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From the Encyclopedia of AIDS:

The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s. Its precedent lay in World War II, when known homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges as identifiers, much in the same manner that Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. Wearers of the pink triangle were considered at the bottom of the camp social system and subjected to particularly harsh maltreatment and degradation. Thus, the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation.

In 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project and began plastering posters around the city featuring a pink triangle on a black background stating simply ‘SILENCE = DEATH.’ In its manifesto, the Silence = Death Project drew parallels between the Nazi period and the AIDS crisis, declaring that ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference. The six men who created the project later joined the protest group ACT UP and offered the logo to the group, with which it remains closely identified.

Since its introduction, the ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ logo has appeared in a variety of manifestations, including in neon as part of an art display and on a widely worn button. It was also the forerunner of a range of parallel slogans such as ‘ACTION = LIFE’ and ‘IGNORANCE = FEAR’ and an entire genre of protest graphics, most notably including a bloodstained hand on a poster proclaiming that ‘the government has blood on its hands.’ Owing in part to its increasing identification with AIDS, the pink triangle was supplanted in the early 1990s by the rainbow as the dominant image of ‘gay pride.’ By force of analogy, however, the rainbow itself has, in some countries, become an image associated with AIDS.

via ACT UP NY Documents  "Tactics of Early ACT UP"

The SILENCE=DEATH Project was a group of six men who had started meeting a year and half before the formation of ACT UP, made up by Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras. They were men who needed to talk to each other and others about what the fuck were they going to do, being gay men in the age of AIDS?! Several of them were designers of various sorts--graphic designers--and they ended up deciding that they had to start doing wheat-pasting on the streets, to get the message out to people: "Why aren't you doing something?" So they created the SILENCE=DEATH poster which at the bottom said: "Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable...Use your power...Vote...Boycott...Defend yourselves...Turn anger, fear, grief into action." A short time later, several of them were at the evening event when Larry Kramer spoke, which motivated the community of people to found ACT UP.

Recollection from the Silence=Death Project

"I remember one of our weekly meetings where we found ourselves all looking at each other. There was a shared thought balloon over all of us at that moment... wondering who was going to be the first to go. It was tabled with a bit of a nervous laugh but we knew that it could've been any one of us. Oliver Johnston is the only member from our group who has not survived.  It's been nearly 15 years but Oliver is thought of and missed by those that loved him always."  

-- Brian Howard  1/2005