Sunday, June 28, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

Christopher Street: A Universal Symbol of Pride



Some of us may associate Christopher Street with New York City, the Village or Pride Parade, but over the years Christopher Street has become more of a universal symbol of Pride. The Stonewall riots of June 1969 have inspired people beyond New York City and the U.S. and resonated with individuals all around the world.
Balloons of rainbow colors form the Rainbow Flag at NYC Pride. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Balloons of rainbow colors form the Rainbow Flag at NYC Pride. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

The name of the event may vary from country to country-Gay Pride, pride parade and even Worldpride.  Europeans, for example, celebrate their Pride through Europride, an annual parade inaugurated in London, in 1992. In Germany it's known as Christopher Street Day or simply CSD.

Berlin, Germany. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. In 2010 I visited Berlin, for the first time after the fall of the Wall, for the first time, for me, as one unified city. Beautiful city, I might add.
Bremen and Berlin hosted the first German CSDs in 1979, while the first documented German LGBT parade took place in M¸nster, in 1972. CSD-related events start as early as May and continue until October in cities like Dresden, Frankfurt, Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg.
And a hint of Germany....Sylt Market Center. Sylt is a German Island, at the border between Germany and Denmark. Photo by Alina Oswald

Each year, CSD organizers strive to schedule the events at the end of June, but that is not always possible. Other happenings-like 2006 World Cup-can sometimes change their plans. Major cities like Cologne (with one of the largest CSD parades in Germany) and Berlin (which also hosts the larger Love Parade) schedule their CSDs in the July-August timeframe, while Hamburg plans its events at the beginning of August. CSD's name comes, indeed, from the actual Christopher Street in New York City.

For those interested in experiencing the German Pride this coming summer: CSD Munich is scheduled for July 27th, Berlin for June 23rd, Frankfurt Pride week is June 16th to June 24th and Hamburg's is planned for August 3rd to August 5th. Most Germans speak fluent English, so communication is no problem. Though knowing even a few words of German is much appreciated.  

The Rainbow Flag. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
The Rainbow Flag at Jersey City Pride Fest. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
A few months after its 2006 CSD, I put my own German language skills to test during my visit to Hamburg. A diverse city and second largest in Germany, Hamburg is located at the North Sea, at the junction of rivers Elbe and Alster, the latter forming two artificial lakes within the city: Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Aussenalster (Outer Alster). My guide, Sina (pronounced like the Warrior Princess), took me everywhere from the Warehouse District and Reeperbahn (the "Bourbon Street" of Hamburg) to Saint Georg District ("The Village" of Hamburg). 

Last August, Saint Georg marked the starting point of Hamburg's CSD parade. Sina was one of the four thousand participants who walked in the parade, all the way to Binnenalster. But the Inner Alster-with its famous dragon statue-didn't mark the end but rather the starting point to another CSD event in yet another city.  




Friday, June 26, 2015

From the Archives: The AIDS Museum
Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

NJ Hosts the Opening of the First Ever National AIDS Museum

Thailand has one and so does South Africa. Now the United States also has a National AIDS Museum. It opened with Eyes of Mercy art show on November 11th at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

Eyes of Mercy. AIDS Museum Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Eyes of Mercy. AIDS Museum Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
"It's important to me [to start here] because that's where I work-I'm an alumnus," Ashley Grosso, AIDS Museum Executive Director, explained at the opening event.
A Seton Hall graduate (with a major in diplomacy and international relations), Grosso is also a founding member of the Red Cross Club at the campus through which she became interested in HIV/AIDS. When members of the Club brought to school a panel of the AIDS memorial quilt, she became interested in using artwork as a tool to raise AIDS awareness and educate people about the pandemic-hence the idea of a National AIDS Museum. 

