Socialising the Isolation Period

HIV/AIDS, LGBT, SRE, Theory

During a time of semi-enforced social isolation and distancing, a variety of academic and popular culture platforms have disseminated critical reading lists about the COVID-19 pandemic (see below for a list of COVID-19 syllabi). These lists have amassed scholarship from over the past 50 years in order to understand the biomedical, psychological, historical, cultural and social implications of global health and viral epidemics. In this post, I have honed some of these lists and gathered other materials from a medical sociology, HIV/AIDS history, and queer cultural theory perspective, in order to think about the relationship between sexual health and COVID-19 (following my own areas of expertise; see my curriculum vitae for more info). All the materials herein are from open-access journal sources or can easily be acquired from your local book distributor. Each entry includes an annotation adapted from the source abstract and/or my own reflections and responses. I acknowledge that this reading list is partial and necessarily incomplete; I welcome any suggestions that may improve this brief (aka limited) digital resource, which may appear in subsequent blog posts.

Prior to the reading list, I want to provide a brief reflection on sexual health conditions, parallel epidemics, and the socialisation of isolation. Sexual health professionals remain divided on the best approaches to having (or refraining from) sex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the provocative pamphlet from the early AIDS crisis, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” (1983) by Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, some public health officials have recommended avoiding sexual encounters where possible. COVID-19 has not been detected in semen or vaginal fluids; however, some studies have suggested that the virus is detectable in cough droplets, excrement, and blood (see: Van Beusekom, “Study: COVID-19,” 2020). Thus some professionals have argued that abstinence might be an effective intervention technique given that transmission, while not detected in semen or vaginal fluids, cannot easily or simply be contained by the use of prophylactic measures like condoms or non-anal/vaginal play; other routes of transmission are difficult to avoid during sexual encounters (see: NYC Health’s “COVID Sex Guidance,” 2020). Social worker David Stuart (56 Dean Street, London, UK) has cautioned sexual health professionals against discouraging sex and intimacy during COVID-19 crisis, favouring messages about education and agency over negative messages about avoiding in-person sexual encounters (see: Stuart, “Coronavirus, Chemsex & Hooking Up,” 2020). Clinical services, which provide critical support for sexual health communities, are severely restricting hours and access to physical clinical interactions as well as (for clinics here in Edinburgh, UK) stopping the distribution of at-home tests, foregrounding urgent consultations over non-urgent STI screening or other regular check-ups (see: Lothian Sexual Health, “Service Update,” 2020). I have talked to a number of gay men in my communities, both on hook-up apps and other social media platforms, who have sustained sexual play, particularly with dyadic or polyamorous partners, for the purposes of emotional and mental support. They have also sought to maintain a sense of “normalcy” in a time(s) of uncertainty. In sum, as these above sources describe, the relationship between COVID-19 and sexual health remains particularly dynamic and, indeed, nonuniform. This uneven social and political dynamic has proliferated many ethical considerations about ambiguous policy decisions, which have suspended local communities between the poles of social isolation and near-normal sexual practices.

Where the UK government has alluded to the need for social and physical sequestration, a great deal of confusion about what kinds of social and sexual behaviours are permissible has proliferated (see: Cole, “Please Masturbate,” 2020; Davids, “How to Have Sex in COVID-19 Pandemic,” 2020). Some social scientists have reflected on the histories of epidemiology to consider how public health authorities responded to past epidemics (see: Nicolson, “Exceptional Public Health Emergency,” 2020). Others, including US activists, have attempted to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak by comparing responses to practices of “responsibility” and “negotiated safety,” paralleling COVID-19 with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s (see: Prager, “HIV Crisis Survivors,” 2020). To this end, they have illuminated what Kane Race (2001, p. 168) has called the “politics of responsibility”: simply, reflections (especially related to class) on who has access to particular medical resources, clinical spaces, pharmaceutical technologies, and how citizens can respond to and participate in public health interventions. Aligning COVID-19 with HIV/AIDS is appealing, first, because it reminds us of the bioethics of social struggle, the authority and expertise of science, especially related to healthcare policy and public health campaigns, and the timeliness of technological interventions (see: Epstein, Impure Science, 1998; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Public Health: Ethical Issues,” 2007). Such thinking also validates a long history of struggle, signalling, especially for queer folx deeply impacted by AIDS crisis, the resilience and possibility of change through lay intervention(s) into and exchanges with public health initiatives and biomedical advancements (see: France, How to Survive a Plague, 2016). Yet paralleling these epidemics reveals some significant differences, namely the scale of infectiousness and transmission vectors of the virus and adequate prophylactic interventions (see: Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment,” 2011). Hence, a critical departure from this kind of historical reflection brings us to the public health issue of social distancing and sex in isolation.

