Today marks the 28th Worlds AIDS Day and I truly believe we are on the cusp of making historic advancements that will decrease new infections and offer better quality treatment for people living with HIV. But there’s a catch. As we all know, Donald Trump was elected president, and represents one of the many political leaders and parties threatening smart, effective public health policy. From the erosion of the NHS in the United Kingdom following Brexit to Trump’s HHS pick who is a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Art, there is a real possibility we can turn back every advancement we’ve had and choose not to head the guidance of countless global health organizations.

It’s important to remember that our Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence, thought it wise to cut funding to Planned Parenthood in Indiana. The result? A massive HIV outbreak that was 100% preventable. It’s also important to remember that while high rates of HIV infection exist in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and other known centers, HIV infection rates are higher in places like Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans—cities that exist in states with fully conservative legislatures who have blocked healthcare expansion at every turn.

What this means is that HIV prevention and treatment in this country continues to be largely unequal. White, gay men continue to have better access to prevention methods (including PrEP), and are more likely to have an undetectable viral load if they are living with HIV. These disparities mean that Black and Latino men, have disproportionately high new infection rates, even as programs that target these communities are being developed. Further cuts to the Affordable Care Act could only exacerbate these inequalities.

The question I think a lot of us are asking is, “What can we do?” I’ve yet to see a definitive plan to address HIV/AIDS policy in the context of a Donald Trump administration. However, I don’t think that means things are hopeless. There are some tangible ways to engage with political systems, with service organizations and on an individual level.

  1. Find your testing site. This seems basic, but it really is the first regular way to know your status and seek out treatment if you are diagnosed as HIV positive.
  2. Call your Congressmen and local representatives. First, find out who these representatives are and tell them that supporting the Affordable Cart Act and funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is important. Even if you want to email them, calling is more impactful.
  3. Donate to organizations that promote HIV/AIDS justice. I’d suggest any of the following, though be sure to talk a look at some of the other local organizations in your area.
    1. Visual AIDS: https://www.visualaids.org/support
    2. The Black AIDS Institute: https://www.blackaids.org/aboutus/donate
    3. Planned Parenthood: http://ow.ly/h7it306H2SVA
    4. The Latino Commission on AIDS: https://www.latinoaids.org/support/donate.php
    5. National Minority AIDS Council: https://nmac.z2systems.com/np/clients/nmac/donation.jsp
    6. APICHA (New York City): https://apicha.org/donate/
    7. Positive Impact Health Centers (Atlanta): https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/pihc25thyear?code=25thyear
    8. Project Lazarus (New Orleans): http://www.projectlazarus.net/donate.htm
    9. The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis: http://ow.ly/Jv5k306H4dA
    10. San Francisco AIDS Foundation: http://bit.ly/2fNstoG
    11. AIDS Project Los Angeles: https://apla.netdonor.net/page/2606/donate/1
  4. Building educational programming around HIV/AIDS is a key component of ending an epidemic. Public policy alone will not stop HIV. In a post a few days ago, I outlined a course around HIV/AIDS justice. Given the fact that so little history about HIV/AIDS is taught in schools, more insurgent education is important.
  5. Researching and participating in resurgent HIV/AIDS activist movements. Now, more than ever, ACT UP and other similar branches need your support. There is much to do to grow the capacity and diversity of these organizations, but in the 1980s and 1990s they achieved tremendous progress in HIV/AIDS activism and are worth emulating in some capacity.

I want to end this by saying that I’m not a journalist. I don’t have an academic job. The work around HIV/AIDS I do is self-directed and self-funded but I’ve made it a personal mission, irrespective of my profession or means of living, to be an advocate for HIV/AIDS justice. I saw my great uncle die. I’ve seen too many friends get HIV. I’ve felt the personal shame over my sexual behavior. I believe a new and better sexual culture, and world, is possible. Today I ask you to join me and pledge to commit yourself to stop HIV and start creating new, sex-positive spaces everywhere.

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The following post is meant to a practical way to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis in an academic setting, while focusing on using knowledge about HIV/AIDS history, arts and culture to generate new activist potentials.


Action Appendix #1

Sample Lesson Plan For Course on HIV/AIDS Justice

Given the misinformation, or lack of information, being taught about HIV/AIDS, one of the biggest tangible steps to build justice for people living with HIV and for stronger sexual health programs in general is to educate individuals about the complexities of HIV/AIDS and its effects on LGBTQ individuals. I have tried to build in levels of complexity that can be adapted for different audiences. Any of these individual sessions can also be adapted for single classes or workshops in a variety of ways. Importantly, a major component of this syllabus is based in practical design, whether for a research project, community action, or intervention.

(Given the sensitive or challenging nature of the materials, this is suggested for individuals over the age of 18, though certain sources can be adapted for even younger audiences who we know are also at risk for contracting HIV.)

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This creative piece will be part of my upcoming book Our Viral Lives: A Primer on Digital Storytelling Practices for HIV/AIDS Justice. Simon Nkoli was the first Black gay activist in South Africa. I spoke about him previously in New York City. You can listen to that talk here.

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But now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa. Now we are in the process of planning a non-racist, non-sexist future, and the protection of gay and lesbian rights must be part of that planning…As a black man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in Soweto or any Ghetto. As a gay man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in the closet. –Simon Nkoli

on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, I stare out at the city of johannesburg, sprawling and geographically isolated neighborhoods running all the way to the horizon. this is the city where simon nkoli was born and where he would die of aids-related complications in 1998.

what was I doing there, a white American man, in the South African LGBTQ archives?

what did I hope to get from accessing the mementos of Nkoli’s life, the traces of his body I would then have to reconstruct as an outsider?

