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Opinion

On HIV and Trump, Don't Ask What You Can Do; Ask Who You Can Become

December 2, 2016

plants growing

Credit: LoveTheWind for iStock via Thinkstock


All medicine wants is pain to cure

-- Cry Out in Your Weakness, Jalaluddin Rumi

People ask me a lot what they can do now. They ask me in emails and over the phone and in agonized conversations. I've been an activist for nearly four years, and most of my friends are not, yet, so I'm an easy ask. Many of the activists I know have been having the same experience.

My focus started in HIV/AIDS because a friend of mine died -- unexpectedly and yet so expectedly -- in 2012, when that wasn't supposed to happen anymore. Not in America. Not to a white gay man. Not to us. He loved Bette Davis a lot, and writing his name out makes my vision go blurry, so I'll call him Davis.

When someone dies, one thing that happens is their friends gather around the corpse and ask what they could have done. In the absence of a physical corpse we have a virtual one, the remnants of his online musings. We gather in the comments, beneath the remains that will never be enough, and ask what we could have done. In 2012, Davis was getting the runaround from NYC's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), dying and desperate but never quite dying and desperate enough to qualify for housing.

Something I could have done: I could have told Davis, at least one of the five times when I held back from doing so, that he could come live with me and my family until he got support. He would have said no; I know this now. Hundreds of other people loved him enough that they would have, and might have, made similar offers.

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People ask me now, in the advent of what seems to many of us an apocalypse of the heart, what they can do. The practical activist in me has answers, and many more accomplished people than I have more weather-tested and detailed answers. My neighbor and co-conspirator JD Davids and I have started #ActivistBasics, a podcast and video series, to answer this question in concrete steps so anyone who feels the pull to do something can find that something to do and easily enter activist spaces and language without being intimidated out of their best intentions.

There's another question, here, though, that lies beneath what can I do.

It's who will I become.

And beneath that is the nagging understanding that petitions and phone calls and even marches have some effect, but not a massive effect. They are cogs in a wheel moving forward to save our lives, but they are not themselves those lives preserved. And beneath that is the understanding that we may have to cross lines we never even perceived before. How will we do that?

Malcolm X was once Malcolm Little.

I know a woman who was a housewife in the 60s and then she was running an underground abortion clinic. AIDS activists in the 1980s were actors and stockbrokers and teachers and just people up until they were running black market pharmacies and putting giant condoms on Jess Helms' house. In this moment, in this paradigm of normalcy sliding surely toward a fascist state with a 1/20/17 start date, it's hard to say what we will become.

But I can tell you this. You can become someone else, and if you need permission to do that, I'm giving it to you right now.

If there is neo-Nazi graffiti on a brick wall you walk by, you can become the person with the spray paint and sharpies in your purse who turns it into hearts or anti-Nazi takedowns. If a person is being attacked on a street corner, you can become the person who intervenes, or films it, or takes that attacker the fuck down.

A friend of mine was one of Davis' best friends. We call him by his initials, so that's how I'll refer to him now. Initials has chronic Lyme disease. I can't begin to understand what exactly it does to him other than fuck him up, a lot, but I do know that without his antibiotics he'd be bound to his bed and possibly edging toward death.

Initials read the news today, about the American Medical Association about Tom Price, about Medicaid and Medicare, and saw his own descent in the headlines. Initials mused to us, in an online forum where he is still very much alive, that if he can't get his medication, he may put a bullet in his head rather than go through slow decline to certain death.

I should mention here, Initials owns guns.

You may become someone who finds out what medications your friend takes and how to obtain them. You may become someone who moves those medications across state lines. You may become someone who reaches out to the HIV activists whose shoulders you stand on to find out just how one runs a black market pharmacy and how many people you might be able to keep alive.

You become someone who protects what you love, to keep from becoming someone who mourns it. If you need permission to do that, here it is.

Jennifer Johnson Avril is a communications professional and HIV/AIDS activist based in New York City. She is a master's candidate in media studies for social change.


Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


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