Why we subvertised the ‘I’m Too Sexy to have AIDS’ posters – ACT UP LONDON Statement

‘I’m too Sexy too have AIDS’ posters subverted across London after outcry.

‘I’m too Sexy too have AIDS’ posters displayed across London streets by art studio ‘Studio Voltaire’ (1) were met with outrage by many members of the hIV / AIDS community and the general public last week. Yesterday on Sunday October 7th – a group of activists from ‘ACT UP LONDON’ (2) subvertised the posters with a twist to say instead ‘I’m too Sexy AND I have HIV’.

Full Statement from ACT UP LONDON art-ivists.

Cé from ACT UP LONDON said “Firstly, I would like to say that the main thrust of the action was never intended to censor the artist or to silence queer voices. It is also worth noting that this poster does not appear on the Studio Voltaire website at all, despite an image gallery of the exhibition containing 31 shots promoting the exhibition – so even an in-the-know viewer who is able to cross reference the official promotional materials still has no sure way of knowing that this image is definitely part of the exhibition, and not an unofficial spin off riding on the legitimacy and sanctity of art whilst promoting hate. We invite Studio Voltaire to contact us with their thoughts on this issue, and are excited by the potential for critical discussion this collaboration has already sparked, and will drive throughout the run of this exhibition.

Expanding on this, it’s important to point out that although the artwork may have been targeted at those that understand where this it comes from and why it exists, in its current state it is used out of context and isn’t helpful to the battles PLHIV fight today. It is a reminder of how people felt in the past and is a reflection of outdated attitudes surrounding HIV. It does nothing to further, and at worst undermines, the great work that is being done today by organisations like the GFMA who work tirelessly to create a new paradigm by using real PLHIV (People Living with HIV) in their campaigns to show that they are real people, no different from you or I. The use of this piece of art taken so out of context not only takes us backwards in a fight that we are already struggling to win, but it also contributes to the stigma surrounding HIV. On the back of this it has the potential to be traumatic for those living with HIV, particularly for those with new diagnoses and especially for those who don’t have sufficient support networks to speak through the emotions conjured by the text in the artwork.”

Siobhan Fahey – Rebel Dykes Film Producer said “I am leading a project that captures and utilises the history of post-punk London seen through the eyes of a bunch of rebellious lesbians. The project is called REBEL DYKES, and we were honoured and proud to be invited by Studio Voltaire to work with them on the their Rainbow Aphorisms exhibition by David McDiarmid. On Sunday 7th October we held a walk with them looking at places in Brixton with a history of Lesbian rebel activism. However, the poster I’m Too Sexy to Have AIDS worried me, and I took my concerns to the gallery. When David was making art, in the 1990s, ironic art was much in vogue. It was powerful. But in today’s climate, with Trump and Brexit, we are almost post-irony. Statements like this need careful contextualisation. I support the aim of ACT-UP in repurposing these posters in a way I am sure that David McDiarmid would approve.” 

Dani Singer from ACT UP LONDON said “We are incredibly supportive of Studio Voltaire and their decision to curate an exhibition of David McDiarmid’s work – as the second silence of HIV rages on, the more voices speaking out representing those affected by HIV and AIDS, the better. We see this action as a collaboration between ACT UP London and McDiarmid, in keeping with the strong tradition of ACT UP working with radical Queer artists throughout its existence to widen its message of ending the HIV pandemic, stigma, and pharmaceutical greed.

However, we as representatives of ACT UP London consider the messaging present in this piece – ‘I’m too sexy to have AIDS’ – is counterproductive presented in its current setting on the streets of London, with no supporting literature or context offered alongside its placement. Soho is home to one of the busiest sexual health clinics in the country, 56 Dean Street, where one in three new HIV infections in London are diagnosed (3), and the thought of a newly diagnosed person stepping onto the streets of Soho and coming face to face with this messaging is deeply distressing.

In 2014, research suggested that one third of people still would not “feel comfortable working with a colleague who has HIV” (4) and stating, without context that someone can be “too sexy to have AIDS” not only perpetuates misinformation around the nature of being a PLHIV (Person Living with HIV) (as today thanks to medical science and support offered to PLHIV to adhere to medication, very few will see the virus progress to AIDS), but it also affirms stigmatising opinions still held by many within the LGBT+ community and beyond that having HIV in some way makes a person lesser, less sexually desirable, or less attractive. It has been pointed out that this poster encourages discussion, debate and conversation around the issues it raises, however without the link to the Studio Voltaire exhibition made clear, there is no indication that it is anything beyond a hate proclamation.

In an online debate on this issue, an art scholar educated to PhD level suggested that “I think that the play with the rainbow colours – the way the rainbow lettering inverts from top to bottom against the rainbow ground – suggests more of a sense of play, humour, affection, camp and irony than might first appear” but not everyone viewing the poster has the level of art education or interest necessary to deduce these inferences, and whilst we would support and encourage a reflective, critical analysis of any art which looks at AIDS and HIV, we recognise and acknowledge that this is not always within the capacity of the viewer, particularly when art is presented without a cultural, contextual or critical frame. Another contributor added “deep, dark ironic humor has always been a part of queer creative responses to AIDS and HIV. Have none of you read Diseased Pariah News [a publication created by people with AIDS in the 1990s]?” and clearly not everyone will have accessed this publication, or indeed any literature which helps to unpack and eradicate the stigma and shame associated with HIV through satirical dark humour and critical examination of mainstream messaging (which certainly McDiarmid does).”

A full statement by ACT UP LONDON is on the website. The events have catalysed a new radical art collective within ACT UP LONDON in tribute to legendary ACT UP artists ‘Gran Fury’ who are currently exhibited at ‘Auto Italia Collective’ (5).

ACT UP London is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to creative action to end the HIV pandemic. Everyone is Welcome. We are part of the global ACT UP network. www.actuplondon.wordpress.com. We meet every fortnight – all details here our next meeting is tomorrow October 9th from 6.15-8.30pm at ‘STOP AIDS The Grayston Centre, 28 Charles Square, Hoxton, London N1 6HT’. Turn up and Get involved by emailing actuplondonfighttilltheend@gmail.com


Twitter        ACTUP_LDN

Email           actuplondonfighttilltheend@gmail.com

Website     www.actuplondon.wordpress.com


  1. http://www.studiovoltaire.org/exhibitions/archive/david-mcdiarmid/
  2. ACT UP London is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to creative action to end the HIV pandemic. Everyone is Welcome. We are part of the global ACT UP network. www.actuplondon.wordpress.com
  3. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanhiv/article/PIIS2352-3018(17)30181-9/fulltext
  4. http://www.aidsmap.com/flipbook/file/1214274/stigma_ENG_2017_WEBready.pdf
  5. http://autoitaliasoutheast.org/project/gran-fury-read-my-lips/ – To get involved with the new art-collective at ACT UP LONDON please email actuplondonfighttilltheend@gmail.com


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s