I was born at home in a third-floor bedroom of our home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, during a snowstorm in January. My transition into this world was labored and guided by hands who saw my entrance as sacred. My grandmother served as a midwife. She cared for me and my mother in the hours after. I come from a family that thought differently about birth, illness, and death. Babies were born at home. Loved ones with Illnesses were cared for at home. The last stages of life were lived and labored at home without the interventions of doctors, or the loudness of machines or the red tape of billing and deductibles. Home is an ephemeral space for the movement of time and the activity of life. As a result, I see home spaces and community care as the ultimate gift we can offer each other during all of life’s transitions.
Today, like many, I am at home. I am writing, watching the news, and coping while caring for myself and my family under shelter-in-place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The home space has become a center stage for all of our activities, needs, and challenges. Our ability to cope daily depends on how we can access not only basic resources like food, water, medications, and safety, but also care and connection. How do we sustain community for ourselves within and beyond our walls? Our ability to access emotional health while sheltering in place is the difference between the home becoming the container for our suffering or a harbor of our deep connection to others.
As a Black, queer former sex worker who is currently mothering, I know firsthand the way homes as containers can be beautiful, terrifying, and many variations in between. For Indigenous people, Black people, people of color, women, and transgender and non-binary people, our struggles with the home as space are part of a long liberation struggle to depart from the colonial definitions of land, home, property, and the exploitation of our bodies. Outside of colonization ideology, home is a continuum—a space for experiences, rituals, physical bodies, pleasure, and care. This moment of locating ourselves and each other while at home is not a phenomenon but an intimate reckoning in search of a paradigm shift towards decolonization.
What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD) Collective has been challenging and expanding radical care across media for years, and their work has not changed in our uncertain COVID-19 world. What Would an HIV Doula Do? is a community of people who come together in response to the ongoing AIDS crisis. They understand a doula as someone who holds space during times of transition. They understand HIV as a series of transitions that begins long before being tested or getting a diagnosis and continues after treatment. They believe that since no one gets HIV alone, no one should have to deal with HIV alone. As a group, they create an ongoing presence in the lives of others to ensure no one is ever alone. They ask questions as a process that leads to inclusion.
Tamara Oyola-Santiago, M.P.H., is a collective member who participated in the first WWHIVDD dialogue convened by Ted Kerr, which took place at Housing Works’ Keith D. Cylar Community Health Center. Oyola-Santiago believes that “doula work is about loving, caring, advocating, moving, transforming, reflecting, and holding one another,” she said. “Only beings can do doula work, not institutions nor agencies nor entities. So it is critical in 2020 and always and forever, because we need to humanize and hold our humanity.” According to Oyola-Santiago, the ongoing challenge to this work is “the business of everyday life,” because it impacts the ability to organize and meet face to face. Online and electronic organizing make it easier but don’t necessarily “feed the soul.”
These challenges continue now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet the work of caring for each other continues. How do we find each other when we need each other the most? While social media is not a physical home, it is a space often traversed, cycled back to, and ritualized. This collective has found ways to maximize connecting online.
Ted Kerr, a founding member of WWHIVDD, often uses Facebook to engage with others by posing questions related to the complexity of caring for ourselves and others. He recently posted: “How do we make space for the “reasonable” desire to not get sick, while also refusing ableism? How do we engage with the wrought state of health while recognizing our organic matter? How do we exist in the epidemic with our fears? With our solidarity? With our bodies? With each other?” These questions began a discussion on where we locate ourselves and how we relate to each other. As I scrolled through these questions, I didn’t feel judged—instead, it provided an opportunity to breathe, think, and reflect. This process of questioning brought me home to me. This allows me to better engage with others.
This model of collective questioning recently emerged in two WWHIVDD projects: “Twenty-Seven Questions for Writers & Journalists to Consider When Writing About COVID-19 & AIDS” and the “What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do?” zine.
The 27 questions offer a “series of questions as provocations and illuminations, put forward with the understanding that there are no single or correct answers. Rather, as a group of people who benefit from interrogation, collectivity, and accountability,” the collective offers questions as a gift to those in the field.
The “What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do?” zine, made in collabaration with the ONE Archive Foundation, emerged as a snapshot of time from the WWHIVDD community, responding in words, actions, and images to the unfolding, unprecedented, global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER
LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER
LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER
These words repeat themselves throughout the zine. These words resonate with me as I draw from my well looking for comfort. Between press conferences and dark memes between friends, I can feel my love tank emptying. I want to connect on video chat, but I don’t want to connect on video chat. I want to participate in the world of internet-based art performances but often feel overwhelmed at the thought of participating. I want to receive love and give love. I want to touch and be touched. I want my home to be a circle of protection and space of comfort, yet I do not want to live in fear of an outside world full of beautiful otherness. The art within the zine echoes the ways we are all searching for a home in our self and with others.
R&B/soul singer-songwriter Luther Vandross, on his 1981 debut album Never Too Much, sang a song titled, “A House Is Not a Home.” Vandross’ sweet voice reminded us that
A room is still a room
Even when there’s nothing there but gloom
But a room is not a house
And a house is not a home
When the two of us are far apart
And one of us has a broken heart.
I am reminded of this love ballad, as I feel my heart growing weary amid this pandemic. The work of the WWHIVDD collective inspires me to accept the ways my heart is broken and mourn the loss of an old life, while remembering that the old life was also broken. I am not broken, my communities were not broken, but the systems my Black, queer, Indigenous, poor, differently abled friends and I live in have always been broken.
I am learning that personal nostalgia is OK. Yet romanticizing the world we knew before COVID-19 is not helpful, because there is still work to be done in solidarity with Indigenous struggles, Black Liberation, Queer Liberation, the freeing of Palestine, global wage workers, de-gentrification, and the dismantling of patriarchy and capitalism. And while I am not pressuring myself to start a revolution between Zoom meetings, I do realize we are in a pivot towards a revolution. This is a birthing. This is a transition. This is a shift.
I return home to the questions drawn from this collective. Kerr poses questions for us in this transition: “Please consider all the images of the amazing people who are figuring out how to go outside and social distance that is not being #shared. Please consider the work that went into getting streets closed so people could have more safe space, and please consider all the people using these now available spaces. Please consider the multiple people who live in tiny homes who are figuring out how to keep their sanity and safety. Please consider overly simplistic divides. Please consider camera angles. Please consider the economics of retweets and shares. And please consider how your outrage is being stoked, monitored, used.”
These considerations are vital for us to make it into the future together. We must follow the lead of groups like WWHIVDD, because we have to first be here caring for and loving each other as a radical practice. There will be no future if we do not thrive in the present.