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Documentation of Collage Workshop with Valley AIDS Network clients, 2015

Xon Henry and Hermelinda Cortes are two Southern queers from rural Virginia who collaborate on building cultural, spiritual and political resiliency for LGBTQ people in the small town they live in. Visual AIDS publishes here a conversation between them.

Hermelinda: Xon and I met in Richmond around 2011 when I was organizing a listening campaign in Virginia with Southerners On New Ground (SONG). As an organization we were doing these listening campaigns in four Southern states to help inform the future of our work. This was right before our 20th anniversary and on the tail end of strategizing about how to work in the South post-Hurricane Katrina. SONG is a grassroots, membership based organization for southern LGBTQ people and our membership is multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-classed. So, obviously, a lot of our people, and ourselves as organizers deeply connected in our communities, were facing some huge questions and had big needs for our region. Katrina affected us as an organization drastically. We were getting calls from folks saying everything was underwater. People were dealing with day-to-day survival--trying to find food, their meds, etc.--and Katrina just amplified how much the state and both public and private infrastructure was failing us.

Xon: When we met, I was the president of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity at the University of Richmond. We were a new group interested in pushing an activist agenda at the university; our main focus was getting the university to add gender identity and gender expression to its non-discrimination policy, which would make us the first in the state. At the same time, we are also hoping to break the campus bubble at our school. I was coming into my own politic and art praxis and hadn't learned that I could actually combine my politics and art together.

Hermelinda: I don't think either of us realized how important our brief overlap in Richmond was or how much we would collaborate until a couple of years later when we were both living where we are now in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We are both people who had significant access to LGBTQ life and networks through our work in both art and activism, but I think we both found living in a small southern atmosphere again to be isolating in a number of ways. Growing up in Augusta County on a small family farm, I was somewhat used to this experience as a young queer person before the time of social media and Ellen. Even so, it always felt important for me to come back here and I think the collaborations that Xon and I have engaged in around arts and culture and politics has been about breaking that isolation for ourselves and for other LGBTQ people here.

Xon: I grew up in Rappahannock County in Virginia, which is arguably one of the most rural counties in the commonwealth as it doesn't have a single stoplight and only recently got cell towers. Our graduating classes for the county never really exceeded 100. I didn't really know any queer people or culture as a kid. Did I mention we didn't really get any TV reception? I really connect to Hermelinda's feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. My only real exposure to HIV/AIDS was through narratives that cast it as a punishment for sin and consequently as a death sentence.

In retrospect, I was probably pretty lucky to have had a radical sex ed teacher during my senior year of high school who actually went against abstinence only education and taught us about putting condoms on bananas, albeit nothing about anal sex. It wasn't until late in my undergrad career that I learned about (free) HIV testing, and actually had my first test with Fan Free Clinic in Richmond. While in Richmond, one of my long-term boyfriends was the main caregiver to a relative living with AIDS/HIV; it became a regular conversation in our relationship, which proved to be very illuminating. When I moved to New York City for grad school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, I was astounded to learn about all the various resources, organizations, histories, exhibitions, and groups dealing with the issue of HIV/AIDS. I was actually a little nervous about moving back to Virginia because I had grown a bit accustomed to all these resources.

Hermelinda: Where we live, like many places in the South, there is only one AIDS organization that serves a very large geographic area and we just found out that a clinic over the mountain that provides crucial resources to HIV+/AIDS people is about to close. So, there is this element to our collaborative work that has to deal with the reality that as an entity we don't have the resources to provide direct services to the LGBTQ community that can seem really overwhelming. I think though that we are hopeful that engaging our people in a way around organizing and activism and art can be our contribution to lifting up people's spirits and building the relationships we need that directly contributes to our survival.

Xon: I am always excited by the potentials of collaboration; it's one reason I initiated the OId Furnace Artist Residency (OFAR) project, because I wanted to create a platform for collaboration around social justice. OFAR recently collaborated with our local HIV/AIDS service organization, Valley AIDS Network, on a collage making workshop; the collages will be released in the next edition of SLAG Mag.

One of the region's largest organization, THRIVE, just announced they will be closing down, as Hermelinda mentioned. I was recently as a conference presentation on PrEP that encouraged folks to go onto it. When I got home, I called a few local doctors in my area. Most didn't even know of the drug or didn't feel comfortable prescribing it. I ended up getting a referral to the University of Virginia's Infectious Disease and International Health Department, which would equate to about a three-hour round trip commute.

As of late, I've been really thinking about how urban narratives shape sexual health programs, education, and access. This was some of the framing question behind Hermelinda's and my first official collaboration in Harrisonburg, the Southern Homo edition of SLAG Mag. That edition uplifted artists who identified as queer and Southern. It proved to be a very interesting and inspiring project because I got exposed to artists I didn't know about and whose work touched upon issues and concepts that inspire, influence and intersect within my practice.