Eyes of Mercy showcases AIDS-inspired works of artists from across the country:
     Watercolor artist Bob Armstrong of New Jersey was present at the opening. He talked about AIDS prevention and shared his own survival stories. 
The AIDS Museum: Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The AIDS Museum: Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Photographer Kurt Weston of California has lost most of his sight to CMV retinitis. His displayed artwork deals with the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual. His Journey Through the Darkness is the exhibit's feature photograph. 
The National AIDS Museum will find a permanent home in Newark. But for now, the exhibit will travel across the country. Next stop-the New School, New York City.

For more about HIV, AIDS and other related works, please contact Alina Oswald and/or visit her online at Art, AIDS, & Others.

Friday, June 19, 2015

From the Archives: The Invisible People, a Book Review originally published in A&U Magazine

The Invisible People-How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time

By Greg Behrman
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Written in an accessible, And the Band Played On way, the story of The Invisible People reaches out to its audience offering a unique lesson in AIDS-its politics and history.  The book is the result of almost three years of Greg Behrman's detailed research gathered from more than two hundred interviews with approximately one hundred policy makers and thinkers.  Armed with two decades of studying AIDS, especially AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, the author explains the social, economical and political toll the disease takes on people and uses his book as a tool to raise AIDS awareness. 

The Invisible People explores the key reasons behind U.S. slow response-in comparison to other countries-to the global AIDS pandemic.  For example, President Bill Clinton dedicates most of his time and energy now to his AIDS foundation, yet, while he was president and had the incredible opportunity to take advantage of the global AIDS issue, he didn't.   The book reflects the author's passion to find out the reason behind this "a catastrophe in a catastrophe," as he calls the U.S. failure to try to understand and react to the global pandemic.  The book brings to life events surrounding pioneers like Doctor Joe McCormic, "the old virus hunter," and people with enough power to influence global and national AIDS awareness and to generate the political pressure needed to increase U.S. interest in the global pandemic.

The Disappearing Act. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
The Disappearing Act. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.


The book engages its readers in tracking down global AIDS through real life stories of medical doctors, politicians, activists, artists and journalists like Colin Powell, Bill Clinton and Bono, who make a difference in fighting the pandemic on the global and national front.  In the process, we learn that we can also leave our own imprints in the fight against global AIDS. 

The Invisible People allows its audience to better understand HIV/AIDS-related issues here at home and in the world, and to draw a broader, global and real image of its magnitude.  As readers, we learn that there's a lot we can do.  Possibilities are at our reach, resources are available and affordable.  We can choose to remain silent or we can use the book as a tool to raise AIDS awareness at home, in the States, and around the world.  At a time when humanity faces "no crisis more lethal than the global AIDS pandemic" The Invisible People gives us a choice and an opportunity to meet face to face with AIDS and its invisible people... and make them visible.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

From the Archives: Book review originally published in A&U Magazine
The Secret Epidemic - The Story of AIDS and Black America
By Jacob Levenson



Considered by some reviewers "the sequel of Randy Shilts' 'And the Band Played On,'" Jacob Levenson's "The Secret Epidemic" embarks readers on an expedition to the roots of the AIDS epidemic in "Black America." 

Frozen Hearts. Lensbaby Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Frozen Hearts. Lensbaby Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.


From the rural Alabama to San Francisco, New York City and the White House, the author interweaves personal stories, the role of black church, civil rights and AIDS activism to create a realistic portrait of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.   

Throughout the read, we evolve together with the characters and take active part in their stories.  As readers, we interact with the tragic, bittersweet, also hopeful events in protagonists' lives.  We follow the social worker to a rural Alabama trailer park and struggle together with him to save the lives of two HIV positive teenage girls.  The enthusiasm of some of the first black researchers investigating the connection between cocaine addiction and AIDS epidemic is a true example of the power of perseverance.  We cheer for the young AIDS activist, son of an "elite" black family, who demonstrates in front of the White House.  The young HIV positive woman finding spiritual healing and strength to survive through faith challenges readers' own beliefs.   

