Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From San Francisco to the Washington International AIDS Conference: The AIDS Struggle and Queer Activism Continue

AIDS activists rampaging through the Montreal and San Francisco International AIDS conferences of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s create indelible images of the battle against disease and indifference.  These images highlight a movement of hopeful, angry activists disrupting the powers that be, reminding the world that something had to be done: “Pills Cost Pennies, Greed Costs Lives.”  “Ten years, one billion dollars, one drug” screamed hundreds outside of the offices of the National Institute of Health offices in Bethesda MD, during ACT UP’s storm the NIH action of 1990.  I can think of no disease which has garnered this same kind of fury.  But god knows the pain transcends it, as people across the world, and with any number of diseases sit in waiting rooms hoping for something to alter their fate or cut through the red tape.  Two decades after the NIH zap and the last International AIDS Conference in Washington, the conference came back to the US, along with the lingering memories of lost friends, stigma and inequalities spreading it which just do seem to go away.

Pearl and Michael at the drag march!

I first started thinking about going back to the conference during drinks with Michael Tikili.  We were reviewing the goings on at the drag march over drinks at Julius, a West Village bar where the Mattachine Society used a variation of the NAACP race test to guarantee the right of openly gay people to be served  in New York. “Get on the Queerocracy Bus,” Tikili pushed, ever the organizer, ever over drinks. He swore he was going to be checking to make sure I was on board.

Housing Works zap by Lucile Scott

Let me know how it does, she asked as I got off the phone.

After I spoke with her, I spoke with Jennifer Flynn, who had just posted the following press release.


35+ Buses Rolling into Washington, DC

Over 30,000 -- DC residents, US activists from across the country & global delegates alike – to march to illuminate the social and economic costs of putting profit in front of the resources, rights and policies that can end AIDS

Washington, DC: In a time in which science has shown the path to literally end the AIDS epidemic, and the Occupy movement has spotlighted the inequitable use of resources that constrain these and other efforts, more than 30,000 people living with HIV and other AIDS activists from hundreds of organizations worldwide will join to demand rights and resources to confront and cure HIV/AIDS.

The mobilization, entitled We Can End AIDS, will begin Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 12 noon as five distinct branches flood downtown Washington with a range of creative and powerful actions. The marches, scheduled to occur during the International AIDS Conference, will snake through the streets of the District, including K Street, New York Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, meeting Lafayette Park at 1 pm to deliver a powerful collective message to the White House and the world: To end the AIDS pandemic, we demand the political will necessary to ensure economic justice for all and to defend and protect the human rights of our marginalized communities, including people living with HIV & AIDS."

We Can End AIDS was created to draw attention to finding showing that, with only modest increases in funding and appropriate policies, the world could see the end of the AIDS pandemic within 30 years. We Can End AIDS is demanding the economic justice and human rights to make this a reality. 

Bolstered by HPTN 052, the study which proved that treatment is an effective form of HIV prevention, and which indicated that widespread treatment could thus end the epidemic in a generation, each of the five branches of the mobilization points to what is needed to achieve this outcome:

· Demand an end to pharmaceutical greed- east side of Mt. Vernon Square (7th and K)

· Demand a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street to end AIDS-west side of Mt. Vernon Square (9th and K)

Stop the war on women- : corner of 7th and Mass in front of church

· Demand sound public policies and full funding-Archives/Navy Memorial station (green line south to Archives)

· Protect human rights: end mass imprisonment and criminalization, and support harm reduction. K Street west of b/t 9th &10th

“People with HIV and other AIDS activists will be occupying every corner of Washington, DC’s power corridor in the middle of the day during the work week to make sure we are visible. No one can then say that they didn’t know that if they took action, we could end AIDS – and they will have to live with themselves and the ghosts of millions if they choose to ignore us,” says Nadine Bloch, We Can End AIDS Coalition Coordinator. 

The International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington, DC from July 22-28th in Washington DC, a city with HIV rates higher than 32 African countries. 

Follow: #endAIDS,

I was supposed to ride on the Queerocracy Bus leaving Brooklyn at 6 AM the next morning. An email the day before declared.



BUS INFO: There will be 2 different pick-up / drop-off spots.


PICK UP 2: GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent) OfficeBrooklyn
44 Court Street, Suite 1000
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Nearest Subway: N R at Court Street, 2 3 at Borough Hall, 4 5 at Borough Hall
Leaving NYC: 6 AM
Leaving DC: 3:30 PM
Leaving NYC: 6 AM
Leaving DC: 8 PM


QUEEROCRACY is marching in the Human Rights and Harm Reduction march of the We Can End AIDS Mobilization.
These are the demands: End the War on Drugs and Drug Users and Confront HIV Criminalization, Stigma, Mass imprisonment and Anti-LGBTQ Violence and Discrimination.

Walking down Court Street to meet the bus, the sun was just rising.  Most of the stores were closed.  And there, in front of Borough Hall, a group of activists was milling about, getting coffee. Camilo and Cassidy were there wearing Queerocracy t-shirts, to greet everyone.  They handed those entering the bus maps for the day’s action and a pamphlet entitled, “SERO + What You Need to Know about Laws  that Prosecute People Living with HIV.”  Reading through the pamphlet, I wondering about Hushawn Williams, the HIV positive African American man who inspired a sex panic statewide when several of his partners tested positive in the fall of 1997 in New York.  Fifteen years later, the majority of people with HIV are from communities of color. And the conflation of race, sex, and HIV still proves a noxious brew capable igniting a vocabulary of punitive motives, increased penalties, jail time, and stigma.  HIV activism takes many forms, yet at its core the struggle against stigma remains its a core imperative.