Hermelinda: That collaboration was really great for me, because it brought me back to thinking about the cultural part of organizing which feels like it can get subsumed by the sometimes rapid pace of campaign organizing. Doing cultural work and building cultural resiliency has always been such a huge part of our movement. I think about the role that drag queens have played on our journey to get free. I think about the AIDS quilt. I think about the writing of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. I think about my friend in North Carolina who is working on a collaborative illustrated Southern queer tarot deck called Slow Holler. All of these pieces of culture are absolutely necessary and SLAG Mag was a place for me to reinsert and re-imagine my own participation in that part of liberation.

Xon: I think the idea of re-imagining and cultural citizenship is something that is coming back to general activism. The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is a prime example of the new entanglement between activism, art, culture and politics. After we collaborated on SLAG Mag, we wanted to further our entanglement, which launched We Are Here. We Are Here, is exploring how culture and community might shape queer activism. So far, we've organized queer skate nights, brunches, postering campaigns and movie nights.

Hermelinda: We think this is why the work of Visual Aids is so important, necessary, and helpful in all kinds of different contexts, like the recent interview with Luna Luis Ortiz. Those parts of our history are lost without work from people like Visual Aids.

Xon: I learned first about Visual AIDS during this time through the first condom giveaway campaign, "Play SmART." I was a campus organizer at the University of Richmond, and we are always on the lookout for engaging (and free) opportunities. After receiving some condoms from Visual AIDS, I just got onto the listserv and have stayed attuned to your work. I finally had a better understanding of the organization when I lived in New York City via my advisor at NYU, Pato Hebert; It was very inspiring to learn about the deep and continued impact of the work.

After organizing Harrisonburg's open call unJURIED exhibition, it's hard for me to create hierarchies of favorites, but I do find the work of Sunil Gupta and Robert Getso in the Visual Aids online Artist Registry+. Their work has expansive impact in relationship to the viewer through its expansive connections, histories, and feelings.

Hermelinda: I'm always prone to photography. I love the work of W. Benjamin Incerti and Kia Labeija.

Xon: We are currently gearing up for the relaunch of Pride in Shenandoah Valley and we are hoping to incorporate elements of visual arts into this year's Pride.

Jon/Xon grew up in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains and xe is now pursuing an MFA in Studio Art from James Madison University. Along this journey, xe has received fellowships and grants from xer respective universities, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mildred's Lanes, and Arts Council of the Valley. They currently organize/create/manage/live the Old Furnace Artist Residency in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Tseng Kwong Chi, "San Francisco, CA" (1979), silver gelatin print, 36"x36"

Tseng Kwong Chi's photographs are playful critiques informed by an outsider identity and the grit and glitter of 1980s-era New York. Born in Hong Kong in 1950, he was educated in Paris, and eventually settled in the East Village with his sister, Muna, in 1978. Kwong Chi was a gay, HIV-positive Chinese immigrant who refused these labels, although his photographs were made during the height of the AIDS crisis when it became nearly impossible to disentangle the themes of alienation and isolation in his East Meets West and Expeditionary series from the devastating toll of HIV/AIDS later in his life.

In the East Meets West series, Kwong Chi is dressed in a thrift store Mao suit, his stoic gaze obscured by a pair of reflective sunglasses. A self-identified "ambiguous ambassador," he looms, front and center, before Western landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Golden Gate Bridge. His immersive black-and-white silver gelatin prints transport the viewer to global tourist locations, the images reading like a set of film stills. In the Expeditionary series he's dwarfed by vast American landscapes. These are a quieter, more melancholic progression of Kwong Chi's work, as he contemplates the Grand Canyon or Lake Moraine in the wilderness of the Northwest. Kwong Chi uses the camera as a tool to capture his performance art: the spectacle of this lonely, foreign persona.

However, Kwong Chi's queerness and charisma find an outlet in his lurid Polaroids from the party scene of '80s New York. Kwong Chi ran in close circles with Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, John Sex, and other well-connected artists and performers. Kwong Chi is almost always the lone queer Asian body, but here, in the lush nightlife, he's found kinship with other alternative, transgressive folk.

Tseng Kwong Chi passed away from AIDS-related complications at age 39, yet he was wildly prolific from 1979 to 1989, the year before his death. The 80-some photographs in his first touring retrospective, Performing for the Camera, satirized tourist culture, right-wing America, and the prevailing white American notion of the unknowable Asian "other."

The following is a transcribed interview between Visual AIDS intern Maia Paroginog and Muna Tseng, Kwong Chi's sister, about Kwong Chi's life and artistic practice.

How did you relate to your brother as an artist? I believe you shared an apartment at the time. Was there any sort of collaboration?
We both came to New York in 1978 to become artists, myself in the field of dance and performance, very much against our parents' wishes. In 1978 New York was practically falling off the map. There was a lot of crime and it was bankrupt. It was a tough city, not like New York today. But we both felt like fish to water when we arrived. We shared a loft together on 21st Street and Seventh Avenue; our first apartments were a block from each other on the East Village. We felt liberated from both Chinese family values and expectations, and our Canadian immigration experience. We were happy campers. I think New York was where he'd found kindred spirits. And we supported each other. He did all my dance photography and posters. It was a very exciting adventure. We had each other as well as our exciting milieu.

