For World AIDS Day 2012 / Day With(out) Art, I offer this writing on how HIV and queer history impact me. —Ted Kerr
Before I knew Harvey Milk, I was digging Gran Fury. Before I knew Harry Hay, I was reading Sarah Schulman. Coming up in the world, AIDS was how I tapped into my queer heritage, how I began to learn my gay history.
And still, through AIDS activism I find myself, I am myself. Through AIDS I learn about feminism, and collectives, polamoury and sexual self-determination. AIDS helps me understand globalism, corruption, and the multiple ways that history works backwards, forwards and can be used as a hope for a future utopia. And the importance of bathhouses as centers for learning.
Immersing myself in the response to HIV is an ingoing crash course on intersectionality: how classism, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny and the prison industrial complex impact and exasperated a medical condition. As much as I understand AIDS activism is related to idea of a medical cure, for me it is also about so much more.
Increasingly I am aware, I am not alone in this way. We are in a moment of AIDS Crisis Revisitation. People, both living with HIV and not, are looking at the early response to HIV as a way to understand the past and navigate the present and the future. As we can see with the release of new films (United in Anger, How to Survive a Plague), and mounted retrospectives (General Idea, Gran Fury, Frank Moore) we are at a cultural moment where there is a desire to look back at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. There is both stomach, and heart to see what happened, to see what is happening.
It is a complicated reflex. It was a time wrought with pain and loss, both of which live on in how communities hard hit by HIV treat each other, and how we are treated by the state, the non profit industrial complex, and culture. In some ways we are largely neglected, feeling guilty, and confused about how to move forward.
And yet looking back can also be inspiring. It was also a time, in Schulman’s words, where groups of despised people fought back and saved each other’s lives. Activists demanded drugs into bodies faster. People rose up against the marginal places they had been placed and became leaders. Outsiders educated themselves and others to become the experts. For queer people is there anything more inspiring? What else in our collective, fractured, uncovering, histories can compete? And so, beyond the fact that HIV is first and foremost a virus, it has become the example, the symbol of the ways the queer body can be neglected, activated against, disregarded and hated. And how, when a group of queers come together (not even having to agree!) they can change the world for the better.
But we cannot linger only in the past. As the artist collective Little Elvis said long ago, AIDS IS NOT OVER. An important part of this moment of AIDS Crisis Revisitation is activists, and cultural workers are figuring out how to braid the past with the present to build futures. For me personally this means thinking of what happens after we learn how to eradicate the virus. A cure is for the body, so what about the body politic? How do we continue to harness the power of AIDS activism to make a better world for everyone? This is what I hope people thinking about World AIDS Day 2012.
Image from Wisdom in Being United in Anger, a tumblr inspired by the film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, being distributed by Visual AIDS for Day With(out) Art.