March 18, 2014
Viral Legacies: An HIV/AIDS History Project
by Kyle Bella
The AIDS-related death of a young writer's uncle inspires him to bring HIV history alive across generations.
Just over a year ago, I received a call from my grandmother that my Uncle Jimmy had died from pneumonia, as a direct complication from AIDS. The news was shocking at first, because he had been hospitalized a few other times in my life and had made it out OK every time. But shock soon turned to profound sadness when I realized I never acted on so many possible connections we could have shared. I never learned about his younger days, when he contracted AIDS, or how he dealt with being positive on a daily basis. And now, suddenly, I could do nothing more except imagine him alive again, though that image will always be incomplete.
There is nothing wrong with imagination. As a writer and a poet, reconstructed memory is one of my greatest tools. As I imagine my uncle, I can play with his life. I can take his body and rather than focusing on sickness and death, I can give him health. I can empower him to guide me forward. At the same time, however, the fact that I must do this reveals an urgent need to bridge a gap between an older generation who experienced AIDS first hand, before treatments were available, and a younger generation that faces HIV/AIDS differently, with less urgency.
During this time, I also published a piece of writing in Buzzfeed, recounting an encounter with a stranger where I did not use a condom. The piece struck a controversial tone. So-called friends turned to public forums like Twitter or Facebook to personally attack me, calling me stupid and reckless. And the response from the anonymous folks on the web was even more vicious. Think: oh, you’re self-hating; you want to die. But I was not advocating for bareback sex nor was I saying my actions were consequence free. Instead, I was trying to start a conversation free from moralizing attitudes that force people to be silent about the sex they’re having.
Clearly my efforts to peel back shame surrounding bareback sex were unsuccessful. For a while, I could barely stomach talking about sexuality over fear that someone would talk at me, rather than engaging in dialogue. However, as the year progressed, talking about HIV/AIDS, sexual practices and prevention programs felt more urgent. With the sequestration and cuts to vital HIV/AIDS services and research, I realized our government was willing to sacrifice effective, life-saving programs for political games. My own conflicted feelings over sexuality did not go away. And my uncle kept moving with me, no matter where I traveled to, reminding me to keep on talking, to ACT UP in the truest sense of the word.
Enter 2014 and my newest writing project called Viral Legacies. This project was born out of an unsuccessful Fulbright application, which would have brought me to South Africa to study how younger queer men are impacted by HIV/AIDS and how we can bridge gaps in prevention and treatment of a global health pandemic. Instead of going to South Africa, I decided to modify the project. Given the contacts I have, I will now head to Berlin, Barcelona and London, three major centers of HIV/AIDS research and history, three places where young men are very sexual and frequently engage in bareback sex.
What do I hope to do with this project? First, I hope to look at the history of the initial crisis from other, non-American perspectives. Recently, I saw Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, which chronicles the life of Langston Hughes from a contemporary perspective. After stepping out of the film, I realized something unsettling: virtually all of the characters in the film were now dead, and their histories also seemed forgotten, much like the history of my uncle I never sought out until his death. I want to use these histories to approach the crisis in a different way.
Second, I hope to connect with other men who have sex with other men. If they’re willing to speak to me, I hope to ask about the kind of sex they’re having. If they’re forgoing condoms, why is that the case? Do they have easy access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)? Are they aware of these earlier histories? Do they have suggestions on how we can advance conversations over HIV prevention and sexual practice? These are all very heavy questions, so I hope to use creative writing forms—like poetry, documentary poetics or essay—to make these perspectives more accessible, more universal.
Finally, I hope to speak with community health organizations, advocacy groups like ACT UP London, and other professionals who are working hard to advocate for HIV prevention and treatment programs or who are actively creating art that deals with HIV/AIDS or sexuality. If the death of my uncle taught me anything, it was that history stays alive only so long as we keep animating it. I hope in continuing to make these histories live, gaps between a younger generation—my generation—and an older generation can be bridged, even if this happens in small ways, among very specific individuals.
I’m terrified by this project. I’m terrified because I know it will drum up a lot of uncomfortable feelings. I’m terrified because I stopped talking about sex for so long because I was worried about how others might perceive me. But in 2014, we all deserve better when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention. We all deserve more honest conversations. We all deserve to have these earlier histories respected and valued as educational tools. We all deserve not to feel ashamed and silent when there are clearly solutions available to help minimize impacts from HIV/AIDS.
This is my moment to speak, my moment out of silence. This is for my uncle as much as it is for me. This is for artists like David Wojnarowicz, whose impact on my own writing, thinking and way of life cannot be diminished. As he said in Close to the Knives, “bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.” I don’t know exactly what impact Viral Legacies will have, but I would rather fight back against silence, shame and erasure than further contribute to the problem. I hope you can join me in this fight that continues to be as urgent in 2014 as it was in 1981.
Kyle Bella is a writer and a social media fellow at Alternet. To support his Viral Legacies history project, click here.
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