by Michael Broder
The HIV Here & Now Project seeks out and publishes poems and creative prose with a contemporary take on HIV. It’s a queer project that is reaching across boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and HIV status. Its intent is both literary (to publish awesome writing about HIV and AIDS) and political (to advocate for HIV testing, treatment, prevention, and reducing shame and stigma).
My entry point to the project was the print anthology piece of it. I read at an LGBTQ event in Minneapolis in April for the annual AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, where I noticed that a few poets—including me—were reading poems about having been HIV-positive for quite some time. Indeed, I have found that it is increasingly common to find gay men in their fifties who have been poz (HIV-positive) for 25 years or more, and some of them (including me) are poets who write about that experience.
So I started thinking about an anthology that would include the voices of older gay men in that category, but also the voices of the many young queers who are getting infected every year, especially young black gay men and trans women. And I also wanted to include the voices of young gay HIV-negative men who felt the presence of HIV risk in their lives. I wanted work that explored prevention methods, like condoms and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill you can take once a day to prevent HIV infection). I also wanted to explore the choice not to use prevention methods—barebacking while not on PrEP, the who-what-where-when-why of risky behavior. Even the very idea of risky behavior, the way it operates psychologically, socially, culturally, the way it stigmatizes and creates silos of opposing groups, good sex and bad sex, good gays and bad gays, people (regardless of race, class, gender identity, or sexual orientation) who got HIV because they were “looking for trouble” versus others who are seen as “innocent victims.”
Very soon after I began soliciting work for the anthology, I realized what a hard sell this was going to be. It’s not like soliciting poets for work about, say, food or travel. A lot of writers did not think they had appropriate work. It was a struggle for me to convince poets that they did not have to be poz to contribute, and that HIV could be approached metaphorically in terms of risk, desire, love, loss, survival, etc., as well as directly in terms of a narrative voice.
That’s why I started the online component of the project, the website. I thought a poem-a-day website would keep the project in public view and allow me to solicit poets for a project that felt immediate and urgent. I needed something to hook it on, like Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s Starting Today project (a poem a day for each of Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office) or Carey Wallace’s Lament for the Dead project (a poem on the death of anyone killed by police or a police officer killed in the line of duty in the summer of 2015). In fact, 2016 marks 35 years since the start of the AIDS epidemic. The public first became aware of what would come to be called AIDS on June 5, 1981, when a public health newsletter ran an article about five young gay men in Los Angeles who had been treated that spring for a rare form of viral pneumonia and who also had histories of other viral and fungal infections that were rare among people with normal immune systems. So that became my hook: a poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016.
The website took on a life of its own, with over 28,000 views to date, an average of about 4,000 views per month since it launched in June. Our single best day was 453 views on October 4, 2015, when Lucy Wainger’s “Mysterious Skin” (Poem 121) and Stephen Ira’s “Vultures” (Poem 122) were in heavy rotation.
This project is so important right now because HIV is so off the radar of most people—both beyond and within queer circles—and because HIV is still so very deadly with 1.2 million in the US currently living with HIV and 50,000 new infections annually. I cannot state enough times that the highest rate of new infections in the US is among young black gay men, trans women, and gender nonconforming people. Worldwide, the situation is even more dire (although the balance of affected populations may differ from that in the US).
It’s also important because this is such a critical time of opportunity for ending the epidemic. If we could get all the people with HIV on treatment and all the sexually active HIV-negative people on PrEP (or consistent condom use without PrEP, whichever they prefer), we could virtually end HIV transmission within a decade. Really. It’s a matter of political will as well as a matter of adequate public and private funding for public health outreach and intervention. But it’s also a matter of cultural shift. One part of this shift is the need to end HIV-related shame and stigma so that more people accept testing and access prevention and treatment services. Another part of the shift is the need to address the role anti-black racism plays in perpetuating the epidemic. It’s no coincidence that HIV disproportionately affects black people. Racism impacts the allocation of healthcare resources as well as the level of trust (or mistrust) in the white-dominated healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Just for starters.
And this cultural shift, I would argue, is where poetry and writing can play a role. Just as ecopoetics raises awareness and shifts attitudes about environmental protection; just as the poetics of witness raises awareness and shifts attitudes about social, economic, and racial justice issues; so too can poetry and creative prose raise awareness and shift attitudes about HIV, transforming it from an issue of individual responsibility, guilt, and shame into an issue of collective responsibility, public health, and, indeed, an issue of social, economic, and racial justice.
This brief essay only begins to address what The HIV Here & Now Project implies or can potentially become. HIV is an intersectional phenomenon, something that affects people regardless of HIV status and across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as across axes of privilege and oppression. Gregg Bordowitz, a leading AIDS activist in the formative days of ACT UP, gave an impassioned speech to the general assembly of ACT UP on the very day he himself tested HIV-positive in 1988. His was addressing the membership about an action the group was planning around drug addiction treatment services. It would be the first demo ACT UP had organized to address substance abuse issues, which had long been seen as beyond the purview of ACT UP as an organization focused primarily on the impact of AIDS on the gay male community. He concluded his remarks with these indelible words (from The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986-2003):
We’ve got to ask ourselves who are the gays and who are the drug users? Who are the fags and who are the junkies? We have got to seriously question the names and categories used to separate the groups of people hardest hit by this epidemic. We have to take responsibility for these issues.
While so much has changed on the medical front of the ongoing HIV epidemic, those divisions among affected communities, by race, class, sex, gender, and increasingly by HIV status itself, remain. In some ways, they are worse, more pernicious, more pervasive, than they have ever been before, and therefore it is all the more imperative that lovers of social, racial, and economic justice fight harder than ever to tear off the masks and tear down the mythologies, the ideologies, that empower the state against its people. I conclude with these ringing words by HIV and racial justice activist Timothy DuWhite (from the essay Hunted by the State: HIV, Black Folk & How Advocacy Fails Us):
When I say the state, I am referring to the cultural pathology that positions black people as disposable, therefore worthwhile specimens for experimentation, yet unworthy of proper care and sustainability. When I say the state, I am referring to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1970s to the 1996 jailing of poor black mothers who were unwitting research subjects in South Carolina, to the 1998 infusion of poor black New York City boys with the cardiotoxic drug fenfluramine. When I say the state, I am referring to a history of bigotry and patriarchy shrouded in anti-blackness. However, more supremely, when I say the state, I am referring to a prison I rededicate myself each and every single day to abolishing!
I do not pretend that poetry and creative prose can do but a tiny sliver of that work of abolition; but it is work that must be done, and The HIV Here & Now Project stands as one way, one of many ways, to marshal words and ideas in the service of social, racial, and economic justice – a justice that includes transforming the way people think about HIV, a justice that includes ending the HIV epidemic.
Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He is the Founding Publisher of Indolent Books and the director of The HIV Here & Now Project. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman.
Originally published at daniel extra.