            “So how did Queerocracy begin?” I asked once we got on board.
            “During a class called Queering the Media at the New School, we started organizing…. That was something like 2010,” noted Camilo. It is amazing to see a new cohort of multi issue organizers ready to take on a broad based queer agenda:  Their website declares:

Leaving Brooklyn, I looked out at the morning light shining in through the windows, everyone sitting chatting with anticipation.  So many trips to DC for anti-war, AIDS demos.  I recalled the last time I tried to go to DC to get arrested, our bus did not leave till 10 AM, arriving way after the action had begun. Would this time be any different?  It is hard to know, but AIDS is still here.  So we need to be there to make those in power know we are still watching them, still ready to keep their feet to the fire.  As we passed the Verrazano Narrows bridge, I wondered about the man who had tried to jump off the night before, only to be talked down by the police.  Whether an exercise in futility or self determination, our actions still matter.  So does AIDS activism.

Cassidey stood to talk about what we would do in DC.  We were to take part in the Human Rights and Harm Reduction March.  The group would demand an end to the war on drugs, drug users, etc.  Our route would take us past UPS and Wells Fargo branches where we would zap these institutions for their support of politicians who back the ban on syringe exchange and increases in the prison industrial complex.

Ninety minutes into the drive, we stopped in Delaware.  Other buses from VOCAL and carrying activists from around the city were there as well.  Asking activists what they wanted to see happen, many simply hoped for more attention to the issue.  A larger theme was a push against efforts to criminalize condom possession among sex workers, a policy which seems to target a very specific stigmatized population.  It is not like college students are discouraged from carrying condoms.  It is the opposite.  But for sex workers to carry condoms signals some form of intent, which the law seems to target without considering unintended consequences.  At the conference in Oxford I attended earlier in this summer, a man suggested that the US is in a constant state of moral panic.  While the different sex panics arise in different times, places and contexts, the root as well as well as consequence was the same. It is the same panic. Those igniting it still seem to push for social control.  Douglas Crimp once suggested that the melancholia of AIDS activism is fighting all these panics, which ebb and flow, ever ready to rise again if activists ever let their guards down. 
Walking back to the bus, a man commented on my “Silence=Death” shirt.  “I have not seen that in years.  Those guys were really crazy, really crazy,” he noted approvingly.
“They still are,” I followed.
“Not like they were, not like they were at all.”  He paused.  “I have had this since I was 14 years old. My mother wouldn’t let me take AZT.  She said, ‘you are not going to treat my son like a guinea pig.  I’m going to wait till they really show results.’  That was 28 years ago when they didn’t even call it HIV.”
“There should be a cure,” I noted.
            “There is a cure.  They just don’t want people to know it yet. That’s going to get in the way of $136,000.00 a year per PWA in medications sales for big pharma.  There is a profit motive everywhere in this.”
            Getting back on the bus, I could not help but think he was right. 

            Arriving in DC, the energy increased on the bus.  Seeing the Capital, I am always in awe of the capacity of people to be such rascals, the pure audacity to do so little with the opportunities presented those in government to serve the larger good.

            We arrived at 7th and K and joined the mingling delegates and activists. 

            I ran into Michael Tikili, asking him why he was here.  Wearing a Robin Hood outfit calling for a financial transaction or Robin Hood Tax, he explained that he was in DC for a whole range of reasons.  Some of these included fighting for funding for more treatment, which serves as prevention, as well as increased services and a cure. “I don’t want to be on these meds my whole life,” he explained.  “Who knows what these meds are going to do to my kidneys over the next three decades?  Taking medications every day is not fun.  And it is easy to be non-adherent.”  Yet, instead of talking about a cure, our government is giving more powers to big pharma.  Pharma’s greed kills.  We really need to be talking about AIDS drugs for all, not a Trans Pacific Partnership, argued Tikili.  His sentiment was echoed by Public Citizen, which decried the Tran Pacific Partnership supported by the administration.

The march kicking off!

Obama Trade Pact Could Impede ‘AIDS-Free Generation’
Rollbacks of Modest Bush-Era Improvements on Access to Medicines Would Empower Big Pharma, Expand Monopolies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To achieve the “AIDS-free generation” for which President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, have called, we must break the monopoly power of drug companies and change the U.S. approach to trade pacts, Public Citizen said today.

The Obama administration is negotiating a multilateral “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) free trade agreement with countries in Asia and the Americas, intended to expand to the entire Asia-Pacific region. Leaked documents reveal that U.S. demands for the TPP would radically expand pharmaceutical monopoly power, keeping treatment costs high and threatening to impede the common goal of an “AIDS-free generation.”

“An AIDS-free generation is an audacious and wonderful goal,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, who is participating in the “We Can End AIDS” mobilization and march on Tuesday during the International AIDS conference here. “But ending AIDS will depend in part on massively scaling up access to treatment. A major obstacle is the monopoly power of the giant pharmaceutical companies, which leads to vastly higher costs than could be achieved through expanded generic competition. Today, U.S. trade policy threatens to undermine U.S. AIDS policy. It is very important that the Obama administration rethink its position on trade and access to medicines.” 

