AIDS Die-in Protest

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AIDS Die-in Protest


By: Scott Perry

Date: April 19, 1992

Source: AP Images.

About the Photographer: Photographer Scott Perry worked for many years as a freelance photographer, primarily for the Associated Press and the Maine Times. His pictures appeared in publications around the world, including the New York Times, USA Today, and National Geographic. He has since shifted his focus to creating specialized panoramic landscape photographs in Maine and New Hampshire.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease characterized by damage to the immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is contracted through an exchange of body fluids, including semen, vaginal secretions, blood, or breast milk. Believed to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s, the disease began to appear in the United States in 1979, with only a few cases. Throughout the 1980s, more people were diagnosed with this mysterious virus, which appeared to be uniformly fatal. People everywhere in the world were infected, but, in the United States, the illness initially spread most quickly through the homosexual community and among intravenous drug users. As a result, the general public was slow to learn of the threat, often considering themselves safe since they did not belong to one of the high-risk populations. However, AIDS continued to spread, until it reached pandemic proportions. As of the beginning of 2006, an estimated forty million people are living with the virus and as many as twenty-five million have died. Although treatments have improved and life expectancy is far greater following an HIV diagnosis than it was in decades past, AIDS remains a fatal illness. It also remains a moral and political battleground, as protestors stand up for the rights of AIDS patients around the globe.



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During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when less was known about how it spread, fear of the illness led to protests targeting those suffering from the disease. There was concern about how safe it was to allow AIDS patients to continue attending school or going to work with healthy people; some questioned whether AIDS patients were putting other people at risk by exposing them to the illness. Many AIDS patients found themselves discriminated against: fired from their jobs, forced out of school, and shunned. Protestors who backed the rights of AIDS patients fought for legislation that would prevent this sort of discrimination, often staging sit-ins that they dubbed die-ins, since the stakes when dealing with AIDS were ultimately life and death. The story of Ryan White, a thirteen-year-old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and was hounded out of his school in 1985, became a rallying point for protestors trying to gain sympathy for people suffering from the illness. In 1988, the U.S. first banned discrimination against federal workers who had the AIDS virus. At the time, President Reagan was criticized for limiting the protection; a call for legislation protecting all workers with HIV had been discussed. In 1990, after the death of Ryan White at age eighteen, the U.S. Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, a last-resort payment source for treatment for AIDS patients with no other recourse.

Education became the most powerful and most accessible weapon in the war against AIDS. As more information about the disease became available, people were forced to accept that anyone could contract HIV, not just those in high-risk categories. The media joined forces with the federal government and the medical community to educate the public, providing public service announcements and highlighting examples of people living with the disease. By the 1990s, the spread of AIDS had slowed in the United States, but in parts of the world where education is limited and money for treatment nonexistent, people have continued to become infected in epidemic numbers.

Protestors continue to call for education, both in the U.S. and abroad, and also focus on the need for additional funding for AIDS research, which still can only be treated, not cured. Although federal funding has been promised for both research and social service programs, the dollars delivered are often less than the amounts originally discussed. In some cases, much of the funding for educational programs has been funneled into programs that preach abstinence only, rather than providing people with the knowledge necessary to engage in protected sexual relations. Protestors also target drug companies providing AIDS treatment in developing nations, accusing them of putting high profits above people's lives. In the developing world, AIDS medications are often prohibitively expensive and limited in availability, so that few people receive treatment. The United Nations also has been criticized, with protestors going so far as to chain themselves together in the building's lobby to emphasize their displeasure with world leaders who fail to provide adequate health services to AIDS patients. Their demands centered on the need for more funding for vigorous, scientific AIDS research in an effort to find a cure for this deadly disease.



Behrman, Greg. The Invisible People: How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Shilts, Randy, and William Greider. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: Stonewall Inn Editions, 2000.


Liebert, Larry. "Reagan Assailed for Directive on AIDS." San Francisco Chronicle (August 3, 1988): A1.

Schapiro, Rich, and Paul H. B. Shin. "UN Rapped on AIDS." New York Daily News (June 1, 2006).

Web sites

Aegis. "So Little Time: An AIDS History." <> (accessed June 2, 2006). <> (accessed June 2, 2006).

United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. "2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic." < HIV_data/2006GlobalReport/default.asp> (accessed June 2, 2006).