Sex in isolation, or isolation sex, sounds like a fetish in its own right. Masturbation, self-massages, toys, rubbing surfaces, fantasising: these sexual acts fall within the remit of sex-in-isolation, or what we’ll call self-play. They don’t require others, but when enforced by a period of government-sanctioned quarantine, they take precedence over direct contact with others. Different than the stigmatised histories of homosexual encounter(s), isolation sex is systemic across all sexual practices and temporary. Thus, isolation sex has a time frame and, I suggest, potentialises the socio-sexual body. We know that formal contact with other bodies serve as “risk vectors,” and thus any interaction opens our bodies to anxious critique, or worse, a fearful self-imposition of the politics of responsibility. Yet, we need not moralise isolation sex because it is bound up with confused political rhetoric and uneven government sanctioning. Rather, in thinking about isolation sex as self-play, we create a discursive and body-centred space in which to re-think and re-pleasure the body. This assertion emerges from the general fact that a lot of adults turn to others for sexual gratification without coming to know (i.e. self-recognising) their body’s own sexual, emotional and psychological desires. We illuminate the pleasures our bodies are capable of in an isolated space, trying and practicing – and sometimes failing! – to make sense of our own pleasures and desires, which are specific to each body. It’s a trial run, of sorts, where we might remain with ourselves, seek out those pleasures we seek from others, and, if we are lucky, find those sweet spots some of us lust after but never quite find. We can find greater meaning in how we value the sexual nature of the body by using this period to self-recognise, to put forward a self-sex politics that makes sex both during and after COVID-19 possible. Put differently, we can socialise the isolation period by observing highly active and interactive forms of self-play. This may, at base, resemble measures we have already taken: masturbation, fingering, or the use of toys. But it may also open us up to intellectual, psychological and pleasureful questions about our relationship to our corporeal and psychic bodies, our use of technology to facilitate healthy sexual practices, and the centrality or peripherality of pornography to our socio-sexual wellbeing. Equally, the use of digital encounters in isolation sex might help us to create more formative and less-stigmatised views about encounters with our long-term partners and our casual pals, especially those we fool around with in the bedroom and shy away from using innuendo in the pub. In short, isolation sex as self-sex can be a positive, public health intervention. Conceptualised as such, it might deepen our understanding of “community,” especially sexual community, through honest and sexy encounters on digital platforms, in turn potentialising rich social cultures against the moral strictures of respectability politics. (For more on LGBT health in the UK, see: HIV Scotland, “PrEP & Coronavirus, 2020; and PrEPster, “COVID-19, HIV & LGBT Health,” 2020).

These thoughts are necessarily incomplete, yet they open up a critical discussion about the relationship among the COVID-19 public health crisis, community health initiatives, and sexual politics. I turn now to a critical reading list, which ultimately has informed my own understanding of sex in epidemic times. It also has, crucially, helped me to reflect on, what Eric Rofes once called, methods for reviving “cultures of post-AIDS”: namely, how do we negotiate social and sexual conditions after viral pandemic? As Rofes suggests, even before the technical “end” of viral spread, we can take from our critical reflections on crisis the ability to work together to build new social structures as an aftermath. We are, at the present time, temporally distant from such an aftermath; yet it is useful to conceive of the potential for change – social, economic, cultural, biological, technological – as a means of achieving the future we inevitably long for and thus desire. This is what I hope to convey in providing these reflections and these resources.


A Critical Reader List

Items in this list are alphabetised according to the author’s surname and are formatted in Harvard style.

Anonymous Queers. (1990). Queers Read This! New York: Queer Nation.