Since 2000, generic competition has facilitated a treatment revolution, driving down costs for older HIV/AIDS medicines from more than $10,000 per person, per year to less than $100 today. More than eight million people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries are receiving treatment; very few would be receiving life-saving medicines without the plunge in prices. This year, new science demonstrated that treatment can be effective as HIV prevention. For the first time it is becoming possible to map out an end to the epidemic. But many newer medicines needed to achieve an AIDS-free generation still cost thousands of dollars per person, per year. Generic competition could bring treatment costs down again, but only if patent- and test data-based monopolies can be overcome.

“When it comes to access to medicines, price is a life-and-death matter,” Maybarduk said. “The high costs of patent-based monopolies, particularly for newer, critical, second- and third-line HIV/AIDS medicines, seriously limit the ability of governments and donors to boost treatment access.”

For instance, a key AIDS drug known as lopinavir + ritonavir is sold by Chicago-based pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories under the brand names Kaletra and Aluvia. Abbott’s anti-competitive actions are keeping prices for this important medicine high and limiting the ability of donors and governments to scale up treatment. Abbott prices Kaletra at $400 per person, per year in the world’s poorest countries, and much higher — from $1,000 to around $4,000 — in other developing nations.

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) cited Abbott’s patent claims as a “key driver” of high second-line treatment costs in partner country Vietnam. Vietnam also is one of the countries negotiating the TPP. Obama administration demands for the trade pact would require Vietnam to eliminate legal tools designed to prevent bad patents, including a mechanism that was used recently to successfully challenge a Kaletra patent application and preserve generic competition in India. Vietnam and other TPP countries – as well as PEPFAR – could benefit from these tools.

A 2007 agreement between the Democratic congressional leadership and the Bush administration set certain limits on patent and test data provisions affecting pharmaceutical access and began to reduce the negative effects of U.S.-negotiated free trade agreements on access to medicines in developing countries. But Obama administration proposals for the TPP roll back these modest reforms, making patent extensions mandatory, linking marketing approval to patent status and expanding exclusive controls over clinical test data. The U.S. TPP proposals would require countries to make patents available for new uses and minor variations of older medicines, even if these changes do not enhance the efficacy of the medicines, among several other provisions that could harm access. a

For more information about this week’s events, visit For more information about Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines program, visit

Finishing my conversation with Tikili, the Pharma march was taking off down Mt. Vernon. 

            “People over pharma!” screamed activists, carrying signs decrying the influence of big pharma on politics and public health. 

            “Generics for all!” read one, “Tax the rich!” declared another.

            By this point, the Harm Reduction March kicked off. 

            “Fight poverty, fight aids, tax  Wall Street!” screamed those in the march.

            “An economy for the 99%” read one sign.

            “Women united will never be defeated!”

            “Who are we?” rapped one of the leaders of the Robin Hood March, to a group wearing Robin Hood outfits. 
            “Robin Hood” screamed the crowd.
            “We need a Robin Hood Tax!”
            Running up K Street, I joined the Harm Reduction March in progress.  Trailing the march was a group of sex work advocates wearing blue T shirts with the words: “Rockin the Boat for Sex Workers!”  Earlier in the week, they had disrupted the opening of the conference over the exclusion of sex workers and drug users, still subject to a travel ban.

"Stop arresting me for carrying condoms at work" Andy's sign declared.

            “Sex workers rights are human rights!” they screamed. 
            “Nothing about us, without us!” explained Andy, who was walking with the group.  “I just want us to be part of the conversation.” Yet, instead of talk with sex workers, policy makers appear poised to recriminalize the practice.  “People need to be re taught. We need to be in the conversation.”
            “Fight HIV, not people using drugs” screamed the crowd. 
            “The war on drugs is war on us!”
            “Sex worker rights are human rights!”           

Mindy C. at the Harm Reduction March!

            My friend Mindy Chateauvert marched along with the group.  Her work, “Sluts Unite! Stories of Sex Workers Fighting for Respect and Justice is coming out next year.  “Sex workers are banned from the US and the International Conference!” she explained when I asked why she was here.  She was at the action to fight the ban.  Without an activist presence inside, much of the topic is being whitewashed from the conference.  This did not keep her from screaming with righteous anger.

            My friend Trevor Hoppe was on hand to speak out as well as speak about the push to criminalize HIV disclosure
            In between zaps decrying the politic donations of UPS and Wells Fargo, I spoke with Ken of ACT UP.  “Do you think this is an industry gathering or a strategy session to stop the epidemic?”  I asked him.  The former he answered.  He noted he was in the streets to get the IAC to pay attention. 

            Walking through the convergence of housing, syringe exchange, sex work, and immigration activists, I was impressed with the picture of what AIDS/Queer activism could look like in the streets. 

Harm reduction activists have pushed AIDS /queer activism in countless directions!

            Wearing a statue of liberty hat decrying the sex workers locked out of the US, Julie Davids noted that she was happy to see so many groups and movements intersecting.  “It shows HIV is an intersectional form of activism.”  We talked about the push for a cure, which she seemed to think, was real, thanks to activists who were pushing for it.

