I propose using the nine-month Fulbright Student grant to conduct research for a creative manuscript, tentatively titled Viral Legacies. Inthis work, I will combine a variety of writing styles to explore activist history, visual artists who died from AIDS, and current organizations involved in HIV/AIDS prevention or community empowerment in Cape Town and Johannesburg LGBT communities. By linking these stories with my own understanding of sexuality as a queer man, and with other activists and artists from the United States, I hope to uncover and give voice to the impact grief has had within these communities. In recognizing grief as being culturally specific, I will also use these experiences in South Africa to write on how my own understandings of sexuality or HIV/AIDS prevention change during the research process.
Why do I want to conduct this research in South Africa? Given the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country, there is a particular urgency to addressing HIV/AIDS impact as the infected population numbers grow. I’ve also long been fascinated by the ways in which apartheid struggles or HIV/AIDS political awareness have erased individual experiences, particularly in terms of grief and loss. Given how these two interlink within South Africa, there is no other place in which I can study this relationship as effectively. This grief is also something I’ve felt having confronted the death of my uncle from AIDS-related complications, so I’m interested in how this grief contrasts or relates to the grief within South Africa.
Given the contrasts in the development of Cape Town and Johannesburg, which are both linked with a visible racial and economic segregation, I can begin to clarify connections or differences between South Africa and the US, and use these experiences to reframe how I understand sexuality, gender, and/or HIV/AIDS. Finally, as HIV/AIDS is played out so intimately within individual narratives and community interventions, only by working in direct contact with organizations supporting HIV/AIDS prevention or LGBT community empowerment can I write effectively to achieve to shift global conversations on the virus. This is another way of saying that I cannot conduct this project from the comfort of my own home because without these lived experiences, I can only write as an outsider, erasing the intricacies and particulars that define LGBT life in South Africa.
I intend for this project to begin in the middle of July, after the end of a university break. From July through September, I will collect and gather research focused on historical activism or activists from early onset of HIV/AIDS under the guidance of [name to be determined] at the University of Cape Town. During October and December, I will travel to Johannesburg, where I will work directly with Cathy Burns, Professor at Wit University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, and various LGBT/health organizations. This will highlight on-going political/legal struggles and their intersection with personal grief. The last three months I will return to Cape Town, where I will work to combine existing artistic representations, and formulate notes that explore how HIV/AIDS and LGBT communities are or aren’t linked in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and the United States. It is during this time, I will also begin linking together various notes to create a full-length manuscript.
Due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and how this has shaped the organization of LGBT communities, all of my research will be supplemented by continuous community engagement. Given Cape Town’s abundance of LGBT-focused organizations, few cities in South Africa are better for supporting community-based offshoots of this project. Triangle Project is one of the most visible of these programs; by working with their community empowerment programs, I can work to create safer spaces. I also intend to develop a reading group or other week discussions related specifically to non-medical components of HIV/AIDS. Treatment Action Campaign, one of the earliest HIV/AIDS prevention organizations, is also based out of Cape Town.
In Johannesburg, I will work primarily with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. This organization has on-the-ground training programs that consider how race, gender, and sexuality intersect. Given that they have also engaged with further marginalized communities—those who are deaf, specifically—I will have the ability to interact with populations that I might not otherwise be able to contact in my day-to-day life.
Since my project combines documentary or journalistic style writing, personal narrative/essay, and poetic verse, I will keep an on-going collection of notes, consult archivists in the country (including Zanele Muholi, of Cape Town) to copy difficult to find archival materials I won’t have access to in university libraries. I will also use these notes as an opportunity complete a daily travel journal, which was inspired by a recent one-month research trip to Brazil for my current manuscript in progress for my MFA program. This will also allow me to mix in more fragmented, shorter pieces into a larger narrative. Catherine Taylor’s Apart, a recently published personal exposition and political history that explores her own familial history in South Africa, demonstrated that a fragmented narrative actually allows for me, as a writer, to capture how my thoughts change, and also to better represent grief’s role as an inconsistent emotional state.
Given a well-developed infrastructure, easy access to information on both HIV/AIDS and LGBT community activism, and the safety that comes with Cape Town being an internationally recognized LGBT destination, there will be relatively few feasibility concerns in that city. In Johannesburg, an underdeveloped public transit network and higher incidence rates of LGBT violence could create some potential with the project. However, as I am working with organizations that specifically support LGBT individuals, I will have a strong network that can help maximize my success during my research project.
Through my academic studies, I have completed courses related to the study of literature and theater related to HIV/AIDS. Other self-designed curricula at Goddard College explored critical theory to help me understand intersections of sexuality, race, and national identity. Even if the exact relationships of this project cannot yet be fully realized, having critical vocabulary to look at how Western/non-Western sexualities might be different, and how this might change our understanding of HIV/AIDS, supports the idea that is, at its core, cross-cultural creative work.
Beyond having a similar mixed genre, full-length writing project in progress through my MFA program, I have completed a 180 page undergraduate thesis. Both of these projects not only demonstrate my capacity for independent research, but they also showcase my ability to respond with clarity and sensitivity to deeply personal and challenging topics, which will be vital when undergoing Viral Legacies and confronting the death of my uncle, discontent over my own sexual practices, and the influence mostly dead artists have had in shaping my creative and intellectual development.
I’m also uniquely positioned to excel in this project because my freelance journalism, including an interview the CDC Director of HIV Prevention and a personal essay on condom use in my own sexual practices, have reached over 100,000 individuals, demonstrating the ability for my writing to be community-specific, politically engaged, and deeply affecting at the same time. Within a much larger project, I will continue creating individual pieces for these publications that reflect upon specific localized experiences within my work in the proposed health and LGBT community organizations. This further strengthens the exchange of knowledge, in the form of conversations between United States and South African audiences.
It’s difficult to say exactly where this project will end up, as I do not want to go in to Viral Legacies with too many preconceptions. Perhaps the biggest risk the project has is taking for granted both the unique history of HIV/AIDS prevention and the ways in which this prevention strategy informs conversations regarding race, sexuality, or gender identity/expression. However, given prior success in full-length research projects, journalistic platforms to increase community engagement, and deeply felt personal experiences with grief over HIV/AIDS, I am confident in the ability for this creative work to succeed in being innovative in its writing form, at the same time it facilitates a cultural exchange that impacts individual lives in both countries.
While my work might not inform policy, if even one or two individuals can begin addressing HIV/AIDS and the grief it has caused, we can move one step closer to the silence and fear that shape how we talk about our sexual practices.