New comic shines a light on forgotten heroes of HIV/Aids activism

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A new comic is telling the stories of forgotten HIV and AIDs campaigners who played a major role in tackling stigma and prejudice faced by sufferers in the 1980s.

Dr Nikolaos Papadogiannis, a lecturer in European History at the University of Stirling, co-created the black and white comic book with Dr Rachel Love of the University of St Andrews.

The comic book illuminates the struggles of the diverse and wide range of campaigners across Europe – from transgender people in Greece, to sex workers in Germany and women of colour in the UK – who successfully fought for better rights for people living with HIV/AIDS.

A page of the comic book depicting a scene focusing on campaigners in Greece. The comic book is in black and white.

An excerpt from the comic book

Dr Papadogiannis said: “There is power in images. We wanted to make people aware of the challenges that several social groups have faced because of AIDS-related stigma, but also how they fought against such bias.
“The comic profiles those figures or groups who did not feature in mass media but were significant. The forgotten heroes of the fight you might say, a diverse – in terms of sexual orientation, gender, social class – group of campaigners, whose voices were often unfairly side-lined. 

“For example, in Greece, the comic tells the story of a very fruitful collaboration between gay cisgender men and transgender men and women – a good example of diversity and intersectionality which worked well in HIV and AIDS activism.”

Created in collaboration with the European AIDS Treatment Group and the European Sex Workers Rights Alliance, the comic’s cartoons were drawn by Glasgow-based cartoonist Terry Anderson. The text was co-authored by Dr Papadogiannis and Dr Love.

Panagiotis Damaskos, Health Sociologist at the National Public Health Organization, Greece, said: “Here the history of aids is written from the ground up and this history becomes accessible and understandable through the art of comics. But mostly what this project achieves is telling a scary story without scaring but inspiring.”

Robin Gorna, Vice Chair of the Technical Review Panel (TRP) for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, said: “This is an excellent piece of social history and cultural analysis presented in a dynamic, creative way that makes our shared histories accessible to those who may not know how much there is to learn from the past. In their overview of AIDS activism in a range of Western European countries, the researchers demonstrate the inter-connections between countries and the ways in which effective activism made change happen.”

The research team hope the comic keeps the issues minority groups living with HIV/AIDS continue to face in the public domain.

Dr Papadogiannis, added: “It has been a very difficult path full of changes, not just because of prejudice against those living with AIDS, but also because of frictions within the different campaigning organisations, their different aims and, on some occasions, internalised forms of racism.

“There has been progress in terms of biomedical solutions and there has been a series of quite successful campaigns against AIDS-related stigma. However, as the authors of the comic book, we would like to refrain from reinforcing a success story narrative. There are still, for example, quite important ‘race’-related disparities regarding how much access to treatment people have in the UK and other Western European countries.”

The comic was developed as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project 'Transnational aids activism in Western Europe in the 1980s and 1990s'.

While working on the project, Dr Papadogiannis worked at the University of St Andrews. He is currently developing the project further, including through participating alongside Dr Stephen Bowman and Dr Liam Bell in the Creative History Research Group at Stirling, which aims to develop original ways to communicate historical research.