Health is Freedom
One hundred years before the onslaught of AIDS, James Kent, a brilliant philosopher and homeopathic doctor, defined health as freedom.
Now that HIV stigma has been institutionalized to the point of criminalization, Poz people are under attack by our own judicial system for not disclosing our status with sexual partners. To be healthy one needs to burn fever bright to fight off the oppressor within and without. To be healthy we need to fight for our mutual rights to be free.
From a psychological perspective when we deny pain, life goes sideways; we create or are vulnerable to negative external circumstances. Pain also enters our dream state where the unconscious attempts to reveal that which has been denied. Chronic denial leads to repression. What we repress we then project outward, onto the world. We see and are seen as the other. We lose our we. I want my ‘we’ back.
Wet dream from hell
Enter if you will my shadowy dreamscape: imagine, row upon row, black and white striped chain gangs forced to do the ‘walk of shame’ down Pride Parade routes all over North America. Hot n’ sweaty former disco queens, their once manicured feet calloused as they sport loudly clanging chains.
Behind them they drag an enormous lead ball that reads "Sex Offenders: 10 years + for non-disclosure". As they pass by we see HIV+ roughly branded over their once man-scaped chests, fresh whip marks slashed across their backs. Former gym sculpted, testosterone-laden bodies’ now broken, scarred with track marks from weekly anti-psychotic medications.
Of course, I’m not in the line-up. Yet. I am the bystander horrified and fascinated by the wreckage of our once proud GLBT movement. I panic. Daring to believe that history could save us from chaos I desperately try to remember when we lost our dignity, our cultural inheritance of righteous resistance.
Was it the assassination of Harvey Milk? No. We rose up against the oppressors then. The AIDS genocide began soon after his murder. Are we rising up against each other? Think! Rocks fly out of the crowd. I scream: “Remember Stonewall!” We rose up against the oppressors then. Then I recall the horror of reading last fall that a gay man was bashed in the bathroom of Stonewall Pub.
Around me, I try to tell people about Aaron Webster, the gay man murdered in Vancouver’s Stanley Park ten years ago, how some suburban gays now blame him for his own murder. This sick fantasy turns all Nightmare on Davies Street. Now it’s too late.
In the early years of the millennium we didn’t fight back when it was mostly Poz black hetero men and aboriginal women who stood in the police line-ups for not disclosing their status. We were just catching our breath from the horror of AIDS.
A few years passed, marriage rights were won. Then I heard from some gay men that being gay was passé. Had mainstream privilege put us to sleep? Had we lost our social justice edge? Did AIDS kill off all our frontline wyrd-warriors? Others aged and disappeared. Forgetting our fierce history the rest of us stepped to the sidewalk. We assimilated. We repressed our fabulous selves and the world withered and turned dark.
Chaos before change
I try to escape with nowhere to go. Everywhere I turn I see the same cattle-like branding. We are all branded HIV-positive. We are all criminals. Rights? What rights! Lawyers counselled people not to get tested lest they too be put in jail…the virus mutates again and again…a tsunami of new infections…more and more private jails needed… I scream, “It’s not my fault!” I plead, “I was a good boy. I am innocent!” Aren’t I?
Daily headlines make me doubt myself. It was my fault. On my wrist a barcode: I’m a statistic. Statistics get manipulated. The crowd mindlessly attacks. Rainbow flags get torn down and replaced with blood stained pink triangles. Behind the swelling street mob, up in the stands, the lawmakers dance maniacally; the über-elite sip champagne and congratulate themselves. Gladiator thumbs squash us down and chant, “Die!”
As I fall, just before I wake up, I say to nobody, “We wanted to love. We wanted to be loved.”
I could grumble and say, “I need to change my meds. These violent dreams are killing me,” or I could say, “These dark visions upset me enough to wake me up.” I hate feeling powerless. Who doesn’t? My mind curdles at the thought of someone clutching my fate with distant hands.
I seethe at the thought of four new Harperites sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court deciding our fate as their first major case. This sex-starved Poz faggot is about to erupt from pent-up frustration.
Like my dream I don’t know where to turn. In Victoria, I haven’t found a gay male therapist. The Poz support group I finally got my ass to? No one showed up. With some of my gay negative brothers I feel patronized when I get political.
While wonderfully appreciated at the AIDS Service Organization I work for, as the only gay man and the only Poz person on staff, when it comes to criminalization I often feel too close, too vulnerable, too alone to get strategic about these issues.
Breaking ‘out’ of the self-imposed prison
As one smart female epidemiologist stated at the BC Gay Men’s Health Summit last November, to disclose one’s HIV status is to self-quarantine.
Stigma turns and locks the key. We need to break out. The money used to throw us in jail must be used to find a cure! We need renewed collective action. This fight has always been about denied human rights. Alice Walker wrote: resistance is the secret to joy. Let’s rise up in joy.
Too many friends have died for our freedom. The politics and legality of HIV disclosure slaps us awake again. It shoves our red stinging face in the direction of collective action. We are neither victim nor criminal. We were infected. We were tested. We got on meds. We are not infecting others. Did we charge those who infected us? No! Our anger demands respect. Everyone needs to ‘Ask and Tell’.
Standing up for our rights and the rights of others is the responsibility of every generation. Yes, this includes disclosing or learning how, yes, this includes the long hard road of social education, yes, this includes forgiving ourselves, each other, standing up and once again proclaiming, “Poz and Proud!”
It also means thanking all our amazing allies who once again stand with us in this fight because they know shared human rights benefits us all. They know that when one person loses their rights we all lose.
Dark before dawning light
In my dreams I’m looking for the us again. I want my freedom back. To find it I must want all of us to be healthy. I need to de-stigmatize my world, inside and out. The shared road to freedom enlivens us as a community.
The danger lies when the loneliness, when the anger turns in on itself, triggering an avalanche of shame. A former Poz lover hung himself last week. Like many of us he exuded a bright, kind heart. He just couldn’t do it anymore. There was nowhere to go. His world caved in on itself. His downtown Vancouver hotel room became his prison. He was so very beautiful, and haunted. Now, he’s free. Another queer positive man paid the ultimate price.
Help. In asking others for help to wake others up I am helping myself wake up. For me writing helps. Dancing up an endorphin drenched sweat helps. Making love helps. Making love heals. Ranting with my four Poz buds helps.
Like gathering around the glow of a hot bon-fire, the flame of well-tended anger can be mutually supportive, even liberating. Healthy anger re-establishes healthy boundaries. Creative anger focuses necessary actions and gives us the energy needed to make change happen. James Kent called it way back when. When we are free to express our multi-faceted imperfect selves, the bells of freedom ring loud enough for everyone to hear and heal.
Robert Birch is the new Men`s Wellness Coordinator for AIDS Vancouver Island, B.C. He is also one of the founders of the Southern Gulf Island AIDS Society. As an Assistant Professor (adjunct) at the University of Victoria he engages applied theatre to research the lives and wellbeing of men who love or lust for men. Along with his farmer husband, he lives on Saltspring Island, works in Victoria and plays with his activist community of Radical Faeries and Reclaiming witches in San Francisco and along the west coast.