Does a Poignant Photo of Gay Men’s Choir Show Devastating Impact of HIV/AIDS?

Since 1981, more than 300 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus have died of HIV/AIDS.

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Person, Human, Crowd
Image via Eric Luse/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Claim

A widely-shared photograph illustrates the devastating effect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Rating

Context

The photograph shows 115 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus with their backs turned to the camera, representing the former members of the choir who have died of HIV/AIDS, with seven founding members of the choir facing the camera. The picture is authentic, but it was taken almost 30 years ago in 1993. Since then, the number of former choir members to have died of HIV/AIDS has exceeded 300, thereby outstripping the number of current members.

Origin

In September 2021, a poignant photograph included in a popular Reddit post appeared to illustrate the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the gay community, especially in the 1980s. 

The picture showed a choir of more than 100 members, with seven facing the camera wearing white shirts, and the rest in dark suits, with their backs turned. The caption read:

“The men in white are the surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir. The rest represent those lost to AIDS.”

Surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men's Choir

That photograph is authentic, and is a heart-breaking illustration of the death and destruction that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has levied upon the gay community over the years, especially in the 1980s. However, although shared widely online in recent years, the picture was actually taken in 1993, almost three decades ago.

Since then, the number of former members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) who have died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses has outstripped the number of current performers — an even more poignant reflection of the devastating impact of the epidemic on the choir itself, and the gay community more broadly. As a result, we are issuing a rating of “Outdated,” because the underlying facts behind the symbolism in the photo have changed in a significant way. 

According to the choir’s own website, Stan Hill, then artistic director, devised the idea and symbolism behind the poignant “black and white” photograph back in 1993, and the picture was taken by San Francisco Chronicle photographer Eric Luse. The original photograph can be seen below:

Person, Human, Crowd
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, May 1993 Demonstrating the impact of AIDS to the members of the chorus (Photo by Eric Luse/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Syndicated via the Associated Press in 1994, the caption under the photograph explained that those singers with their backs turned to the camera represented the “115 members of the SFGMC who have died from AIDS since 1989.”

The choir was founded in 1978. HIV/AIDS-related deaths were widely-reported in the U.S. from the early 1980s, so the total number of SFGMC members who died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses by 1993 was likely to have been even higher than 115, and from there, it continued to grow. 

In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, of the photograph:

Those dressed in black, with their backs turned, represent those who had died. Today, all their backs would be turned because the obituary list is now 47 names longer than the chorus roster. For each man singing these days, more than one chorus member has died of AIDS.

At that time, 15 years ago, the Chronicle reported that four of the choir’s founding members continued to sing with the SFGMC. At least one of those men has since died.

In 2018, the choir carried out a poignant reenactment of the original photo, from a quarter of a century earlier. SFGMC historian Tom Burtch told Snopes that the concept behind the recreation was that the members with their backs turned in both photos would, combined, represent the more than 300 former members who had, by then, died of HIV/AIDS-related illness, while those facing the camera represented the surviving founding members. The 2018 picture can be viewed below:

2018 photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

In December 2020, the SFGMC posted the 1993 picture to its Facebook profile, adding that:

“The Chorus has lost over 300 members to HIV/AIDS since 1981, and we sing for them each time we take the stage.” 


Sources:
 
“Chorus Songs & LGBT Community | SFGMC.” San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, https://www.sfgmc.org/our-story. Accessed 16 Sept. 2021.
 
Fluid-Daydreamer. “Powerful Image!” R/Damnthatsinteresting, 15 Sept. 2021, www.reddit.com/r/Damnthatsinteresting/comments/pp1shn/powerful_image/.
 
“Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30.” Bilerico Report / LGBTQ Nation, http://www.bilerico.com/2011/06/larry_kramers_historic_essay_aids_at_30.php. Accessed 16 Sept. 2021.
 
May, Meredith. “Gay Men’s Chorus Carries on / A Quarter-Century after the Start of the Epidemic, the Group Has Suffered the Deaths of 257 Members.” SFGATE, 4 June 2006, https://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Gay-Men-s-Chorus-carries-on-A-quarter-century-2533823.php.
Recent Updates
  1. Updated [23 Sept., 2021]: Added a photograph of the 2018 SFGMC reenactment of the 1993 picture, and descriptions from SFGMC historian Tom Burtch.
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