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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.

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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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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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Are you HIV-negative? If so, why do you want to talk more about HIV? Is there a particular story or situation that changed how you understood HIV?

I am HIV-negative and want to talk more about HIV because I feel that there is something profound when a negative person does so, specifically when it comes to challenging stigma. The same is true for when men stand up for the rights of women or straight people for the rights of LGBT’s. It’s less defensive and also shows the ‘other’ that they have allies outside of their group.

My journey with HIV started when I dated an incredible man who also happened to be positive. I call him The Catalyst because he challenged every fear and stigma that I had towards the disease and to those who tested positive for it.

He was the first openly positive person I’d met and it just so happened that I also fell in love with him. I remember trying to process my feelings and fears in my journal, writing that I had finally met HIV, my fear, for the first time and that it had come wrapped in the body of someone who filled my heart with joy. Up until that point it was the disease of rural Africa, not something that came into my first world conservative bubble.

His transparency around his status set me off on a journey to learn more about the virus so that I could make an informed decision around dating him. As knowledge empowered, fear started to slip away and I have since dated two other positive men, knowing full well the intricacies of this relationship.

I included friends and family with me on this exploration and, as a result, a group of 50 odd private-school educated people learnt for the first time about mixed-status relationships, PrEP and the advances in treatment. As people raised in the fear-culture that exists in South Africa’s around HIV, we all saw it as a death sentence but learnt together that things had changed.

A combination of love, education and an open mind changed my stigma and I hope to be a voice that rids shame from the idea of getting tested or having the virus.

South Africa faces significant racial and economic disparities that affect access to HIV prevention and treatment. In an ideal world, what would HIV prevention and treatment look like throughout the country?

While travelling the US and UK this year I decided to get tested in every city I visited to see how they all handled it. From a men’s clinic in the Castro to a truck outside the Abby in West Hollywood, I watched as 1st World countries provided free and easy access to those looking to get tested. Even with the ease of access, I still felt a tinge of embarrassment as I stepped into each venue, my conservative up bringing telling me to be more discrete.

What I took from these places was that, in conservative countries like South Africa, testing needs to be brought to the population as they should not be expected to have the courage to look for it themselves. It should also be coupled with something less stigmatised like a cholesterol or diabetes test so that people don’t feel like they are being tested for their shameful sins.

I’d love to see churches provide testing facilities on their premises (pipe dream I know) and think that if we are able to get the religious and community leaders to embrace a culture of testing and treatment, we will see more people getting tested.

Add to that the visibility of proud, positive public figures and I think you will see more people going forward to be tested.

Are you an activist or do you work in academic or scientific fields that deal with HIV and sexuality? If so, describe the work you’re doing, talking about how you got involved and what you hope this work will accomplish.

I am a published author and feature filmmaker with an activist tendency and strive to just be transparent about my life as a gay man and also my support of people who test positive. I do this by being vocal and telling people’s stories, be it through a post on Facebook or characters that I write

 

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? 

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