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.
On Thursday, January 7th, I spoke at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division in NYC. The topic of my discussion was Simon Nkoli, the first Black gay activist to come out in the country and one of the most central figures in ensuring LGBTQ people protected in the new constitution post-Apartheid.
His legacy was one of gentle anger. This idea might seem contradictory, but to me gentle anger is a way of defiantly confronting the exclusion of LGBTQ people in a society and, as importantly, emphasizing open communication, pleasure and affirmation as tools of movement building. Gentle anger critically refuses the idea that LGBTQ people aren’t essential to a democratic society.
Simon may have died in 1998 from AIDS-related complications, but his legacy endures to 2016. I hope that we can take the time to understand how previous movements of emotional protest can re-envision the activist and creative work we’re doing today.
Here’s the talk for those who are interested! Stay tuned for the slides, which will be uploaded shortly after the best format for them is found:
Please visit this link to see all of the related slides from the event.
This is the first interview from South Africa, exploring themes of being HIV positive and coloured in South Africa, and how more work needs to be done by younger LGBT individuals.
- Why did you agree to be interviewed on sexuality and HIV/AIDS?HIV/AIDS is an area that I’m quite passionate about. I was infected at a relatively young age (22). It has been a life-altering experience for me and I am keen to share my story with others who might benefit from it.
- What was the first moment you realized HIV/AIDS was part of how you understand your sexuality? For a long time before I was diagnosed as HIV positive, I was afraid of getting infected with the virus. Thus, for me, it was part of how I understood my sexuality long before I was actually infected with it. The prevailing stigma and HIV/AIDS being characterised as a ‘gay plague’ had seeped into public consciousness and affected the way I viewed my sexuality. Also, interactions with other gay men were marked by discussions around HIV/AIDS (‘Are you POZ or NEG?’) and the gay world appeared to be split into HIV negative and HIV positive men. Once I was infected, my identity as a gay man changed from an HIV negative gay man to an HIV positive man, which affected much more than just my health status.
- What is your current relationship status? Single
- How often do you get tested for HIV or other STIs?
I get tested for STIs twice a year.
- Do you have a doctor who you feel comfortable talking to about sexual health issues?
Yes, I met this doctor soon after my infection and started anti-retroviral treatment with him. We have been able to openly discuss risks, treatment, side-effects and other aspects concerning sexual health.
- Do you have any strategies you use to talk about HIV and sexual health with your partner(s)?This remains a challenge. If it’s a purely sexual encounter, I disclose if asked about my status. There are times when I do not disclose. One strategy is bringing up the idea of bareback sex and seeing how the other guy reacts. If we are dating, I tend to wait until after a few dates before I mention that I am HIV positive so that I give my partner a chance to get to know me as a person.
- In your experience, how has race and socioeconomic status affected the way you talk about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, or understand your overall sense of identity?In the South African context, both race and socioeconomic status have had a significant impact on the formation of identity. South Africa remains a racially divided landscape; this division is often along colour lines. We have come very far in the last two decades. However, significant challenges remain in this regard. As a person of colour, I feel that my race has impacted the way I view my sexuality and other aspects of my identity. HIV definitely does not discriminate along racial lines. However, access to treatment is very much dependent on socio-economic status and this if often linked to race. I’ve been lucky enough to always be able to access the treatment I require. Despite this, I can identify with sectors of the population who have a combination of stigma based on race/socio-economic status and HIV status.
- Have fear or stigma shaped your behaviors or conversations with sexual partners? Why or why not? Stigma has certainly made me more unsure about being open and honest about my HIV status. This has at times led to downright lying about my HIV status or sidestepping the question. HIV infection and transmission, the meaning of ‘undetectable’ or ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ are still so poorly understood in this context that I have often been instantly discriminated against when a sexual partner has learned that I am HIV positive.
- What tangible strategies might combat fear or stigma on conversations related to sex? A strategy that I think is of crucial importance is to target men who are already HIV positive. Many prevention campaigns and messages in the media after the initial HIV scare were directed towards uninfected individuals. The message was essentially to avoid infection at all costs. This made perfect sense. However, it has not always worked well. The downside of these types of campaigns was that if you were already infected, you were seen as a ‘lost case’. This was and continues to be very unfortunate. The fact of the matter is that an HIV positive individual needs to infect an HIV negative individual with the virus. If that HIV positive individual is more aware of risk, takes good care of themselves (including adhering to medication routines, maintaining an undetectable viral load, keeping in good general health and testing for other STIs), then there is a much reduced chance of infecting others. They can also be instrumental in terms of opening up the conversation and being a ‘positive’ role-model. Many negative individuals tend to be incredibly fearful of HIV infection and are not fully educated. Thus, we require HIV positive individuals who can say: ‘I have HIV, I’m healthy and I’m living my life to the fullest.’