            Walking towards the White House, I heard someone scream.
            “We’re fired up!”
“Can’t take it no more!” the crowd responded.  It was my old friend Eddy from CitiWide and now NYHRE, losing his voice. All the marches were now intersecting.

            Walking up to the White House, I saw Greg Bordowitz filming the event, as he has for decades now.


            Sean Strub walked by.  His activism has really pushed activists to push the fight against HIV criminalization.  He was standing with Susanne Braun Levine, a writer whose subject is friendships.  For me, this is what AIDS activism is all about.  Whenever I see Sean we recall our friend Steven Gendin.  Strub showed me a full paper list of friends he was remembering at the Names Quilt display earlier on.  Levine and I shared some thought about this brand of friendship.  We are all stronger and better able to cope with life when we have friends around, she explained.  It is a point Victor Frankyl made.  And certainly this applies to the AIDS struggle, like much of life.  Her point of course was that girlfriends, friends, are good for your health.  I could not agree more.

Jack, Peter and the author hanging out by Liz Highleyman

            Walking through the crowd, I saw my friends Peter and Jack of  Le Petit Versailles Community Garden in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  I sat with the two of them, greeting chums such as Liz Highleyman and Felix, a fierce activist who bridges AIDS activist, Occupy and Faerie circles in New York.  Jack and I talked about the friends who have come and what the world would be like if they were still around.  “It was just a matter of course to become AIDS activists,” explained Jack who lived in the East Village at the virus first raged.  “All our friends were dying.”  Peter noted that he just wanted some kind of an acknowledgement that this is still going on, that AIDS is not over.
Felix at Occupride. Photo by Mickey Z

Felix chilled out.  Intersecting between Occupy, VOCAL, and  Faerie circles he is one of a kind.

Had a great talk with Felix, Peter and Jack!

            “I think they will find a functional cure,” noted Highleyman, my former copy editor and friend.  “Not eradicate it.”  Just behind us lay a banner from the AIDSPolicyProject, who have pushed for the government to tripled it funding for cure research.  They hope the NIH will quadruple this to $240 million per year.  

Amanda Lugg was speaking:  “You  cannot end AIDS without human rights.”  She concurred that a cure was on the horizon. But, she asked: “Are we on track?”  No one was really sure.  “We need agreements to get people drugs, not trade agreements or campaign donations.”

Amanda Lugg speaking by Kaytee Riek

Walking over for the scripted CD, I saw Eric Sawyer who walked along with Felix and I.  Eric is one of the hero’s of this whole battle, still at it after so many years and struggles, with ACT UP, Housing Works, and Healthgap. 

This author and Eric Sawyer photo by Liz Highleyman

“We are people with AIDS! We are alive!” screamed a speaker as we left to roars of the crowd.

Michael Tikili leaving a message for the White House by Liz Highleyman

At the White House, Charles King, Eustacia Smith and Michael Tikili stood with other activists putting ribbons and messages from those gone.  Police swarmed and a few marshals pushed to get people to move away.  “I guess this is it,” noted Sawyer as we were guided away.
Eddie and Imani Henry and a number of others were dismayed at the way the crowed was pushed back, even by supporters  “We need to have a little chaos” noted Eddie.  Really.

            Yet, sometimes it is hard to fight as much as remember.  Standing there, I saw Raffi, now running a syringe exchange in Puerto Rico.  And we talked about our friend Michael who just died. 

            Walking away, I strolled into Gina Quattrochi, the Executive Director of Baily House.  I asked her how it had gone inside the sessions.  “They used the words structural drivers of the epidemic several times,” noted Quattrochi.  That was a surprise. Words such as social determinants in health are not a common part of the parlance, she explained, at least not in these sessions.  Yet, all that might be changing.  “We have to end poverty to end the AIDS epidemic,” the head of the World Bank said.  And there was even a Housing Summit, where delegates talked about housing at prevention, a well supported argument made by housing providers for decades now.  So maybe things might be changing.  “It only took thirty years.”  

Fight Poverty, Fight AIDS, Tax Wall Street!

            With horses separating activists from the White House, one activist suggested this was the perfect visual image for the White House’s approach – distancing itself from the movement and voices of people with HIV/AIDS. 

Horses separating us from the White House.

            “We can end AIDS now” the crowd roared.

There are a range of feelings which accompany such a day.  “Thanks to the LGBT community's early demands for the accelerated approval of medicines and universal access to treatment, today eight million people in low- and middle-income countries are alive and on HIV treatment. They have secured the right to health for millions,” Eric Sawyer would later post to the ACT UP Alumni page on facebook.  The historic impact of ACT-UP -- the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power -- cannot be underestimated. 

Eric S. and the this author. 

            On  my way back to the bus, I ran the man talked to in Delaware.  Some were smoking; others eating ice cream and getting on the buses.  I asked how it had gone for him. Pretty good, he said.  How about you? He asked.  Eh.  “A little disappointed,” he noted.  Yea. Take care. And I got on our bus. I was reminded of my first AIDS demonstration two decades prior.  I recalled the excitement of the trip to Sacramento when possibly starts the day.  One feels or hopes this thing might end.  We spread ashes of loved ones lost to the epidemic on the steps of the state house.  Horses rushed us.  People were trampled and arrested, and we went home, and crashed.  Looking at the sleeping activists on the bus home, I thought of the trip home from my first AIDS demo in Sacramento, the same look of the tired bodies, cozy, crumbled into each other, embracing the same fatigue, the same effort to fight off an illness which in so many ways is life itself.   The epidemic was still with us, is still with us.  And so are the memories of the comrades passed, as well as comrades remaining. 