Maybe the most inspiring story is that of a young man, Ato.  Sometimes, AIDS brings out the best in people.  Ato's is such an example, a story about his struggle with the disease and his legacy.  Throughout his ordeal, the teenager matures and starts to understand the importance of "fight[ing] AIDS, not the people with AIDS."  Despite his suffering, he touches other people's lives with his new beliefs about AIDS and its impact on life in general.  He finds the strength to open the doors to his closet and talk about his disease.  Determined to live long enough to make sure others "will not have to suffer in the silence that [he]'s suffered in," Ato prepares his own passing as an AIDS awareness event and leaves his mother in charge of his legacy... and Laura makes sure her son's wish comes true.     

"The Secret Epidemic" examines the importance of understanding the AIDS epidemic in relation with civil rights and race, in America.  It unravels not isolated incidents, but stories that make up our everyday existence.  Throughout the entire read, the author never presents AIDS as an isolated issue, but always a topic integrated and linked to many aspects of daily life. 


Note: many years ago I reviewed The Secret Epidemic for A&U Magazine. For more about my covering HIV/AIDS, please visit Art, AIDS & Others

Friday, June 5, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Measuring Life



How do we measure a year in our life? In minutes-all five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred of them? In moments, relationships, accomplishments...?

The cast of the original RENT, reunited (bar one) after nine years for the film version of the musical, measures it in love-or "lo-ooove": Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played the original Angel in the still-running Broadway production, offers a hint of the theme melody when we talk on the phone. "[Love] is a very fine way of measuring time," he affirms. 

Red Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Inspired by Puccini's classic opera La BohËme, Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, revolutionizing rock opera RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends-including Roger and Angel-living in Alphabet City (a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) of the mid-eighties and struggling to express themselves through their art, while enduring drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS pandemic. 

Roger (Adam Pascal, reprising his role on-screen) is an aspiring songwriter who gets involved with heroin. He and his girlfriend contract HIV through using dirty needles. When his girlfriend commits suicide, Roger withdraws from the world. It's through the character Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer, and his friend, Collins [Jesse L. Martin (A&U, January 2000)], a now-homeless professor of philosophy, that Roger comes out of his shell. In another plot thread, Collins is rescued by Angel after he is mugged; the two discover they are each other's soul mates.

"RENT [the movie] humanizes its characters. It makes them more tactile, more real," Heredia comments. "It's like you know the people that are on the screen. You get to feel what the Village felt like. What it was like to live in Alphabet City." Angel has taught Heredia a lot about one of the themes of the movie-no day but today, for one-and the importance of living in the moment.

But is the movie version powerful enough to connect with today's audience?
"I think even more," Heredia responds, explaining that the medium allows the audience to know the characters at a much deeper level and get more emotionally attached to them. "AIDS is still a prominent disease [and] people need to realize this [AIDS] awareness," Heredia concludes. He believes that RENT has the power to help us do just that.

Music, especially, has the power to send a message like this in both a highly memorable and emotionally affecting way. Heredia's favorite from RENT is "Without You" (sung by Angel and Collins). "It's one of the songs that hits you right in the stomach," he explains when talking about the significance of the song. "Yes, I know that the world keeps spinning, but it doesn't really matter if I'm dying without you."

Adam Pascal's favorite song is "I'll Cover You" (sung by Roger and Mimi at Angel's funeral). "I'm somebody who's very much moved by music and every time I hear this song it moves me to tears," the actor confesses. "It's connecting on an emotional level that most songs in life don't." 

Pascal, coming to the character that he originated "ten years older and hopefully wiser," believes that today's audience-especially its younger members-"need to understand what the characters are going through because, back then, [AIDS] was an immediate death sentence," Pascal explains. "It wasn't that long ago that this was the case."

