“Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS”: A Q&A with Editors Eva Hayward & Che Gossett

In today’s post, Eva Hayward and Che Gossett discuss “Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS,” their new coedited issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Browse the issue’s contents, including the editors’ introduction, which is freely available, and Christopher Joseph Lee’s piece “Undetectability in a Time of Trans Visibility,” which is free through the end of May. You can purchase a copy of the issue here.

What guided your interest in editing this special issue? What questions or problems shaped your study? 

Jared Sexton wrote of the fated entanglement of anti-Blackness and AIDS in Amalgamation Schemes (U Minn, 2008): “the fate of AIDS and the fate of the Black are fundamentally intertwined.” This entanglement is an extension of what Saidiya Hartman reveals in her work as “the entanglement of slavery and freedom.” Freedom, then, is property, in the sense of the carceral and anti-Black metaphysics of possessive individualism, and property is freedom, in the sense of life as economized by the valuations of racial capitalism and as demonstrated by the politics of AIDS and COVID-19 and big pharma as a technology of racial capitalism. Post-AIDS ideology, which figures AIDS is over and HIV as manageable and livable, performs an anti-Black epistemic erasure of how both HIV and AIDS are necropolitical. The ongoing global criminalization of HIV is a death sentence for Black queer, trans, poor, sex workers and AIDS activists. Black AIDS activism in its “aesthetic sociality,” to take up Laura Harris‘s brilliant formulation, and in its poetic sociality (thinking here of Black AIDS poetics), has always been a struggle against premature death. Gregory Smith, Black gay ACT UP activist who died in a New Jersey prison after being sentenced under HIV criminalization laws; Melvin Dixon, whom we know is somewhere listening for his name; Marsha P. Johnson, and many others who are part of what Cedric Robinson called the “ontological totality” of the Black radical tradition, struggled against what Dixon called the “double cremation” of premature death through genocidal anti-Blackness and—but also as—AIDS. Rather than the foreclosing of AIDS as somehow over, instead we open out onto pressing questions posed by the proximity of and the friction between queerness, Blackness, transness, and disability.  

What makes “Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS” unique or essential? What do you think it does, or can do, that no other collection has done before?

In some ways the answer is simple: there is an urgent and pressing need for the field of trans studies (including the field-defining journal of TSQ) to focus on transwomen, particularly Black transwomen, who are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. The statistics are startling—and ongoing!—and trans studies must ask why and center that problem in their analysis. Even as attention to materiality and ontology in trans studies grows, nowhere is there a sustained engagement with how AIDS has literally made trans subjects, histories, bodies, activisms, and academic discourses. You cannot be seriously interested in trans materiality or embodiment without understanding how AIDS continues to forge the lived realities of trans people and the very metalogics of trans studies itself. This absence is not isolated to trans studies; it continues in what is left of queer studies that attends to race, trans, or debility. There is a presumption that AIDS in the US has gone, that we live in the afterward of AIDS. This is simply wrong. What our special issue fore-places is that AIDS continues to function as a material and political process in administrating ontological and epistemological racial and sexual order in the contemporary. We ask how the emergence of US-centered trans studies in the ’90s—at the height of the AIDS epidemic—was shaped by the trauma of that moment. One theme we consider is how engagements with gender transgression in queer theory—that difficult twin of trans studies—promoted an anti-libidinal structure that turned gender identity into sexuality itself. As much as sexed essentialism seemed the target of gender transgression, the unconscious of that maneuver was sexually repressive—perhaps an effect of the collapsing anti-Black and homophobic violence of the epidemic.

“You cannot be seriously interested in trans materiality or embodiment without understanding how AIDS continues to forge the lived realities of trans people and the very metalogics of trans studies itself.”

Trans studies, it would seem, only succeeded in territorializing gender transgression. The collapse of identity as sexuality rendered gender a metaphysics that could then circulate in critical discourse as either absence or presence. No gender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or the indeterminate pronoun “they” are as gender-y as the regressive “she” or “he” pronouns. Simply, resistance to gender itself operationalized through abstractions and de-materializations of gender trouble. From this vantage, we begin to ask how the anti-Blackness and homophobia of AIDS shaped and reshape the subtending logics that continue to institutionalize trans studies. In our introduction we frame this argument, and our contributors offer their own, and sometimes differing, approaches to these interlocking problems that define trans studies and AIDS. In our introduction, and in the issue more broadly, we turn to Black transwomen and femme artists who are reimagining and reworking the racial and sexual violence of AIDS; Black artists who are interrogating the ongoing trauma of AIDS, but in ways that fore-place sexuality and Blackness. Trans, in their work, is de-essentialized through commitments to pleasure and the reimagining of memory and archive. Our hope is to invite new questions, to reinvigorate curiosity where “obviousness” has taken control. Reexaminations of structuring logics is not a cancellation, we argue, but an opportunity to recognize that fields like trans studies are worthy of rigorous thinking and deepening investigations of our possessive investments.

