I’ve known since the beginning of the year that I would be going to Mexico City and South Africa but I haven’t know what I’m doing. Finally, I’m excited to announce a more concrete plan of what I’ll be doing and offer a little insight into the process. All of this has been a while in the making, but I’m happy to finally be going somewhere and setting myself up for a lot of exciting things to come.
Mexico City: Unlearning Personal Desires
I’ve been trying to make sense of what to do Mexico City, as my Spanish language skills are not very good. Obviously I can’t immerse myself in archives but I can immerse myself in a more personal examination of my sexuality in the context of literature and conversations with men I’ve been introduced to through Manuel Bautista, who is from Mexico City but earning his PhD in New York.
The critical texts:
- The AIDS Pandemic in Latin America – Shawn C. Smallman
- The Night Is Young: Sexuality In A Time of AIDS – Héctor Carrillo
- Fixing Men: Sex, Birth Control and AIDS in Mexico– Matthew C. Gutmann
- Mema’s House, Mexico City– Annick Prieur
These serve to highlight the ways in which, through language and cultural, sexuality and sexual health are understood differently for a spectrum of people in Mexico City. This then affects the lens through which I, as an outsider, understands how I navigate pleasurable spaces when I’m in the city. This is part of the process of “unlearning” desire that I want to highlight throughout my work.
This is documented through a research practice called autoethnography, which is defined in Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, as “stories about/of the self told through the lens of culture” (1). These stories can share a lot of productive purposes, but I’m particularly drawn to the idea that “telling our stories is a way for us to be present to each other” (5). Our Viral Lives is about finding connection and pleasure among people, so this practice makes sense.
This can take the shape of notations on my experiences using applications, my research and examination of materials surrounding HIV prevention and treatment in the city, or something else entirely, which I cannot yet predict. Whatever the case, these are intended to bring me into this project, since I’m living so deeply in the work that I’m also doing.
Finally, I will begin with interviews of various individuals I’ve been connected with so far. Some might be informal, say a conversation over coffee, but others might be formally recorded and published online. English language proficiency might help determine who I can connect with more deeply. Another possible idea is to have individuals write out responses in Spanish and have them translated at a later date.
South Africa: Touching Trauma in HIV Epidemic
South Africa will be the cornerstone of my travels. In 5 weeks, I’ll be in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town, interweaving personal narrative, archival research, and on the ground activism into an examination of touching trauma. Which is to say: how can we feel traumatic histories around HIV/AIDS that bleed into our lived realities in the present and transform them into something liberatory? It’s possibly an unanswerable question, but I’ll try.
First, the texts:
- African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality and Globalization– Neville Hoad
- South Africa and the Dream of Love to Come– Brenna M. Munro
- Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity, and Interaction in Cape Town– Andrew Tucker
- Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases, 2006-2014– Zanele Muholi
- Debunking Delusions– Nathan Geffen
These will help to ground my work in the archives with some background into the history of political struggles and racial/economic inequalities that continue to pervade HIV/AIDS treatments for LGBTQ individuals in South Africa.
In Johannesburg, the focus will be in the archives, the majority of which in the country are located here. Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) will be primary source of materials in addition to the South African History Archive (SAHA). The purpose of these visits is to connect with photographic materials, other ephemera (like posters, buttons, pamphlets, brochures, etc.) to explore these earlier struggles for LGBTQ visibility and HIV/AIDS treatments at the height of the anti-apartheid struggles.
At GALA, for instance, there is material on:
- Simon Nkoli, one of the first out Black South Africans, who championed the earliest Black LGBT groups (GLOW), was a vocal AIDS activist, and worked with Nelson Mandela before his death.
- The organization GLOW, which worked a lot in underprivileged township areas, which are still almost entirely Black or Coloured, very low income individuals.
- The Triangle Project, a Cape Town organization that was founded in 1981 in response to AIDS in gay men.
- Edwin Cameron, a White South African who has helped to assure legal and constitutional protections for LGBTQ people and those living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
In Johannesburg, I also hope to connect with LGBTQ individuals through GALA, ideally to help host an event on World AIDS Day on December 1st, or to learn more about experiences among LGBTQ individuals in townships, on lesbians who have may have gotten HIV as a result of rampant rape culture in the country, or those who are doing on the ground activist work.
Pretoria, just a short train ride away from Johannesburg, is the administrative capital of South Africa and also an interesting development of LGBT health organizations. OUT, which has been around for 21 years, has a lot of health services available for free to low income individuals while the Ten81 Medical Practice caters specifically to MSM populations (who are middle to high income).
In Cape Town, the focus head out of the archives and back into the streets. I will continue autoethnographic examinations, but I’ll also focus more heavily on direct engagement with community health organizations.
Specifically, I will finally get the opportunity to interact with individuals at Triangle Project. I’m interested to speak with some of the organizers, but I will also use these connections to meet community organizers that keep their “Safe Spaces” program alive. These safe space meetings are designed to connect LGBTQ individuals in safe environment, even within townships and other more suburban areas of the city.
Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is the other organization I hope to connect with. Their founder, Zackie Achmat, worked heavily in anti-apartheid struggles before starting this direct action group in 1998 to fight for better protections and treatments for people living with AIDS. Their tactics are similar to ACT UP in the US, so I’d like to better understand how the two connect.
This plan is quite ambitious, given the limited time frame, but I’m confident that by planning in advance, I’ll be able to meet a lot of my research objectives, and more importantly, I’ll be able to finally connect some missing dots in understanding HIV/AIDS as global health pandemic.
The way that many different research methodologies are interwoven speaks to the fact Our Viral Lives is doing something innovative. It’s trying to chart a living history of HIV/AIDS in contemporary society through a process of touching trauma, which gets manifest in a variety of fragmented ways. Charting this living history is not only about piecing together fragmentation into narratives that can be used; it’s also about gesturing outward, to find something new.