He hopes that the movie will bring AIDS back into the public consciousness and "show people that [AIDS] kills the white kids just like it kills the Africans. It's the same disease-it doesn't discriminate. In Africa, thousands and thousands of people are dying from AIDS, but it's in somebody else's backyard. We're not gonna deal with it unless it's directly affecting us," Pascal comments. And, by "us," he doesn't mean just Americans. "I'm amazed at how everyone looks at [the U.S. and asks,] 'How come you haven't cured it?'" Pascal is intrigued. "There are lots of other countries in this world that have a lot of responsibility and I don't see them stepping up to the plate either. Where is the U.K.? Where's Germany?"

AIDS is at the bottom of the list for many developed nations because the majority of the people who are dying from AIDS are African and poor and, as Pascal mentions, "the only time you hear about it or see it, is when a news crew goes and shoots some pictures of it." Other than that, AIDS is not in the public consciousness, especially with all that's going on-in Iraq and the rest of the world-that distracts people's attention. 

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, we have to do something, he believes. "It's interesting how people selectively look through the Bible and decide what's important and what things they choose to ignore," Pascal says. "And those things will change, given any particular situation." The pandemic is a threat to our humanity: "If tomorrow aliens landed on this planet, that would completely change the perspective of everybody and all of our various religions and all of our various races and cultures would cease to have the meaning that they have now because we would realize that what we all are is human." He hopes that RENT will spark enough interest in the disease, enough for people to see what AIDS is doing to people in Africa.

"The reason why we shouldn't ignore [AIDS] is the same reason why we couldn't ignore Nazi Germany," Pascal reiterates. "We have a moral obligation to stop millions of people from dying. We can't stand by and allow this to happen in this world that we share, that we all live on."   


Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer
Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY of AIDS

Friday, May 22, 2015

From the Archives: Book review originally published in A&U Magazine

AIDS and the Sexuality of Law: Ironic Jurisprudence
By Joe Rollins
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

At a time when media is experiencing an "AIDS fatigue," a decline in covering HIV/AIDS topics [from a report published March 1st, '04, by the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation] Joe Rollins brings up a controversial and maybe less explored image of AIDS.  He talks about the legal aspect of the disease in relationship with law, science, and sexuality. 
In his book, AIDS and the Sexuality of Law, Joe Rollins, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, gives "a brief legal history of AIDS" through several AIDS-related legal cases from the Circuit Court of Appeals between 1983 and 1995. 
The book opens with an unusual aspect of Philadelphia story emphasizing the "silences" or "unknowns" present in the "legal language of AIDS" used in the movie.  These "silences" also stand true for real life HIV/AIDS-related court cases involving the closeted world of the adult theater, the workplace, and the prison. The author exploits the "unknown" of untypical subjects and uses irony and jurisprudence-the science of philosophy at law-to explain the unspoken legal language of each analyzed case.   Joe Rollins tries to correct this false by going behind the scenes of the HIV and AIDS transmission and gay/AIDS identity misinterpretation. 
During the last two decades, AIDS and homosexuality have been falsely used interchangeably.  Certain body marks or signs, called "homographesis," can give away an individual's sexual identification and, consequently for some beliefs, AIDS status.  A closer analysis shows that "homographesis" are general identifiers for the closeted world, no matter one's sexual orientation.  Therefore, they cannot mark someone's sexuality or AIDS status.  Similar so-called identifiers are sometimes used in a court of law, but they can only provide beliefs and "social facts" to replace the "unknowns." 
Even if the legal terms may, at times, seem overwhelming for the general reader, the stories and author's analysis answer with much clarity questions regarding HIV and AIDS transmission and the role of sexuality.  
AIDS and the Sexuality of Law is not only a real eye-opener relative to the legal aspects of HIV/AIDS, but it also contributes to a more complete history and image of the global pandemic.  Read it and learn from it. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

From the Archives: Did You Know...
Article originally published in A&U Magazine

Did You Know...
Interview with Harlem-Based Publisher Hickson About Getting the World Out About HIV
Did you know...

That HIV/AIDS circulates in prison through unprotected sex?

That condoms are not allowed in prison, in order not to advocate sex?

That convicts often use potato chip bags or latex gloves as condoms?  They also use Vaseline, which eats out the latex...

