To commemorate this year's World AIDS Day, I choose to lift the act of burning condoms.
As provocative and challenging such a move may sound, I truly believe it is a type of ritual act that is radical enough to deepen conversations around the fight against HIV and AIDS.
My friend, Ted Kerr, and I participated in the 2013 poster/VIRUS campaign with a work titled "A Litany for Burning Condoms." Plastered in various public spaces within Montreal, Toronto and San Francisco are walls papered with hundreds of copies of our radical poster that has at the center a picture of a burning condom being held by a person of color. Behind the picture is an actual litany, a type of prayer that we offered with much thought and heart to give reason to why condom burning could be a sort of healing act for this current age in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Each year we commemorate the first of December as a time to support persons living with HIV and AIDS, and remember the lives of those who experienced HIV/AIDS-related deaths over the years. The theme this year even bears witness to the hope for an idealized communal front around HIV/AIDS: "Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation."
The problem is that too many people still remain apprehensive and/or apathetic to the present-day reality, which makes it difficult to create a collective sense of shared responsibility.
Why burn condoms? I imagined it would be difficult for people to remain silent or unmoved when faced with burning condoms. However, I was wrong. There are some who still will not respond or move, even when faced with flames, due to apathy and fear.
After the poster was released, about a week or so ago, there was little conversation about it in my personal circles -- both in person or social media. I posted several items on my Facebook wall leading up to World AIDS Day. A few friends shared the ad, but there was little response. I anticipated a massive flood of comments from supporters and persons who disapproved; however, the flood did not come. I received more "likes" and comments on random pictures and status postings.
Some people in private said they thought the poster was cool and they totally got the message. Some said it is a thought-provoking piece or merely artistic. Brave critics pushed back with the idea that the concept could easily be misinterpreted by the public. I was told people could see this as an invitation to be reckless with their bodies and not take seriously the need to protect themselves with prevention measures like condoms.
I reread the litany and reflected on the image of the burning condom after the small ripple of conversation I experienced, and I still feel the same. I thought about how nearly every conversation about HIV/AIDS and intervention probably touches the subject of condoms. I thought about how in my lifetime more than 60 million people in the world have been infected and some 25 million have died of AIDS over the past quarter-century. Then I thought about my life as a black same-gender-loving man who is HIV positive, and how black men who have sex with men (MSM) in the U.S. have a rate of HIV infection comparable to what is seen in third-world countries.
Then I thought about litany again and the prevalent silence around these matters, and I began to get angry.
I thought about how every time I visit my doctor's office, I am surrounded by an insurmountable amount of condoms. When I visit various public agencies in New York City, and other urban spaces, that provide services for black and brown LGBT folks, old and young, I am surrounded by the same -- bowls akin to candy dishes filled with condoms and lubricants in lobbies, restrooms, hallways, common areas, etc.
I am by no means suggesting that people not use condoms. I am calling for more of us to pay attention to our surroundings and the so-called ways in which we allegedly protect ourselves. Part of the problem is the conscious and unconscious meanings we project onto condoms, which are public health's top method of intervention. It is a crisis among us of apathy and learned helplessness that is reflective of our quest to find peace and ease within a world that attempts to make simple the complexity of our sexuality.
Black MSM know this struggle too well. As suggested by numerous writings within the media and public health, we are largely rendered invisible until talks around HIV/AIDS.
These talks take us back to the condom and how we use it or not, instead of engaging conversations about the life attached to the latex.
My hope for the 21st century is that we would get angry enough to burn our condoms -- burn them as a form of protest. Burn them as a sign of commitment to the conversation around the reality of the pandemic. Burn them as a call for our understanding and empathy to reach beyond the science of it all. Burn them to say our lives are bigger than public fears and latex anecdotes.
It is a matter of collective and individual mental, physical and spiritual health, with worldwide implications in the HIV and AIDS conversation. It is a matter of public well-being. It is a matter of a type of restorative justice work.
