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
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 ( 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

Friday, April 17, 2015

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

by Alina Oswald

Although gay characters populate American television-see Queer As Folk or Will & Grace-the black gay character is something of a rarity. Although a few gay characters of color appear in shows like Showtime's The L Word or HBO's The Wire, what makes Noah's Arc unique is that it raises two kinds of awareness-black gay awareness and AIDS awareness.

"Noah's Arc is a vehicle through which to break down the stigmas and phobias in our country around black sexuality while at the same time educating the community around the importance of HIV/AIDS," says Phil Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute, the only national policy and research organization in the United States focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS. The Black AIDS Institute sponsored Noah's Arc together with the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest gay and lesbian organization providing a national voice on gay and lesbian issues.

For those who are not yet familiar with it, Noah's Arc is "America's First Black Gay Series," as its press materials proclaim. Created and independently produced by Patrik-Ian Polk (with Jasmyne Cannick and Carol Ann Shine), the series will air this June on LOGO, a new cable television network targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers. LOGO will be launched by MTV Networks then, too, and will initially broadcast in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 
Using humor, in-your-face yet not offensive sexuality, and hands-on advice about HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, Noah's Arc is a daring, tell-it-like-it-is lesson in love, friendship, and commitment. The story introduces its audience to the lives of four black gay Angeleno friends-Noah (Darryl Stephens), a struggling twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter, who is convinced that his new and newly out boyfriend, Wade (Jensen Atwood), is the one for him; Alex (Rodney Chester), an HIV/AIDS counselor who "suffers from insane jealousy" because his boyfriend, Trey, is too good-looking; Ricky (Christian Vincent; pictured opposite page right), the owner of a trendy and hip clothing store on Melrose who's afraid of commitment and knows the rules of safer sex; and Chance (Doug Spearman), a college professor who has recently married Eddie (Jonathan Julian) and adopted his partner's three-year-old daughter, Kenya. In the first episode, newcomer and successful screenwriter, Wade, struggles for acceptance from Noah's friends who have yet to trust him because he is "a down low brother [they] don't want to mess with."

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
"If it takes a show like Noah's Arc to open people's minds that black gay people...are respectable people, that it is possible to be healthy and gay, I hope [people] see the show," Darryl Stephens comments, knowing that the entertainment industry can do much to change the misconceptions the general public has about AIDS and black gay realities. The actor, who has appeared on a season of MTV's Undressed, warns that with gay awareness also comes responsibility toward family, friends, and lovers. He emphasizes the importance of staying informed about AIDS by making it a part of a conversation that people are not afraid to have in public. His message? "Stop making [AIDS] a secret; start making it a fact of life and, no matter what, keep a condom on!"

To deliver the right message-be it regarding AIDS or any other topic for that matter-actors need to be informed first and foremost, in order to inform their audience. This is what Stephens calls "an actors' mission;" it is part of the important role that the arts, and entertainment in particular, play in raising AIDS awareness, and, thus, fighting the pandemic.

Darryl Stephens calls AIDS "the eighties' ugly disease," something the general public could dismiss because it was a primarily gay disease. "If [people] were not gay, they felt not at risk to be infected. That mindset sorta stuck." The general public did start to listen, he says, when well-known figures like Magic Johnson came out about being HIV-positive and started to give AIDS a voice.

Besides creating a real-life scenario in which friends and lovers share opinions about life and true love, writer and producer Patrik-Ian Polk sees Noah's Arc-its story and message of HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and prevention among African Americans-as a means to reach people, especially the young population, who may be at risk of getting infected with HIV. Polk, who made his feature film debut with Punks, says: "I think there's a whole new generation that didn't grow up fearing [HIV/AIDS] and watching people die, a whole new generation that's grown up hearing that AIDS is a manageable disease now. So, they are not getting the [same] safe-sex message and all these kids are having unprotected sex like it's no big deal [and] are getting the disease in record numbers now."

To emphasize the importance of this issue, he identifies with today's parents while talking about the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs imposed on kids: "If I had a kid and there's any possibility that the kid might be sexually active, I'd like them to know what to do; I'd like them to have condoms-I mean, it's not just pregnancy anymore." He is a true believer in the benefits of more innovative ways-versus many of the abstinence-based ones the federal government uses to reach communities where AIDS numbers are rising.

