- Who is HIV For?
In 1983, at the Second National AIDS Forum, activists from the burgeoning People With AIDS Self-Empowerment movement created a manifesto. The Denver Principles asserted a radical subjectivity: “We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ a term that implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘People With AIDS.’”
Around this same time, drawing upon a legacy of black women’s uniquely intersectional position, Alice Walker coined the term “woman-ist”: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility… Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (Walker 1984).
The Denver Principles and womanism illustrate that within the community of marginalized others there should be opportunities to name oneself, and from there—the thinking goes—it should be “Nothing About Us Without Us,” a phrase made popular by disability activists. Yet assertions of subjectivity around HIV/AIDS have become more complicated, blurring the line between, as Paula Treichler writes, “what is self? what is not-self?” (Treichler 1999), with language being a site for clarity and confusion.
I am a white, HIV-negative man who organizes public events around HIV for both work and community. Almost always, more negative people than people living with HIV attend. Recently I organized a bonfire where more than twenty people came to talk about HIV, with only one of us openly living with the virus. When I told a friend who is living with the [End Page 333] virus about this, he was shocked. “What did you talk about?” he asked. “AIDS,” I said. True, AIDS was the subject, but what was the subtext?
The bonfire is not an isolated incident, rather, it points to a larger phenomenon. People with HIV are becoming further sidelined as social justice marketing campaigns and pharmaceutical interventions attempt to and successfully negate material differences between being HIV positive and HIV negative. Last year Project Runway contestant Jack Mackenroth partnered with World Health Clinicians to create HIV Equal, which has as its tag line, “Everybody has an HIV status. We are all HIV Equal.” Nice idea, but are we all equal?
Similarly, the Stigma Project launched “Live HIV Neutral,” a campaign meant to be:
…a state of mind, regardless of your status, in which you are informed and aware of the constantly evolving state of HIV/AIDS. Living a “neutral” lifestyle is being a visible advocate in the fight to end HIV and the stigma that strengthens it.
Strange use of a word that means “not helping or supporting either side in a conflict, disagreement.” Who can afford to adopt this status? In the face of an ongoing crisis, is neutrality something to champion?
Last year, when the Stigma Project partnered with the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition, and the National Minority AIDS Council to create the “Come Out Against Stigma” campaign, my friend Mathew made the “I am LGBTQ and HIV Neutral” poster his Facebook profile picture. I was shocked, because as a writer and HIV activist, he is anything but neutral. In talking about it, he discussed how he refrained from selecting the available “HIV Negative” posters because he didn’t want to sound “too proud, divisive.” Frustrated by the limits of “living neutral,” he explained he is interested in focusing on what can unite rather than divide, exhausted by the idea promoted in activism—and academia—that difference is the only way to “make meaning.” Mathew, not living with the virus, was trying—within the movement—to figure out who he is in relation to HIV.
In the summer of 2013 I interviewed photographer Rosalind Solomon for Visual AIDS, where I worked as the programs manager for three years. In 1988, her Portraits in the Time of AIDS debuted at the Grey Art Gallery in New York City, one of the first exhibitions with people living with AIDS as subject. Twenty-five years later she worked to have it remounted. Over tea we discussed how—as a result of the exhibition, becoming so [End Page 334...