Learning To Love, Publicly

There are so many urgent problems worth solving in this world that it becomes difficult to decide what your focus will be. Focus should not be assumed as such an absolute. Instead, it should be considered a method for approaching one particular social problem in a way that promotes better equity and innovates in some way. A problem like HIV/AIDS can never be “solved” and one “solution” will always be ineffective, but there is, at least, space for new targeted prevention and treatment programs to pop up, and better yet, there are ways in which we have failed whole populations for decades and are finally recognizing our errors.

When it comes to the HIV/AIDS crisis, nothing is too late because it’s a crisis that endures. It’s a crisis that, despite all of the dollars and knowledge and political will (depending on where you live), remains intractable. My background might not be in public policy nor have I worked directly with health organizations in an official capacity, but it’s not impossible to envision solutions given my background in HIV/AIDS history, contemporary art, and storytelling. My own story begins again and again. The narrative of my sexual history and consciousness has meandered many times, calling into question the crux of why HIV/AIDS remains omnipresent in queer communities: the interplay between identity and desire.

What do I mean by this? It’s an ongoing renegotiation of terms, but ultimately that scientific and medical solutions fail to recognize personal desires and a myriad number of cultural factors that lead to HIV infections and lack of effective treatment as byproducts. Which brings me back, again and again, to personal stories of being a sexually active man under 30 who has sex with other men who come from a range of cultural, racial, and economic backgrounds. These systems are failing us, and we don’t really have a place to put our stories. And not the kind of sanitized, easily understood stories mainstream publications want us to write. But the stories that make us uncomfortable, that make us think, that challenge assumptions critically in a way that does not confine them to academic institutions, libraries or museums.

We write our stories in the act of navigating desires and identities. We write our stories when we fuck. After we’ve fucked. When we’re sitting in clinics, waiting for our HIV test results. Or after sex, when we feel guilty, ashamed, or confused that we liked something we weren’t supposed to like. Or even as we’re going about our lives, advocating for other issues, when sexuality and desire creep in. The complexities of our stories seem to get erased as statistics. They also get lost in campaigns that flatten our bodies and compress our desires. This is precisely why I decided last December to launch Our Viral Lives, why I’ve started an MA in Social Innovation and Sustainability, and why there are big plans for the stories we’ll be telling this year.

On March 7th, I’ll be holding a launch event in New York City called “We Are Here,” which will feature 4 younger activists doing educational work around HIV/AIDS in different ways. This project is about me opening up and being vulnerable, but it’s also about a space of shared vulnerability, and the trials and tribulations that come from this kind of openness. I want to receive feedback from the participants and from the audience on what they feel is missing in the conservations we’re having about sex.

In April, I’ll be visiting Los Angeles to launch the first of the interviews of HIV/AIDS activists and clinicians. There is so much great advocacy work going on, but often times, because of the way grants and nonprofits are funded, individual organizations must compete against each. If you live in rural communities, often times you’ll be hard pressed to even find an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization at all. Having online access to these materials ensures you don’t have to be in a physical library or academic institution to “see” these materials. You can use and repurpose them in the ways that would matter most to your own community.

Finally, by the end of May, I’ll have completed an outline for a 1 month residency I hope to conduct in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa at the end of the year. Here, I’ll work with activist organizations to develop community programming. I’ll spend hours directly volunteering to begin speaking to people in these cities, trying to better understand their struggles and successes. I’ll working with academics who are doing important work on archives, and have partnered with many other social justice organizations. South Africa will expand on what happened in Los Angeles and also try to open up the conversation (and, in turn, archive) to global communities that have been connected (and disconnected) historically and presently.

Apart from these plans and the recent logo design, where Our Viral Lives will go by the end of the year remains undetermined. I do not want to impose my ideas for stories on other people. Rather, I want to form genuine connections in global MSM communities and use these connections to invite people to talk to others about HIV/AIDS. It’s collaborative, iterative, and bound to be filled with some foibles along the way. But the process of understanding the interplay between identity and desire and how to broadcast that is a major component of raising awareness. That awareness can then, in turn, be translated into various forms that have impacts, seen or unseen.

So, as I often have done before, I invite you into these conversations and encourage you to envision any story, no matter how insignificant you might think it is, has an impact on the broader conversations around HIV/AIDS and sexuality, particularly for a generation that’s grown up only knowing how to have sex with the specter of HIV/AIDS. To that end, please reach out to me with questions, suggestions, or ideas for stories.

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