red ribbons

World AIDS Day: 8 cultural moments that changed the course of the global pandemic

Perhaps no other fight against disease has made such a rapid arc through human history as HIV/AIDS, from its early days of denial, misinformation, and prejudice to awareness, research, treatment, and prevention.

In four decades, AIDS has gone from a likely death sentence to a manageable condition that needn’t affect most patients’ life spans, health or pursuit of happiness.

None of this progress could have happened without education and action, largely on the part of the LGBTQ community which stood tall as others lagged.

In honor of World AIDS Day December 1, we’re celebrating 10 historic moments when AIDS broke through to a new level of cultural awareness.

1. World AIDS Day

In 1988, the World Health Organization launched World AIDS Day to raise awareness and mourn those lost to the disease. Celebrated each year December 1, it encompasses events all around the world. (The red ribbon came three years later in 1991 and still stands as the universal symbol of AIDS awareness.) Use this interactive map to find an event near you, and don’t be afraid to hit that big red Donate button.

2. Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, and amfAR

In 1985, a previously closeted Hudson became the first celebrity to publicly announce he had AIDS. When he died that year, his dear friend and former co-star Elizabeth Taylor founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), becoming its chairperson and chief spokesperson until her death in 2011. Today, AmfAR is at the forefront of scientific research and dead set not just on zero new infections but on a cure. There are a dozen ways to help, from a bucket-list private concert with Sam Smith to an online store of merchandise that puts you on the right side of history.

3. And the Band Played On

Investigative reporter Randy Shilts lit a fire under politicians and health organizations with his 1987 best-seller And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, later turned into a movie starring Ian McKellen and Matthew Modine. Watch it on iTunes, Amazon Prime,  or Vudu — unless, of course, you’re someone who always believes the book is better than the movie.

4. AIDS Memorial Quilt

AIDS Quilt

The brainchild of AIDS activist Cleve Jones back in 1985, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt now contains 48,000 memorial panels commemorating more than 94,000 victims and is the largest piece of community folk art on the planet. Currently housed in Atlanta, the quilt itself will move back to initial home of San Francisco in 2020, while its 200,000+ archival items — photos, tributes, biographical records, and more — will be permanently housed and The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for posterity.

5. Magic Johnson

When the NBA’s star player announced he was HIV-positive, public perception of the disease shifted somewhat. Johnson, now 60, has been a prevention advocate ever since.

6. Concert for Life

Whether you call it the Concert for Life or The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness, this seminal 1992 benefit concert, broadcast around the world, brought the stars out in full force to Wembley Stadium. Everyone from Metallica to Guns ‘N Roses showed up. Personally, we’re torn on the concert’s high point: Was it David Bowie and Annie Lennox performing Queen’s “Under Pressure,” or George Michael‘s rendition of “Somebody to Love”? Get your hands on the DVD and decide for yourself.

7. Angels in America

Angels in America

Photo credit: Uark Theatre (Wikimedia Commons)

Full of rabbis, drag queens, angels, and ghosts, Tony Kushner’s seminal play, Angels in America, swept the Tonys and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. No wonder the New York Times called it “the most thrilling American play in years.” The play later became an HBO series starring luminaries like Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson.

8. Nobel Prize

Nobel 2008 award ceremonies

In 2008, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for Physiology/Medicine to the three scientists credited with discovering the HIV virus back in 1982: Luc Antoine Montagnier, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, and Harald zur Hausen. By this time, powerful anti-retroviral drug combinations were slowing the disease’s progress and lengthening life spans to normal.