of an epidemic

By Jen Christensen

Updated 4:17 PM ET, Mon May 2, 2016
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A special collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University library in Atlanta collected papers and artifacts from the height of the AIDS epidemic. This T-shirt celebrates the city's gay pride parade. It took courage to march in Atlanta's gay pride parades in the 1980s. There were no civil rights protections, but still, attendance tripled, and the community became more visible as it came together to fight stigma and fear that came with the AIDS epidemic. In 1982, the city issued the first official proclamation to honor the festival, but Mayor Andrew Young, already a civil rights icon, would not sign it, according to Atlanta Pride. Two years later, Young showed his support for the community with a proclamation of "Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Day." Mark Hill for CNN
"The American Music Show" was a quirky, low-budget public access TV program that ran in Atlanta from 1981 to 2005. The weekly show featured interviews and music from the city's underground arts scene. In the wake of the AIDS epidemic that decimated the gay community, campy shows like this were critical to maintaining some fun. The show might be most famous for launching the career of drag/punk performer RuPaul, now the host of "RuPaul's Drag Race." It's "where I really got my start," he told Atlanta's Creative Loafing. "It was college for me." Mark Hill for CNN
Dr. Jesse R. Peel, a retired psychiatrist and long-time AIDS activist in Atlanta, kept his appointment books as a memento of the era. In the 1980s, though, his books took on an additional purpose: chronicling the names of friends he lost to AIDS. There are pages and pages. After so many losses into the 1990s, Peel said, he eventually gave up counting. Mark Hill for CNN
What started out as Peel's joyful travel journal soon took on another purpose as the AIDS epidemic raged around him. Essentially, he took the advice he gave patients dealing with a crisis: Peel wrote to try to make sense of what was happening and to cope with the loss of so many previously healthy young friends. Peel's five volumes give an uncensored glimpse into loss and love, and show how the scope and scale of the disease affected one person deeply. Mark Hill for CNN
Through the epidemic, Peel became an activist helping to help lead AID Atlanta and Positive Impact, a mental health program for people with HIV and their friends. Peel said he liked to throw parties, so he turned them into purposeful fundraisers that helped raise awareness and launch the nonprofits, which still operate today. In the speech shown here, Peel talked about his role as a doctor and described what it was like to reunite a witty young man dying from AIDS with his family. He felt he helped make a positive difference in "how one person leaves this life." Peel, who has now lived with HIV for decades, continues his work in Atlanta as an activist. Mark Hill for CNN
Starting around the mid-1980s, federal and local agencies came out with printed advice to help people better understand the epidemic. The 1986 "Coping with AIDS" pamphlet gave straightforward advice and scientific information to caregivers who worked with a patient population that had little hope. At the time, 70% of people with AIDS died within two years of diagnosis. Others pamphlets explained safe sex, including one that used teddy bear illustrations. The "Be a Buddy" pamphlet recruited volunteers to be paired up with ill people who needed help, whether it was assistance to take medicine or support in their final days. Mark Hill for CNN
This colorful scrapbook from travel agent Willis Bivins captures the joy and sadness of being a part of the LGBT community. It includes photos from New York's first Pride march and Fire Island vacations in the 1960s, hand-printed gay publications and obituaries of friends. Bivins, who moved to Atlanta from New York, didn't like the racism he saw in the LGBT community, so he helped start the group Black and White Men Together in 1981. The group helped pass a city ordinance that banned discriminatory carding at the bars that kept people of color out of those establishments. Mark Hill for CNN
Bivins' scrapbook captures the heartbreaking loss of friends to AIDS, including fellow founders of Black and White Men Together. It also highlights the power that came from supportive artists in the community, such as filmmaker John Waters and performer Divine, who Bivins called "revolutionary artists of my radicalized generation who told our stories in a way that was not always acceptable to the bourgeoisie." Mark Hill for CNN
Thousands had already died by 1986, when the surgeon offered guidance about HIV and AIDS. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's report and the 1988 summary pamphlet that the government mailed to 107 million American homes used "candid but dispassionate language" to review the symptoms and explain how HIV spread. It reassured the public that you couldn't get HIV from a toilet seat or from being in the same room as someone who was infected. It called on schools to provide better sex education and encouraged condom use. Conservatives said it encouraged promiscuity. AIDS activists applauded that it brought the epidemic out in the open and eased some fears. By 1988, there were 82,764 Americans with reported cases of AIDS. Mark Hill for CNN
Playwright Rebecca Ranson wrote more than 30 plays, but her play "Warren," made history as one of the first to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Ranson, who was a lesbian, created the play in 1984 to honor her friend Warren Johnston, an actor who died from AIDS complications that year. Warren had worried that after his short life, no one would remember him. The play, which was staged using some of his possessions as props, explores his life and how his friends and family dealt with his illness. It also explored the role lesbians played in helping gay men. At the time, Ranson said, people told her that watching her play felt like a "religious experience." The back of the Atlanta program lists AIDS service organizations with phone numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invited her to present her play at the first International AIDS Conference in Atlanta in 1985. Mark Hill for CNN
The AIDS epidemic moved many people out of the closet and into the streets to fight for greater acceptance. Pins were an easy way to signal support. The pink triangle honored LGBT victims of the Holocaust and was a "reminder of the Holocaust perpetrated by our governments refusing to deal with AIDS," said Cathy Woolard in 1989. Woolard, an Atlanta LGBT organizer, went on to be the Atlanta City Council's first female president. The buttons belonged to Richard Rhodes, a Navy veteran and community organizer who became the first known gay candidate to run for the Georgia House in 1988, and was the first known gay delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Georgia. Every year on his birthday he would get an HIV test. AT 65, he tested HIV-positive. He remains an activist and an advocate for HIV testing. Mark Hill for CNN
In 1987, the inaugural display of the Names Project, otherwise known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt, took up two city blocks and included 1,920 panels memorializing more than 2,000 people who lost their lives to AIDS. It went on display during the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which was the largest gathering of its kind. More than 200,000 people marched, demanding equal rights, legal recognition of same-sex relationships, a legal end to discrimination, an increase in funding to fight AIDS and an end to discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS. Groups from around the country worked for 15 months and held the final organizational meeting in Atlanta. Many Atlanta leaders who helped with that march went on to run nonprofits, arts organizations, media groups and to run for elected office. The Names Project Foundation is now based in Atlanta. Mark Hill for CNN