On Saturday, March 7th, Our Viral Lives hosted its launch event, “We Are Here” at The Bureau of General Services- Queer Division. Four under 30 activists (Kia Labeija, Martez Smith, Mathew Rodriguez and Charlie Ferrusi) were invited to speak about their personal relationships to HIV/AIDS and their activist work to a full audience. I wanted to provide a summary of the evening and offer a few thoughts about moving forward.
I had been eagerly looking forward to this day for quite some time, as Our Viral Lives was officially launched in December, but things have been moving rather quietly at this point, and I was starting to get worried things weren’t actually going to move forward, but after walking into The LGBT Center and seeing this sign, it finally occurred to me that things were real, and my excitement started to build.
The premise for “We Are Here” was simple enough. I wanted four HIV/AIDS activists under 30 to come and talk about their personal relationship to HIV/AIDS and their activist work. I gave each performer 10-15 minutes, but didn’t actually know their topics until the day before. Though I tend to prefer a more organized panel structure, I knew I had to break out of this mindset and allow the presenters to speak candidly and without having any boundaries placed on them. I am, after all, a facilitator and historian, so a big part of my job was listening.
I provided break introductory remarks that I had prepared in full. In this notes, I highlighted a little bit more about how I came to arrive in that chair and what I hoped Our Viral Lives would turn out to be. My great uncle’s death back in 2013 was a major catalyst for my HIV/AIDS activism, and from this activism I became frustrated at both the mainstream stigma and fear surrounding HIV, but also people in the LGBTQ community who were spreading that same stigma and fear. I said:
Not only are nuanced perspectives of people in my generation not talked about in mainstream media but it is also difficult to talk about them with others in the queer community. I remember being called slut when I wrote about barebacking at BuzzFeed and how, as one commentator put it, I had a death wish for being so “reckless” in my actions. At the same time, I’ve seen how gay publications have to be prodded to even recognize Black and Latino perspectives in these conversations, despite the fact that these groups have disproportionate rates of new infections and lower rates of treatment.
As I went on, I explained the necessity for sex-positive conversations and how by listening and working on collaborating with diverse voices, we can finally reverse the destruction that HIV/AIDS has caused on the queer community. I also left the conversation open-ended, stating that the night was a launching point for a “community-focused experiment on being open and honest about our desires, identities, sexual practices, how we can help stop the spread of HIV and provide stronger treatment options, even if they are in small, measurable ways.”
The first speaker was Kia Labeija, a queer HIV-positive woman who is a visual artist and active in the ballroom scene. She managed to immediately infuse the serious subject matter with some humor, as she explained her story growing up HIV-positive, losing her mother, and finding, for the first time in her life at the age of 24, a chance to heal. One of the most compelling lines was the idea that “Healing begins when someone else bears witness.” This is because, as she explained, so much of poz individuals’ lives are led in secret. She was breaking down those boundaries.
The next speaker was Mathew Rodriguez, who is Community Editor at The Body among many other hats. Mathew, like Kia, lost a parent (his father) to HIV, though he himself is HIV negative. He said, “I did not ask for HIV to mold my life. But I have to speak up where my father could not.” He talked a lot about sex positivity, and provided the compelling idea that queer people of color are objects of desire and are not allowed to have healthy, full and liberatory sex lives. Sharing stories, he said, especially about sex, are vital to notions of queer justice.
The third speaker was Charlie Ferrusi, a current NYU student, Graduate Assistant at the LGBTQ Student Center, and certified health education specialist. Charlie is also HIV negative, and spoke about the privileges that come from being white, male, cisgender and negative in the HIV/AIDS activist movement. His formative work in the movement has involved listening because so many other issues overlap HIV/AIDS issues. He then focused a great deal on the lack of youth representation in boards and organizations, saying how out of the 63 people on the task force to end HIV in NY State by 2020, only 1 is under 30.
The final speaker was Martez Smith, who is Research Assistant at the Center for HIV Studies and Educational Training (CHEST) and an active ballroom participant. Martez is positive, and spent a good deal of his talk describing his background in Ohio working in HIV testing and being diagnosed in April 2012. He highlighted major discrepancies between HIV/AIDS funding and discussions in Ohio and New York City, explaining how he headed to the city because it was so resource rich. He then encouraged the audience to have one-on-one conversations about HIV/AIDS and share their stories about sexuality.
Throughout the event, it was clear that every speaker has devoted their lives to stopping the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and that their frustrations, fear, and own healing processes were and are being channeled into thoughtful, approachable, and collaborative projects. There was also a sense from everyone that so many other spaces of HIV/AIDS activism exclude youth people, people of color, women, and trans* folks, among others. Others in the audience affirmed this last point. Two older men who are HIV-positive commented that this was inspiring to see and something they didn’t have when they first came out.
All in all, I don’t think I could have asked for a better launch. The collective energy affirmed what I had long suspected: queer voices under 30 are continually ignored in mainstream activist and media spaces, and are not valued for their insight into how sexual cultures and HIV prevention works in 2015, despite the fact that so many queer people under 30 are doing tremendous work. At the end of the event that was a relief on my behalf knowing that so much great work would continue to be done, but I’ve felt more energized than ever to do more.
Exactly what that doing more will look like remains to be seen, but I’m ready to move ahead with the new phase of Our Viral Lives: interviews. On the day of the event, I found out I have IRB approval, meaning my consent forms for those who want to tell their stories meet university-level standards. So if you didn’t get a chance to make it out to the event (or even if you did), you can help contribute to Our Viral Lives. As Martez Smith also said, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it in the wrong way.”
In 2015, we can’t afford to have the wrong stories be told about queer sexuality and HIV/AIDS. We’re still getting infected, struggling to get treated and even dying in the process.