Dec 1st is World AIDS Day and is the perfect opportunity for getting tested, talking with your partner(s)/kids/parents/friends about safer sex, harm reduction and supporting those in our communities that are HIV positive and living with AIDS. For general info about HIV/AIDS please visit The Body.
Roy Belcher from VT Cares (Committee for AIDS Resource, Education, and Services) has created the film "Breaking Barriers: Fighting Stigma," sharing personal stories of people in Vermont who are living with HIV/AIDS. I was able to attend a viewing at the local public library (where it is available for loan) earlier this week and was moved by the stories shared.
AIDS didn't really impact my life until the summer after graduating from high school when I worked at a Unitarian Universalist conference center that hosted a gathering of gay and bisexual men. I loved serving in the dining hall that week, being surrounded by an inclusive and colorful atmosphere that seemed to both embrace and challenge masculinity - and dining attire ranging from dresses and pearls to nothing but leather thongs. The presence of such a vibrant community of men coming together to relax, dance, learn, share support, feast, etc. was healing for me just to witness, but it was definitely bittersweet. It was heartbreaking to see the quilt that they bring out every year and have to add the names of members of their community who they've lost to AIDS. I don't mean to perpetuate the myth that AIDS only affects gay men, or that it is a "gay disease," but my experience of coming from a small and very hetero-dominant town where HIV/AIDS was rarely discussed and then suddenly being temporarily and peripherally in a community where so many have lost loved ones really had an impact on me. I felt like I was seeing a world that I was not supposed to see.
Anyone with a heart would empathize with the pain of loss, but I was also outraged at the silence. The experiences common to one particular and targeted community (i.e. police brutality in communities of color) is not supposed to be of concern to the majority, to those in the dominant group. For some reason, though I was raised in a heterosexist* and sometimes violently homophobic culture, something just didn't stick with me. The belief that a family is a man with "male" anatomy married to a woman with "female" anatomy, and their children. The idea that heterosexual lifestyles are somehow normal. ?! That sex is defined solely as a cisgender (non-transgender) man penetrating a cisgender woman, which excludes a lot of people and practices. I could go on and on... Because the fact is that whether we've thought about it or not, whether we've explored what we were taught about sexuality and gender, whether we identify as lesbian, gay, queer, questioning, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, straight, somewhere else on the sexuality spectrum, or as something else entirely and whether we identify gender-wise as female, male, trans, genderqueer, non-binary or something else entirely, we are all harmed by homophobia.
Obviously if I identify as a woman and was deemed female at birth and raised as a girl and I'm walking down the street hand-in-hand with my male-identified, male-raised sweetie it's pretty safe to assume that we are not going to be targeted, attacked, or even killed on the basis of our gender and sexual identities. Especially as someone with privilege in the realm of how people perceive my gender and sexual identity, I don't mean to minimize the very real discrimination and violence that queer and transgender people face when I say that we're all harmed by homophobia and transphobia. I don't mean to paint some naive picture that sexuality doesn't matter or to imply that the solution is to simply just love who we want to love and be who we want to be and ignore the experiences of those most impacted by transphobia and homophobia. What I do mean is that we all have sexual and gender identities, even if how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us is reflected and encouraged in our culture and communities. And for this reason, we all have a stake in getting to the roots of homophobia and transphobia and working towards justice. The existence of homophobia and transphobia, even if we don't notice it in our day to day lives, keeps all of us from thriving. Expose yourself to nearly any kind of media and you will find some (possibly closeted) violent homophobe ranting about gay marriage attacking all that "we" hold dear, another city/county/nation outlawing homosexuality, archaic anti-sodomy laws still on the books, the raping and/or killing of queer and trans people. Hopefully you'll also see some brilliant, supportive, inclusive, open-minded messages of not just tolerance (putting up with "those people"), acceptance (ok, you're kinda like me), but straight-up, we're-all-in-this-together-and-all-have-the-absolute-and-unquestionable-right-to-be-and-love-who-we-want solidarity! (See the 'Supporting Queer and Questioning Youth' links to the right if you need a bit of that!)
So what I do mean by "no matter who we are we are all harmed by homophobia" is that when we're not free to be our full, radiant selves, when we walk into a doctor's office and a gazillion assumptions are made about our gender and our sex life, when the mainstream translates queer to mean perverse and straight to mean normal, when our cousin-sweetheart-mom-son, etc. is not safe to walk down the street as their full glorious self and maybe with their full glorious partner, when images of glowing white hetero families are crammed down our throat at every commercial break and in every magazine spread, we all suffer. We don't get the access to the health care we need, we don't get accurate information about risk and prevention and the sexual practices we enjoy or want to explore, we live in silence and shame about our bodies and our completely natural attractions and feelings, we're brainwashed into thinking that our dreams of having an equal, spirit-growing partnership and family is not possible, we proceed in our life doing what we believe is expected of us and what we think other people do instead of truly following our path and exploring fully.
All of us. All of us. If these statements don't relate, I feel pretty confident if you and I are able to talk for a few minutes we could find ways that at least most of them actually really do relate to your life. In a big way. Email me.
So the gathering of gay and bisexual men had their 32 anniversary this year. And in a few days I will turn 32 myself. My birthday wish: Everyone to be able to be their full selves. This may look different to each person, but involves self-love, healing from trauma, love and support within our circles of (chosen) family and friends, the safe space to be honest, real, & open, being fully present in our bodies, knowing our boundaries and our needs and voicing them, listening, knowing our status in terms of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and discussing this with our partner(s), kids, friends, etc. when possible, and valuing & respecting ourselves and each other to practice safer sex and making sure that the people in our lives have access to the info and support they need.
*Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, biases, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior... Heterosexism as discrimination ranks gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual minorities as second-class citizens with regard to various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality in many of the world's jurisdictions and societies. (taken from Wikipedia, with the parts I didn't agree with removed. If anyone else has a better definition, please post it!)
I can't leave on that note. So, action! Check out what kind of anonymous, free HIV testing is happening in your neck of the woods. Get tested. Support these projects by giving some time or money. Let others know about it. Wear a red ribbon. If you feel comfortable, tell others about your experience getting tested to help de-stigmatize STI's, open up conversations, and create a culture of awareness. When someone makes some ignorant comment about AIDS, school them. (We gotta be the good sex educators most of us unfortunately didn't have!) Educate yourself. Attend presentations, films, and drag balls that support organizations that focus onHIV/AIDS support, testing, prevention, and education. Dispel misconceptions like "Oh, it's okay that we didn't use a condom cuz s/he looks clean." Question gender. Challenge homophobia, transphobia, and rigid ideas of gender at the dinner table, in the work place, in the classroom, at the ballot box, in the bedroom, etc. Address people with the name and pronoun that they determine for themselves (even if you knew them in the past with a different name/gender). Have you got any more ideas? Please post them or send them to me.
Please see earlier blog post: In Praise of Pink (Toenails), Masculinity, and Transgender Propaganda.
(Slightly updated Dec 5, 2018)