Monday, January 26, 2009
What We Can Learn From Our Artists
by Charles Stephens
Read more from Charles here on LifeLube.
Essex Hemphill begins his brilliant poem “Now We Think” with the lines “now we think as we fuck... this nut might kill us.”
This simple and provocative line has haunted me since I’ve been involved in gay men’s health. Words that for me speak to the ambivalence, urgency, pleasure, necessity and caution gay men experience in our sexual lives. Art has that power, to convey the complicated and contradictory feelings we experience. Language especially, spoken and unspoken, is an important tool, because it gives us the raw materials to imagine ourselves in the world, and imagine what’s possible. Through language we can also create meaning, develop new narratives to guide our experiences, and acquire greater precision in thinking about ourselves, our feelings, and the world around us. As gay men this is particularly important, because for generations we have been invisible and silenced. Collectively this has meant creating our own language, our own categories, meanings, and definitions for ourselves, our artists being on the forefront in this regard. However, surveying the curricula being disseminated to respond to gay men’s sexual health needs, one is definitely left wanting a far more robust engagement with art.
I am thrilled with the possibilities of HIV prevention in the age of Obama. We have the opportunity to achieve so much. However, there seems to be, at least in the conversations I’ve been a part of, a thrust toward the empirical, the scientific, the evidence-based. Perhaps, this is largely in reaction to HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush years. Years where ideology impacted and ultimately hindered many of our efforts to adequately address HIV/AIDS in our communities. To counter the unchecked ideology, and unhinge ourselves from this puritanical regime, many of us especially in the behavioral realm, want to get back to designing interventions that are rooted in our best Public Health theories, behavior models, and are realistic for the communities we serve. And I believe this is important. However, I do have a bit of a concern. There are clearly advantages to relying on Behavioral Science, Public Health and Psychology to provide insight into our experiences as gay men, and giving us tools to reduce our risk for HIV and other STIs. We should invest in sexual health educational tools that can provide models and strategies to optimize our sexual health. But I want us to go further.
Certainly, at least in the HIV prevention interventions I’ve come across, there are some questions that are answered, and areas covered quite effectively. But there are other questions that I don’t think are answered as well. Areas that are referenced or signaled, but not explored fully. And maybe, I would argue, it’s due to the limitations of the disciplines that behavioral interventions draw from, at least the most replicated and upheld behavioral interventions.
So we are banging down the doors of the CDC and NIH to research and create more interventions, more interventions, more interventions.! We complain that some groups have fewer “evidenced based” interventions than other groups. Meanwhile, I wonder what it would mean for us to try and get the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop HIV prevention interventions. There is as rich of a body of knowledge produced by artists and writers from Edmund White to Marlon Riggs, as there has been by the Psychologists, Sociologists, Epidemiologists, that are overrepresented in the creation of HIV Prevention tools. Eric Rofes begun the project of seeking to utilize and learn from the social and behavioral sciences, but also opened himself to pull from Cultural Studies, Philosophy, and so on. We have to continue this work. David Halperin certainly does an amazing job of this in his work “What Do Gay Men Want?”
We need to create educational resources for gay men, that seek not to merely correct, reinforce, and ultimately control behavior, but help gay men grapple with the complexities of their feelings, fetishes, pleasures, desires, and yes, ultimately their behaviors. It’s troublesome for a variety of reasons, but a trap many preventionists fall into, of seeking to privilege a normative behavior, and not creating room or space for all sorts of relationships we might have with other bodies, sensations, and bodily fluids. As David Halperin and Camille Paglia have both argued for the most part, our desires and our sexual behaviors aren’t these rational places that behavioral interventions can map themselves onto, nor are they Danielle Steel novels where everything is a long walk on the beech, making love by the moonlight, and being swept off our feet. Desire can also look like the fetishist protagonist of Samuel Delany’s
The challenge before us as we develop HIV prevention educational materials is how we can affirm the sexuality of the gay men we work on behalf of, without pathologizing their desires, reinforcing normative standards of behaviors, and yet advocating for an ethic of mutual responsibility and self-care. This is certainly a riddle, but if we look at figures like Dowsett, and Rofes, and Halperin, and artists like Samuel Delany, Essex Hemphill, Edmund White, Marlon Riggs, they provide the blueprints.
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer and organizer. Check out his blog.
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