Polk also believes that the traditional methods the government uses typically exclude African-Americans and hopes that his work is a non-traditional way that can reach out to the community with safer-sex messages. I want to know why he talks about exclusion and I get an honest, straightforward answer, full of excitement: "We're the last on the totem pole; they don't think of us, really. We might have to employ other methods to reach these other groups." Patrik-Ian Polk explains that Big Business understood how to market products to specifically target African-Americans and others; yet, for some reason, when it comes to government and issues like health, "they don't seem to get it."

Now that AIDS is starting to affect people they can identify with (read: not gay), Polk says many are starting to pay attention. "Unfortunately this is what it takes for people to wake up." This has often been a rude awakening to today's AIDS reality in the United States, especially in black communities. Says Polk: "It is sad that it comes to this-to AIDS starting to affect our sisters and nieces, the middle-aged black woman who's going to church every Sunday and her husband is leading a secret life and sleeping with men on the side, bringing AIDS home-for people to finally wake up." 

Talking about AIDS issues in the black community, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Vice Presidential debate of last year's election campaign for both Polk and Stephens. "[Cheney] is just completely unaware and [doesn't] even know that the numbers, the infection rates, are so high among black women. This shows lack of interest," Polk comments. "[AIDS] is an issue not high on the list." Darryl Stephens adds his opinion about the lack of AIDS information prevalent in America: "It has to be fixed [and] entertainment is the best thing to send the message, so that Dick Cheney can see it also."

To get "it" fixed, Polk encourages everybody to get involved and confront the AIDS pandemic, mentioning the influence the church can have now, especially in the black communities. He also encourages people to educate themselves about how not to contract HIV. On a personal level, he went to work with the Black AIDS Institute and with AIDS patients because he believes this is the only responsible thing to do to fight the increasing AIDS numbers in the black community. "I do whatever I can do," Polk notes, whether that means participating in fundraising events or award shows recognizing people who've done good work in the field, "because the numbers speak for themselves." The infection rates are increasing: Based on 2002 figures, close to sixty percent of HIV-positive children are black; among women, more than seventy percent of those newly infected by HIV are black. "Obviously it is an issue," he concludes. "In the black community, the numbers continue to rise."

For more details about the series, check out the Web site,, and subscribe to the newsletter for the latest updates. For more information about the Black AIDS Institute, log on to

Friday, April 10, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Blood Relations
by Alina Oswald

An interview with photographer Kathy Seward MacKay and writer Stacy Milbouer about hemophilia, HIV/AIDS, and their new book, Dying In Vein

Of all the HIV “high-risk” groups, hemophiliacs arguably received—and continue to receive—the least amount of media attention. Despite that, the hemophilia community and its experiences with surviving loss and grief, and finding hope, has inspired many artists. Photographer Kathy Seward MacKay, writer Stacy Milbouer, and art designer Kathy Bouchard are three of these artists. Their book, Dying In Vein, is a collection of candid moments, captured in pictures and words, of only a few of the thousands of hemophiliacs infected with HIV and hepatitis C virus through tainted blood products.

The base of a waterfall in red hues. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Bloody Falls. Photo by Alina Oswald.
As Stacy Milbouer explains, choosing the most representative subjects for the book was a difficult task because they all had interesting stories. It was important to show the reality of the situation, “not sugar coat [it], while showing that it’s not all bleak,” she explains.

The tainted blood crisis left an inerasable imprint on MacKay’s life, taking away her husband—David MacKay—who died of hepatitis C at the age of thirty-three. Early in her career as a photographer, MacKay started to work on several health projects with writer Stacy Milbouer. They’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.

While the two artists talk about their experience of making Dying In Vein happen and share their thoughts on tainted blood crisis and HIV/AIDS, MacKay also comments on the effect the two crises—tainted blood and AIDS—had on her personal life.

Alina Oswald: What is the idea behind Dying In Vein?
Kathy Seward MacKay: My husband died in June ’97. The idea for the book came late Fall ’98. I started to work on it in January ’99. It was an overwhelming task, especially as a single parent. Stacy joined the project two years ago and conceptualized the way the book will look like.

