This is a post from intern Harold Hardin, working on the NEH grant-funded project The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.
The Sue Rochman Papers (Collection 2005-13 at the GLBT Historical Society) contain critical information regarding the systematic oppression of incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS in the first decade of the epidemic. The collection at just over 350 pages consists of interviews, newspaper clippings, and often most compellingly, correspondence from incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS. Given the ongoing wave of HIV criminalization (a recent famous example being the case of Michael Johnson, who, incidentally, was released this month after spending five-years of a thirty-year sentence in Missouri, for allegedly seroconverting several partners with HIV without revealing his HIV-positive status) Micheal Johnson and Greg’s Smith’s cases among others were rallying cries for HIV/AIDS activists bringing to our collective attention the ongoing histories of HIV criminalization. It is particularly important to look back at the particular ways in which this stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS began within the prison system and consider an early case of which the Sue Rochman Papers document. In this way, we can further contextualize our current historical moment in regards to the continuing criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS–particularly the ways in which black gay men are overwhelmingly impacted by this deleterious trend. The correspondence between Ms. Rochman and various incarcerated people in several different prison locations (Attica prison in New York, Chino prison in California among others) echo similar findings. The correspondence notes the systematic way in which prison officials valued “security” to the detriment of the lives of incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS. Confidentiality rights regarding seroconversion status were routinely trampled and ignored at the behest of prison officials. There was little to no basic health information regarding the spread of the disease. Incarcerated people with HIV/AIDS were often isolated in poor conditions, with little medical attention by qualified specialists in HIV/AIDS. The widespread abuse of incarcerated people with HIV/AIDS by prison guards themselves was also well documented. Having the disease in prison not only meant living in such conditions but additionally meant being socially ostracized through officially sanctioned segregation–barred from participation in vocational programs, college classes, and not allowed to have family visits. A jail in Fort Worth, Texas went as far as mandating LGB incarcerated populations wear colored wrist bands to identify their sexual orientation from afar. From such systematic forms of discrimination it is unsurprising then that HIV criminalization was birthed in such an environment. The Rochman papers document the case of Greg Smith who in 1990 was convicted of attempted murder, assault and terroristic threats. Charges were filed after he allegedly bit and spat on a guard in a New Jersey jail in 1989. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial famously saying after his sentence was read, ‘I never bit an officer, and I’ll say that until the day I die. I may die in the next year or two, but I’ll die proud. I told the truth.” His case was taken up by ACLU via ACT UP prison-activist Judy Greenspan and a significant amount of Rochman papers covers Greenspan’s media campaign and legal filings. Smith, who ultimately died in prison in 2003, was an ACT UP activist, black and gay. His case is viewed as an early example of the compounding effects of race, class, sexual orientation and HIV status-indeed of HIV criminalization.
This is a guest post by intern Harold Hardin, who is working on the NEH Grant-Funded Project The Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.
I came across recently a sardonic, humorously bizarre little zine in the Beowulf Thorne papers (GLBT Historical Society, 2003-10) called Diseased Pariah News (DPN). DPN was a zine created during the early 90’s that used gallows humor to humorously educate/entertain mostly gay (often white) cisgender men about HIV/AIDS among other gay men’s health issues. Humor is not something I would immediately associate with AIDS/HIV. Certainly, in the popular imagination AIDS and humor couldn’t be further apart. Queer white, cis, men living with HIV/AIDS in popular media depictions are generally akin to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia: a “noble, suffering AIDS victim”.
Further, many current LGBTQ media consumers tend to shy away from LGBTQ depictions that have overt internalized homophobia/transphobia, straying away from media depictions that might seem to make light of oppressive circumstances in ways that are ultimately self- cannibalizing. Rupaul was famously castigated for having content on her show that was deemed transphobic. Lisa Lampanelli, though not queer, is known for her gallows humor and recently left show business citing, “people in their 20s and 30s weren’t getting into that [insult comedy] tradition”. I spoke to a friend on Facebook about DPN and they echoed a popularly resonant sentiment, “I really don’t like to view historical media/works of art relating to our [queer] community. Because they always carry the hint of shame, of internalized homophobia and transphobia.”
Clearly, we are currently living through a shift in what we find humorous from particular groups of people based on their identities. And to be honest, it shouldn’t be ok for a white, cisgender, straight, man or woman to make jokes about communities that they historically (or contemporaneously, for that matter) oppress. But should queer people with HIV/AIDS be able to laugh at their own lived experiences? If observational comedy is about illuminating the mundane and often untintentionally humorous aspects of our everyday lives then DPN represents to me a group of queers with HIV/AIDS taking this to its’ logical conclusion: finding humor in the everyday lives of queer folx living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, I think something is foreclosed when we as a queer community rush to quash inter-group humor that may on its surface appear aberrant. Queer people should be able to laugh at their own lived experiences if they so desire, especially, if by laughing, we find a form of resistance while skewering social and political realities that we ultimately find empowering.
Harold Hardin is joining us in Archives & Special Collections this spring to work on finishing the NEH grant-funded project The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic. Harold will be helping QA digital objects among other tasks related to the digitization workflow.
Harold Hardin is a current student in Cuesta Colleges’ Library/Information Technology program and San Francisco City College’s Paralegal Studies program. While pursuing a double major in Sociology/Critical Race Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz Harold developed an academic interest in the often hidden and occluded histories of marginalized communities, particularly histories of oppression and resistance. Through their own experiences of political activism at UC Santa Cruz and beyond (#Blacklivesmatter Oakland/ Stockton, GaySHAME SF) Harold has insisted on moving iteratively between theory and praxis: centering an intersectional feminist analysis of power.
These analytical lenses and political participation increased Harold’s consciousness regarding the fundamental ways in which access to information (particularly personal/community histories) profoundly shapes participation in our democracy (or lack thereof). Harold is interested in the nuances of political participation and uncovering the innumerable sites of quotidian resistance! Therefore, Harold sees their internship within UCSF’s AIDS History Project as not only a unique privilege to work toward increasing community access to Queer history, but also, and importantly, an extension of the deeply personal (political) work of (re)understanding their multiple positions within (and outside) of the Archives.