HIV Etiquette: An Interview With Radical Activist Ian Awesome

I first met Ian via the LGBTQ Connect “Pre-Conference” session of Netroots Nations in June 2012. While it is hard to miss the only guy with a pink mohawk in a room of middle aged bloggers and organizational folks, it also didn’t take long for me to realize that what he was saying resonated with me – Liberation! How does marriage equality help the rest of us? Remember HIV? (Hint: if you are surprised that a room of LGBTQ bloggers and non-profits folks included only one anarchist in attendance – well, you should be. sigh.)

Photo Courtesy Alex Garland Photography

His was the voice of conscience who often brought (my?) attention to the topics we weren’t discussing – like poverty. During a break, I chatted him up and learned about the “food justice” movement which did my heart good. The deal was sealed when Ledcat told me that he was her favorite.

Ian Awesome is a disreputable Occupy organizer and general rabble-rouser living with HIV in the Pacific Northwest. A former anti-DADT activist and current radical ne’er-do-well, he can usually be found publishing his ire at his blog, One Angry Queer.

Ian has recently launched an HIV etiquette series for the website GayNet. The first piece focused on relationships (“How To React When Your Crush Says He’s HIV-Positive“, the second on disclosure (“How To Respond When Your Friend Tests HIV- Positive“.) I found to be insightful, interesting and thought-provoking, so I asked Ian for an interview.

You are authoring an “advice column” of sorts for GayNet on various issues related to HIV Etiquette. What is HIV Etiquette?
 
For me, HIV etiquette is a set of loose suggestions on how to better master social situations between HIV-negative people and people living with HIV. All too often those without the virus have very little understanding of how HIV should be handled in settings such as friendship or romance and I thought it would be great to address that.
 
You’ve covered disclosures in dating/romantic/sexual relationships as well as how to be a good friend. What other topics will you address?
 
My next piece will likely be “How to discuss HIV with someone who has it.” I’m also thinking about a piece that, while not directly related to HIV etiquette, discusses safer sex practices between consenting adults who are living with HIV.
 
How did you learn these etiquette guidelines? 
 
Ha. Experience. I tested positive in January of 2009 and the past four years have been filled with people confused about how to relate to me about my virus. Either they made huge, hurtful mistakes or were so doubtful that they could master these situations that they just stayed silent. That silence, of course, contributes to the awful stigma our society has towards HIV and is actually quite a hindrance in tackling HIV qualitatively.
 
Can you share a story about a situation where someone was doing everything right and how that impacted you personally
 
I recently disclosed my HIV status to someone because I believed that we might possibly be developing a sexual relationship in the future. I was a little nervous because I didn’t know him that well nor could really figure out how he would react. I told him “I have HIV and it’s okay if that’s a deal-breaker for you,” which is a stance I take in my first piece for Gay.net.
 
He responded with one of the best responses to disclosure I’ve ever had: “Actually, it makes me like you even more that you are so honest about your status and so open about intimacy.” It was very rewarding and contributed to what has become a very good friendship.There are myriad other times where people did the “right” thing and honestly that serves to do two things. It signals to the person they are interacting with that they are mature and knowledgeable about a very complicated issue, setting the seropositive person at ease, while also busting wide-open this culture of secrecy and fear we have shrouded HIV in.
 
Are your suggestions just for queer men or would they be useful for others in similar situations? 
 
When I first wrote the first piece, I had it in non-gendered language. Gay.net is geared towards gay men so I refocused it, but certainly the suggestions I make would be appropriate across the board, though it would be interesting to see a similar series written by, say, an HIV-positive woman of color. Maybe get a different perspective than from a white, queer male-assigned person.
 
I loved that you pointed out that when someone is newly diagnosed or disclosing, it is not the best time to bring up how I as a friend or loved one is feeling about all of this. At the same time, you do acknowledge that the friend or loved one is likely to have a reaction and need to discuss it. This seems like common sense. Why do we suck at these things? 
 
