19 Haunting Photos Capture LGBT Survival Against the Backdrop of the AIDS Epidemic

Thomas Alleman

When an unknown, incurable plague took the LGBT community by storm 30 years ago, most mainstream accounts offered a limited account of the experience, displaying only the devastation and disaster it wreaked. But a recently released photo series shows a vastly different — and much more humanizing — account of life in America's gay enclaves during those tumultuous years. 

Capturing the early moments of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, award-winning photojournalist Thomas Alleman's photo series "Dancing In the Dragon's Jaws" illustrates the heartache, anger and vulnerability that took the LGBT community by storm. Alleman's collection of 53 black-and-white photographs debuted in December 2012 at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco.

Alleman worked for local press outlets while capturing the images roughly 30 years ago, but he was determined to avoid "the stark documentary images of individual carnage" that the "straight press" published. Instead, he opted to show a more robust and nuanced perspective of the LGBT community that wasn't represented in the mainstream press. On the project's Kickstarter site, Alleman said he attended everything from political protests and campaigns to leather festivals and pride parades to show a distinct and integrally related range of emotions.

The era "picked me," Alleman told Mic. Influenced by journalists in New York such as Sylvia Plachy and James Hamilton, Alleman found himself working at the weekly LGBT tabloid the Sentinel in San Francisco. His time at the "scrappy, sassy, very queer weekly tabloid" coincided with the AIDS epidemic's entry into mainstream news coverage, which was prompted by famed actor Rock Hudson's death in 1985 due to complications from HIV.

"I spent three years on Castro Street, in the midst of one of the largest, most vibrant gay communities on the planet, shooting those pictures," Alleman told Mic. "Exactly then, the first tsunami wave of HIV and AIDS crashed onto that neighborhood and decimated it."

Image Credit: Thomas Alleman

Alleman told the Huffington Post that to reduce the crisis to the "carnage" displayed by the mainstream press erases significant moments that shaped the LGBT movement at a critical juncture.

"Those splendid folks lived in a real, tangible world of objects and bodies, and we misunderstand them a bit if we only remember their disease or their legend, if our recollection is abstracted by simple notions of 'loss' or 'old' or 'gone,'" he said.

By 1989, approximately 100,000 Americans had been diagnosed with the HIV/AIDS. Nearly 20 years later, according to the CDC, an estimated 872,990 people in the United States were living with HIV in 2010.

Alleman said that those living through the crisis at the time were certainly cognizant of the era's importance to the LGBT movement.

"We were all quite aware that we were experiencing a crisis of historic proportions, which would be remembered and lamented and studied for years to come, and that 'ground zero' was the very community I was accidentally working in," he told Mic.

"I knew that any photographs anyone made under those circumstances were, and are, bound to be historically valuable and anthropologically revealing. That belief freed me from having to second-guess future historians."

Image Credit: Thomas Alleman

Alleman's photo series invites us to re-examine what "gay pride" means in 2014, when the mainstream LGBT movement focuses on marriage equality and pride parades have become multi-hour corporate walk-a-thons. 

"I hope my pictures will first grab and hold the viewer, then arouse their curiosity, and, finally, motivate them back into the bookstore or the Wikipedia to read up on the context that those pictures live in," Alleman said.

"When they've gotten a real feel for the peril, the vibrancy and the weirdness of those years, and the courage and vitality of the folks in the pictures, please — please! — return to 'Dancing In the Dragon's Jaws' and look at them again."

In the 1980s, gay pride meant something entirely different than it does today. The decade was characterized by a terrifying, unstoppable AIDS epidemic and the aftermath of the gender equality movement's failure to secure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

"Underneath the celebratory vibe in those pictures thrums a subtext of unease and anxiety, which those celebrants must certainly feel like a chronic drip-drip-drip in the back of their heads," Alleman said.

"But that's what makes the rest seem so courageous in my memory: Besides fighting a crazy-ass, death-dealing virus, and a society and a government that despised or ignored them, they fought their own fear and terror, their own nightmares and deepest regrets, and many succeeded in hanging onto the dream of life that they'd come to San Francisco for in the first place. And those are the ones who danced in the dragon's jaws, and taught us to hold back the night with love and light." 

Image Credits (all): Thomas Alleman Photography