That, HIV-positive convicts rarely receive treatment?  Or, when they do, medical professionals do not monitor it?  Same goes for hormone therapies for transgenders.

That transgenders are at high risk for getting infected with HIV, especially those who are forced to buy cheap, black market hormones?

Why should we care?

"I get this [question] a lot at book signings," Hickson-who goes only by his family name-tells me during our phone interview.  "The real issue is HIV/AIDS," the Founder and CEO of Ghettoheat explains.  Set in the heart of Harlem, his multimedia company publishes books that explore off-mainstream topics like the ones mentioned above.  The newest Ghettoheat production is Convict's Candy, a novel based on true prison experiences of its coauthors-Jason Poole and Damon "Amin" Meadows.  The story follows in the footsteps of Candy, a victimized trans-woman who is arrested on credit card scam charges, only a week away from the surgery that would give her the body of the woman she really is. 

Holding the answers. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Holding the Answers. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Locked up with the other male convicts, Candy learns about prison life through sexual harassment, violence, stigma, and HIV/AIDS exposure.  She learns that the prison rule-"what happens in prison stays in prison"-does indeed have its own exception: HIV/AIDS.

While the novel doesn't leave anything out when exposing the reality of living behind bars, Convict's Candy offers a lesson on how not to get HIV-adding to the fight against the pandemic.
"I was really impressed with Convict's Candy," Hickson comments, "not only because the authors were writing [it] from prison, [but because, while] not many convicts touch on HIV/AIDS issues, [they] are very passionate about the topic." 

Because too many of his friends are battling the disease, Hickson is also passionate about educating people, especially the young generation (whose members he calls "rebels without a cause") on how not to contract HIV.  He believes that HIV infections will continue to rise and that the numbers will not go down soon for two reasons: people's recklessness and the Internet.

When using alcohol, meth, or other drugs that impair their judgment, people engage in unprotected sex.  Sometimes sex itself becomes a "feel good" medicine...a drug. 

But does the opposite of sex with multiple partners work? 

Hickson believes that abstinence doesn't work either, because everything today revolves around sex, starting with BET and MTV.  "People on TV become the local heroes [to youth]," he comments. 
"Values have changed," he says talking about the fast tracks of our lives, as we focus more on work and less on spending quality time with our families.  Parents are busy with work and often leave their children alone at home with too much time to watch TV.

Internet dating also fuels HIV infections.  People meet first on the Internet and then in person.  An example would be, say, an HIV-positive flight attendant involved in Internet dating who can set up numerous meetings with people all over the globe...and lead to a "world disaster," Hickson theorizes.

But is there a solution in sight?

Hickson is an advocate for safer sex, helping spread the word through his monthly Ghettoheat newsletter.  As for the raising awareness about the dangers of HIV, Hickson points out that someone well-known needs to come out and talk about today's HIV/AIDS issues and have a similar effect over people's understanding of AIDS as Rock Hudson did in the mid-eighties.    

Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS


Friday, May 8, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine

Playing with (Super)-Words

It goes by Tina, Crizzy, or Tweak. No matter the name, crystal meth made the national headlines as the party drug of choice for gay and bisexual men. The party can start on a Thursday or Friday and continue throughout the weekend, and Monday is still not crystal-free. For methamphetamine users, "Suicide Tuesday comes at the end of a binge. Rest comes on Tuesday, but at a price," Duncan Osborne explains in the introduction to his new book, published by Carroll & Graf.

Stack of sun glasses. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Rainbow Reflections A Self-Portrait. Photo by Alina Oswald.
In Suicide Tuesday: Gay Men and the Crystal Meth Scare, the leading journalist, who has written widely about gay men and the crystal-meth connection to HIV/AIDS, goes behind the scenes of the so-called meth epidemic to uncover the truth behind the recent media frenzy surrounding crystal use and the HIV "super"-virus. Some of us may recall that HIV made the news in early 2005 when attention turned to one gay male patient who supposedly was infected by a "super" strain of the virus, resistant to virtually all antiretroviral medications and rapidly leading to the development of AIDS. The individual, the media was quick to point out, had been a meth user, which reportedly led to condomless sex with multiple partners and eventually HIV infection.