This pamphlet was distributed at the New York City Pride March in June 1990 in response to police brutality, homophobia, oppressive social and economic structures, and other political sanctions on local gay and lesbian communities. Written by anonymous queers, the pamphlet has ties to the U.S. AIDS activist organisation Queer Nation, a direct-action and non-hierarchal political intervention group which broke away from ACT UP New York and sought to disrupt anti-gay violence in U.S. arts and media. This source is sometimes used in university courses to teach the histories of political intervention and the struggles of the gay liberation movement since the mid-20th century. It is also regularly called upon as an emblematic resource for illuminating the classed, gendered and raced dimensions of homophobia, discrimination and violence toward minority sexual populations. It’s an excellent resource for the activist, sociologist or historian interested in historical tactics for social change.


Cohen, E. (2011). The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All. Social Text 29(1), pp. 15-35.

This article is guided by the question: “How do we contain emerging viral epidemics?” It reflects, specifically, on biomedical interventions, scientific authority, and who/what “contains” these epidemics. Hence it is a social theory of containment, thinking through and against the boundaries of epidemiological and public health knowledge of what can and cannot be contained through the medical gaze. Cohen critically examines the use of “scale” to think about “transformations at the levels of molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, populations, species, ecosystems, technological infrastructures, political economies, and networks of global finance”. In a traditional STS critique, Cohen looks at the relationship between individuals and social structures, examining how science and biomedicine “naturally” articulates its understanding of boundaries “within the political ontology of modern capitalism”. The author suggests that we are inherently paradoxical beings that cannot easily be contained by such thinking, and we must remain attentive to how biopolitics “parse[s] the life world[s]” of the human and viral containment.


France, D. (2017). How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. New York: Penguin.

A definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague expands upon David France’s (2012) documentary to deepen the story of grassroots activists whose work helped to bring about effective intervention strategies and technological developments in the United States. The contents of this book are regularly taught in college seminars on the histories of HIV/AIDS and sexuality studies. Though the book is a massive 656 pages, you’ll find the prose at times witty, at others harrowing, to the effect of emotive and inspiring writing that feels more like a 200-page novel. Highly recommended for the average history buff.


French, M., and Mykhalovskiy, E. (2013). Public Health Intelligence and the Detection of Potential Pandemics. Sociology of Health & Illness 35(2), pp. 174-187.

This article considers contemporary developments in public health intelligence and health events of pandemic potential. As a sociological study, it discusses how public health official conceive of and “actualise” pandemic events. This article may be of interest for those interested in the theory and methodology behind “creating a pandemic,” especially thinking about the threshold between epidemic and pandemic, which has been a subject of interest in WHO’s initial hesitation to classify COVID-19 as a global pandemic (see: CDC’s “Epidemic Disease Occurrence,” [2012]).


McKay, R. (2017). Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richard McKay’s rigorous study of Gaétan Dugas, a gay man whose skin cancer diagnosis in 1980 rapidly developed into posthumous assertions that he was AIDS “patient zero” in North America, provides a unique approach to understanding the political, media and scientific significance of assigning the role of “patient zero” to particular individuals in history. Clearly of great epistemological value during COVID-19 crisis, this book illuminates the long histories of contagion and (enforced) social isolation in the United States and, more broadly, within the history of western medicine. As the university press description suggests, this book “untangles the complex process by which individuals and groups create meaning and allocate blame when faced with new disease threats”. As such, it serves as a critical text for understanding parallel epidemics as well as how to avoid uncritical public media campaigns and how to maintain a dynamic understanding of the social, cultural, biomedical and political consequences of epidemiological and public health intervention.


Schulman, S. (2019 [1990]). People in Trouble. New York: Vintage.

Drawing on Sarah Schulman’s own experiences of AIDS crisis in New York City, this seminal novel provides an intimate look into the life-worlds of several urban dwellers responding to corrupt landlords and politicians, providing emotional and physical support for friends and community members in need; it also helpfully lays out a social critique of U.S. social structures and demands a sobering look at the oppressive structures of class-based economics and welfare. Readers may be familiar with the mid-1990s stage production RENT!, which takes from Schulman’s novel and stages the oppressive social conditions for large audiences. Schulman addressed this blatant lifting and infringement of her novel in her later book Stagestruck (1998), which, as a source of reflection in 2020, might help us to recognise the relationship between viral crisis and creative/artistic production. Simply put, this extraordinary and semi-fictional history proliferates critical discussions about U.S. social change, public health intervention, creative practice and intellectual property, and the possibility/problem of community during times of crisis.