What did it mean for Tseng to "perform for the camera?"
The title of the exhibition was conceived by Amy Brandt, who is the original curator of the show. Kwong Chi was mixing visual art and performance. He also had the ability to convince others, or corral them, into performing for his camera, from his Polaroid party scenes or with "moral majority" Senators and Congressmen whom he got to pose in front of a crumpled American flag. I think it's a very apt title for the show.

Tseng takes on multiple identities such as the "ambiguous ambassador." Can you speak more about the roles he embodied and where they might have originated from?
Right, the "ambiguous ambassador" was used after he met Yves Saint Laurent at the Met. It was the exhibition Manchu Dragon: Costumes from the Ch'ing Dynasty, and he brought his camera. It was a highly glamorous gala where all the guests were dressed to the nines, in some Chinoiserie costumes or Asian fantasy. He was speaking with Saint Laurent because he was interviewing the guests about what they were wearing and what they thought of the show.

Yves Saint Laurent and Kwong Chi were conversing in French. (My brother went to art school in France and he was very good with languages.) Yves Saint Laurent said to him, "Oh, you speak French? Well, you must be an ambassador from China." And so he [Kwong Chi] started calling himself an "ambiguous ambassador," which was quite cheeky!

He also coined himself "Slut for Art." That was on the ID badge that he wore on this Chinese uniform, the Mao Zedong suit. Most of the time his ID badge said "visitor" or "visiteur" in English and French. I think he was having a lot of fun playing with people's perceptions, like "Who is this Chinese man?", "What is he doing?", "Is he a visitor?", "Is he an alien?"

We have to remember that in the '80s, multicultural studies were not in the syllabus of universities and colleges. It was a new search for immigrants and Asian Americans to define their identity in some way. Because he was wearing that suit, it gave him a certain persona that was at once mysterious and official. So he was playing with people's perception of who he was, as well as proclaiming who he was.

Did Tseng consider himself Chinese American? Or Chinese?
He considered himself an artist. He didn't like the labels of "I'm a Chinese artist" or "I'm a Canadian artist" or "I'm a Hong Kong-born artist." He said "I am an artist. I make art,"

Andy Warhol wouldn't claim himself to be a white artist or an American artist. Well, maybe he might say he was an "American" artist because he loved American culture so much!

I also think Kwong Chi didn't define himself as a gay artist. He didn't like those labels, although he certainly had a lot of labels stuck on him.

Tseng was taking "selfies" before many others. How do you think he might respond to today's culture of self-aggrandizement and the immediacy of sharing one's documented self?
I often wonder what kind of work he would be doing today. I think the media and technology have changed so much. He used a 1940s Rolleiflex camera, a leftover of one of the last mechanical cameras, for the self-portraits. Analog uses rolls of film, so time is stretched out. And at the time, with the old technology of Polaroids, you had to wait two to three minutes for it to develop, whereas today with digital cameras, you take a selfie and you can immediately edit it, enhance it, and send it to millions of people.

It's a very, very different state of mind. I think we have to look at his work in the time that he created it, in the era of the 1980s. But at the same time, his images are so fresh. You look at them and you may not know that he did them 35 years ago.

Muna Tseng, choreographer-dancer, founder of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, has made over 30 original works, often in collaboration with composers, directors and visual artists engaged in contemporary practice. Her works have been performed in New York and presented around the world since 1979. She is the trustee of the Tseng Kwong Chi estate.

Maia Paroginog is entering their final undergraduate year at Stanford with focuses in visual art making, arts writing, and comparative studies in race and ethnicity. Their work employs several mediums and representations, which range from abstract sculpture to figurative painting. Their artwork and academic interests revolve around bodily dysphoria, queering interpersonal relationships, intersectional feminism, power/privilege, and the abject abstract. They use queer art to interrogate notions of "identity" and are interested in its uses in addressing collective trauma.

"Future Ritual II: Alone Together," Diego Montoya (2015). Multimedia installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Interface: Queer Artists Forming Communities Through Social Media is Visual AIDS Artist Member Walt Cessna's curatorial debut at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Spanning painting, photography, installation and sculpture, the show brings together thirty queer New York artists including Visual AIDS artist members Benjamin Fredrickson and George Towne. Interface developed from Walt's art publication VacZine, which started to assemble this community of artists through social media. Below, former Visual AIDS intern Kyle Croft interviews Cessna about the Interface.

Could you talk about who is in the show, in larger terms? It is organized through the framework of social media, but you're also showcasing a scene and an ethos that's particular to New York City right now.
Walt Cessna: I'm trying to reference the early '80s period of David Wojnarowicz--it's a DIY punk ethos of showing art wherever you could, putting things out any way you can. In the '80s we had people putting their art on piers; we had people like Michael Stewart killed by the police because he was putting things in subways; we had people who were showing things in Gracie Mansion's bathroom. I myself am somebody who used to show my work through Xerox magazines by leaving them on people's doorsteps.

And I think that's why social media has become so important. I think the important aspect of this show is basically that people are just frustrated with having to go through normal channels to get a place to show or even be exposed and that's why people started turning towards putting their work online. People fearlessly putting their work online and owning it and putting it out there because they want people to see their work.