- Particularly among men under 30, HIV infection rates remain high and treatment rates remain low. Do you have any ideas as to why this might be the case? I believe this links to my previous answer. The blanket of shame has never been fully removed. The same factors that led to an explosion of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s are still operating today. Seeking treatment after infection also remains a sensitive and stigma-drenched issue. A slightly more recent reason for this nowadays (that I’ve frequently encountered) is the thinking that says you’re stupid to have caught HIV after all the prevention messages over the last three decades. Some people believe that we should not be concerned about it as a health crisis anymore. Even though it may be true that it has become a chronic and manageable illness as opposed to a fatal one, it is not viewed the way other chronic illnesses are viewed and this affects how it is managed. Unfortunately, whereas having diabetes does not say anything about you as a person, HIV/AIDS apparently still seems to say that you’re a slut, stupid or you somehow deserved a punishment from God.
- Have you been involved with programs related to HIV/AIDS advocacy?
- If yes, which programs? No.
- If none, why haven’t you gotten involved with these advocacy programs? I would like to be more involved. However, many programmes I have come across still tend to in some way blame the HIV positive person (even if it’s very subtly).
- Are there any programs you think are particularly successful? Any that may target HIV positive people in an empowering way.
- Do you feel there are better programs that could be put in place? Absolutely. See above answers.
- Describe your work [depends upon age] with older and or younger generations in terms of sexuality and HIV/AIDS advocacy? Not applicable.
- If no intergenerational work, why are there divides between generations of queer men?
- How can generational gaps be bridged? I believe that older men with HIV/AIDS have had a very different experience of the virus. Sharing their stories with younger men is of great importance. Some younger men tend to have an invincibility fallacy and do not believe that they can be infected. There has been little discussion amongst younger generations. They may have some awareness but do not grapple with the deeper issues around HIV/AIDS.
- Do you have any favorite artists who have created work that talks about sexuality or HIV/AIDS? And/or have you created any artwork that expresses your beliefs about or experiences around sexuality or HIV/AIDS?”
- Who are they? // What kind of work? Adam Levine (South African writer) wrote a book called Aidsafari. It was a memoir relating his HIV/AIDS journey. It was incredibly honest and candid. This gave a very real view of HIV/AIDS on an individual level.
- Why does their work resonate? // Are there any plans to create more work? It resonated because it was a real-life experience told very honestly. I could relate to parts of it.
- What advice about sexuality or HIV would you give to younger men who are having sex for the first time? They need to make conscious choices and act wisely based upon the facts. I would tell them not to fear HIV infection to the point where anxiety clouds their judgement but rather to be aware of the risks and how the risks can be managed. HIV infection remains a possibility but life does not end if it does happen. These days, medical facts alone are enough to go a long way in preventing infection (in addition to condom use, pre-exposure prophylaxis or managing risk with bareback encounters, such as having bareback sex with an undetectable individual, can minimise chances of infection). I would also tell them to learn how to have more conversations around sex, HIV/AIDS and other STIs. If a new generation of HIV negative young men have conscious sexual encounters with HIV positive men, most of the battle will be won.
In a recent post at Medium I laid a framework for conducting the first phase of Our Viral Lives interviews. I stressed participant-driven philosophy whereby individuals would have agency to talk about sexuality and HIV/AIDS, including those who don’t feel as comfortable speaking in English. As a result, I developed a prompt to begin the first stage of interviews. This can be answered at an individual’s leisure. If they wish, they can then choose to participate in a longer, in person interview.
If you would please to participate, please reach out to me on Facebook, Twitter, or email kyle at ourvirallives dot org. You can answer the initial prompt in either English or Spanish, depending on which you’re most comfortable with.
I’ve been frustrated by the lack of spaces that exist for queer men to talk about their sexuality in meaningful ways. Often times these are dominated by formal scientific or academic language or, if dominated by the personal, it fails to adequately capture sex we’re having now and sex we want to give in ten years from now. Historical analysis and nostalgia for the kinds of movements and communities we had are warranted. But what about people like me, under the age of 35, who have grown up largely post-AIDS, whose sexuality has almost entirely been tied to digital technology?
Enter the Annals of Gay Sexuality 2015:
As they say:
AGS contributors expose the present-day tastes, textures, sights and smells of our sex, from the mating rituals at a group sex potluck to sexting between cis- and transgender bears; from mile-high club poetry about Patient Zero to pillow talk between friends who are untangling sero-discordant envies. Both heart-breaking and hair-raising, these authors and artists whip it out and make us gag on our HIV-saturated gay lives and in the process evoke frothy new cultural and sexual paradigms.
I’m interested in the mix between the high and low brow, between stories that might be more conventional and others that push the boundaries of sexual ethics and gender identity in playful way. It’s also unapologetic in its sexuality, almost in a campy way. The body gets centered in discussions on sex, which should be a obvious, but this often isn’t the case. Getting lost in abstraction or totally removing “I” from the equation is all too common.