It certainly DOES seem like common sense, but let’s be real: an HIV diagnosis almost always means a really traumatic, emotional time for everyone involved. Not only do you have someone who just discovered they have a potentially fatal and much-dreaded disease, but everyone close to them is suddenly going to be worried that their friend is going to get sick and die. Common sense doesn’t have much to do with it; unless we discuss and think beforehand what our feelings and reactions to HIV are, we just aren’t prepared and instead act purely on our emotions.That’s not saying our emotional responses are bad; we should process and discuss our feelings in order to happy and healthy people. But we have to be intentional about it; we need to do it appropriately or else we all get stuck in a terrible mess.
 
There’s often discussion around a sense of complacency among gay men, especially younger gay men, about living with HIV. Some claim gay men are engaging in risky behavior because of this – a sense that medication reduces the harm of their choices. Is this a fair assessment? If so, how can the community best support? Is this an urban legend?
 

Well, it’s certain that there are now many more options to HIV prevention than simple condom use, and I certainly do believe that some of the options out there, such as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) that foster a sense of complacency. Also, with the advent of HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy), there’s this idea floating around that can be deadly. “Even if I contract HIV I can just take meds and this will be fine.” People then forgo tried-and-true methods of prevention and open themselves up to a high risk of contracting other diseases that can harm them or even kill them.Back when HAART first was approved by the FDA, Dan Savage stated to readers that the HIV crisis was over, and I can’t help but feel that a lot of the community agrees. This is incorrect. There are still SO MANY people across the globe who cannot access treatment– either because of societal or economic roadblocks– and those that do often face other challenges that they have not previously considered.

I actually find it a bit worrying the reaction we have as a community every time a new method of HIV prevention gets released– such as PrEP or this new bee venom HIV-killing compound. People suddenly start thinking “Oh! Well maybe I can forgo condoms with a clear conscience.” This is so problematic, considering all the other things that are out there and considering the implications of HIV infection.

 
A recent investigative report found that Michigan state officials are allegedly using health care information to pursue criminal and civil cases against individuals who may have infected someone else. It seems self-evident that this will backfire and lead to fewer people accessing diagnosis and treatment to avoid potential legal action (or stigma.) What are they thinking? (They being Michigan.)
 
I could give you a long, serious analysis of the criminal justice system and its role in a larger framework of oppression but I’ll just say this: America loves locking people up. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Our first response is always always always to send someone to prison and this is terrifying as a society.  HIV criminalization laws and the use of this information to lock people up is despicable
 
What other systemic challenges are on your front burner with regard to supporting HIV+ individuals and their families? 
 
HIV/AIDS funding is drying up for treatment and longtime institutions to support those who are living with HIV are shuttering, such as NAPWA (National Association of People With AIDS) and NAAP (the Native American AIDS Project). This is a bad sign. A very bad sign. Medication and other vital services are expensive and hard to access and we need to stop cutting funding for this and other demographics at risk for HIV infection, like the homeless and like IV drug users. Dear America: austerity kills. 
 
My impression is that class issues and socioeconomic divides are very much part of the problem right now. Poverty is not a popular topic at queer events, but living with HIV can create serious issues around earning a living, accessing healthcare, etc. How should we be tackling the impact of the “myth of gay affluence” here?
 

You really know how to touch on subjects that are likely to get me to rant, Sue. The myth of gay affluence– the idea that queer people all have the same disposable income as well-off, educated white gay men– is terribly frustrating and really defines a lot of the discussions that we, as a community, have around what issues are important to us. LGBT advocates frequently want to cast us as a powerful, monied community that politicians must listen to in order to get re-elected; this frequently is not the case.The fact remains that LGBT Americans are still less likely to earn as much as their counterparts and they are still, in many places, discriminated against in the workplace. Even more alarmingly, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Poverty is not just an important issue that doesn’t get discussed; it’s the elephant in the room and MUST be discussed. We need to break out of this rut where we focus all of our energy and resources on achieving social equality when in reality, to get HIV and all of our other issues addressed, we need to seriously start tackling socioeconomic inequality. Getting married won’t get you a job and unless one of you has a really good job it won’t get you good health care either. Poverty, in the LGBT community, is the elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about when we should be screaming about it.