And even when I started doing it 10 years ago there was a lot of backlash--people thought you're giving your work away for free, you're going to tarnish your brand, and if you put nude pictures of yourself online they're going to come back and haunt you.

So the framework of social media is a foil to get at the tensions between multiple art worlds in New York--namely the commercial, gallery-oriented scene and this emergent, counter-culture queer scene. The internet provides an alternative mode of engaging with and distributing art.
I was trying to make the point that there's a moment happening in art right now where people are creating work that's extremely unique and rare and really heartfelt and very diverse and there's so many different mediums being utilized. I think that's a community, whether the people know each other and hang out or not, there's this scene that hasn't even been acknowledged yet.

And I think that even though this show really hit a lot of good points, the sad part of it is we got no mainstream press attention, or any actual print media attention. I did what I could do, I got them online press, but I still think unless you get that attention from The New York Times, Artforum, blah blah blah, then you're never going to be taken seriously. My opening was wow, crazy wild, tons of people, but that doesn't mean anything at the end of the day if certain people from within the arts industry don't take this to heart and actually pay attention to it.

How did the show come about?
Because I've been posting my work for free for 10 years. I'm not even bragging when I say this, but I like to make this point because I hope that other people might take it as inspiration. I think it's really important to put the work out there, being really conscientious about it, and not filtering it and not hesitating and not regretting anything and owning it completely. Everything that's come to me has been by posting it on social media, putting it out there, and letting it grow organically and letting it come back to me. All of my gallery shows, including the ones I've been in in England with Scooter, the things I've done in LA--all of it has come from my Tumblr blog and my Facebook. I hate giving Facebook credit, because I hate it so much, but at this point it is my business

If social media is providing new platforms for queer artists to engage each other and their audiences, what role do gallery and museums shows play in this scene? How do these online and offline worlds relate to each other?
Well the first thing would be the human connection. Getting to meet the people that know me online or know my work or know VacZine and then getting to have a one-on-one with them.

And I get a lot of clicks of that "like" button. I see a lot of these people do too. But I don't think anyone should use it as a barometer. That's great to get the attention, but if people are going to come and see the work in person, then that's successful. No matter how much we claim we want to live our lives online, or we don't want to be part of the real world, people want to be part of a connection thing here. And I think the frustration over the last ten years watching social media and the internet grow and take over people's lives and attach to them like pods is starting to frustrate people and it's starting to backtrack a little bit.

I want to use the internet to find things or discover things. The only way it helps me conceive or conceptualize my art is because it's where I find some of the beautiful boys that I photograph. It's a sourcing place, it's not giving me inspiration. I get inspiration when I get on set and I see the light and the light is magic and I have a connection with somebody that is regardless of it being sexual or whatever. It's a connection and there's an energy there and I'm not getting that energy by plugging into the internet.

What is significant about this contemporary queer art scene beyond its relation to social media? Are there any pieces you want to highlight in the show?
I think it is kids like Slava Mogutin who come from a very fucked up place, where he went through a lot of persecution for being gay. I think that plays a lot into it. I think the political side of it is really important because basically we don't have any kind of ACT UP organization any more. We have a lot of people who say they're activists but all they do is post #ferguson. I think the activism or the point of politicism that comes into this is in the actual work. And it's actually not being afraid to show a Muslim man stroking his penis, à la Gio Black Peter's painting, or seeing work from Slava from that early point before VICE magazine made it popular to see boys with their pants pulled down, drinking a beer and passed out in the street. Slava was documenting that and making into art. He was documenting the scene that was around him.

We've had this whole rash of making everything pacified and more palatable for people. So you look at things like what Alesia is doing, where she's documenting the people who are in that scene who are so major, like Macy Rodman and Severely Mame, and really, 20 years from now, she'll be the photographer that people go to--kind of like Nan Goldin--to look at that scene.

I think Dietmar was so impressively strong in the show because he was shooting people from the scene, who a lot of us have also used as muses--Robert Anderson, Dominic Vine, Christopher Stribley, Jorge Clar, Scooter LaForge--and then taking it to another level by painting on the photographs and not making it so precious that it had to be framed, so we could put it up raw like that. They really didn't want to do that at first, they wanted everything to be framed and safe. I've never had a show of my own actually where anything's been framed. I've always tacked it or nailed it to the work to try to make it as least precious as possible. And I think that was actually a good thing with this show because they actually motivated themselves to go out of their norm of making things so historical or archival and letting it be more present.

Todd Yeager is someone who should be shown an enormous amount of respect--he and George Towne are probably the finest illustrators/painters that we have in this scene and have been doing it for so long.

George Towne is a Visual AIDS artist member, and Interface also features the work of artist member Benjamin Fredrickson. What role does HIV/AIDS have in the show?
The only way I can afford to live in New York and have my art career is because I have a plague apartment that the government pays for because I had full-blown AIDS twice. The only reason I've been able to do anything that I've done for the past 10 years is because AIDS gave me a second chance at having a career and a life and having people take me seriously again as an artist. That's why. If I didn't have the plague, I wouldn't have anything of this right now. I probably would have been dead already from drugs or other risky behavior.