Why the turn to art and aesthetics to think together trans and AIDS? How are artists guiding the way?

“I’ve lost the future tense from my vocabulary.”—Melvin Dixon. Dixon’s pandemic poetry is heart-rending, even more so now at the nexus of premature death from AIDS and COVID-19. The work is striking for how it uncovers grief and both echoes the call to “defend the dead,” as the incredible poetics of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan UP, 2008) enjoins, and resonates with the ethical praxis of what Christina Sharpe in In the Wake (Duke UP, 2016) so powerfully calls “wake work.” In his writing Dixon talks about AIDS, anti-Blackness, and disability; about archival erasure and loss and historical responsibility; and about desire and the flesh. What comes into view is not only AIDS as biopolitics, but AIDS as the politics and poetics of the flesh—flesh in the sense imbued the term by Hortense Spillers and also in the sense of Toni Morrison’s ethical call in Beloved to love the flesh in the face of peril. Loving the flesh that is hated is also central to the aesthetic pedagogy of Black queer and trans desire and sociality.

Another important guide in this moment is Marlon Riggs, particularly his short music video, Anthem (1991), which is a musical and visual ensemble of Black queer/trans aesthetic and politics—glimpses of Marsha P. Johnson and Jesse Harris. Our first encounter with Jesse Harris was watching the film Tongues Untied (1989), and this film, like so much of Riggs’s work and the work of those involved in his films, was about loving the flesh and desiring what is hated. Tongues Untied first aired on public broadcasting, amidst Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal anti-Black, anti-gay and HIV/AIDS genocidal regime, and the National Endowment for the Arts was condemned for funding it.

We are so elated to have the artist Kiyan Williams’s work, an image from Reflections (2019), adorn the cover of this issue of the journal. Williams, whose profound work we explore in the issue and whom we interview as well, spent significant time in Riggs’s archive at Stanford and found in the archive an interview with Harris, which was not incorporated in the film. Williams made the interview and Harris the foreground of their own work, which thinks about the liminality and peripherality of Black trans femmes in representation of AIDS and its archives. Reflections was shown at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the exhibit Nobody Promised You Tomorrow, the title of which is a quote from Marsha P. Johnson.

“What we have done in this issue that feels special—meaningful and important—is to bring together trans artists and activists outside of and/or in an open relationship with academia to show how trans and AIDS are being taken up through registers of performance, theater, visual art, and cinema.”

In our introduction we also write about artist, activist, archivist, and filmmaker, as well as author and co-editor of Trap Door (MIT Press, 2017), Tourmaline’s films: Atlantic is a Sea of Bones (2018); Happy Birthday, Marsha (2018) directed with Sasha Wortzel, a visually stunning speculative film and for which Arthur Jaffa was the cinematographer; and Salacia (2019), which was also on view at the Nobody Promised You Tomorrow exhibit and is now a part of the permanent installation at MoMA and the Tate in London, UK. Tourmaline’s radical visual and cinematic theorizing of Blackness, transness, HIV/AIDS, and the afterlives and archive(s) of slavery are indispensable for thinking and teaching about trans in a time of HIV/AIDS. What we have done in this issue that feels special—meaningful and important—is to bring together trans artists and activists outside of and/or in an open relationship with academia to show how trans and AIDS are being taken up through registers of performance, theater, visual art, and cinema.

We interviewed Cecilia Gentili, who wrote a beautiful eulogy in the New York Times, “What Lorena Borjas Did for the Trans Girls of Queens,” that memorializes the radical legacy of Lorena Borjas. Borjas passed away of COVID-19 while the journal issue was being put together. She lived and organized with Latina trans and sex worker communities and for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Queens, which is one of the boroughs most impacted by COVID-19. “We will pick up her work where she left it, work that is essential to the well-being of ‘mis pajaras’ as she called the trans girls of Queens under her wing. Without her we are a motherless brood, but we will thrive nonetheless. In the end, she gave us the greatest gift of all—she taught us how to fend for ourselves.” In our interview Gentili writes about her one woman show, The Knife that Cuts Both Ways (2018); using humor as a weapon; and the problems with redemption narratives, as well as her profound analysis of and work in HIV/AIDS and trans health, and activism against detention, cages, borders, and the protocols of proper citizenship.

How do you imagine the issue could be used in courses or for future scholarship?

We hope that our issue might be used in course designs and future projects that are committed to not already knowing what trans studies is and isn’t. Perhaps our issue would invite students to revisit arguments that seem “already rehearsed” or “over,” to better understand the structuring logics of trans studies—for instance, to ask how trans studies always been the story of AIDS. We wanted our special issue to be in the form of a question—to both question what is understood as settled and to recognize that we might not yet know how to ask good questions about trans and AIDS—and to risk field-forming investitures. In these ways, our issue could support a course that starts with the supposition that trans studies hasn’t happened yet (it isn’t dead or over because it hasn’t quite arrived), and emerging architects of trans studies might walk away from the post-queer politics of queer theory (its obsession with conclusions and temporal certainties).

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