A Clear and Present Danger: “HIV/AIDS Now” in the Era of President Trump?
December 2, 2016
by Alex Fialho
“What happens to health care, housing, culture and other basic needs for survival after inauguration?” Curator and organizer Ted Kerr projected this and many other pressing questions during his presentation for Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found, just two days after the polarizing election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States. Kerr’s questions voiced the very clear and present danger felt by most if not all in the room during the November 10th panel, titled A Matter of Urgency and Agency: HIV/AIDS Now—the fear of the reality that Trump’s bigoted opinions will turn into federal policy for the next four years. The event provided an opportunity for activists closely involved in HIV/AIDS organizing to speak their perspectives on contemporary issues. The fact that Trump said next to nothing about HIV/AIDS policy during his campaign, or his lifetime for that matter, coupled with his narrow-minded stance on countless other issues has left most at a deeply pessimistic loss for what the future holds; as panel organizer Jaime Shearn Coan put it, given the outcome of the election: “Urgency just got a lot more urgent.”
In the context of Danspace Project, with its focus on the somatic experience of dance and the body, many of the panelists grounded their initial reactions to Trump’s election in visceral considerations. Dance artist and death doula iele paloumpis noted that they had spent the better part of the hours since the election “walking around as if I’m out of my body, flung above myself”; in response, paloumpis began the evening with a simple breathing exercise that seemed to ease some of the pervasive anxiety in the room and ground the conversation to follow. Artist and scholar Robert Sember spoke to his feeling of “a sense of one’s body as up against this moment in history,” calling into question the notion that one gets to “choose their politics” and pointing to the white supremacist privilege behind such a concept. Instead, Sember claimed that it is an embodied historical consciousness that informs the tangible stakes of our various subject positions. Sember quoted activist Ruby Sales’ question “Where does it hurt?” as a compelling way to center human dynamics, particularly the loss, grief and anger felt in the wake of the election.
Sember also aptly noted a historical shift in the AIDS movement over time: AIDS activism that began in an emancipation struggle has, from Sember’s perspective, been redirected to a more managerial extension of the state, away from the liberation of the poor to the management (and surveillance) of their lives within the non-profit industrial complex. Points made from other panelists provided a response to Sember’s prompt, raising possible processes and priorities moving forward. Writer and activist Kenyon Farrow spoke of black men who have sex with men, particularly those in the South, as vulnerable populations that required attention, while iele paloumpis brought disability studies into the dialogue, holding space for an intersectional model of interdependent care. Jawanza James Williams, of Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), highlighted his organization’s mandate that those directly impacted by policy need to be meaningfully involved in every step of the policymaking that affects them. Williams also spoke emphatically of Trump as an embodiment of the virulent violence of white supremacist ideology against which he and VOCAL’s grassroots work so ardently organizes.
Uncertainties about access to treatment and anxieties concerning insurance coverage were raised often throughout the conversation. Sember highlighted lessons learned from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its failures, noting “the incapacity of the market to deal with questions of injustice and well-being.” Shoring up social safety net programs in the interim period before inauguration as well as doubling down on state level policy during Trump’s presidency were discussed as issues of paramount importance. (In the days since the election, New York Governor Cuomo’s public statement of New York as a “refuge” for minorities provided what will hopefully be the first of many welcomed governmental responses at the state and local level.) Kerr also raised additional fundamental questions about access and treatment, including “Will there be less incentive to access care? To get tested? To inquire about PrEP? To follow up with care?”
Indeed, perhaps because of the newness of the reality of President-elect Donald J. Trump, questions seemed to resonate more powerfully than answers throughout the evening. paloumpis grounded their discussion in the question of how to make movements that are truly sustainable and inclusive. In response, Kerr spoke to their work together through the What Would An HIV Doula Do? collective as a way of considering how vulnerability as opposed to antagonism can be a model for types of activism. Kerr also asked: How will/must cultural responses and activism respond during the years to come?
In trying to rhetorically answer that question for myself, my mind jumped back to another Lost and Found Platform event a couple of weeks before the election, All Black/An Invitation, an evening of performance and spoken word poetry curated by Pamela Sneed. The intergenerational event brought together a host of artists of color whose dynamic performances raised wide-ranging concerns about topics ranging from gun violence to suicide within the trans community. The searing, moving language that came from the words of the involved readers—Carmelita Tropicana, Terence Taylor, Timothy DuWhite, YaYa Mckoy, Kia Labeija and Pamela Sneed—provided incisive perspective and a helpful model for these trying times: that raising our voices in fitful resistance is a method of standing up against this immense letdown of political “representation.” #notmypresident
* I dedicate this and all of my responses as writer-in-residence for Danspace’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found to the late Buzz Bense, who passed away on November 19, 2016; coincidentally, the final day of Platform 2016: Lost and Found. Buzz was an ardent activist, seasoned performer and sex-positive force in San Francisco throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis. He has been the single most influential gay mentor in my life, and working closely with Buzz to co-curate the exhibition “SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters” with Dorian Katz at the Center for Sex & Culture in 2013 was where I found my voice in relationship to writing about HIV/AIDS. If it weren’t for Buzz, I don’t think that any of my Danspace responses as writer-in-residence, or my work at Visual AIDS for that matter, would have happened. I am deeply grateful for his presence and impact on my life, and I miss him dearly already. [Alex Fialho]
Note: “A Clear and Present Danger” is a phrase from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Schenck v. United States (1919) that delineates possible limits on free speech (such as in wartime) as it is granted in the 1st amendment of the Constitution. [Constitutional Rights Association] (JSC)
As part of our online Journal, Danspace Project has invited artists, curators, scholars, historians and others in our community to contribute entries as Writers in Residence and guest Respondents. Each contributor has been offered an open invitation to respond to work presented by Danspace Project; writings gathered here do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Danspace Project, its artists, staff, or Board of Directors.