HIV plays into everything in my life in a major way because I wouldn't have anything without it. And until I tested positive in 2000 after being asymptomatic--I tested inconclusive for four years, back before the oral test happened. There was a specific percentage of people who tested inconclusively. They knew the bug was in me, they just couldn't find it yet. So when I did start showing symptoms in early 2000, I was in San Francisco, living in a residential hotel on Market Street. I was a hooker and a drug dealer, I wasn't making art or writing or doing anything and I didn't have insurance, so when I went to the hospital, basically dying, they wouldn't even give me the results of my blood tests because I couldn't pay them for it. So I went a whole three months basically dying and not knowing what was up with me. Rashes all over my body, loosing weight, night sweats, until the oral test came out, and then I tested positive immediately. And was able to go on meds. And the minute I went on meds--I'm like a med sponge--my T-cells went from being like 11 and my viral load being over 1,000 to like 800 T-cells, and a completely undetectable viral load. But then, after taking the drugs for a long time and kind of going through things with my addiction, I really fucked myself up. I gave myself full-blown pneumonia and pleurisy. I had full-blown AIDS again. It's how I ended up getting into the HASA system and getting my apartment and getting my benefits and everything like that.

It's basically made my life completely unmanageable but also kind of manageable. So it's always like a tightrope, about to fall off. It's never steady, never consistent.

Interface: Queer Artists Forming Communities through Social Media
is on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art through August 2, 2015. Join Walt Cessna for a curator-led tour of Interface on Saturday, August 1, at 3 p.m.

Walt Cessna is a writer, photographer and former fashion designer who started his career in fashion as a Vogue-obsessed 13-year old eventually working with knockoff king and dress mogul Jack "Fast Jack" Mulqueen and designer Norma Kamali. He established himself as a fashion designer with his acclaimed Dom Casual label, designing and self-producing a line of men's and women's sportswear. His short stories have appeared in magazines such as Paper as well as numerous blogs. His photography can be found virtually anywhere on the Internet as well as in his published photo collections, Fukt 2 Start Wit and Wolfpack! He lives in New York City.

Kyle Croft is a graduate of the University of Washington and a former intern at Visual AIDS. He has also worked with MIX NYC and Seattle's Reteaching Gender & Sexuality.

Why Were You Making Art in Response to AIDS?

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AIDS red ribbon

For the 99 Percent Invisible podcast, producer Audrey Quinn speaks with Visual AIDS founding director Patrick O'Connell, costume designer Marc Happel and Museum of Modern Art curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher about the Red Ribbon. To listen or download the full podcast, click here. Below is an excerpt of the interview.

Episode 173: Awareness

By Roman Mars on July 21, 2015

By the late 1980s, AIDS had been in the United States for almost a decade. AIDS became the No. 1 killer of young men in New York City, then of young men in the country, then of young men and women in the country.

Despite the gravity of the AIDS crisis, in the late 1980s there was little public acknowledgement of AIDS. A group of artists in Manhattan decided to change that.

New York artist Patrick O'Connell would spend days visiting friends in the hospital, going to funerals, and coming home to panicked answering machine messages from friends who just learned they were sick. O'Connell and other artists banded together and started making art in response to AIDS. In 1988 they began calling their collective Visual AIDS.

Visual AIDS held public events and organized gallery shows to raise AIDS awareness. But of all the work the group did, they made their biggest impact with a simple little symbol. A little concept that, at the time, was very novel: the AIDS awareness ribbon.

It all started one night in the spring of 1991. A costume designer named Marc Happel got invited to a meeting of the Visual AIDS artist caucus. Happel had heard about the group's search for a symbol, and he had an idea.

This was at the time of the Persian Gulf War. Marc had been taking trips driving around upstate New York, where he had seen yellow ribbons tied around trees, in honor of servicemen.

Marc Happel thought that Visual AIDS could do something similar, to acknowledge the war at home. But the tree didn't seem right. Marc thought that perhaps they could fold a ribbon and pin it on their lapels. The group decided that the ribbon ought to be red--the color of blood.

A local ribbon supplier donated spools of red grosgrain ribbon, and Visual AIDS began cutting, folding, and pinning. The Visual AIDS Artist Caucus members held what they called "ribbon bees"--like a quilting bee, where a bunch of people gathered to work.

The looped, inverted-V shape came after trying out numerous styles. Visual AIDS would hand-cut, fold, and pin thousands of ribbons, all just to hand out for free, attached to pamphlets.

At this point the red ribbons were essentially just an art project. But in mid-May of 1991, one of the Visual AIDS directors had a crazy idea: they should get their pins on stage at the Tony Awards.

A number of the artists had Broadway connections, but group only had two weeks to convince the organizers of the Tony Awards to embrace the ribbons. They coaxed celebrity dressers into pinning the ribbons on Broadway stars before the ceremony, and they got to work making new, bigger, flashier ribbons that the camera could capture.

On the night of the show--June 7, 1991--the Visual AIDS artists were watching with bated breath. They weren't sure if anyone would be wearing the ribbons.

