World AIDS Day and the Red Ribbon

Last updated: November 2020

World AIDS Day takes place on December 1st each year since 1998. It’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from AIDS-related complications. World AIDS Day is one of the eight official global public health campaigns marked by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Why is World AIDS Day important?

Globally there are an estimated 37.9 million people are living with HIV at the end of 2018.1 Despite the virus only being identified in 1984, more than 32 million people have died of HIV or AIDS-related complications, which makes it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.2

World AIDS Day has always been important to me because it's a reminder to the general public and our government that HIV has not gone away. We have the opportunity to highlight that there is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education. World AIDS Day is also an opportunity to stand up and show out with the millions of people living with HIV worldwide.

History of the red ribbon for HIV awareness

Many people bring about awareness by wearing a red HIV awareness ribbon on that day. In 1991, a decade after the emergence of HIV, twelve activists gathered in a gallery in New York’s East Village. They met to discuss a new project of Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, a New York HIV awareness arts organization. These artists came together in the spring of 1991. It was there that they came up with what would become one of the most recognized symbols of the decade, the red ribbon, worn to signify awareness and support for people living with HIV.3

On Sunday, June 2, 1991, Visual AIDS working with Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS launched the Red Ribbon at the 45th Annual Tony Awards broadcast by CBS. The activists choose the Tony Awards as a way to communicate the extent to which the epidemic was affecting members of their own community of artists and performers. The Tony Awards host, Jeremy Irons, wore the red ribbon. The guests and presenters were asked not to speak directly about what the red ribbon meant. This resulted in media curiosity and the red ribbon became an overnight phenomenon.4

Inspiration for the red ribbon

Taking inspiration from the yellow ribbon of support for the U.S. military during the Gulf War, the loop-shape of the ribbon was easy to make and replicate. The organizers avoided traditional colors associated with the gay community, like pink and rainbow stripes. This was important because they wanted to convey that HIV was relevant to everyone.

They decided on red because of its boldness and for its symbolic associations with passion, the heart, and love. The ribbon became well-known because the artist shared them around New York art galleries and theatres. The red ribbon continues to be a powerful force in our efforts to increase public awareness of HIV.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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