"I don't know that words like 'epidemic,' 'outbreak,' or 'problem' are right to use [when talking about meth]," Duncan Osborne comments during our phone interview. "It's very easy to say 'something is a problem.' It's much more complicated to describe who is affected by this problem, how they are affected by it, and then talk about what to do about it."

As the author explains in Suicide Tuesday, gay men who use methamphetamine represent a subset of all gay men, and within this particular subset there is another (smaller) group that appears to have a very serious problem with crystal use.

Facts speak for themselves-a 1997 study by Michael Gorman, a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, identifies seven distinct subcultures of male methamphetamine users just in Seattle. In order to help these men, one needs to realize that one is dealing with different populations of men who may use the drug in various ways and for different reasons, in different places and times. Therefore, how one reaches out to these various groups may vary as well. "So, it becomes very complex all of a sudden," Osborne says.

He gives two broad reasons for the hysteria surrounding meth and its connection to HIV infection: the nation's media, which is increasingly interested in entertaining-rather than informing-readers and viewers; and politics, not so much in terms of the "super"-HIV coverage (a story that Osborne considers nonsense) but in terms of how methamphetamine relates to other topics.

"There are political reasons for presenting these issues in an inflammatory and scary way," he says. "It is a way of creating support for a particular response to those phenomena. I think that this White House has been very effective at manipulating people's feelings related to terrorism, [that] some members of Congress have been very manipulative and very dishonest about the threat that methamphetamine [use] poses to America. And they do it because there's money in it."

Osborne finds it most unfortunate seeing people in AIDS service organizations and the gay community talking about methamphetamine in the same way Newsweek, for example, does. "It's very unhelpful. [It just does] not move us forward. I think we're all smarter than that."

While his book exposes the destructive effects of meth and the high price users have to pay, Suicide Tuesday is yet another means for its author to encourage the gay community to stay away from the hysteria currently surrounding methamphetamine use and, instead, to talk about crystal in a thoughtful and careful way.

Duncan Osborne hopes that Suicide Tuesday readers will get the facts about methamphetamine use, HIV, and gay men, and begin to insist that AIDS groups and gay groups in their own communities respond to what's happening in gay men's lives in this culture of hysteria. "If that happens, that would be great."

Friday, May 1, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Bearing Witness: Interview with Justice Edwin Cameron about coming out as positive, fighting AIDS denialism in South Africa, and countering the stigma of HIV with hope


AIDS is a disease. It is an infection, a syndrome, an illness, a disorder, a condition threatening to human life. It is an epidemic-a social crisis, an economic catastrophe, a political challenge, a human disaster," Justice Edwin Cameron states, reading from his new book, Witness to AIDS, at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City this past October. 

tryptich, "Facing the Law" photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. Facing the Law was also featured at the annual Fresh Fruit art festival hosted by Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in NYC
"Facing the Law" photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. Facing the Law was also featured at the annual Fresh Fruit art festival hosted by Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in NYC (many thanks to my wonderful model, for taking the time, providing the fabulous leather...wear, and making possible this and many other images)


Called "a beacon of inspiration" and "a fighter" by some members of the audience, Edwin Cameron is an internationally recognized human-rights and AIDS activist, and a Judge of Appeal on the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa. After living with HIV for several years, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1997. Two years later, Justice Cameron became the first public official to reveal his HIV-positive status in South Africa.

