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Opinion

I Was Blocked From the AIDS Memorial Instagram Account for Asking About Diversity

October 24, 2018

AIDS Memorial Instagram Account


"Stuart From the AIDS Memorial," is the creator behind the heartfelt AIDS project found on Instagram. This platform is one of the few on social media that tell stories of those who have died due to HIV/AIDS.

June 5, 1981, marked the beginning of the AIDS pandemic as we know it. Five gay men in Los Angeles, my hometown, all shared common symptoms (e.g., pneumonia, lung infection) as their immune systems began to deteriorate. By the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on this phenomenon, two of these men were already dead. This was the beginning of what was once known as "the gay cancer." Shortly after these reports, the numbers of people affected proliferated, and terror grew nationwide. Stuart's platform is supposed to bring awareness to the fact that people who died from AIDS-related causes were once here, that people living with HIV continue to be here, and that our stories must be told.

Stuart, who currently resides in Scotland and has not publicly revealed his last name, according to Vogue, is the architect behind a potentially beautiful project. He has been featured in POZ Magazine, in Out, and recently in Vice. However, there is always room for improvement and awareness, something that Stuart needs to accept.

The problem? His project lacks diversity. Log onto Instagram and check out The AIDS Memorial (with the official blue check), and you will find extremely few black and brown queer people. You'll find hardly any trans women or cisgender women either. Unfortunately, when I politely brought this to his attention, Stuart blocked me. I tried building common ground by letting him know that I too am HIV positive and am very thankful for his work. My only criticism was that I saw a "sea of whiteness." I immediately thought of Marlon Riggs's 1989 documentary, Tongues Untied, in which he describes his journey to the gay Mecca, aka San Francisco, where he was confronted with a lack of diversity in the gay community -- and also intense racism. The lack of representation on ads, posters, and even among go-go dancers in the Castro affected Riggs; he felt as though he did not belong.

I believe that it is our duty as black and brown people who disproportionately live and die with HIV to say something about erasure.

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In 1982, Audre Lorde was a keynote speaker at a New York Institute for the Humanities conference, where she spoke about the role racism plays in feminist spaces, which fail to include of women of color. The essay "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," found in the book Sister Outsider, has become one of her more famous essays, and it has influenced my scholarly activism and desire to raise with Stuart the issue of white erasure of communities of color in the epidemic. In the book, she says:

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.

At the end of the essay, she states that white feminist academics were a parody of white patriarchal heteronormativity. At the conference where Lorde spoke, they failed to include the narratives of women of color. As Lorde states, "We did not know whom to ask" has been the default excuse used to explain the lack of inclusion of feminists of color. White queers are no exception to this pattern and still use this justification from time to time to excuse their lack of critical thinking. In Stuart's case, he refused even to have a conversation.

This logical fallacy is dangerous. HIV/AIDS is still a problem in our country for people of color like Ariel Sabillon and Sanjay D. Johnson. These two HIV-positive men have faced problems with stigma and institutions, such as the criminal justice system and college campuses, that work against black and brown men. Stuart's lack of representation does harm to these young men's lived experiences, as well as to the trans brothers and sisters who have been affected by HIV/AIDS. The people who have come before them are made invisible by what could be a very beautiful and inclusive social media accounting of all of those who have lived and died with HIV.

Stuart's dismissal of people of color who have tried to raise these issues suggests that he doesn't curate the memorials of people of color who have died of the disease because he doesn't care about those of us who are still living. For example, "RE" (who wishes to remain anonymous) has expressed his concerns about Stuart.

According to "RE," Stuart unfriended him on Facebook for pointing out that Stuart "cropped out the face of the only black actor in the entire show" of the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band.

[Editor's Note 10/26: The alleged cropping appears to have occurred unintentionally as a result of Instagram's software, which automatically trims non-square photos before displaying them as square thumbnails on a user's primary Instagram page.]

This lack of accountability is problematic and needs to be addressed. To make matters worse, Stuart is being rewarded by so much fawning press attention that he doesn't address or question whom he has chosen to include and whom he has not.

And since he decided to silence me, I am going against the grain and saying "fuck you" to respectability politics (a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham), a tactic meant to silence marginalized people and prohibit them from challenging mainstream culture -- and in this case white gay men. Essex Hemphill once said, and I am paraphrasing, that the struggle of the white gay man is to have an orgasm, while our struggles as black and brown people are often to survive.

This is some food for thought; think what you will. However, what you won't do is silence me.

[Editor's Note 10/25: An earlier version of this article included an assertion regarding Stuart's racial identity that we have been unable to confirm, as well as a mischaracterization of the amount of diversity within The AIDS Memorial's Instagram feed. We have removed all references to Stuart's race and corrected the characterization.]

[Editor's Note 10/26: This article has caused a lot of conversation within the HIV community, particularly among followers of The AIDS Memorial, about whether the author's claims regarding an intentional lack of diversity in the memorial were justified, and whether an online memorial to people who have died from HIV is an appropriate place to have this kind of debate. In the wake of this response, we feel it's important to share our thoughts regarding this article and its place on our site.

We published Giuliani Alvarenga's opinion piece because we take pride in TheBody's status as a reliable space for perspectives on what is happening today that affects the community of people living with, and impacted by, HIV. Alvarenga's article reflects his personal opinion, as do all opinion articles and personal stories on TheBody. These opinion articles often take points of view that people disagree with -- sometimes even members of our own team -- but we support the sharing of views that further our community conversation, even if entirely reasonable people may disagree strongly with those views.

As soon as we were made aware that there were factual assertions in Alvarenga's piece that appeared to be incorrect, we, as any publication would, began a new round of fact-checking on the piece, making corrections as we found errors. We also added an editor's note to ensure transparency regarding the inaccuracies we fixed, and we appended that editor's note to our prior social media posts on the article. This effort is ongoing. We regret that we failed to catch and correct these issues earlier in our editorial process, and we have already begun a review of that process to ensure that our fact-checking approach is as airtight as we can make it prior to the publication of an article.

We hope that the opinions expressed by Alvarenga in his article, and the difficult issues that he raises, can be addressed through a constructive debate over the issues themselves, without devolving into personal attacks. It can be particularly easy to slip into such attacks on social media, where reactions can be posted more quickly than we think them through, and where real-life human beings on both sides of an issue may forget there is a breathing, feeling person behind the avatar.

We believe strongly that TheBody should serve as a safe space to debate these tough issues. We will continue to do our best to represent the diversity of voices and opinions in the community -- and to ensure that when those voices state facts, we do all we can to verify those facts before posting them.]

Giuliani Alvarenga is a UC Berkeley alumnus who double majored in English and gender & women's studies. He is a Sidley Austin Pre-Law Scholar and wrapping up his two-year clerkship with Munger, Tolles, & Olson before he begins law school.


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