Some friends leave a message at the White House by Peewee Nyob


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Travelogue Oxford

The ostensible reason for my trip to Oxford was to take part in the first global conference on play, the subject of my research for the last eight years.  But, as always, these conference trips to Britain are usually a chance to explore, see a few things, and catch up with friends.

Yet, this one felt special.  I left last Monday with a pile of uncompleted manuscripts in my bag for editing on the plane.  I love the chance for uninterrupted writing and thinking afforded flights across the ocean.  The open luminal space between one world and another, in between the time change and destination, opens new ways of seeing things.

I read through my friendship manuscript, imagining things about my father’s best friend from college as I wondered through customs, out of Heathrow, into my train to Paddington, and off to Oxford.  Wandering the streets of an age old city such as this, I feel like I am navigating a space between time and Technicolor, movies of my childhood and conferences of my adult years, where my steps follow in the footpaths of legends, myths and movies. 

Wandering through the haze of history at Oxford.  Photo by James Rogers. 

My friend Rob dropped by to visit.  He’s lived in the UK for several years now, after spending the better part of two decades in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  We talked about the riots and history of Oxford when the townies rebelled against the drunk students enjoying free tuition and full access to the pubs of the city. The author of the Gravedigger, Rob is one my best friends and certainly one of the only persons from college with whom I am still in touch.  After driving the van from college Rugby games throughout Southern California, Rob played the sober observer to my college drunken revelry, bonding, and transgressions with the other Rugby players and fans.  That summer, he visited me Dallas, staying at my house on Nakoma Drive in Dallas, making buddies with Essie, our housekeeper, enjoying an omelet and a conversation.  The implicit message of the visit was that he took my life seriously and we were friends.  Over the years, we’ve hung out in San Francisco, driving North from LA listening to Arlo Guthrie and Madonna.  Others meetings took place on Winter days in Philadelphia, New York, and even to the Oxford like surroundings of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tn, where my Dad once taught and Rob was the recipient of the Sewanee award for first time novelists.  On that trip, we sat in the cemetery where  confederate soldiers lay.  As usual, we talked about our favorite authors.  One of my heroes is Sewanee’s own Walker Percy, whose novels the Moviegoer and  Love in the Ruins, and his accounts of a fallen Catholic, lapsed from god and himself.  His writings profoundly, influenced my growing up.  Walking through Oxford’s historic streets and pubs, Rob and I made our way past Blackwell’s bookshop, Radcliffe Camera, and the New Bedleian Library where my mom once studied manuscripts for her dissertation.  Our we drank at the Turf Tavern, a 13th century ale house on Bath Place, where we talked about the politics of friendship, the subject of my recent writings and a possible new manuscript. Rob suggested I look to Plato’s writings.  We talked literary friendships as well as our own on the way to the Bear Inn, the oldest pub in Oxford.  And grabbed a nightcap at the Head of the River on Folly Bridge.  

Walking up to Mansfield College where the conference was being held, I stumbled upon a billboard with an image of kids playing basketball, declaring children have a right to play. This  should be a rightful part of growing and learning, as the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child notes:

Looking at those words, my mind traced back to the days when I first interviewed for academic jobs. And few understood that play was a vehicle for imagination and healthy expression.  Half the interview committees thought the topic of play was just too frivolous.  

Photo by James Rogers. 

At the conference I spoke on a panel with some of my favorite theorists of play.  Walking away from the session, it felt like our time has come as researchers of play.

The rest of the week, I listened to other talks as our conversation expanded into conversations about play in relation to a world increasingly dominated by work and the way people around the world are building communities and resisting controls with their play.

Several in the conference highlighted the work of Right to Play, an organization whose mission is:

Yet, for these children to have a space to play, we will need to create a world with less war, violence, and pollution.  A tall order, but the politics of play must extend into a less restricted polluted geography. There is more to play than play, just as there is more to sexuality than sex.

At night, other friends came to talk. I limed with a few buddies from Trinidad.   My buddy James and I met Matteo in London for a night of carrying on and romping around Piccadilly Circus. Majestic London felt like a global city, teeming in history, which we enjoyed as romped through the West End. 

And the next day, I was back to New York for Bastille Day with the kids.  Standing on the roof at the Met looking out at the ring of trees sounding the museum in Central Park, and the buildings in the distance, I was glad to be back.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

From Friendship and Worldmaking: A Brief Review Essay on Tom Roach’s Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS and the Politics of Shared Estrangement SUNY Press. 212 pages

This week was a wonderful week for celebrating friendships. I reveled in celebrating the 25th birthday for one of my favorite groups, Times Up! The next day, a small group of us got together to cheer the birthday of one of the most iconic activists in town, Monica Hunken. Later that night, Hunken and her community of friends from Times Up! rode to Coney Island for a midnight swim.  After her birthday, she wrote: " Thank you everyone for the birthday messages yesterday. I am hugely grateful to have the strong, beautiful community of friends that I have. You all make my life sparkle."  Lately, I've spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of friendship, including the short essay to follow.  I first started thinking about writing about friendship after my friend Eric Rofes died in 2006, only a few weeks after we'd taken a part on a panel together in California.   Friendship is the nexus between individual and community experience, my college advisor Peter Nardi wrote in 1999.  Since I became an activist, the friendships I have enjoyed have helped propel movement making as well as my personal happiness. They are some of the most important things I have.  I will probably write about this more so your feedback on this essay are most welcome.