Born in 1953, in Pretoria, South Africa, Edwin Cameron studied at Stellenbosch University, Oxford, and the University of South Africa, winning top academic awards at all three universities. In 1983, he joined the Johannesburg Bar; in 1986, he started practicing as a human-rights lawyer at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of Witwatersrand. While at CALS, he codrafted the Charter of Rights on AIDS and HIV, cofounded the AIDS Consortium, and founded the AIDS Law Project, also serving as its first director (www.alp.org.za). A gay man, he also worked successfully to include sexual orientation protections in the South African Constitution. He became a High Court judge in 1995. Though he had become an AIDS expert over the years, Cameron did not disclose that he was positive until 1999; he believes he contracted HIV sometime in 1986.

"Witness to AIDS is a story of hope," Cameron tells me when we get to talk, "because it recedes the stigma and the fear of this disease, because it shows people that AIDS is medically manageable. I'm living proof of it."

Witness to AIDS stands as proof that miracles do happen-in this case, with a little help from HIV treatment and medication. It tells of the author's own "Lazarus" story of miraculous recovery and documents his journey from the brink of death to the normality that living with HIV/AIDS allows. The read is bold, offering a lesson in life for those brave enough to confront their struggles.

Above all, Witness to AIDS documents accurate facts about AIDS in Africa and what Cameron calls "the most tragic part of how South Africa deals with AIDS"-the South African politics of AIDS and President Mbeki giving credence to South African dissident views regarding the origin of HIV. Cameron finds this beyond imagination.

In essence, "[dissidents] compare themselves to Galileo," he explains. "But the truth is that Galileo did apply scientific methods [and] it was because of the application of scientific methods that Galileo proved himself right." 

In Africa, AIDS is sometimes thought to be part of a white-borne racist agenda, propagated by stigmatizing conceptions of African sexuality and Africa as the "origin" of AIDS. Talking about AIDS is yet another way to insult Africa. "Now, why would it be insulting to say that a virus originated anywhere?" Justice Cameron concludes his brief explanation. Viruses originated in China, or in Spain, or in South America, but none of them are linked to shame, stigma, or gender injustices. These factors still influence the pandemic's evolution in Africa where AIDS is not only a medical disease, but also a gender and social disease. 

Cameron believes that fighting poverty is central to the fight against AIDS. As he explains in Witness to AIDS, medical researcher and human-rights activist Jonathan Mann showed that poverty and subordination in society go together with the risk of AIDS. Mann believed that by remedying injustice and gender subordination, we remedy the struggle against AIDS. (Cameron gave the Jonathan Mann Memorial Lecture at 200o's XIIIth International AIDS Conference in Durban.)

"Living with AIDS is almost like a second career," Cameron says, explaining his own struggle with the virus. Coming out as positive has helped him refocus his energy on living. He calls it "an investment in the rest of [his] life." But his action has not encouraged other prominent public figures to follow in his steps. The reason in part lies with the persisting stigma associated with an AIDS diagnosis.

Justice Cameron is the first to acknowledge that silence about the disease is the biggest problem in Africa. Denial also fuels stigma.

How can we fight stigma? Cameron points out that the real question is: How much of humanity has to perish for us to respond to AIDS? He emphasizes the importance of AIDS education: The more informed we are, the better we can defend ourselves. 

"We need to have acceptance of the facts," he says, because AIDS reveals a lot about the structures of the world-North and South, rich and poor, placing developed and developing worlds in close proximity, perhaps too close for comfort. 

"AIDS beckons us to the fullness and power of our own humanity," Justice Cameron writes at the end of Witness to AIDS. "It is not an invitation that we should avoid or refuse."

Friday, April 24, 2015

From the Archives: Have a Ball!
Wolfgang Busch, Director and Producer of How Do I Look, Showcases the Ball Community and Its HIV Outreach
Article originally published in A&U Magazine, December, 2006


Wolf Busch, the opening night of The Flow Affair documentary, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Wolf Busch, at the premier of A Flow Affair. Photo by Alina Oswald.
From Madonna's "Vogue" video to films like "Paris Is Burning," the Harlem ballroom community has always been a playground where young, talented gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people can build their self-esteem by competing in categories like fashion or dance as an art form. The "illusion of a runway" that ball events provide for performing members don't only allow them to live out their fantasies, but also to freely express themselves artistically. Organized in "houses" with an (usually) elected "mother" and "father," the ballroom (or ball) community looks after its members and nurtures their talents.