The first award winner of the night, Daisey Eagan, star of The Secret Garden, wore a ribbon. Kevin Spacey wore a ribbon. Penn and Teller wore ribbons. By the end of the show, the celebrities not wearing ribbons stuck out.

But no one explained the ribbons on-air. Rumor had it that the network threatened to go to commercial break if anyone tried to talk about AIDS. Turns out, this degree of mystery provided some incredibly good press, and the next day, newspapers were buzzing about these mysterious red ribbons and what they meant.

Word got out about the ribbons. Soon they were worn at the Emmys, and then the Oscars and the Grammy Awards. The members of Visual AIDS continued to gather to make these ribbons, huddled together in Marc's loft, while they watched celebrities wear their creations on TV.

School groups and church groups started contacting Visual AIDS, asking how they could start their own ribbon project. It became a phenomenon.

By the end of 1992, the ribbons had become a fad. There were red ribbon diamond necklaces, red ribbon Christmas ornaments, red ribbon t-shirts, red ribbons on nearly every product imaginable.

Some members of Visual AIDS thought they should trademark the red ribbon, so that Visual AIDS would get money any time it was used. But Patrick O'Connell and Marc Happel believe that if they had, the symbol would not have been embraced so universally. The spirit of the project was that everyone had permission to use it.

The ribbon's creators felt a backlash from other AIDS advocates. At first, wearing the ribbon had felt like a radical act. But as the ribbon became more ubiquitous, some activists called wearing it an easy out. Critics said it was a way to look like you cared about people with AIDS, without actually doing anything to help them--basically, the same criticisms that met the Livestrong bracelet and the ice bucket challenge.

But Marc Happel says that's OK:

What we wanted to do was create something that a mother in Michigan could wear on the lapel of her blouse, and you know maybe her son was living in New York and living with AIDS, and she wanted to do something. I think it was just, it was also a symbol that we created that, that somebody could wear, and somebody might go up to them and say, "What is that? Why are you wearing that red ribbon?" And hopefully that person would say, "Here's why."

The ribbon was doing its job. People were talking about AIDS. The New York Times declared 1992 "The Year of the Ribbon." President Clinton set up the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. The National Institute of Health expanded its AIDS research. The government funded the national HIV Epidemiology Study. Over time, the awareness ribbon had gotten so much attention for AIDS, that more than 200 other causes began using a looped awareness ribbon as their symbol.

Now, there are more causes that want ribbons than there are colors of ribbon. The teal ribbon, for instance, is used for ovarian cancer awareness, anti-bullying awareness, Tourette's syndrome awareness, and tsunami victim awareness.

The ribbon's ubiquity has reached the point of parody. When the band Death Cab for Cutie wore light blue ribbons at the 2009 Grammys, people wondered, were they boosting second-hand smoke awareness? Or adrenocortical carcinoma awareness? It turns out that Death Cab for Cutie had started their own cause: Auto-Tune abuse awareness.

Marc Happel actually thinks it's great that people took that simple little ribbon, made it their own, and used it for whatever cause they choose to fight for.

Still, that original red ribbon retains its relevance. Even if AIDS isn't the killer it used to be, the number of people living with HIV is the United States is now higher than ever before. The disease is still with us.

And so is its symbol.

Visit for images and more info.

Sleet: A Memory of Brad Creila, by Christoph3r C0nry

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"Former Pigeon," Christopher Conry

It was ostentatiously warm in New York last autumn, and it may have been Thanksgiving or, perhaps the day after, when I read in the paper that Brad Creila had died. Brad was an advocate for HIV/AIDS and the founder of; someone I embarrassingly hadn't thought of in the years since my own diagnosis.

It gives me pause to think about how often we don't appreciate the people in our lives until they are taken from us, but what a commonly fallible human trait this is.

Brad was one of those people who always seemed to have left the room as I entered it. Like a binary star system, we circled one another on parallel orbits that never quite touched; connected by conversations and associations like some sort of HIV Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

I had only met Brad once, before he moved back to Washington State, in a singular night that no one else was privy to. Perhaps the whole thing was a dream or fleeting quantum entanglement. Ultimately it doesn't matter.

My memories of that night flooded back to me as I read the articles about him and the work he did through his website and his political activism.

It was Thanksgiving, now that I think about it again. I remember the arc of a day of gluttony and mirth slowly winnowing into the still, quiet of a night of sober contemplation; the long dark night of the soul or some other such true cliché. My senses became heightened and the night outside my bedroom window got a little darker as I lay on my bed with my reading lamp on, feeling a little lonelier.

We spent one night alone together and up until now I haven't spoken of it to anyone. At the time it seemed a perfectly ordinary night, and only on reflection does it bear a significance as an important reminder to me to appreciate being, and where I am, at every moment of my life. For the moments in my life not to be significant to me only looking back on them but to be deeply and fully present.

Brad achieved so much in the short time he was on this Earth. He is an inspiration to achieve greater things with my time, and with more passion.

I thought it would be important to share my memory of our night together, lest it become lost in my mind. To share Brad's private side in addition to all the important political work he did.