            Friendship as a Way of Life is a pulsing and intriguing volume.  While some of the early chapters stumble through cumbersome academic prose and well rehearsed critiques of identity based social movements, the work eventually finds its stride as a conversation about friendship, queer activism, and Michel Foucault.  The theme takes shape through a number of late interviews and lectures with the philosopher.  The work’s title refers to a 1981 interview of Michel Foucault in the gay magazine Le Gay Pied.  Early in the interview Foucault addresses the readers of the magazine:

My favorite line in the interview calls for us to enjoy a  “multiplicity of relationships.”  This is a tall order.  In many ways, this is what living well is about.
Tom Roach considers Foucault’s short but suggestive writings on friendship, emphasizing their ethical implications and advancing a the concept of friendship as shared estrangement. He explores the potential of this model for understanding not only social movements such as ACT UP and the AIDS buddy system, but the engaged praxis of AIDS activist and writer David Wojnarowicz, who called for activists to rage rather than mourn for each friend lost to the epidemic.  This is an important message.  My first two demonstrations with ACT UP, in Sacramento and Washington DC involved watching the ashes of dead friends strewn on the front of spaces of political power. It is difficult to describe the visceral quality of these actions. Many AIDS activists recall the AIDS political funeral as a poignant and powerful means for exposing the injustices, bringing the steaks of the AIDS crisis into full public view.  The point of course was that friendship extends beyond sex, illness, pleasure, loss, memor, movement practices, and life itself.  Entwined within the AIDS crisis, it was a practice involving all these things.  Such approaches to engagement “transform[ed] friendship and shared estrangement into a mode of biopolitical resistance that breaches the boundaries of gender, race, class, and generation and that encourages radically democratic forms of citizenship and civic participation,” notes Roach (p. 12).  “The politicization of friendship… in AIDS care giving and activism offers a powerful model for biopolitical formations unwedded to the dialectic of identity and difference – precisely the model to combat the social movement life in the age of empire,” (P. 12).  
Of course, many writers have made a similar arguments about the capacities of friendship to transform social relations.  “Democracy has seldom represented itself without the possibility  of at least that which always resembles – if one is able to nudge the accent of this word – the possibility of a fraternization,” notes Jaques  Derrida (1997, 2005 viii). “Here, women and men, sisters and brothers, friends appeal… from fact to law, from law to justice” (p. xi).  The point, of course is that friendship is a vital source of connection, a means of staving off alienated social relations.  In this way, friendship opens space for resistance to social mores. Here, social movements attempt to fight institutional organization of our everyday, of our social world, favoring “the creation  of unconventional  forms of union and community,” (Roach, p. 14).  In this way, friendship opens a space for alternatives to institutionalized forms of world making, marriage, and social bonds.  Rather than private pleasure, friendship leaves open a blurry space between different forms of desire, experience and expression, allowing a communal relation between self and other, individual and community.  Here, “affective gestures…refuse alignment” along any one significant social or cultural axes, notes Leela Gandi in Affective Communities (p. 10).  This practice involves experimenting with new forms of social organizing, ideas, and conversations, blurring lines between space, sexuality, ways of being, and remembering. It is a way of building a new world out of an uneasy, in between space.  
This luminal space is only enhanced by the very real recognition that loss of friends to the AIDS, overdose, cancer or any other crisis is neither escapable or avoidable.  Certainly all that is solid melts into the air.  Everything is temporary.  AIDS helped us witness the specter of death and loss in raw visceral way, creating a new way of creating a connection between self and other, friend and community experience a foxhole comradery in a shared loss exercise of the everyday, a “shared estrangement” which helps living feel immediate and often deliscious (Roach, 2012, p. 41).
Researching my first book two decades ago, I interviewed San Franciscans about their experience with Gay Liberation and HIV/AIDS.  Of all the losses, people endured, it was the fabric of friendship disappearing which wore at those I interviewed.  It was opening a book of photos and seeing that most of the images of friends from pride parades throughout the years from Harvey Milk to the mid-1990’s, hundreds of those friends are gone. “All gone,” one interviewee recalled.  Hundreds of acquaintances, tricks, friends and organizing comrades were lost to those years.  Hank Wilson is an activist who bridged the years of activism from the Harvey Milk era of the early 1970’s through the ebb and flow of AIDS activism in the mid-2000’s.  He recalled friends he used to trust when he entered a community meeting.