How did you find and choose your subjects?
Right after my husband died I was not connected to the hemophilia community at all. Ten thousand other hemophiliacs in the U.S. infected with HIV and I’d never met a single one of them.

Then there was some legislation that was introduced to compensate the families of the victims….I just started networking and meeting a lot of people by lobbying, visits to Washington, D.C., the organization called the Committee of Ten Thousand (COTT) []. When I went on my first trip, there were hundreds of people out there who were just like me. Through them, I made some really good friendships and got to know people. I would just meet people and then someone would say, ‘Oh, have you photographed Ken Baxter? He protests in front of Bayer Pharmaceutical every month.’ So I called Ken out of the blue.

I would look for people who might have interesting stories to tell and would want to open and share their stories. I probably did solid shooting for two to three years. About that time I was constantly meeting more people; it was kind of a snowball effect.

What was your experience working with your subjects?
[Hemophilia] is one of the stories of the AIDS epidemic stories that hasn’t really been told. People felt betrayed. Ninety percent of the people agreed to let me into their lives, eager to tell their stories. Some of them were in their closet. Lots of the interviews turned into friendships and allowed me to know the people and get certain candid moments that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten from people who lost a loved one.

The one shot that was particularly hard to take…a shot of Steve Savoy, near the end of the “Afflicted,” [taken] six days before he died. Stacy had written a paragraph on him, we had four pages on him. I didn’t know if [his wife] Kathy, who is one of my closest friends right now, was going to let me photograph him or not, but she thought it was important. It was the most difficult picture I took in my life.

One beautiful thing that I saw in the subjects: They saw AIDS as a whole picture and it shaped their lives. Others are doing a lot of outreach work with AIDS foundations.

Persecution, harassment, stigma, phobia—they all affect your subjects’ existence, sometimes even costing them their lives….
My husband was in the closet. He was a schoolteacher. He feared that people would find out and he would lose his job. The closet may have helped in a way, but it was a tough thing and he couldn’t be who he really was; he tried to live in denial.

I met a few people who asked if we [MacKay and her two sons] are okay. We are. I have a moral obligation to try to do something about it, not that that would change the world. I thought best thing to contribute was a book—it has been a positive experience.

Why mostly black-and-white photos?
Black-and-white conveys the mood of the story. When I met Ken [Baxter], I decided to use that photo in color for dramatic effect. Originally, I wanted Ken in color on the cover. It was a surprising effect, mimicking his techniques; red is significant. He’s been on a mission for a long time, inspired by the death of friends around him. The last pictures are in color because color gives a positive, uplifting attitude.

What about the tainted blood crisis?
The blood supply is fairly safe right now. Still, infections with HIV/hepatitis through tainted blood are still happening. It is important for people to have their personal responsibility. Stay vigilant.

The politics of health do concern us—mad cow disease, Vioxx. It should be a wake-up call. The problem is: What’s the next blood-borne disease?

For more information about Dying In Vein, visit the website

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Is Poetry Month

April is Poetry Month
From the archives: Balance, a poem

Many, many years ago, I used to write poetry. And since April is Poetry Month, I'd like to share with you a poem I wrote (only) a few years ago, inspired by a fantastic photographer, mentor, and great friend. Here's a poem I ended up including in my book, Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS.

(For Kurt)

Cover for JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY, by Alina Oswald w/ photography by Kurt Weston

Angels and Demons,
Saints and Sinners,
Modern crucifixes,
Stigmatizing Life and what follows it,
Our Journey through Darkness and Light
And the shades of gray in between,
Matter and Antimatter
Make us whole and leave us empty
Creatures of a dual nature:
Surrenders and Survivors,
Seeking a balance
In a world disturbed by shadows.

With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
To learn more about one of the most amazing photographers (and one of my favorite photographers), Kurt Weston, visit his website, at, or read Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography about his life and art.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Happy Friday!

Alina Oswald

Friday, March 27, 2015

From the Archives: "Just Call Me Ron B." An interview with Entertainer, Actor and LGBT Activist Ron B.

