Dr Herukhuti’s Opening Remarks at Black Queer Activism and HIV Event
at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, November 2013
Tonight we have several members of our community here to begin tonight’s conversation that will open up to include all of us as the evening progresses. We have: George Bellinger, Jr. who has worked in the AIDS industry since 1982 in various capacities from outreach worker and community organizer to Executive Director and consultant and with LGBT communities before that time; Rev. Christopher Lee, a faith leader, writer, thinker, and arts-activist committed to creating conversation around sexuality and spirituality and HIV/AIDS and faith, who is currently a program coordinator at the SAGE Harlem Center; Hayat Hyatt is a Brooklyn-based playwright and artist whose current project Villanelle uses poetry, found materials, and documentary to explore the diverse emotions and experiences of gay black men and the larger black community during, before, and after the AIDS crisis of the 1980s; Sean Coleman, Executive Director of Destination Tomorrow, a grassroots agency in the South Bronx that provides services for LGBT youth 13-25, currently sits on the NYS Planning and Prevention Group representing the Transgender community and the National Ballroom Coalition; and Bali White, a PhD student in African Studies, coordinates HIV/STD and Hepatitis prevention strategies target for undocumented immigrants, youth, and LGBT folks throughout Flatbush, Sunset Park and Park Slope and serves on the National Advisory Board for the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health. Please give them applause for agreeing to share with us tonight.
After Steven contacted me to moderate the panel, I had a chance to think about how to open up a discussion. So bear with me for a moment as I offer some framing and considerations for us as we begin to think together about these things: Black Queer Activism, HIV and AIDS. To unwrap, undress, and engage them if you will. Understanding that these may not be everyone’s preferences and appetites but as they are mine based upon my life as a polysexual bisexual man of African descent who is genderqueer as I am keeper of the shrine of two goddesses and carry a number of women spirits but also as a sexologist, organization development consultant and clinical sociologist identified as an activist.
As we think historically about the relationship between activism by Black folks, queerness as a politics of being radical, transgressive and revolutionary in one’s commitment to social justice and HIV and AIDS as phenomena, I invite us to consider what meaning we gain by incorporating an organizational studies approach to looking at that relationship. In that context, we might consider what happened when the activism started by visionary grassroots sometimes charismatic folks who were doing the work without pay as a means of community organizing become professionalized under the jurisdiction of administrators, managers, and AIDS Service Organization staff within what some call the HIV Industrial Complex. What was gained and lost in that transformation? And as we move into a new phase in which the work of many of those folks will be made obsolete by professionals with more biomedical expertise, what can the displacement of community volunteers by credentialed professionals from the leadership of HIV/AIDS work several decades ago tell us about the pending displacement of many people without clinical, medical or scientific expertise within HIV/AIDS Inc as it moves from behavioral to biomedical interventions?
Since I have acknowledged the biomedical moment in which we are, I will address the debate about HIV causing AIDS. HIV is a virus. AIDS is a designation not a disease given by medical professionals to people who have certain markers one of which is testing positive for HIV antibodies or virus. AIDS, as many in the room know, stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Since the creation of the designation, we have come to know through work in fields like epigenetics that there are a number of social and environmental conditions that can suppress or make deficient our immune systems. This is particularly important for conversations related to race, class, gender and sexuality because, as epigenetics offers, experiences of oppression and microaggression affect us on a genetic and cellular level in ways that make us sick. Therefore, what might a radical, transgressive and revolutionary approach to our health look like if we included among the markers of the AIDS designation the experience of white supremacy, economic exploitation, heterosexism, patriarchy and imperialism/colonialism? Perhaps it might mean we change the word acquired in the AIDS designation to the word attacked, Attacked Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Finally, in moving forward into the future and in keeping all these things in mind, can we honor our queer ancestors, surviving elders, and emergent youth in creating a radical, transgressive and revolutionary set of futures in which we as my mentor, Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé names as, owning our bodies and desires, living with and between the intersectionalities, mixities, complexities, and fluidities of existence. Thank you.