I see some incredibly strong people who aren't here.  I have a lot of sadness.  I have people that I used to call up at night and we would bullshit and talk.  I don't have people like that now.  That was fun and I still remember that.  I still value that.  They are a strength.  I think we were very lucky.  I've been very lucky.  I've worked with some incredible people.  I think at one time we magnetized a lot of people who came here who had a lot of vision and we fed on each other's energy.  I remember a group of people who moved this community forward who didn't have personal agendas, who asked the hard questions when they needed to be asked, who were not career people.  They weren't career politicians or career in the industry.  That really helped.  It helped.  It used to be that I would go to a community meeting and I would look around and I would see two or three honest ethical people in there.  It didn't matter, you knew if they were present.  I still think of them when I go to a meeting and I want to be powerful or do what's right even if it's not popular.  They're my role models.   We gave each other support and not before the meeting.  We're at the right place at the right time to make history and we have been since the '70s and we still are.  This is what's been very special about San Francisco….  Where's the collective memory?  Where does what we did help the next generation?  Right now, on that particular issue, I feel really sad.  I also want people to know, like on the teacher victory, we knocked doors down!  Nobody opened the doors. We knocked them down. Institutionally, we really need to teach people our history.  I really want people to know that history.  We've been lucky because we've done it here and whatever we do here gets credit for gay people.  If we can make a model city, we benefit (Shepard, 1997).

In Wilson’s narrative, loss extended from friendships to collective memory and activist practices.
Foucault, was of course, a part of the social movements of the same period in which Wilson refers.  His writings on power informed ACT UP, while this support for groups GIP (Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons) took shape through his advocacy for those in the movement to find their own voices, needs, desires, and give them expression.  The point of much of his thinking and activism was to lay out questions rather than directives; power could be found in multiple voices of the body of the group, not from the analysis of one charismatic leader.  This disposition, was of course, part of how he supported friendship as a way transforming social relations.  Foucault rarely tells what readers what friendship means or how to make sense of it.  Rather than dictate the implications of friendships for queer activism, he asks readers of an interview with him in French gay magazine Gai Pied to think about what it means to them.  Here friendship is delinked from sexuality as well as connected to it.  Such friendships could be “the sum of everything that moves between one and the other, everything that gives them pleasure” if even “without form” (P. 44-5).  In other words, his descriptions of such friendships were completely amorphous; his definition vague. For Foucault, friendship was a vital element of queer politics; while sex and friendship are not opposed, the ties that bond might be best described in terms of communities of friends.  Most certainly friendship finds its way into movements including civil rights and women’s rights, yet gay liberation – a movement born of a denial of access to legal forms of social bonds -  had a unique claim to this disposition.  While marriage is not an option for queers in most of the world, friendship, however imperfect, always has been.  Without defining what this friendship could mean, he implies this practice entails the formation of new models of ethics (p. 44-5). 
               Most certainly, these new ways of living take shape in the webs of organizing, activism, cruising, hanging out, friendships extending through queer New York City.  For many years in New York, I used to meet a group of friends from harm reduction, AIDS, sexual civil liberties, anarchist, and reproductive rights circles at a bar in the East Village of New York called Dicks. We’d meet at Dicks at six.  It was a exquisitely tacky gay bar with a great juke box of 1980’s dance hall hits, some punk and even a few Velvet Underground tunes, a pool table, and bath rooms where all sorts of things used to go on.  Between whisky and vodka cranberries, we shared conversations about the intricacies of syringe exchange, the loss of friendships, sexuality, cocaine, Gay Liberation, ascending and descending movements, the limitations of queer politics and recollections of demonstrations.  Many of those conversations started for me after the Matthew Shepard political funeral of 1998 when thousands of queer activists overflowed into the streets of New York City, only to be thwarted, arrested and even beaten by the police.  One friend had had  his hand stepped on by a horse from the NYPD and later won a significant legal settlement from the city.  For years we put together the details of the night. In jail, I met trans icons Leslie Feinberg and Sylvia Rivera, AIDS activists Charles King and Keith Cylar and so many more.  For years, we shared stories about who went to jail and who stayed in outside.  Different participants hashed through the details of the night for months. Throughout these stories, we were creating our own collective memory. My friend Ranolfe Wicker stayed outside.  “Oh, it was incredible,” Wicker mused in a typical recollection of the evening.

There was the march over the avenue and at one point they said Times Square.  It was very interesting.  The police had picked off the leadership.  And so we were marching towards Times Square.  People were mad and if they had done that someone would have died.  So, instead they listened to what was left of the leaders and went back down to Fifth Ave.  They even grabbed one of the MCC Ministers that was in a wheel chair, took her into custody and parishners surrounded the truck and made them release her.  And I was carrying this sign and wearing my American flag shirt.  When I got down to the park, it was unbelievable.  We took over the avenue.  And there was thirty police trucks.  What did they think we were going to do – burn down the city?  They had six hundred cops.  What was really frightening, we were blocked on 45th street and they wouldn’t let us go on 6th Avenue and that was when the police horses rushed into the crowd.  And it was this incredible feeling that you were in a canyon.  And you were fenced in in the front and the back.  And all I could think of were the Jews going into Auschwitz.  We were totally blocked, like captives.  No one was going anywhere (Wicker, 2006).