From the Archives:

"Just Call Me Ron B." – A Candid Interview with Ron B, the Entertainer, Celebrity Impersonator, Actor and Activist
Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

Many may know Ron B. from her appearances in Law & Order and Angels in America, or Broadway plays like She Got Away. Others may have seen her perform as Tina Turner at Oxygen in the Village or for children with HIV/AIDS in Staten Island. Many more may be familiar with Ron B.'s activism work. But who is, really, Ron B.?

Angel in Central Park. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Angel in Central Park. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

“I am a lot of times unsure, a lot of times creative, many times sensitive, but most of all, I think it’s the transition within that kinda makes me almost the mother figure for many who are underprivileged," Ron B. candidly answers, "because most of my life I had to fight for what I believe in. And I continue this [emotional and spiritual] fight to bring myself to the being the Great Creator [the power above all of us] wants me to be.” 

A New York native, Ron B. is also a Native American. As a child she could not identify with her heritage... maybe because there weren't many Native Americans at the catholic school she attended at the time. Ron B. rediscovered her heritage only later. “What changed my mind was my mother’s strength,” the entertainer explains, "she telling me that [I should be proud of who I am]." It was Ron B.'s Native American heritage that gave the performer strength in the chosen career.

Ron B. started acting while working as a booker, assisting in the casting department. Someone saw her and thought she'd be perfect for a role. Over the years, Ron B. took many roles as a male and also female, Native American and Sicilian. Maybe the most inspiring "role" though is that of Tina Turner impersonator.

“She has been [the] inspiration in my life,” Ron B. comments talking about Tina Turner. Ron B.'s connection to the singer is multi-layered--Turner's physical resemblance to Ron B.'s mother, the abuse both  women Turner and Ron B. (Ron B. has always felt like a woman, trapped in the male body) have experienced in their lives and their determination not allow anybody to break their spirits. "I think that it's the most important thing in a trans-person's life because so many people try to break your spirit, to make fun of you, degrade you, and you always feel you're alone," Ron B. confesses.

The Ron B. people know today is really "a catalyst" of everything that defines her as an entertainer, actor, celebrity impersonator, activist for the rights of people who have been discriminated against, and trans-individual. The transition has started early on in Ron B.'s life and it's ongoing. “I think many transgender people feel that way very early in life,” Ron B. comments. “I think at the age of three I felt I was different. Didn’t understand it [at the time], but [it] always was different.” Ron B.'s "culture shock" happened when she was 12, when her mother found a diary in which Ron B. was writing about her crush on a boy sitting in the same class, as any girl would have a crush on a boy. "I was so shocked, I didn't know what to say," the entertainer recalls. Yet the weigh lifted off her shoulders when her mother, always "the driving force" in her life, accepted her child regardless of how Ron B. felt and encouraged the future entertainer to follow her dreams, to become all that she could become. Ron B.'s father was a different story.

“Gender-wise really should be between the ears and not between the legs,” Ron B. comments. That is important because many transgender individuals tragically take their own lives because they’re not accepted within their family circles. Only recently people have started to come to terms with the trans communty, though many still consider trans-individuals "freaks" or "street-walkers." And Ron B. is determined to prove these theories wrong and show the truth about the trans-individuals, that they are productive citizens of the community who ask to be respected.

Transgender individuals have to deal with the fact that they are trapped, uncomfortable with their own bodies. Many, like Ron B., try to deny this feeling yet, by denial doesn't make it go away, but rather turns it into a shadow, always following them. Denying one’s true identity can also lead to depression. It took Ron B. many years of therapy to get to accept the real person within. The entertainer suggests professional help to any young person who may think is transgender. 

Ron B. is thankful to all the medical professionals who are willing to help the trans-individuals. She's also thankful to the many she'd worked with over the years. One of the many ways of giving back to the community is through her new show to start shooting at the end of May. "No Boundaries is my baby," Ron B. explains, "that was conceived in Staten Island, in 2005." No Boundaries served as a vehicle for Ron B. to deal with her assault from the previous year. It was put to rest after 12 episodes. Fortunately, now it's coming back to life, having Ron B. not only co-producing and hosting, but also as a technical producer. No Boundaries also offers accomplished and also emerging artists a platform to showcase their work, ready for shooting at the end of May, on location in Staten Island and at Manhattan Neighborhood Networks studios.

