It was October 2010, as I stood in the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It was before any of the controversy surrounding David Wojnarowicz’s video that would be removed soon after. It felt quieter then, as I stood in front of Keith Haring’s “Unfinished Painting,” a canvas, as the name would imply, deliberately unfinished. I traced the bodies of his signature, stylized figures, their purple cartoonish outlines ripped apart on one end and fading as paint drips toward the bottom of the canvas. I walked forward to read the placard and found it was created in 1989. One year later, Keith Haring would die of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31.
I bring up this moment because it is one of the many visceral reactions I have to art created by artists who have since died. I bring up this moment because it’s one of the first where I confronted my own mortality in such a visceral way. I bring up this moment because these kinds of experiences with HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and cultural legacies of grief from the initial onset of AIDS have motivated me to start my latest book project Viral Legacies just over a month from now on May 22. I wanted to offer a short summary of the project and try to answer the larger questions of why this project and why now.
In Viral Legacies, I will be gathering research on HIV/AIDS history and artists, primarily from the earlier years of the crisis, present-day sexual health campaigns, and informal attitudes toward sexuality among younger queer men of my generation, who were not alive or sexually active when AIDS first emerged. Rather than writing an academic text or a strict historical document, I will include my own experiences with sexuality into this narrative, using poetic tools to look at what it means to be a sexually active queer man in the face of a global pandemic, while stripping away shame and self-hatred that underlie HIV prevention and treatment failures.
Rather than concentrating my efforts on the United States, I want to use the global stage, specifically Berlin, Barcelona and London, due to their similarities to New York City but also because they have historic, cultural and political differences that have impacted outlooks on sexuality. It’s easy to say that everywhere is failing to prevent HIV, treat people in responsible ways, and preserve the important legacies of activism and artistic production that have inspired many different movements. But it’s also naïve to think every country has the same problems.
What can I learn as I spend a month in each of these cities about sexual culture? What kinds of sex are men having in other places? What are health practitioners doing to prevent HIV that is unique to that particular city? Do I feel any less ashamed to talk sex and sexuality in these other cities? How does the notion of a viral legacy--which is to say a legacy that replicates like a virus but in a positive, productive way--build as I move through various cultures? What can I take back to New York City that might challenge how we approach sexuality and HIV? It’s difficult to say exactly what ideas or insights will emerge. With something so emotionally charged and lived in, the biggest revelations will reveal themselves only when I am traveling. But it is this sense of immediacy that has made me feel an urgent need to ACT UP and act now.
Yes, this is partly because 50,000 new HIV infections are happening in the United States every year, particularly among younger men. Yes, this is partly because many people worldwide continue to die from AIDS-related complications. But the real urgency of the project is more complex: the histories of HIV/AIDS are not being taught to virtually anyone and, at the same time, we live in a sexual culture that is more immediate than ever but refuses to address shame, self-silencing, and deception in sexual practice. We don’t want to talk about sex. We don’t want to talk about how painful these histories are. We don’t want to approach HIV/AIDS beyond a biomedical perspective. We don’t want to embrace ethically grey areas. We simply want to stay complacent in this fight against HIV.
It’s difficult to say exactly what I can do to shift the conversation and to move into these ethically grey areas. But I know I’m tired of my silence surrounding HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. I’m tired of legitimate treatments like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) called “party drugs” when we should be going after drug companies that make these treatments so expensive. I’m tired of getting called a self-hating slut because I’ve made the decision not to use condoms before. I’m tired of the ways we always privilege cities as the only places where queer people struggle with HIV/AIDS, when that’s obviously not true. We can do better by creating new conversations where openness and honesty are valued.
On a final note, I’ve chosen to write at POZ because I am grateful for all of the work the magazine has done. I’m grateful to see so many HIV-positive people talking with such frankness and making so many social and political strides. I’ve also been grateful to see how this community has responded to other writing I’ve done in the past and for encouraging me to keep talking openly. Because this project covers so many interrelated issues, I wanted a long-term home to update everybody of answers to these questions and encourage dialogue. I hope you will read along and share your own stories so they can become viral legacies.