Rofes, E. (1996). Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. New York: Harrington Park Press. AND. Rofes, E. (1998). Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures. New York: Harrington Park Press.

The late Eric Rofes, a public health specialist in San Francisco, USA, published a number of helpful texts about sexual community health after AIDS crisis. Specifically, his two books Reviving the Tribe (1996) and Dry Bones Breathe (1998) use accessible and image-driven language to discuss social and sexual behavioural management in the “aftermath” of AIDS crisis. Kane Race has suggested that Rofes was the first thinker to envision “post-AIDS” as a method for re-developing gay-male sexual life in the United States. These books, while notably dated, provide a fascinating blend of public health praxis, history of western medicine, the sociology of health and illness, queer ecology, and the psychology of gay sex in a period deeply impacted by viral epidemic. These early post-AIDS texts enact a threshold between the devastation of viral death and the post-crisis politics of safer-sex intervention practices and remain fundamental portals into the social histories of homosexuality in the 20th century.


Singer, L. (1993). Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic. New York: Routledge.

A highly contentious book about the politics of sexuality, and the mechanisms that control sexuality during times of crisis, Linda Singer’s Erotic Welfare explores the “ways in which epidemic logic and heightened [political] regulation affect women’s efforts to secure reproductive freedom, the construction of femininity within the media, and various efforts to displace the hegemony of the nuclear family in the cultural imaginary”. In other words, it is a text which recognises the implications of Michel Foucault’s work on the cisgender female body. The book was compiled posthumously by Judith Butler and Maureen MacGrogan, and has served as a source on the history of sexual politics for many scholars in sexuality studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. For readers interested in the relationship among epidemic, containment and sexuality, this book will be especially illuminating.


Watney, S. (1987). Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. London: Methuen.

This groundbreaking text holds accountable the media representations of HIV/AIDS and gay men during the early AIDS crisis in the UK. Simon Watney is a leader in the field of HIV/AIDS cultural studies and historical analysis, far-reaching in his criticism of the politics of outing and a resounding activist against the essentialisation of homosexual behaviour. As he states early in the book, “AIDS is effectively being used as a pretext throughout the West to ‘justify’ calls for increasing legislation and regulation of those who are considered to be socially unacceptable [i.e. homosexuals]”. Such political critique is especially cogent in a time when conservative political leaders continue to align viral spread using racial, classed and gendered metaphors. Watney’s book reminds us of the power and consequences of sexual identity politics in mainstream media and can serve as a source of reflection for resisting uncritical claims about the “source(s)” of viral spread, and the popularisation and misuse(s) of epidemiological knowledge and intervention strategies.


Other Reading Lists

Anonymous. (2020). #CoronaVirusSyllabus. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Anonymous. (2020). Queering the Pandemic. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Colom, S. (2020). Teaching Coronavirus—Sociological Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Jenks, A., and Nelson, K. (2020). Teaching COVID-19: A Collaborative Anthropology Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Lynteris, C. (2020). COVID-19 Forum: Introduction. Somatosphere. Special Issue. 6 Mar.

Queer Books – In Review (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Following academic tradition, I’m posting a list of some of my favourite queer books read in 2019. Not all books were written in 2019. These books have – in some fashion – characters or themes across the LGBTQ+ spectrum(s).

For other books in my 2019 in-review, please visit my Goodreads reading challenge page.

The Journalist of Castro Street (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Stoner, A. (2019). The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 266 pp.*

Andrew Stoner’s (2019) biography follows the life of American journalist Randy Shilts. Notorious for his critically-acclaimed, and also critically-lambasted, book And the Band Played On (1987), Shilts was also known for being one of the first openly gay journalists in the United States. Stoner’s text provides a wide-ranging history of Shilts’s life, including testimonies from his siblings, professional journalists, gay activists, scholars and historians. The first half of the book reads beautifully, with a narrative that recounts his childhood and early career.

