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Children of the '90s came of age when the conversation about AIDS was shifting from panic to activism and education. While standard sex ed classes certainly helped millions of young people understand the basics of HIV, AIDS, and safe sex, at the forefront of much of the public awareness were music, movies, tv shows, and sports. Here, a roundup of the key moments in pop culture that gave the AIDS epidemic a face and a context.
Salt N Pepa, "Let’s Talk About AIDS," 1989
This is the first AIDS awareness campaign I remember. Salt N Pepa released an alternate version of “Let’s Talk About Sex” to make the fight against AIDS universal; the song had lyrics like “Don't dismiss, dis, or blacklist the topic/That ain't gonna stop it,” and “I got some news for you so listen, please/It's not a black, white, or gay disease.” Later, they devoted a skit on one of their albums to the importance of safe sex in HIV prevention.
Keith Haring's advocacy and death, 1988-1991
Artist and social activist Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and immediately began using the imagery of his own experience to raise awareness about the disease. Besides embedding advocacy in his whimsical art projects, he established the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to provide funding to AIDS organizations.
Magic Johnson, 1991
In November 1991, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson held a press conference and announced that he had contracted HIV and was retiring (although he made two more appearances in the NBA a few years later). He is now an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex, and has been living with the virus for two decades.
Pop music's victims: Freddie Mercury and Eazy E, 1991 and 1995
Two very different musicians succumbed to AIDS in plain view of the American public. Freddie Mercury, of the band Queen, hid his HIV status for a long time before he died a few days after Magic Johnson’s press conference in 1991. Eazy E, one of the members of the gangsta rap group N.W.A., didn’t even know he had the disease until he went to the hospital in 1995 complaining of asthma. He died a week later. Both of their deaths were wakeup calls to devoted fan bases from opposite sides of the musical spectrum.
A pair of Oscar-winning Tom Hanks movies: Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, 1993 and 1994
Leave it to Tom Hanks to pull on the heart strings of America. He won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a gay man with AIDS who was fired from his law firm in Philadelphia, which was one of the first mainstream films to acknowledge the disease. A year later, he won the same award for playing Forrest Gump, whose ladylove, Jenny, died from AIDS before there was even a name for it.
Pedro Zamora from The Real World, 1994
Pedro was a character on a 1994 season of The Real World who was openly gay and living with the HIV virus. President Clinton and many others credited him with personalizing the virus and heightening awareness of the disease in the Latino community.
This horrifying mish-mash of urban boredom, virgin fetishes, and skater kids drunk off 40s scared the shit out of every teen and preteen in U.S. It especially scared me, a New Yorker who had also heard 14-year-old kids claim that condoms made your dick shrink. The movie drove home the idea that you don't have to be promiscuous to get AIDS; 16-year-old Jenny had only had sex with Telly when she tested positive for the HIV virus.
TLC's "Waterfalls," 1995
This ubiquitous song and video didn't scream out its AIDS theme, but the "3 letters" that "took him to his final resting place" was a nod to the disease at the height of public education about HIV and AIDS.
Boys on the Side, 1995
In this female-centered buddy movie, Mary Louise Parker plays a WASPy realtor that got burned by a bartender with AIDS. More than any movie, it went through the painstaking stages of the disease—from invisible, to "good days and bad days," to T-cells under 100, to an empty wheelchair. Just try watching the last scene without crying.
The Broadway musical RENT told the story of late 1980s Alphabet City bohemiasex, drugs, and AIDS. Mimi and Roger both had the disease, but appropriately-named Angel was the real martyr, breaking the hearts of rabid Broadway fans across the country.