The private side of a public figure.


It was 2012, and I was about a year into my own diagnosis.

I had successfully maneuvered my first year of pill schedules; of do I need to tell my parents?; of do I need therapy?; of do I need a support group?; of do I like my doctor?; of being afraid of running into someone in his waiting room; of having to triple check that I took my meds in the morning before leaving the house; of not being able to leave the house; of who among my negative queer friends do I tell? of who among my negative straight friends do I tell? of bitchy queens gossiping about my status; of drag queens making AIDS jokes and feeling rage; of shaking; of screaming; of long silent walks; of seeing my parents for the first time; of taking pills in my childhood bedroom; of seeing the ghost of my youth in the woods behind my parents' house; of a wall coming down; of feeling like you're looking at life obliquely through a prism all the time; of lying in the dark under quilts; of the heavy presence of time; of the fear of lost opportunity; of the fear that no one will be able to love me; of a profoundly loud silence; of feeling very keenly the precious sting of existence.

I had just returned home from my first Christmas since seroconverting and I was feeling rather maudlin; returning from Vermont and landing at JFK on a gray, rainy December day. Travel always brings out my melancholia; the sadness of transition and the fleeting ephemerality of the human condition. Sunday, cemeteries and twilight also bring out this particular emotion in me but often to combat this sweet, syrupy sadness I try to remind myself that leaving is also a form of arriving.

I took a cab back to my studio apartment in Brooklyn and stepped into the stillness of an empty house--what did my apartment do while I was away? I wondered. How do our things experience one another outside the mediator of human consciousness? What did my lamp and my refrigerator gossip about while I was gone?

I was far enough along in the process of dealing with my HIV and its attendant changes in my life that it was realistic for me to consider starting to date again. The panic attacks, rage and depression were becoming manageable; I was working from home at the time, which allowed me the flexibility I needed to work out some of these issues; and I was starting to become social again. I had a dating profile on a few sites, and Brad had reached out to me via before I left for the holiday and we had plans to connect when I returned from Vermont and we had exchanged emails and phone numbers.

I set my suitcase under my bed and put my clothes away, putting on a movie in the background and reflecting on the holiday with my family; about the meaning of holidays, family, faith and redemption. Reflecting on death, and on nothing and everything as is my cursory habit.

I got a text message from an unknown number.

I inferred from the context of our back-and-forth that it was Brad and we arranged to hang out that night. A cold, wet miserable night of sleeting rain in that empty week in New York between Christmas and New Year's--how could it go wrong?

We agreed to hang out at his apartment, watch movies and get delivery. I got a car service and made my way from Greenpoint to Bushwick. The black car seemed cocoon-like, being inside the shell of a beetle; the vision outside was obscured by gray skies expelling sheets of lashing sleet as and the effect of the ride was as though going through a wormhole that doubles as a car wash.

He let me in, his sister's apartment--he was staying with her--and I remember hair falling down over his quiet eyes and a half smile as he pulled the door back. We stood in the darkened living room, ceilings unnaturally high for a New York apartment, surrounded by plants and midcentury furniture with a shock of fluorescence pooling in from the adjacent kitchen sending stripes of shadow over us between the palm fronds.

We stood and talked for a minute through the cursory examination of a first date before going into the kitchen; we shared a joint and put a kettle on to make tea and ordered Indian food, a mutual passion we ferreted out in the tennis match of two people getting to know one another.

Brad told me about growing up outside Seattle, the mercurial weather, the rain and sleet, and the halcyon days of Sub Pop Records; his days on the party scene of indie rock, raves, gay, straight and the myriad Venn Diagram of Pacific Northwest social scenes and the myopia of youth that led to his seroconversion.

He told me about his copraporphyria, about the severe stomach pains that sometimes caused an inability to eat and how this further complicated his HIV medication regimen. About not being able to make over a certain amount of money in order to continue to qualify for disability and for the first time since my own diagnosis the precariousness that the high cost of keeping a roof over your head and medicine in your body enforced on one's ability to thrive in a capitalist society. The restrictions placed on those trying to enact change on the human condition, placed by those who seek to profit from it.

He told me about and his hopes to partner with other websites, publications and organizations and about his political work.

I saw in him someone like King Midas or the princess in Rumpelstiltskin, who turned weakness into strength. Perhaps the places we see weakness serve to reveal our own biases.

After eating we went into his sister's room (she was away visiting his grandparents) and jumped up on her bed, one of those big high beds that makes you feel through the looking glass, to watch Clue and Waiting for Guffman still talking about life and making out intermittently, gently as the sleet continued to pelt the window panes.

I woke up first and watched him sleep for awhile, someone too young to be this tired. He woke up and we made coffee and breakfast and made plans to see each other again. We had a fast and deep connection. Ultimately we weren't able to find time to reconnect; in the maelstrom of New York City and your mid-20s, our ships were fated to pass each other only this one night.

No one else was there, and until now I have told no one of it. But upon learning of Brad's passing I felt urged to share this singular exchange of intimate humanity, a private portrait of someone so deeply humanistic.

One can't help but imagine what could have been; but then I suppose that is the nature of living.

