lgbtq

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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June 27th is National HIV Testing today and a reminder to get tested to know your HIV status. Many people, particularly in poor communities or in the South, have difficulty getting regular HIV tests, particularly if they identify as LGBTQ. But even in bigger cities, people may be unaware of the different testing options that are available. Others might not think they’re at risk of getting HIV, even though they are.

AIDS.gov, run by the US Department of Health and Human Services, has a tracker that allows you to service by your geographic area. Check it out here or speak with your current primary care provider.

It’s also important to remember that HIV testing offers a window period, meaning that for rapid HIV tests, it can take up to 3 months for an HIV infection to be tested. So, if you think you may have been infected, get retested after the window period has ended and be upfront with your partners about your sexual behaviors. Simply getting tested isn’t enough; having open conversations about risk and desire are key component in stopping the spread of HIV.

We can all work together to end stigma surrounding HIV and create an HIV-neutral world, where people can feel comfortable having sex, no matter their status.

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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.

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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.

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Dear Ghost,

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.

-Kyle