Flagging in NYC, at the opening night of A Flow Affair, a documentary by Wolfgang Busch. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Flagging in NYC, at the premier of A Flow Affair, a documentary by Wolfgang Busch. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

"Some houses are like gangs," artistic activist Wolfgang Busch explains during our phone interview about his new film on the New York City ball community, "in the bad sense." "Paris Is Burning," a film about the house with the same name, has been criticized as exploiting these negative aspects of the ball community. That's why, in his new documentary, German-American filmmaker Wolfgang Busch offers a fresh image of the ball community, concentrating on houses that make a positive difference in the lives of their members. "How Do I Look," which took ten years to produce filming and interviewing community members at various ball events, focuses on educating the upcoming "ball" generation in the positive assets of houses dedicated to helping their members to get an education and a job. These houses also organize balls specifically dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and outreach. "How Do I Look" also focuses on members of the ball community who, while socially marginalized by racism, perform in the balls for fashion and artistic awards, thus creating their own arenas of standards and success. Many of them, like Tracy Africa, Willi Ninja, or Jose Extravaganza took their runway walks to a professional level.

"What I respect so much about the ball community is its inclusiveness," he says, commenting on what he considers its most important quality. "No matter if you work on the Fourteenth Street or as a fashion designer or [if you are a] celebrity, everybody can walk a ball: People of all shapes and forms have a place to compete."

Busch takes the knowledge that the ball community is all about fashion and glamor and how its members look a step further in his documentary, using "How Do I Look" to show how the ball community members look on the inside, because it's obvious that they look "fabulous" on the outside.

Rev. Charles A. Gilmore Jr, filmmaker Wolf Busch, group picture at the premier of A Flow Affair, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Rev. Charles A. Gilmore Jr, filmmaker Wolf Busch, group picture at the premier of A Flow Affair, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Looks are important for one's self-esteem, especially for male-to-female transsexuals who transition and sometimes look as "feminine" as they would like. For them it's really important to get accepted in real life, in their community. So, being part of various ball events and competing for various awards pull them through the hard times.   

Wolfgang Busch's first contact with the ball community was an actual ball at a club called Tracks, in 1987. Yet it wasn't until 1989, through a fundraiser for the Gay Games in Vancouver, when he met assistant director and lifetime achiever in the ball community, Kevin Omni.

As a cultural gay activist, Busch has dedicated his life to empower LGBT artists. He plans a meeting with Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons, both very outspoken in the arts and its role in the political arena because the artistic community is "the most powerful community on the planet," because the "stars," when they unite, can determine major changes in most aspects of our life.

NYC artist Davey Mitchell and Wolf Busch, at Imaginary Eyes opening night, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
NYC artist Davey Mitchell and Wolf Busch, at Imaginary Eyes opening night, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
When it comes to HIV/AIDS, the ball community was maybe the most hit by the pandemic. In 1998 the ball community lost Fila Omni to AIDS. Since 2001, the community has also lost Gerald Dupree Labeija, Kenny Ebony, Eriq Christian Bazzar, and Marcel Christian to AIDS, and Pepper Labeija to diabetes. 

Wolfgang Busch with contributing artist at the opening of Imaginary Eye art show, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NY. Photo by Alina Oswald
Wolfgang Busch with contributing artist at the opening of Imaginary Eye art show, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NY. Photo by Alina Oswald
"I think [that's] a scary statistic. That's a really alarming number," Wolfgang Busch comments. That's the reason why he's focusing on houses and balls that make HIV/AIDS prevention, education and awareness their priority.

For more about the amazing journey of Wolfgang Busch as he continues to make art from the heart, check out Art, AIDS & Others post