Not Sanitized for Your Protection: Diseased Pariah News and the Political Uses of Humor

This is a guest post by intern Harold Hardin, who is working on the NEH Grant-Funded Project The Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.

I came across recently a sardonic, humorously bizarre little zine in the Beowulf Thorne papers (GLBT Historical Society, 2003-10) called Diseased Pariah News (DPN). DPN was a zine created during the early 90’s that used gallows humor to humorously educate/entertain mostly gay (often white) cisgender men about HIV/AIDS among other gay men’s health issues. Humor is not something I would immediately associate with AIDS/HIV. Certainly, in the popular imagination AIDS and humor couldn’t be further apart. Queer white, cis, men living with HIV/AIDS in popular media depictions are generally akin to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia: a “noble, suffering AIDS victim”.

Further, many current LGBTQ media consumers tend to shy away from LGBTQ depictions that have overt internalized homophobia/transphobia, straying away from media depictions that might seem to make light of oppressive circumstances in ways that are ultimately self- cannibalizing. Rupaul was famously castigated for having content on her show that was deemed transphobic. Lisa Lampanelli, though not queer, is known for her gallows humor and recently left show business citing, “people in their 20s and 30s weren’t getting into that [insult comedy] tradition”. I spoke to a friend on Facebook about DPN and they echoed a popularly resonant sentiment, “I really don’t like to view historical media/works of art relating to our [queer] community. Because they always carry the hint of shame, of internalized homophobia and transphobia.”

 Clearly, we are currently living through a shift in what we find humorous from particular groups of people based on their identities.  And to be honest, it shouldn’t be ok for a white, cisgender, straight, man or woman to make jokes about communities that they historically (or contemporaneously, for that matter) oppress.  But should queer people with HIV/AIDS be able to laugh at their own lived experiences? If observational comedy is about illuminating the mundane and often untintentionally humorous aspects of our everyday lives then DPN represents to me a group of queers with HIV/AIDS taking this to its’ logical conclusion: finding humor in the everyday lives of queer folx living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, I think something is foreclosed when we as a queer community rush to quash inter-group humor that may on its surface appear aberrant.  Queer people should be able to laugh at their own lived experiences if they so desire, especially, if by laughing, we find a form of resistance while skewering social and political realities that we ultimately find empowering.

Call for Proposals: Memory Lives On: Documenting the HIV/AIDS Epidemic


AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell making a peace sign, wearing University of California San Francisco School of Nursing t-shirt.

Memory Lives On: Documenting the HIV/AIDS Epidemic is an interdisciplinary symposium exploring and reflecting on topics related to archives and the practice of documenting the stories of HIV/AIDS. 


The task of documenting the history of HIV/AIDS and thinking about the present and future of the epidemic is daunting. The enormity and complexity of the stories and perspectives on the disease, which has affected so many millions of patients and families around the world, present significant challenges that demand continual reexamination. Questions of “what do we collect and from where” and “whose stories do we know best.”  The ways in which we handle documentary evidence and produce knowledge from that evidence has profound effects on a huge range of social, economic and health outcomes. In examining and reflecting on our knowledge of the history of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic and its future, we hope to improve our understanding of the true effects of the disease, and what it can teach us about future epidemics.

The program committee invites submissions for presentations addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the wide-ranging perspectives of historians, archivists and librarians, artists, journalists, activists and community groups, scientific researchers, health care providers, and people living with HIV. We invite proposals from individuals with diverse experience and expertise on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in scholarship, research and advocacy. Proposals will be considered in a variety of forms including paper presentations, panel discussions and posters.

The Symposium will take place in Byers Auditorium in Genentech Hall at the UCSF Mission Bay Campus in San Francisco, October 4th and 5th 2019.  The program will be an afternoon session and evening reception the first day, followed by a full day of presentations the second.

The Program Committee has identified the following themes to consider when developing your proposal, though we encourage creativity and experimentation in exploring themes, partnerships, and narrative ideas. 

  • Documenting the epidemic: Gaps, silences and unheard voices
  • Creating an interdisciplinary narrative of an epidemic
  • Silent no more: Community, caretaker and patient stories 
  • The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic 
  • Biomedical story: From mystery disease to cure 
  • From local to global: Learning from AIDS to address future epidemics

The Program Committee welcomes proposals for individual papers, panel discussion and posters. Individual papers with a similar focus will be assembled into a single session by the program committee. Usually 3-4 papers are included in a session.
To allow adequate time for questions and discussion,  panels should be limited to four participants in addition to a chair/facilitator.
Please include the following in your complete proposal

  • Session title if submitting a full panel proposal (of no more than 20 words)
  • Session abstract if submitting a full panel proposal (up to 500 words)
  • Short session abstract for the program if submitting a full panel proposal (up to 50 words)
  • Paper or poster or presentation titles (if any), and names of corresponding presenters
  •  Biographical paragraph for each presenter
  •  E-mail address for each participant
  •  Affiliation, city, state, and country for each participant
  •  Social media handles or web addresses for each participant (optional)
  •  Audiovisual needs
  • Special accommodation needs

The deadline for submissions is June 3. We will notify presenters if their proposal has been accepted by July 22. 


Memory Lives On Program Committee

Victoria Harden, Ph.D., Director (retired) of the Office of NIH History


Monica Green, Ph.D.,  Professor of History, Arizona State University

Richard  McKay, DPhil,  Director of Studies for HPS at Magdalene College

Barbara A. Koenig, Professor of Medical Anthropology & Bioethics in the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Institute for Health & Aging and Head of UCSF Bioethics Program

Jay Levy, MD, Professor UCSF School of Medicine

Eric Jost, Digital Marketing Manager, SF AIDS Foundation

Jon Cohen, Staff writer for Science Magazine

Mark Harrington, Executive Director, Treatment Action Group

William Schupbach, Wellcome Library 

Jason Baumann, Susan and Douglas Dillon Assistant Director for Collection Development and Coordinator of Humanities and LGBT Collections

Polina Ilieva, Head of Archives & Special Collections, UCSF Library


Submit a proposal: http://tiny.ucsf.edu/A2nohy

For any inquiries contact David Krah david.krah@ucsf.edu 

More information about the UCSF AIDS History Project: https://www.library.ucsf.edu/archives/aids/

Surviving and Thriving: A new exhibit at ZSFG

By Griffin Burgess

Announcing a new exhibit at ZSFG!

From January 28th to March 9th, the National Libraries of Medicine’s traveling exhibit, Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture will be on display in the lobby of the main hospital (Building 25) at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

The exhibit is only available for six weeks, so be sure to visit as soon as you can!

From NLM:

The exhibition explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980’s and the evolving response to the epidemic over the last 30 years.

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. Jennifer Brier, the exhibition curator, explains that “centering the experience of people with AIDS in the exhibition allows us to see how critical they were, and continue to be, in the political and medical fight against HIV/AIDS.”

 Protestors in front of the James A. Shannon Building, National  Institutes of Health, 1990  Courtesy Donna Binder
Protestors in front of the James A. Shannon Building, National Institutes of Health, 1990 Courtesy Donna Binder

Surviving and Thriving presents their stories alongside those of others involved in the national AIDS crisis. The six-banner traveling exhibition utilizes a variety of historic photographs as well as images of pamphlets and publications to illustrate how a group of people responded to, or failed to respond, to HIV/AIDS.

Robert C. Gallo, M.D. at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980’s . Courtesy National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health
Robert C. Gallo, M.D. at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980’s. Courtesy National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

This exhibition was produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health and curated by Jennifer Brier, PhD, University of Illinois.