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Reflections on World AIDS Day 2018: In Despair and Love, Where Are Our Political Homes?

November 30, 2018

JD Davids

JD Davids (Credit: Selfie by JD Davids)


Every December starts with World AIDS Day, and the month both ends the year and includes my birthday and that of my daughter. That makes it even more of a time to reflect on where I've been, what the past year has entailed, and where I'm heading as a person dedicated to the HIV movement, accountability, and justice.

When I reflect on 2018, what I feel most of all is a tenuous and troubled balance between despair and love.

Most days, I've been waking up queasy with distress over the persecution of immigrants, transgender people, and people of color in the United States and worldwide, and the mounting evidence that the Earth, as we've thought of it, is far from eternal.

A few days ago, despair was all I could see, for hours. I felt like all my ancestors were screaming GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. It took all I had to get the merest sense of being in the here and now with my feet on the ground.

I woke up this morning with a sense of love. I'm not sure why. But if I've learned anything in the past two years, it's that moments of love and connection are precious and not to be turned away.

And even though it's a few hours later now, and the despair is creeping back in, I'll take this as my cue to try to stay focused on that which sustains and inspires me.


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Moving Into a Political Home

If you are feeling isolated or adrift, I can suggest just one thing to do in the coming year, if you have not done so already -- find a political home.

In times when it can be easy to feel isolated, having a political home means I have a place to turn to when I'm struggling to understand, "What can I do?" A political home allows shared values to be put into action and amplified through collective efforts.

This year, I affirmed that Positive Women's Network of the USA (PWN) is my political home in the HIV movement. For over a decade, I have seen PWN practice a politics of fierce love with integrity and courage, and I am honored to support this work.

This means that I will be working toward the achievement of PWN's policy agenda and supporting its leaders and staff in whatever ways I can.

I am also committed to the path laid out by PWN leaders and comrades in A Declaration of Liberation: Building a Racially Just and Strategic Domestic HIV Movement by HIV Racial Justice Now, which affirms that "any response to the impact of HIV must be rooted in a racial justice framework."


Many Ways to Be Complicit

My dedication to organized efforts and accountability in the HIV movement comes, in part, from my understanding that state violence comes in many forms, and that there are many ways to be complicit.

My grandparents were able to come to the United States from Amsterdam, Holland in 1939 because my grandfather worked for an international company and the borders had not yet been, for the most part, sealed against the Jews who later sought to flee. But my grandmother's brother, as a young man, went on to become general secretary at the Joodse Raad -- the Jewish council of businessmen set up by the Nazis during their occupation.

In some cases, members of these councils were able to use their privilege and access to smuggle kids out of the country or do other things to try to mitigate the harm of fascist genocide. I don't know much of anything about my grand-uncle, or what he was or wasn't able to do. I do know that he, along with the rest of the Judenraat and the vast majority of my family, was ultimately sent off to the camps and killed.

I've spent my whole life wondering what I would have done in that setting -- or in any of the myriad times of mass violence against Jews, like the pogroms that likely affected the other half of my lineage in Eastern Europe and sparked their flight to the U.S. generations before my father's side -- if I had the fortune to survive for any length of time.


The HIV Entry Ban is Back

So, perhaps that's why I do not feel at all at home in the machinations of national and international elite policy circles that continue to justify the siting of AIDS 2020, a multimillion-dollar international AIDS conference, in the United States during a time of violence and rampant persecution.

The International AIDS Society has said it will move or cancel the conference if the U.S. reinstates a ban on the entry of people living with HIV. But here's the thing: There's no need for the Trump administration to reinstate a politically controversial HIV entry ban in name, if they can just do it in practice. To pretend otherwise is naive, indulgent, and dangerous.

Shamefully, the U.S. already has a de facto ban against the entry of many people living with HIV, thanks to January's revision of practices at consulate offices that grant or deny visas to those with expensive health conditions, those who aren't rich, and a myriad of other reasons for denying entry that can be cited besides HIV status. And there's also the longstanding ban on entry to people who have used drugs or done sex work, which kept people out even during the Obama administration when Washington, D.C. was home for AIDS 2012.

The lack of recognition of this all-but-ban is dispiriting. It is despair-inducing, not just because it feels disingenuous and sad. It also puts me in mind of other ways I've seen so many people of privilege act as if Trump-era right-wing leaders and followers are bigoted and stupid, rather than well-organized, strategic, and powerful.

Just because the work of the Trump administration and allies results in chaos doesn't mean it's not intentional. For example, their work to erase any rights or dignity of trans people is not newly minted or unprecedented. It's been outlined in the reports and plans of groups like the Family Research Council for a very long time. The apparent chaos keeps us scattered, camouflages the intent, and makes it harder to see the full impact.

Seeking to keep despair at bay for just a little while, I won't go much further into it at this point. I will, though, share just two recent stories that should be sobering:

But here is something to love: Gatherings for people of conscience in the HIV movement are taking shape, as those long pushed aside by the International AIDS Society and other elite players show the rest of us what needs to happen. Soon we will hear what the global HIV community will provide as alternatives to this misguided event. I hope you will join me in supporting them and repudiating the elite strategies that slam doors instead of opening them.


Why We Fight

For many years, I've looked to the words of HIV activist Vito Russo in his 1988 Why We Fight speech as a grounding document. I invite you to look at this section of it today, but substitute living as an undocumented immigrant or living as a trans woman of color instead of living with AIDS:

Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you've lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn't happening to them. They're walking the streets as though we weren't living through some sort of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for help. No one else seems to be noticing.

And it's worse than a war, because during a war people are united in a shared experience. This war has not united us, it's divided us. It's separated those of us with AIDS and those of us who fight for people with AIDS from the rest of the population.

How can those of us who aren't directly affected by the current exploding shells not turn away, not be divided? I look to PWN and other groups that live in the intersections between and among our communities for the way forward.

Recently, PWN executive director Naina Khanna posted these thoughts on Facebook, which resonate for me as a counterpart to Russo's words from 30 years ago:

It can be hard to see outside of capitalism. But don't be confused. We don't actually need to compete for constituents, resources, attention. Scarcity and competition are not necessary conditions, but we have been taught that they are. We ourselves have the power to change the way resources are allocated and shared. It's possible to shift our relationship to the earth and to each other through conscious decisions to do that, and a commitment to practice into abundance, cooperation, alignment, and collaboration rather than competition. This applies to the non-profit industrial complex & organizing spaces just as much as it applies to use of natural resources.

May this World AIDS Day flow into a new year that finds you safe in a home that sees and values you. And may we work together to join in power to bring the shifts we need for all of us to survive.

JD Davids is a former senior editor and director of strategic communications at TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. A longtime HIV/AIDS activist and communication strategist, he is a co-founder of Project TEACH at Philadelphia FIGHT, was a longtime member of ACT UP Philadelphia, and founded Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance.


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