University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Marginalised Histories – presenting undergraduate research on AIDs at a conference

In this blog post, third year student Sophie McKee reflects on her poster presentation at the recent ‘Marginalised Histories’ conference at the University of York. We were excited when the conference came up and encouraged our students to apply, working with them on their proposals and securing funding to support attendance. This was a great chance to disseminate their research, experience another aspect of the world of the academic historian, and gain value experience to enhance their employability. We were therefore delighted that Sophie was accepted to present a poster, based on her dissertation research.

Fiona McCall has asked me to write a blog post about attending conferences. Now, I have only attended one conference, but within a few weeks that number is going to be pushing to two, so I thought now might be a time to reflect on the one that has been, and potentially psyche myself up for the one that is coming.

I study the AIDS crisis in 1980s and 1990s America. Often that elicits lots of questions, the most popular of which at the moment is: “have you seen the film Philadelphia?” to which I sigh heavily and say yes because I am well aware of the lack of representation on HIV/AIDS in popular culture.  So, when the opportunity came up, to go to a conference on marginalised groups in history at the University of York I jumped at the chance. I am of the opinion that the AIDS crisis is one which not only is not academically investigated enough but is also not particularly known about in the UK. While the first cases of AIDS in the UK started around the early 1980s like in America, by the time that AIDS rose to national prominence in 1987 with the famous “AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance” campaign, there was a lot more information known about the disease.

For the conference, I was invited to present a poster. My dissertation examines the social and economic diversity of activists during the AIDS crisis. Many of the leading AIDS activists were middle class, white gay men who had previously been able to live within the closet and enjoy the privilege of “passing” as straight within the deeply homophobic social environment of 1980s America. Due to the physical manifestations of the disease, AIDS often forced people out of the closet and out of these powerful structures of privilege, forcing them to be marginalised. Modern discussions of this race and class element can often be problematic. At times, some voices online have attempted to apply their own ideas of diversity to the subject, when as we know, history doesn’t have the best track record of being the most equal. The “middle class, white gay man” trope can be used negatively and incorrectly when really, the men who were part of these organisations actively subverted expectations of privilege and class and fundamentally changed the way that the American Pharmaceutical companies tested and released AIDS medication to the market. While they do not conform to modern ideas of diversity, that does not mean that anyone is allowed to negate their achievements, for this is how history can be forgotten. This is what I was going to discuss in my poster.

One thing I loved about this experience was exactly what I have just done above. By being able to engage with my research, it gave me the opportunity to realise just how passionately felt about it. Lecturers, family, and friends would ask me what I was doing for this conference, and slowly but surely I had whittled down all this information that I had in my head to a few lines of a minute or so that I could succinctly explain what I was talking about and hearing it come out of my mouth made me feel more confident, I KNEW what I was talking about, it gave me pride in my work.

I will tell you this with love and for free. Academic posters are boring. They don’t have to be, we are studying some of the most fascinating things in the world but my goodness we don’t half make a boring poster. My poster was NOT going to be boring it was going to be COOL and FUN and MAKE A STATEMENT. Jokes aside, I was incredibly proud of the hard work I had put into it, so yes, I made it bold and hot pink and used the same font that AIDS activists used on their posters. This is because unlike a presentation, a poster needs to be eye-catching, and on the day of the conference, many people commented on the way it looked. (All of that thanks needs to go to my friend who helped me make it. Thanks, Bren!)


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