Making this sort of commitment is a hard act to do considering HIV/AIDS is one of the major biosocial happenings of our time and it is nearly impossible to imagine the possibilities of life beyond that which seems incurable and irreversible.
It would be impossible to burn the billions of condoms that are distributed around the world, and that is not what the litany suggests. However, there is a power in the idea to burn one.
It is an act of strength and commitment akin to that found among the men who burned their draft cards in protest against the Vietnam War and the women who burned their bras during the earlier women's movements. Both groups intended to send a message that their life and voice matter.
Tom Roach in Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS and the Politics of Shared Estrangement suggests that public AIDS mourning rituals and protests are arguably the political manifestation of an understanding that life and death should not necessarily be relegated to the private sphere. He writes that "such rituals bring death out of the closet in order to expose the biopolitical manipulation of life."
Part of the biopolitical manipulation is the prevalent silence in public spaces around the modern-day pandemic. It is a silence largely perpetuated by the crippling effects of stigma and societal disapproval. Many prefer to die silently, or silently watch others die in silence, than bring awareness to HIV/AIDS and the effects of stigma. AIDS researchers claim that perhaps the most terrible aspect of stigma is that people who may be infected do not get tested and continue to infect many others until serious opportunistic infections set in.
Moreover, people seeking treatment or testing in areas where HIV/AIDS-related stigma is strong will likely travel far from their communities to clinics and physicians in locations where they can maintain a sense of anonymity. Moreover, doctors and researchers consumed by the science of it all become numb to the humanity at stake. In exchange, they suppress names and personal narratives for the uplift of lab reports and statistics.
Condoms are not enough.
The reality is that we cannot completely stop the spread of the virus unless a cure is developed and made accessible to the whole of humanity. Moreover, there is no way to reverse the ramifications of the stigma related to the virus. It is a pressing predicament that signifies the beauty and mess of humanity. In turn, "A Litany for Burning Condoms" raises the question of how committed are we as a collective and as individuals to the current predicament of HIV/AIDS that is upon us.
|Litany for Burning Condoms|
It's hard to stay silent when faced with burning condoms.
We burn condoms to say we are whole.
We burn condoms to say we matter.
We burn condoms to remember.
We burn condoms to say that public health does not have all the answers.
We burn condoms to exercise our voice and power of choice.
We burn condoms to merge the secular with the spiritual.
We burn condoms to influence thought and change.
We burn condoms because they are not enough.
We burn condoms because they are too much.
We burn condoms because the kids want more.
We burn condoms because sex is not just penetrative.
We burn condoms because they do not protect against stigma.
We burn condoms because they add to stigma.
We burn condoms because they are not the only answer.
We burn condoms because they are distributed in our name.
We burn condoms because we believe in harm reduction.
We burn condoms because we know it is complex.
We burn condoms because it's a primordial act.
We burn condoms because we know they save lives but they also erase them.
We burn condoms because if you are going to give me something free make it health care education or a place to live.
We burn condoms because by 2015 approximately 27 billion condoms will be distributed across the globe bringing 6 billion dollars to the condoms industry.
We burn condoms because if you are going to pass me something pass me an end to racism, sexism, gender roles, homo and heteronomativity, transphobia, profiling and policing.
We burn condoms for those unheard & populations underserved.
We burn condoms for the good & the bad and the light & the shade & the dark.
We burn condoms in the age of the Global AIDS Industrial Complex.
We burn condoms in our friend 's backyard.
We burn condoms as two men living together on the HIV spectrum.
We burn condoms as a ritual which can be activism.
We burn condoms like a draft card for a war we didn‘t sign up for.
It's hard to burn condoms. It takes time, partnership, and patience.
It's dangerous, stinky, challenging, beautiful and shocking.
It's life giving.
What's your response when faced with burning condoms?
Christopher Jones, aka Chaplain Jones, is a faith leader, writer, thinker and arts activist committed to creating conversation around sexuality and spirituality, and HIV/AIDS and faith. As a clinically trained chaplain, he is the founder of Griot Works Pastoral Service and a member of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.