When Stoner recounts Shilts’s journalism coverage of the AIDS crisis, things get messy. Stoner provides extensive reflections on Shilts’s AIDS-related writing and seeks to defend his journalistic integrity over the questionable image of the mainstream (hetero-centric) “AIDS scribe”. Alas Chapter 10 (“Strike Up the Band“) reads as if it’s been lifted directly from a PhD thesis in its attempt/s to follow previous academic scholarship. As such, it sometimes seems unreadable. Elsewhere, his descriptions of academics, activists and medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Richard McKay) vary so widely as to be introduced to the same thinker/s fifty different ways throughout a single chapter. The book could use some polishing in a second edition. Overall, the text provides some helpful insights into the life of the “AIDS scribe” and details important – often conflicting – responses to Shilts’s mythology of “Patient Zero”. Readers interested in journalism history, gay and lesbian history, and HIV/AIDS history will enjoy this book. It is a good companion text with Richard McKay’s (2017) recent book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.

*I was commissioned to review The Journalist of Castro Street for Media History in October 2019. Full review available here.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Book Review, LGBT

Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Knopf. 230 pp.

Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography explores her chaotic upbringing as an adopted child raised by Pentecostal parents in northwest England. She follows a linear trajectory, smattered with historical context, disturbing memories of neglect and abuse, humorous anecdotes to cope and tie together the narrative under the banner of “I am not a lost cause,” indeed, that she is and always has been loved. There are mundane moments when the text flexes between psychoanalytic and philosophical musing, and others when Winterson’s anger toward her upbringing blows the box off respectability politics and writing family histories. The text is not queerly, per se, but provides a nice approach to integrating – that is, making intelligible – her desires for women through the retelling of her personal history/ies. Especially surprising is her excellent grasp of working class conditions and how this class consciousness, in the end, drives her understanding of self even when she is faced with her origins. Why Be Normal is a light, easy read, compelling for its attention to historical detail and natural-sounding prose.

Queer Intentions (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Abraham, A. (2019). Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey through LGBTQ+ Culture. London: Picador. 327 pp.

Amelia Abraham’s (2019) Queer Intentions sets out to explore contemporary, global experiences of gay, lesbian, trans, gender-queer, intersex and queer communities. Speaking to a diverse cast of famous and lesser-known queer folk, Abraham dances through Berlin pride festivals, visits DragCon in Los Angeles, learns about trans activism and ball culture(s) in New York, and immerses herself in local queer life in Istanbul. Her narrative ranges from gloomy personal anecdotes to nuanced reflections on the intersections of theory and every-day life, providing a complex and compelling image of queer life. As many of her interviewees suggest, queerness might not be as different across societies as mainstream media leads us to believe.

Queer Intentions tackles difficult issues like gay pride and pink capitalism; the foreclosure of queer nightlife spaces; the gentrification of gaybourhoods; racism, misogyny and transphobia; monogamy, polyamory and queer family-building. Illuminating these issues across cultural, identitarian, political, economic and a/gender/ed boundaries, Abraham presents a strong analysis of how queer life might already operate within neoliberal, heteronormative society – even as it is at risk of becoming hegemonic under late capitalism (particularly, though not exclusively, in the West). Abraham does a nice job of paralleling her own life experiences through the process of writing the book. At times, it feels like she wants to say more, reserving herself in the name of journalistic professionalism. The book is very accessible, requires no special knowledge of queer theory (though that may help to recognise some of the nuances), and ends with a lovely – albeit brief – reflection on the distribution of queer/utopias in the present. Different than José Esteban Muñoz’s (2009) Cruising Utopia, Abraham’s Queer Intentions suggests that queer experiences today already live through and into the window/s that lead/s us to a better future/s. For some, a better time/s and a better place/s already exist in the queer(ish) present.

Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read (2016)

Book Review, LGBT

Morgan, N. (2016). Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read. London: Limehouse Books. 248 pp.

North Morgan’s (2016) novel Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read provides a not-so-elaborate, but entirely parodic, examination of affluent, white gay-male life in the metropoles of the Western world. Seeking a tongue-in-cheek response, Morgan begs the reader(s) to open their eyes to the contemptuous nature of those part-time employed, luxury-leaning, circuit-party bound gym bunnies who seem to occupy the spotlight of the gay imaginary. He goes as far as to suggest that the narrator – a laughable and unlikeable hedonist with a penchant for racist, misogynist and xenophobic remarks that debase more than 95% of Western society/ies and, indeed, glorify the Neo-Nazis vision of the ascending Aryan races – might embody the celebrity aspirations of white gay men in the 2010s.

