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."