I’m definitely going to be submitting a proposal for the 2016 edition. (The proposals are due on December 1st, though earlier submissions are always welcome.) I want to look at having sex in a global sexual culture. How can we navigate and respect differences in terms of country of origin, race, class and the access to sexual health services? Why is there an inherent power in these sexual experiences? And what, exactly, is it that we discover through travels and traversals of identity?
If you have any idea, big or small, I’d encourage you to submit as well. Getting a chance to experiment and collaborate with others on these topics is a rarity, so get on it while you can! Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas below as well, even if you don’t think you’ll submit anything.
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.
I feel like living in a world and talking so openly about queer sexuality and HIV/AIDS leads to a constant sense of alienation and disconnect. But what could happen if there was an easy, visual way to showcase that people living with HIV, who have experienced the loss of someone with AIDS, are on PrEP, or otherwise are confused about which sexual health services cater to LGBTQ-identified people? It seems like some of the silence, stigma and sense of disconnect could be lessened.
As I started to think about what Our Viral Lives could do, I again gravitated toward the idea of using digital tools. Having something that can be easily accessed around the world would allow more people to connect more easily, and thus the “Sex Without Boundaries” map was born. The idea is that if you’re poz, if you lost someone to AIDS, want to mention you’re on PrEP, or have a sexual health resource to share, you can.
This map will serve to build up more and more people over time to highlight the idea that we’re not alone, that there are people who share in our experiences, and that we can be empowered in our own communities to discuss sexuality and HIV if we haven’t already. Currently, anyone can reach out directly to Our Viral Lives at kyle [at] ourvirallives [dot] org to get added to the map. You can also send out a tweet here. All you need is your first name last initial, age, gender and/or sexual orientation, and HIV status, if you’re on PrEP, and since when.
(And if you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to reach out directly.)
2015 has been such a transformative year for me sexually, in ways that I hadn’t expected. There was a lot of rush earlier in the year to make Our Viral Lives into something bigger than it could yet become. In taking a step back, I think I found something far more powerful in the project: to bring pleasure, desire and creation to the forefront of a project on HIV/AIDS. This letter responds to that.
I write this letter to you, at this moment in time, to let you know I’ve left you for good. I write this letter to you, now, because I’m done letting you do what you want to my body. I’ve started this thing where I claim ownership over my desire, and it’s so much better than worrying about always disappearing into your image.
I understand why you’re here. I’m grateful and humbled by your presence. You commemorate millions of dead from AIDS, and millions more who have HIV living under terrible stigma. But you also always embody the worst kind of fear. A fear so consuming and debilitating that I could never get close to anyone without worrying I would become you.
However, I am not you. 2015 marks a year of possibility, however finite and measured that possibility might be. For myself, I’ve had to confront some uncomfortable truths recently. I just realized this year was the first I had sex with an openly poz guy. Now I’ve had sex with three different poz guys on multiple occasions. Why hadn’t I had sex with them before?
I wasn’t avoiding them consciously but I think it was buried in my thought process that I would turn into Uncle Jimmy. That I would, somehow, end up a half-machine in a hospital bed, gasping for life, ready to turn into you, the statistic, you the slut, you who brought your death upon yourself. But all of this now seems so absurd. It seems so wrong. I betrayed your memory. I betrayed my body. I was living a life of betrayal.
It’s not easy to let go of any of this. It’s not easy to recognize the potential power my body has, but it’s happening. I fuck more freely. I fuck to connect, not to escape. I fuck because it helps me find a purpose I never knew I could experience. You always wanted to make this experience about remembering. I choose now to make this experience about the future.
I understand consent in a way I hadn’t before. Consent is mutual. Consent is an act of shared recognition of our power. And you were denying me the opportunity to recognize that. When I fuck and have conservations with other men about fucking and our bodies turn into blunt objects, ready to tear apart shame and stigma, I’m so present. It’s hard to always be in this state, to be present, but it’s imperative if we ever hope to change anything.
It’s not that I don’t see you or recognize your presence anymore. It’s that you’re not my bedfellow any longer. You’re there in this archive. You get close to me sometimes, but your touch is lightning fast now. You will back away because you’re afraid of me now. You should be afraid of us, this moment undressed, this growing movement, possibility that hasn’t existed in a long time.
All I wonder, as I write this to you, as I think about my own failures in the past to recognize the powers and potential of pleasure, is how others can find that like I have found? How can I get others, beyond the men I fuck, to join with me? There’s no easy answer, but that’s part of the excitement of it, of creating this embodied archive. With each cumshot and moan and orgasm, it becomes a richer tapestry of desire.
I’m also starting to realize it doesn’t know where it ends because there isn’t any end. My tote bag says, “Let’s hold each other until it’s all over.” But it’ll never be over, not in the conventional sense that HIV will be gone out of every fold of our body. And that’s OK because under my terms these future embraces nourish and sustain, unlike what you were ever able to provide to me.