As one reviewer writes, “This book is pessimism branded as brave honesty, but I wonder to what end.” Indeed, to what end does this pacification of gay life serve? To characterise gay life as such – to reprimand the vulgarities of consumerist image(s), which are not specific to gay life, but rather endemic to consumers who choose to participate in image cultures that enable the largely uncritical (and thus unconfronted) discourses about what qualifies as “petty,” “superficial” or “vain” – is to solve nothing and provide no values for growth, emotional and mental support or ideations of healthy futures. In other words, by blowing open the box on the gay elite (which has elsewhere been undertaken with fewer spelling and grammatical errors and greater nuance), Morgan attempts to deepen a conversation about the central ideologies, objects and values of “gay life,” not unlike Alan Downs’s (2005) seductive The Velvet Rage or Matthew Todd’s (2012) “revolutionary clarion” Straight Jacket. We are left with a stark portrait, without hope, a wasteland of the gay male body; to ascertain from the broken pieces with which the narrator ends the limited capacities to imagine that gay life, far from a perpetual cycle of drugs, sex, boredom and social media obsession, might also make room for critical awareness of non-consumer life. In short, the novel ends before it begins. It leaves no room for a future, and because of this, the book loses its critique and its impulse to grow sideways into other ways of living.

I Look Divine (1987)

Book Review, LGBT

Coe, C. (1987). I Look Divine. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder. 126 pp.

Christopher Coe’s (1987) novel I Look Divine provides fleeting insight into the life of two brothers: Nicholas, a proclaimed narcissist of the highest degree, and an unnamed brother, a whimsical, perhaps audacious and incredulous, onlooker on the sudden life and death of lyrical beauty. A retrospective narrative, the brother reflects upon Nicholas’s orientation toward the mirrored-edges that surround the Wildean portrait of his life. The novel ventures no further than Nicholas’s apartment, though transports the reader through time and space, across the Western world, into the geographical possession and dreams of the gay cultural elite at the heart of gay-male literature of the 1980s. It crescendos, as David Leavitt suggests in the 2013 edition, in the ultimate death of self-seduction. The excess of beauty (Nicholas as symbol) is overcome by its intimate ties with youth. Though we see indirectly the purpose and actualisation of his demise, we know too familiarly the demise of Dorian Gray, from which the book springs, and thus beg nothing of the author for post-mortem clarity.

Unlike the pensive, oft repetitive and lugubrious passages in his later novel, Such Times (1993), I Look Divine speedily ushers the reader through the waning of physical beauty so fundamental to gay-male life in the 1970s. Arguably, this portrait remains foundational to the coherence of gay-beauty standards today, which have tip-toed not an inch further from the mirrors that surround our desire to remain youthful even when threatened with the cultural construction of “gay death”. Parallel to this fear of beatific death is, as Leavitt poses, the presence and prevalence of HIV/AIDS floating in the novel’s margins. This at once periodises the novel whilst making it all the more timely for men who, today, remain bound to the logics of biomedical realism (i.e. ARVs, PrEP), and seek cultural validation through sexual desire regardless of age and beauty tropes. Far, now, from the present it unfolds, I Look Divine reminds its readers of the lasting legacies of gay-male beauty and the intimate affairs and aspirations of capitalism bound up in physical attraction. It is a text in line with Andrew Holleran’s beloved Dancer from the Dance (1978): an image culture in which we engender the reification of youthful beauty above and beyond the narratives of sexual and romantic excess.

Old Futures (2018)

Book Review, LGBT

Lothian, A. (2018). Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York: New York University Press. 333 pp.*

Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures (2018) returns to an archive of utopian, dystopian, and speculative artefacts to reflect on the insurgence of “futures” in the contemporary mediascape. Asserting the predominance of certain gendered, racialised, and reproductive visions of the future, Lothian looks closely at the uneven distribution of futures in the past and present. She argues that returning to “old futures” created in the past may enable her readers to navigate alternative futurities in the present to deepen their imaginative capabilities of the future. For Lothian, such notions look especially queer and resist the tantalising investments of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and capitalism’s foreclosures of risks yet to come. More than an attempt to reflect upon failed utopian ideations or speculative realisms in literature and visual media, Lothian incorporates creative practice into her discovery and analysis of old futures. Lothian takes from her own practice(s) to argue that vidding is a queer methodology which allows certain themes about race, gender, and sexuality to take priority over the dominant frames of mainstream media. Vidding elaborates upon the undercurrents of desire, pleasure, and futurity that emerge for subjects and viewers who experience (and are often displaced by) the normative messages of media cultures (p. 250). Readers interested in queer theory, Science Fiction studies, future studies, and feminist theory will find this book compelling. Lothian’s academic voice is full of passion, lending a familiar queer inclination to her investments in future-imagining projects.