I had, for a long time, wanted to visit south africa without really knowing why. But now, in this archive, I realized I was interested in the ability of a country to transform itself so quickly, that this space I was sitting in was just over 20 years old, and in that 20 years one of the most repressive political regimes in history had turned into a plural democracy, run by a majority black party.

& still, despite this progress
despite the representation of black voices in all levels of government
an anguish
queer and black and poor bodies dying of aids, even as people like simon spoke out

enter simon, the man imprisoned in a high profile travel for his activism against the apartheid, who came out to his brothers, and created a space for what it meant to be lgbtq and revolutionary. who would later, in the black townships, plaster his naked body, cock wrapped in a condom, for sex-positive messaging when he led the township aids project. simon, one of the few activists who really embodied the “gentle angry activist” – soften spoken, but intense, directed, and focused on empowering communities within.

simon, who died, and largely seems to be forgotten in history, except by a few people privy to just how impactful his legacy was.

on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, i only get a taste of who he is, fragments, but this is the burden and challenge of traditional archival research. I, as excavator, get the bone fragments and must make a skeleton that I breathe to life through narrative.

but do I understand the pattern of the bones?

can I say I know simon?

whose history and cultures do I betray in a crisis that is, without doubt, a global pandemic?

these are the questions I must ask in order to form an ethical consciousness as archivist. they are also questions that guide me, in my white cisgender male body, to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. the moment I step outside of wits university, people will warn me to be safe on the streets. they warn me that I will be viewed differently in my skin. but they don’t understand how I have always been viewed differently in my skin, so I find myself unafraid, like simon was unafraid, to challenge assumptions in this city.

today I pour over the international correspondence to simon. far flung, these letters and postcards elicit laughter, tears, optimism, and love. there’s a surprising letter signed by sir ian mckellen that thanks simon for his voice and encourages him to write his book (that will ultimately never materialize). a writer from toronto shares his treatment regime (is he still alive?). another man gives one of those sexualized joke cards, men dressed up in leather, as I try to imagine what their relationship could be.

despite all of the historical information I could access in the archives, this act of sorting through correspondence is the one I find most exciting. I examine every postmarked stamp, the quality of the writing, all of the different addresses, presumably as simon cycled through various lovers, and most of all the intimacy, bodies undiminished by contagion permeating every other aspect of their lives.

& hope
hope that even I don’t experience
now, in 2016
as an HIV negative man
living with access to preventative medicine

hope for me is the message of my dialogue with simon, why I’ve come to south africa at all, why I need south africa right now, as I’ve built out this archive. hope. because my brothers and sisters are dying. because simon died when he didn’t need to die. because…I break off from this thought…

I sometimes wonder if I have the wherewithal to sustain my activism in a time of crisis. I wonder because I project an image of strength when I feel vulnerable inside. I project an image of strength because I am the activist committed to this digital archive, an activist raising awareness about hiv/aids and I have to be strong. But I am as uncertain as anyone else, even as I have a language to express this uncertainty, a language that others may not have.

simon, simon, please speak to me if you are there
I don’t believe in ghosts or miracles or anything supernatural
but I believe you are present
here, in the lines of this text I read, written to you

simon, simon, know I’m listening to you even if I don’t understand everything
know I’m listening to you
you inspired a generation of activists in south africa
you inspire a new generation worldwide
the ones who have the chance to visit you, here, in Johannesburg

simon, simon, I am worried about the future
I’m worried about where activism will go
but I look at your body, often naked and vulnerable,
a body that vehemently resisted the closet
and find hope again.

I spoke about your legacy in 2016 in new york city
I hope I did you justice,
simon, we will do you justice—

every day I find hope again because of you
but now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa, you said in the mid-90s
today we are on the verge of a new world
where your stories are as much a part of that futurity as my own.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking and planning for what has always been the goal of Our Viral Lives: to write a full-length book that provides an insight into how digital storytelling practices can build HIV/AIDS political power and transform individual perceptions, often negative, of HIV/AIDS. I’m happy to now share the outline for this writing. Let me know if you have any questions.

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June 27th is National HIV Testing today and a reminder to get tested to know your HIV status. Many people, particularly in poor communities or in the South, have difficulty getting regular HIV tests, particularly if they identify as LGBTQ. But even in bigger cities, people may be unaware of the different testing options that are available. Others might not think they’re at risk of getting HIV, even though they are.

AIDS.gov, run by the US Department of Health and Human Services, has a tracker that allows you to service by your geographic area. Check it out here or speak with your current primary care provider.

It’s also important to remember that HIV testing offers a window period, meaning that for rapid HIV tests, it can take up to 3 months for an HIV infection to be tested. So, if you think you may have been infected, get retested after the window period has ended and be upfront with your partners about your sexual behaviors. Simply getting tested isn’t enough; having open conversations about risk and desire are key component in stopping the spread of HIV.

We can all work together to end stigma surrounding HIV and create an HIV-neutral world, where people can feel comfortable having sex, no matter their status.

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Yes, there has been something of a radio silence for a while on Our Viral Lives. But do not despair. Behind the scenes, I’ve been thinking deeply about the book project that will be finished (as a draft) next August, and some of the new components of the archive that will be launched once my M.A. semester finished up in a few weeks. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the principles that underpin this archive. I don’t want to call what I’m publishing here a manifesto (because a manifesto almost by its nature implies fixed principles) but there are ideals that guide my work as an archivist, curator, and individual living in the moment of this HIV/AIDS crisis.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, I know, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move Our Viral Lives forward at the same time that I was sidelined by looking for a new job. But I’m back and happy to announce the latest campaign Those We Hold Close, which is an opportunity to reflect on artists who have been lost to AIDS, and how their legacies and/or specific works influence our own writing and thinking in 2016.
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