 Over and over, we listened to these stories and others from the era from ACT UP to the Seattle WTO meetings of the following fall.  Through the teller and listener, of course, new worlds take shape (Plummer, 1995).  As we told stories, shared experiences, commiserated, and hung out, we reveled in the “desire –in-uneasiness” of friendship (p. 45), not that most of any of us were talking much about Foucault.  But some of us did, ever more aware of the panopticon forming around us in Giuliani’s New York.  Instead of defining anything, it was up to us to help design, experiment, and create new arenas for resistance, pleasure, expression, eros, and even an ethics of care which reduced harm and allowed for the safe expression of desire.  It was up to us to establish and push the limits of the conditions and possibilities of friendship.  Rather than follow traditional models, it was up to us to establish new moral codes.  “
Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any other ethics than,” argued Foucault in On the Genealogy of Morals. “They need a new ethics, but they cannot find any other  ethics than an ethics founded  in a so-called  scientific  knowledge of what the self is…” (p.48).  The point of social movements is of course to do just this.  “People over profits,” AIDS activists have declared for a quarter century of fighting drug company greed.  “Human bonds are worth more than treasury bonds,” Occupy Wall Street supporter Austin Guest declared on a sign he carried in April 2012.  And the queer activists from my Friday night meetings at Dicks at Six, they helped create a new ethical framework linking HIV prevention with reproductive autonomy, suggesting both had to do with self determination of bodies.  Prohibition was dangerous, we acknowledged.  Yet, so were unwanted pregnancies, HIV and drug overdose.  So, we aimed to celebrate sexual self determination and autonomy, as well as safe, less risky forms of expression.  The implicit links between the ethics of the women’s health movement, HIV prevention, harm reduction and queer theory are many.  The frameworks for action took took shape through networks of bodies, affinity groups, projects and collectives of the era.  Throughout these constellations, relational boundaries blurred, as sexuality was delinked from friendship. 
Foucault’s recognition of a delinking and subsequent blurring of sexuality is a theme dating back to Homer’s Illiad.  

And the games broke up, and the people scattered to go away, each man
to his fast-running ship, and the rest of them took thought of their dinner
and of sweet sleep and its enjoyment; only Achilleus wept still as he remembered his beloved companion, nor did sleep who subdues all come over him, but he tossed from one side to the other in longing for Patroklos, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters. (Homer /Latimore, 24.1-8)

It is hard not to think feelings are blurring between friendship and eros in Achilleus’ longing.  Yet, these musings open a new set up opportunities for new social relations within a theme of friendship runs through the narrative. Throughout the epic narrative, friendship transforms relationships and conflict itself.  “Guest friendship” inspired enemies to exchange armor rather than rage against each other. “Let us avoid each other's spears, even in the close fighting” (Homer/ Latimore, 24. 229).  Hector emphasized the same point to Aias. “Come then, let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us: "These two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted."' (Homer / Latimore,7.299-302).  War is seen as inevitable, yet the loss of friendships must not be.  Yet it often is.  Life could be beautiful it rarely is.  
            In a 2002 interview, Sarah Schulman suggested that the losses as result of the AIDS epidemic would consume the most innovative minds of our generation.  The brightest, most creative minds were lost first.  Over time, one gets the sense that these losses are going to be part of an exercise in modern living. Many find themselves isolated from communities, sitting looking at computer screens, and isolated from their own labor. Friends come and disappear. In this way, modern living is an ongoing loss exercise.   This is an exercise in which all that is solid melts into the air. People are forced to move away from communities of origin and belonging to find work or less violent communities in which to build their lives.  This was the dream of the migrants I knew to San Francisco.  Yet, even there violence was everywhere.  “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”  These are some of the most famous lines from Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.  In them, Ginsberg highlights the intersection of friendship, poetry and interconnections between personal ties and social networks. Struggling against isolation, people build new friendships and networks which provide sustenance.  These are spaces for experimentation and innovations in practice of self in relation to other, where Foucault suggests, friendship is a way of life.  Tom Roach has done an inspiring job of reminding us how there is to consider within the elliptical references Foucault made to friendship in his lectures and interviews.  His reading of the politics and practice of friendship is apt and important.  It is a practice which helped ACT UP thrive in its best days, as it does for OWS and other thriving movements today.  Here the intersection of friendship, harm reduction, and support make participation in social movements a vital.  Through the intersection between individual and community, we hope they can find full expression for new ideas and innovations.  Yet, we also worry about our friends, the inevitable risks and the losses which follow.  Over the years, these friendships take on any number of different meanings, particularly as many are lost.  Sometimes they fade; in others those we care about fade away, sometimes in front of our ideas.  Here, supporting friends and protecting friendship  becomes a way of life.  Loss exercises are a way of life. 

Additional References 
Derrida, J. 1997. The Politics of Friendship.  New York: Verso
Foucault, M. 1981.  Friendship as a Way of Life.  Interview for Le Gai Pied conducted by R. de Ceccaty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux Trans J. Johnson. 
   Accessed from
Gandi, L. 2006. Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin De Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship.  Duke: North Carolina. 
Homer. 1951.  The Illiad of Homer.  Trans Richard Latimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Plummer, Ken. 1995.  Telling Sexual Stories. New York: Routledge.  
Shepard, B. 2002.  The Reproductive Rights Movement, ACT UP, and the Lesbian Avengers: An Interview with Sarah Schulman.  In Eds. Shepard, Benjamin and Hayduk, Ron.  From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization.  New York: Verso
Shepard,B. 1997 White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic.  Cassell: London.  
Wicker, Randy. 2006.  Oral history interview with the author.