Another way Ron B. gives back is through her work with Heritage of Pride and, most recently, Stonewall Veterans. "They've been instrumental," the activist says, talking about those she's met through Stonewall Veterans. "They were the ones who were here in 1969. We all owe gratitude to them [because] without them we wouldn't be here as we are today."

Friday, March 13, 2015

From the Archives: The Secret of Picking Well - An Interview with NYC Author, Arthur Wooten

From the Archives: The Secret of Picking Well - An Interview with NYC Author, Arthur Wooten

The Secret of Picking Well: An Interview with Arthur Wooten, the Author of On Picking Fruit and Fruit Cocktail

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

Today’s gay fiction is almost overwhelmed by stories of the twenty year olds questioning their sexuality or the thirty-year-old successfully managing their careers, families, relationships and fun times. What we don’t usually hear is the voice of the middle age gay man who’s really trying to keep his career going and who, in Arthur Wooten’s books, also happens to be HIV positive, thus adding to the stigma. “It’s true and it’s sad. It’s really hard growing old and being gay. I wanted the middle age man to be heard,” the author explains the purpose of writing his books.

Author Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
Author Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author

Wooten’s debut novel, On Picking Fruit and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail (both published by Alyson Books), tell the story of middle age Curtis Jenkins and his quest to find true love. Curtis’ story resonates with many of us. After all, like the protagonist, we’ve also experienced dates from hell or promising relationships that ended too soon and unexpectedly. And, just like Curtis, we’ve all dreamt to reach our ideals of love, career or life, in general. 

Birthday Pie, a novel by Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
Birthday Pie, a novel by Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
The story of Curtis Jenkins is “auto-biofictional,” as Wooten calls it. “Look, he’s a writer, he’s gay. And although I’m much different from Curtis, when you write, every character in the book is part of you because it’s coming from your soul, your brains [and] your heart.” Wooten is as much Curtis as he is the delightful Mrs. J[enkins], Curtis’ mother, or his best friend, Quinn, or his quirky therapist, Doctor Tunick.  

In On Picking Fruit the protagonist has an unrealistic, fairy-tale idea of the perfect date, which may actually stay in the way of his finding the ideal relationship. In Fruit Cocktail, Curtis grows a lot, gaining a clear sense of himself. He realizes that, while playing the dating game, the question is not if he is good enough for his date, but the other way around. While there is no real resolution to the story, Fruit Cocktail allows the possibility for Curtis Jenkins to continue evolving and entertaining. And it does it not only on the page but also on the screen.

Wooten’s novels are being developed into a TV series. “I think that allows a lot of growth and potential for the development of Quinn and Curtis,” the author comments, “and not only their relationship, but the kinetics that they’re getting into.”

The show is titled after Wooten’s second novel, Fruit Cocktail, and produced by Charlie Sheen. The production company is part of Estevez-Sheen Productions, created by Martin Sheen (The West Wing actor) and Ramon Estevez (Charlie Sheen’s brother). The show is set to debut on cable TV. Rumor has it that, while he won’t be playing the role of Curtis Jenkins, Charlie Sheen would like to play one of Curtis’ crazy dates, in one of the episodes.

Fruit Cocktail is already structured for television and as it always happens in such situations, a few things had to be changed. So, because writing in television is a passive thing to watch, the on-screen Curtis Jenkins is a sought-after photographer. He is on the cover of Vogue and his pictures are in Vanity Fair and all the gay magazines, from Out to Instinct. But his successful professional life surrounds him with all kinds of wild and crazy people. The only remaining pillars in his life remain his mother, Mrs. J., and his best friend, Quinn. Curtis, the photographer, also makes new friends and meets new people, even dates with the potential of becoming soul mates. Yet, he is not devastated anymore that he cannot find the right person. Also, while in the books the character is in his late forties (and approximately Wooten’s age), in the show the protagonist is just approaching forty, “which is, in gay years, like over the hill,” Wooten comments.

The author has always believed in the synchronicity and serendipity of his novels. That’s how he explains On Picking Fruit and Fruit Cocktail being developed for TV. “Everything is a thought first,” Wooten explains this transformation. Same as in the book, Dr. Tunick advises Curtis “if you want something bad enough you must visualize it first.”

And as for the rest of us, maybe the best advice comes from Arthur Wooten’s own words. “Pick Well!” he writes, as he autographs his books.