Red ribbons: reminder of AIDS epidemic

Whether they wear silk and tails or jeans and flak jackets, many well-dressed celebrities are adding one accessory to their attire these days -- a red ribbon.

Hundreds of movie stars donned ribbons on their lapels or shoulder straps at the 64th Annual Academy Awards last week. Symbolizing support for AIDS awareness and research, the ribbons have become a common sight on televised awards shows since the Tony Awards in June 1991.


At least one politician also wears the symbol -- Democratic presidential hopeful Jerry Brown's red ribbon has become as conspicuous as his turtleneck sweaters.

That's exactly what the organizers of the ribbon campaign wanted -- to make AIDS a conspicuous national problem.


But others wondered whether ribbons have much effect on AIDS.

"I'm laughing because it's all so Hollywood," said Kate Throop, xTC office manager for Hope and Help Center, an AIDS clearinghouse in central Florida. "If that [wearing a ribbon] is the only thing that celebrities do, well I would then say, 'So what?' "

One of the New York originators of the ribbon campaign agreed that celebrities should do more than wear a ribbon once a year. But he said the symbolism is still powerful.

"A movie star wearing a red ribbon doesn't feed anybody or protect anybody from discrimination . . . but it does raise the issue that invisibility and silence are killing us," said Rodger McFarlane, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a theater-based AIDS awareness group.

The theater group, along with an artists' group called Visual AIDS, created what has come to be called "the ribbon campaign" about two days before last year's Tony Awards show.

Seeing yellow ribbons flying everywhere in support of troops in the Persian Gulf, group organizers thought it would be appropriate if Tony nominees and presenters wore a symbol in support of AIDS victims. The arts world has lost many members to AIDS.

After proposing and then abandoning red roses (a symbol of the anti-abortion movement) and pink triangles (a symbol of the gay rights movement), they settled on red ribbons. Mr. McFarlane said the color was chosen as a symbol of blood -- the liquid that sends AIDS on its deadly course through the body.

But because the ribbons were a late addition, they weren't included in the Tony Awards script and their significance never was explained to the TV audience.


"Which turned out to be a good thing, because it made every reporter in town ask what they were for," Mr. McFarlane said. A movement was born.

Ribbons since have been worn by celebrities on the Emmy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the Grammy Awards and last week's Academy Awards. Along the way, the ribbons were adopted by grass-roots AIDS support groups as well.

Mr. McFarlane, who often stands backstage during awards shows with ribbons and pins to stick them on with, said he has met only two performers who have refused to wear them -- singers Michael Bolton and Marilyn McCoo.

The ribbons have become common street wear in New York.

"I've worn my red ribbon every day since last summer," said Carol Waaser, a senior business representative with Actors Equity Association, the New York-based theater union.