Christoph3r C0nry is a multimedia artist and theorist. He received his BFA (cum laude) from Emerson College in visual and media arts. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

Michael Johnson

Bill Dobbs compiled the following list of links to coverage on the sentencing of Michael Johnson to 30 years in prison. First, Dobbs provides a framework for approaching the material.

The first link leads to a detailed report by a local outlet, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; other links that follow are arranged alphabetically by the media outlet's name. There's plenty to be gleaned by looking over this compilation--the tenor of the headlines, which outlets ran stories. Even more can be learned by clicking on the links and reading or watching. Is the coverage fair or skewed? What sources are included in the story? If photos were used, are they mugshots? Is there material in the story about the larger issue of HIV criminalization? Many stories include perspectives--typically from AIDS prevention organizations or advocates--questioning or even critical of the prosecution and sentencing. Check the reader comments; some reflect other sentiments including support for the prosecution.

Ex-college wrestler gets 30 years in HIV case in St. Charles County
St. Louis Post-Dispatch | July 13 | by Mark Schlinkmann

Man Sentenced to 30 Years Prison For Exposing Over 30 Men to HIV & Infecting One | July 14 | by Kissy Denise

Ex-college wrestler gets 30 years for 'recklessly infecting' male partner with HIV and putting four other men at risk
Daily Mail | July 14 | By Alexandra Klausner

ACT UP/LA's Keiko Lane Asks 'Whose Bodies Matter?' After HIV+ Michael Johnson Gets 30 Years
Frontiers | July 15 | By Karen Ocamb

Ex-college wrestler gets 30 years in prison for HIV exposure
Fusion | July 14 | By Jorge Rivas

Outdated HIV laws treat every poz person like attempted murderers
Gay News Network | July 15 | By Nic Holas

College wrestling star given 30-year sentence for spreading HIV
Gay News Network | July 14 | By Cec Busby

Former college wrestler gets 30 years for 'recklessly' transmitting HIV
Gay Star News | July 15 | By Darren Wee

US: As college student, Michael Johnson, 23, is sentenced to 30 1/2 years for HIV exposure, advocates organise and condemn Missouri's HIV-specific law as 'barbaric'
HIV Justice Network | July 14

Picking Up the Pieces: The Sentencing of Michael Johnson
Human Rights Campaign | July 14 | By Marvell L. Terry II

Warren Central wrestling champ gets 30 years in HIV case
Indianapolis Star | July 15 | By Madeline Buckley

HIV Positive Wrestler, Michael Johnson, Gets 30 Years for 'Recklessly Infecting' Male Sexual Partner, Exposing Others
Inquisitr | July 14

Ex-college wrestler sentenced to 30 years in HIV case
InterMat | July 14 | By Mark Palmer

Lincoln College Wrestler Sentenced to Jail for Passing HIV
Jersey Girl Sports | July 15 | By Marcelle English

Former College Wrestler Sentenced to 30 Years for "Reckless" HIV Transmission
Joe.My.God | July 14 | By Joe Jervis

Former Lindenwood wrestler sentenced to 30 years for exposing others to the HIV virus [VIDEO]
KMOV Channel 4 News | Jul 13

Former wrestler who spread HIV sentenced to 30 years
KSDK Channel 5 News | July 13 | Sam Clancy

Former Lindenwood wrestler sentenced for HIV exposure
KTVI Fox 2 News | July 13 | By Kevin S. Held

Missouri man sentenced to 30 years in prison for recklessly infecting sex partner with HIV
LGBT Weekly | July 14

Johnson Sentenced in HIV-related charges
Lindenlink | July 13 | By Cayla Brown

Michael Johnson sentenced 30 Years for HIV exposure
Maybe It's Just Me | July 14 | By Victor Kerney

Sex is not a Weapon, Neither is HIV.
Normal Anomaly | July 14 | By Ian Haddock

Former wrestler jailed for 30 years for 'recklessly' transmitting HIV
Pink News | July 14 | By Joe Williams

Former College Wrestler Gets 30 Years in HIV Case
POZ | July 14

College Wrestler Gets 30 Years in Prison for 'Recklessly Transmitting HIV'
Queerty | July 14 | By Graham Gremore

College athlete sentenced to 30 years for infecting boyfriend with HIV and having unprotected sex with 4 others
Rolling Out | July 15 | By A.R. Shaw

The Backlot | July 15 | By Ed Kennedy

Michael Johnson Sentenced to 30 Years in Prison for HIV Transmission, Exposure
The Body | July 15 | By Mathew Rodriguez

Update: Black Gay Man, 23, Sentenced To 30 Years Under Missouri's HIV Criminalization Law
The Mad Professah Lectures | July 13 | By Ron Buckmire

HIV Experts Decry Sentencing of Michael Johnson in Controversial Case as 'Barbaric'
Towleroad | July 14 6:30 PM | By Jake Folsom

Former wrestling champion sentenced to 30 years for HIV exposure
United Press International | July 14 | By Fred Lambert

Man gets 30 years for HIV exposure
Windy City Times | July 14 | By Andrew Davis



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