 You don’t believe in intersectionality – I believe you posted on Facebook “Fuck Intersectionality – Its All a Queer Issue” Explain what you mean with regard to HIV.

 

Stop Facebook stalking me, Sue! Ha.Just so your readers get some context, this is what the status update was:

“Dear folks: Racism is a queer issue. Economic justice is a queer issue. Food justice is a queer issue. Police brutality is a queer issue. Immigration is a queer issue. Education is a queer issue. Health care is a queer issue. Sexism is a queer issue. Ableism is a queer issue. Imperialism is a queer issue. Apartheid is a queer issue. Homelessness is a queer issue. Rape is a queer issue. Mental health is a queer issue. The prison industrial complex is a queer issue. The environment is a queer issue.

“Fuck intersectionality. QUEER LIBERATION IS CLASS STRUGGLE.”

This outburst, which is sadly only too typical for my Facebook, was sort of a reaction to a discussion about Israeli apartheid that I was having with a Facebook friend. He was saying that Palestinian liberation wasn’t a queer issue, therefore LGBT advocates don’t have a responsibility to address it. Of course, this marginalizes the thousands of queer Palestinians who suffer in the West Bank and Gaza.

This illustrates my problem with intersectionality: while it’s fine to identify similarities between LGBT equality and say, immigration reform, it’s important to realize that this whole concept separates LGBT equality from just about everything else. It shouldn’t. There are queers in every demographic, every struggle, suffering every injustice there is. We need to stop making these divisions and start acting in true solidarity with our black and brown siblings, our female-assigned straight friends.HIV is the same. It touches every country and every class of people. We won’t be able to tackle HIV adequately until we challenge poverty. We won’t be able to end the epidemic until we destroy patriarchy. Until we start looking at these problems organically and as a whole, we won’t find solutions to our very deadly problems.

 I grew up in Pittsburgh and was in college in DC during the early days of ACT UP! But I had no clue – I was very sheltered and not remotely out. It was only when I saw the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” that I realized how much I don’t know. That was a little heartbreaking for me – what’s the etiquette guidelines for middle aged white LGBTQ women who want to help? (I have scads of friends who don’t know if they know someone living with HIV now.) 

 

Learn. Always be learning. Learn about HIV and how it effects the people around you. Like I say in my first installment of the series, pick up a copy of HIV Plus magazine and start experiencing the issue of HIV from a different lens. Go to your local HIV alliance, pick up literature, talk to a counselor about HIV and ask what you can do to help. Volunteer in a vaccine study! There are so many ways to help that are far beyond writing a check to charity. Having solidarity in these ways can oftentimes not only help the material aspects of the epidemic but can help address stigma head-on. Like that now iconic slogan from ACTUP: “Silence = Death” and the only way to break silence is to be active in the issue.

 
What’s next for you?
 

Well, I’ve been writing off-and-on for years at my personal website, OneAngryQueer, and will surely go back to ranting on there when my time at Gay.net runs its course. I’ve been working on ideas for pieces on sexual violence in queer communities and addressing rape between men. Lots of really heavy stuff, but really worthwhile ones. 

You can find and follow Ian on Twitter at @OneAngryQueer  And on Facebook, there’s a page for One Angry Queer.

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    • PghLesbian24 pretty great. i’ve got friends who are hiv+ and it was helpful to read about etiquette. i like his consciousness of class too.

      • pgh_QUILTBAG Pretty sure using phrase “consciousness of class” needs to happen in #pgh social media discussions more often OneAngryQueer

  • Wow.  As someone who considers herself an ally, this article helped reinforce how little I actually know.  It is always a humbling and welcome experience to have my eyes opened and learn more.

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