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The Outrage of Danny Sotomayor | Chicago Stories

The Outrage of Danny Sotomayor: How One Chicago Activist Made Waves During the AIDS Crisis

Danny Sotomayor received what amounted to a death sentence in 1988 — he was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time, there was no cure, drugs designed to combat the disease were expensive and hard to come by, and people often died within weeks of the first failures of their immune systems. Twenty-nine-year-old Danny Sotomayor was terrified. Feeling the clock ticking on his life, the cartoonist set out to confront the AIDS crisis as only he knew how: by making a spectacle.

Danny Sotomayor with a protest banner

The Outrage of Danny Sotomayor: How One Chicago Activist Made Waves During the AIDS Crisis

Danny Sotomayor was an AIDS activist and the first openly gay nationally syndicated political cartoonist. Image: Lisa Howe-Ebright

At the age of 29, a Chicago man with piercing green eyes, a talent for drawing, and a pet bird occasionally perched on his shoulder was diagnosed with HIV. Danny Sotomayor, an openly gay man, was one of the tens of thousands of people diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s and ’90s in the United States. During that time, HIV/AIDS was erroneously seen as a “gay disease,” but it did not differentiate its victims. Sotomayor would become one of the loudest voices in Chicago as he fought for his life and the lives of others suffering from a disease that, at the time, was almost a guaranteed death sentence. With his pointed political cartoons, no patience for some of the city’s politicians, and a passionate personality, Sotomayor helped lead major protests that spilled out into Chicago’s streets – and sometimes the balconies of government buildings. Though Sotomayor would not survive his fight with AIDS, his friends and fellow activists remember … Read more

Out in the Sunshine: AIDS Garden Chicago and the Belmont Rocks

AIDS Garden Chicago sits on the former location of the Belmont Rocks, which was once a popular location for gay men to hang out, socialize, and be themselves out in the sunshine.

Performers with the Youth Empowerment Performance Project

The Chicago Organization that Harnesses the Power of Art to Heal LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Performers with the Youth Empowerment Performance Project tell their stories on stage. Image: Courtesy of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project

Danny Sotomayor’s acerbic political cartoons were a key tool in his activism during the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s and ’90s. Drawing had long been a way for Sotomayor to express himself. David Sotomayor, Danny’s brother, told Chicago Stories it was also a source of comfort for Danny while growing up in a volatile household.

“Some of the characters or the creations…I think that was reflective of what was going on inside [Danny],” David said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I mean in an expressive way.”

That kind of expression through art continues to be a form of healing and activism for LGBTQ individuals. One Chicago organization called the Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP) is using various forms of expressive performance arts for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, particularly gender-nonconforming people of color. Through community art programs, performance projects, and leadership programs, YEPP extends itself as … Read more

Related: 10 Monuments That Changed America – The AIDS Memorial Quilt

Meet Cleve Jones, whose San Francisco neighborhood was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. His unorthodox idea for a massive quilt would not only honor the epidemic’s victims but also serve as a rallying cry for activists advocating for national attention to the plague.


Boystown facade

Walking Through LGBTQ History in Boystown

A series of bronze plaques on the famous rainbow pylons in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood make up the Legacy Walk – an outdoor museum highlighting the historical and cultural contributions of LGBTQ people.

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AIDS memorial quilt in DC

Creating the AIDS Memorial Quilt

Cleve Jones thought of his great-grandmother in Bee Ridge, Indiana, and the quilt she sewed for him when he was a child, made with remnants of his grandfather’s old clothes. He imagined a similar patchwork quilt of names, covering the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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AIDS memorial quilt in DC closeup

Cleve Jones talks about the NAMES Project Foundation and AIDS quilt

Cleve Jones talks about the AIDS quilt (NAMES project) that he started, the politics surrounding treating AIDS, and the compassionate feelings that the quilt engenders (compared to American barn raisings).


Lead support for Chicago Stories is provided by The Negaunee Foundation.

Major support is provided by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, TAWANI Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, and the Donna Van Eekeren Foundation.

Funding for Chicago Stories: The Outrage of Danny Sotomayor is provided by Robert Kohl and Clark Pellett.