On the sunny morning of September 5, 1991, in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, a group of activists arrive at the home of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Using ladders, several of them climb to the roof of the house, and from there they unfurl a giant piece of fabric, which is then inflated by their comrades on the front lawn. Soon, the senator’s home is surrounded by a giant, yellow condom reading “A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS: HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS,” a decidedly unsubtle response to Helms’ vehement opposition to gay rights and to funding AIDS research and treatment.
Then in his third term in the Senate, Helms had established himself as “Senator No,” the most bombastic opponent of civil rights legislation, abortion and HIV research in an already-hostile Republican caucus. He considered homosexuals “weak” and “morally sick,” and believed that any legislation aimed at learning more about HIV/AIDS or developing treatments for the disease was tantamount to enabling the “homosexual lifestyle.” In the face of irrefutable scientific consensus, he maintained that “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy,” and he refused to speak with the mother of Ryan White, a teenager who died of AIDS after receiving a transfusion of HIV-positive blood, even when she cornered him in a Capitol Hill elevator.
In response to politicians like Helms, and to the American government’s general unwillingness to treat HIV/AIDS as the public health crisis it was, a group of LGBT organizers formed ACT UP, a grassroots group dedicated to forcing government action on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in 1987. Peter Staley, an ACT UP founder, formed the affiliate Treatment Action Group, or TAG, in 1991. A short time later, he conceived of the giant condom.
After requisitioning the condom from a novelty company in California and practicing its unfurling on a TAG member’s lawn in New Paltz, New York, a group of activists headed to Northern Virginia and draped Helms’ home with the prophylactic on September 5. Participants expected to be arrested, particularly after being confronted by angry neighbors, but they were allowed to go free after the police arrived and demanded they remove the condom. Helms was not home at the time, but the incident succeeded in garnering media attention across the country and in bewildering Helms' maid, who spent the morning trapped in the home, unable to leave until the condom was deflated.