It was confirmed yesterday that AIDS activist Patrick O’Connell has sadly passed away aged 67. The New Yorker died on March 23 in a Manhattan hospital as a result of AIDS-related complications, following living with the disease for almost 40 years. He leaves behind an incredible legacy as a devotee to the movement against the virus which terrorised the LGBTQ+ community for decades.
New York with its thriving gay scene was an AIDS hotspot during the ’80s. The rising death tolls and lack of government action forced members of the community to take matters into their own hands, creating campaigns and organisations to fight the spread of the virus. During this time, Patrick O’Connell became the founding director of Visual AIDS, aiming to support artists living with the disease while also educating the public and tearing down stigmas. Members of the organisation would gather to design exhibitions in borrowed art galleries, forcing the public to take heed of the ongoing epidemic.
As a part of his activism, O’Connell launched a number of HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns. One of the most well recognised was the Ribbon Project which was launched in 1991 and has had a lasting impact to this day. Inspired by the yellow ribbon used to express support for American soldiers serving in the Gulf War, Patrick O’Connell and Visual AIDS introduced the Red Ribbon – a symbol honouring HIV Positive people and remembering those who had passed.
The AIDS advocate Patrick O’Connell has sadly passed away.
— La Gazette Drouot – International (@Gazette_Inter) May 4, 2021
O’Connell organised ‘ribbon bees’ where artists met to cut and fold red ribbons for distribution around the city. Founders of the project said that the colour represents the “connection to blood and the idea of passion – not only anger, but love, like a valentine.”
Once established, the activist was eager to spread the Red Ribbon movement, starting with the 1991 Tony Awards. In the two weeks leading up to the event, Patrick O’Connell and his colleagues utilised all of their Broadway connections to lobby attendees to wear the ribbons during the live broadcast. When the curtains rose at the Minskoff Theatre on June 2, 1991, host Jeremy Irons stepped out with the infamous pin on his lapel, and many celebrities followed suit.
With attendees being asked not to comment on what the ribbon represented, it garnered a host of media attention and curiosity, leading to its establishment as an international symbol for AIDS advocacy. They appeared again at the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys, and the US Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp in 1993. These were the first disease awareness ribbons, and influenced the production of the different coloured options that we see to this day.
Patrick O’Connell was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, and in 1995 he became too sick to continue his activism. Following his partner’s death in 2000, Patrick lived the remainder of his life quietly in a New York apartment assisted by a disability professional. A fighter until the end, the work that he did will be remembered by the community for eternity.
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