Deep in a Smithsonian vault rests an iconic election poster from the 1980s stored in an archival drawer. It reads: “Silence = Death, VOTE.” It can still shock with its imagery and blunt words. “Your vote is a weapon….we are at war,” the poster states in an historic political call to action for LGBTQ Americans to engage in the most important election of their lives in the midst of a raging epidemic. It was an election as primally important then as the one all Americans face, today.
Despite President Trump’s suggestion that it be postponed, we are have that election, hell or high water, on Nov. 3.
“Silence = Death,” emerging from the pain of the AIDS epidemic, is oddly prophetic for 2020. Engage and fight back or quietly succumb. Intended to rally outrage about the indifference of the federal government to the epidemic of that time, the words called forth three decades of LGBTQ activism that brought unimaginable change. Today, that same challenge faces the whole nation. An epidemic spreads like wildfire. Americans are dying and the White House is indifferent, if not hostile, to the science and medical progress essential to survival.
“Silence = Death” was introduced in 1988 after seven excruciating years of denial of science and public health in favor of silence about the AIDS epidemic by the Reagan administration. Dr. Anthony Fauci had been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for four years, and had witnessed first-hand the political silence and bumbling that surrounded the epidemic. Five presidencies later, Dr. Fauci recalled the crucial intersection between then and today’s American COVID epidemic challenge: “….it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to the outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism” did the stigma of AIDS diminish and global progress against the epidemic advance.
The Silence = Death “activism that Dr. Fauci praised led to the growth of the self-identified LGBTQ vote that today numbers nine million adults, according to the Williams Institute. These voters developed a new intensity of engagement with politics in the first national presidential election when the major party candidates took clear and differing positions on the issue of LGBTQ rights. It was at the 1992 presidential convention where candidate Patrick Buchanan declared, “There is a religious war going on in the country, it is a cultural war…..We must take back our culture and take back our country!” At Mount Rushmore on July 4th, Trump could not have sounded more like Buchanan: a “left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution…..they would destroy the very civilization.”
The 2020 election demands the same historic courage, dignity, strength and activism Dr. Fauci summoned at the White House coronavirus briefing. Trump is reelected only if Americans don’t vote, if they are silent. LGBTQ, as well as young, Black, brown, seniors, women – all Americans have an extraordinary stake in the outcome of this election. Indeed “Silence = Death” stands as a warning to all Americans who do not use the only true weapon we have, the vote, to fight the epidemic and to keep our precious country and its citizens alive.
Jeff Trammell headed LGBTQ outreach for the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns. Charles Francis is president of The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. and served on President George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.