Thinking About Our Viral Lives

Our Viral Lives is being written as part of MA in Social Innovation and Sustainability at Goddard College. One of our graduation requirements is a written documentation of the project. This is technically a “thesis” but in the spirit of using unique narrative approaches to writing on sexuality and HIV/AIDS, I want to integrate academic, creative and non-fiction writing in a way that more resembles a publishable work.

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When I began this work on HIV/AIDS all the way back in 2008, I wouldn’t have realized one of the most asked questions would be, “What got you involved in this work?” or “Are you HIV-positive?” These questions are innocuous enough, but the more I thought about them, I started to wonder: why does it matter how I got started in HIV/AIDS activism? why is being HIV-positive a necessary precondition to write about HIV, a thing which affects all men who have sex with men in some way, particularly those under the age of 35.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to those questions. (And I’m not really looking for easy answers.) But the questions have fueled a fire in me to think about how to make our discussions on sexuality and HIV/AIDS happen in less reductive ways while reducing stigma and self-erasure. Admittedly, in the very early moments I started writing about HIV, I was self-censoring in every letter, sentence, and essay. Though I still write very carefully, I write from a place of critical reflection, not fear.

I’m consumed by another much more important question as a result of my own personal growth. It’s the question that helped shape the idea of creating an online digital archive called Our Viral Lives. How can narratives about sex and HIV/AIDS educate, empower, and foster innovative activism among younger people who are bearing the brunt of new infections today? 

When I first asked this question, it seemed too big to answer. It does, after all, contain in itself differing identities, approaches to movement building, and decades of failed policies. But then I started to realize I was being self-defeatist. I knew I had an arsenal of digital tools at my disposal. I understood the way that younger queer people interact better than most anyone else. I knew how stories and art could not only empower but open up horizons. And I recognized that HIV/AIDS history got buried when a generation of men and women died off.

How do you combine a recognition of lost history with the overwhelmingly global and digital way that we understand sex and sexuality? These histories are, of course, available in libraries and archives, but these spaces are rigid, fixed, and not necessarily inclusive. Even as I, comfortable as I am in libraries, balk every time I enter Bobst Library, starting up at 10 floors of confined histories, knowing I’ll have to touch the bodies of those who died from HIV/AIDS through their writing, photographs and ephemera stored in boxes.

At the same time, these are historical documents. The stories are contained in and of themselves. What about the story of a young Black man in Harlem who recently received an HIV diagnosis? Or a queer woman of color whose mother died of HIV? Or my own story, evolving of course but still vital to the conversation, of listening to these multiple perspectives and becoming a better person and sexual being because of them?

There are a handful of publications that sometimes publish these stories. There are art projects, performance pieces, occasional museum exhibits, but these stories have never been understood as legitimate archival objects. The bodies of queer people upset the conditions of these archives, but in staking a claim for queer bodies as archives, you help create a living and breathing space that responds to and revives these buried histories. This is the fundamental goal, and vision, of Our Viral Lives.

I wanted to create an archive that was online so that people could access it anywhere. I wanted it to feel comfortable to come to. I wanted bright colors, clean design, and a sense of optimism. I wanted a logo that was forward thinking but still referential of the past. I wanted to host a diverse amount of content, in a community-driven way, while establishing a role as curator, by bringing in past histories, artists, and legacies that a lot of younger people might be unaware of.

Our Viral Lives is still very much in-progress. It’ll probably never be “completed” but that’s a clear response to the fact that HIV/AIDS is never going away. Even if we get the number of new infections as close to zero as possible, we are irrevocably changed emotionally, collectively, and politically because of this crisis. Part of the fear of talking about HIV/AIDS and sexuality comes when we recognize, but don’t name, the residue of a traumatic past. This project names, very clearly, the multiple registers of violence from these histories, and importantly understands them as productive forces.

The writing that follows is partially about the design concept behind the archive, exploring some of the social innovation discourse, design theory, and preexisting archives that shaped how Our Viral Lives was conceived. However, it also focuses on my own narrative journey of fear to defiance, of regularly interacting with other men online and discussing HIV and sexuality in often uncomfortable ways, and ways I’ve unlearned my desires in spaces of difference. It also features some stories from people I interviewed, partially to highlight how universal these struggles can be, but largely to highlight the value these narratives have in thinking about productive solutions to stop the spread of HIV and lead healthier sexual lives.

I want the writing I present her to embody these historical legacies I’m in service of. As such, presented throughout will be fragments of my own archive research, from the work in Bobst Library to the weeks spent in Johannesburg at Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. I want you to see the face of Simon Nkoli, one of the earliest Black activists in South Africa, who died in the 1990s. I want you to touch ephemeral material like leather jackets, buttons, posters, and old condom packaging to get a sense of creative strategies in the 1980s and 1990s that can still be used today. These fragments are not authoritative history, but I hope they encourage you to seek out historical subjects that most inspire you.

It is still true that HIV/AIDS is a global pandemic. It is still true that poor communities, communities of color, and transgender communities have worse access to education, testing, and treatment than middle and upper class white communities. 50,000 new infections still occur every year. I could well on these statistics endlessly. I could lock myself in to a cycle of despair, but I would have to neglect the pleasure that comes from listening to, and subsequently transmitting, sexual stories of those both alive and dead. It’s impossible to imagine exactly where this pleasure will lead me (or anyone else), but Our Viral Lives is maintained under the principle that this pleasure will deepen the already existing innovations in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment that exist today.

It’s time to look forward. It’s time to be inspired once again to imagine storytelling as a form of education, history making and force for HIV prevention. Our Viral Lives are viral in a positive sense because the more and more of these stories we tell, stories that take bravery and courage to make public, the more positive change we can see on the front lines of this pandemic.

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