*I was commissioned to review Old Futures for Fantastika Journal in April 2019. Full review is forthcoming 2019.

Positive Images (2018)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Kagan, D. (2018). Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post Crisis’. London: Bloomsbury. 320 pp.*

Representations of HIV and AIDS grew sparse and laden with imperatives of recovery, respectability, and individualism during the 1990s and 2000s. For Dion Kagan, this period of “post-crisis” was a time in which gay men sought to redeem themselves from the “narcissistically sexual” construction of homosexuality which preceded the HIV pandemic. In Positive Images, Kagan undertakes a detailed study of the ways in which gay men negotiated this “post-crisis” period. He defines post-crisis as life after the introduction of effective antiretroviral medicines. His careful attention to cultural trends, using HIV prevention studies, queer theory, gay and lesbian studies, and television and film studies, provides a comprehensive look at how these men lived with a virus turned chronic illness, and how their lives impact gay communities today. This text is appropriate for scholars and graduate students interested in the HIV/AIDS historicisation project, histories of safer sex, media and television studies, and the politics of representation. Kagan’s writing is concise and exceedingly accessible for those concerned with the development of HIV histories and sexual politics today.

*I was commissioned to review Positive Images for The Journal of Homosexuality in March 2019. Full review forthcoming 2020.

Urgency as Incentive: The Future & PrEP

HIV/AIDS, LGBT, PrEP

The UK-based movement in favour of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has come face to face with an unreasonable hurdle.

That is to say, activists must now approach selective regulatory policy that rises to meet their feet just as change can occur. England’s National Health Service (NHS) has poured concrete around the base and built the hurdle higher, making it impossible to jump over bureaucratic stop-gaps and once again reinforcing the government’s inflexibility. Dare we recall thirty years of slow improvements to HIV medicine, the NHS’s announcement reminds us that health is afforded, first, to those who ‘need it most’.

The most are more often a few, as the privatised American health system exemplifies. Who are the most in relation to HIV in England? What is the government’s capacity to ensure the health and well-being of its citizens, especially as new statistics reveal a tremendous increase in mental health distress, indebted, in part, to working conditions and social stressors that tamper with one’s access to health itself?

For England, the most are those already HIV positive. The NHS can undertake effective treatment once the virus has been transmitted. Before that, you better use a condom.

Established safer-sex initiatives are crucial for deterring the transmission of HIV, but nothing is more crucial than to add new tools to the toolbox. Tools approved by a swath of esteemed medical clinicians and supported by MPs across the nation should not be ignored. We must speak out against the injustice of unhealthy regulation.

The law comes up to meet our feet as we stride toward greener pastures. Our greener pastures are a future where HIV transmissions have shrunk to an infinitesimal statistic. The focus on finding a cure, post-exposure prophylaxis, and HIV-positive regulatory medicine(s) is fine and well, but these measures are not enough. The present is not a viable future. Only if we add to regulatory reasoning effective prevention can we then uncover a future that, now, seems lost in the mire of soaring transmissions.

PrEP does not yet symbolise our overdue (and forthcoming) reactionary tactics. At the moment, the little blue pill represents everything bound up in the tenants of HIV’s history. The pill is a reflection of people living with AIDS and HIV (PLWA, PLWH). The pill gestures at the lives we can save in the wake of those who are lost. The pill is a simple tactic; it is the fundamental freedom of a free society, imparted by a government that can and should care passionately about the health of its citizens. The pill represents anger (our anger), because those at risk are not afforded the same preemptive measures otherwise given to patients of cancer and leukemia and irritable bowel syndrome.

PrEP is a blue pill turned red in anguish. Our future, according to the press release, is limited to the efficacy of funding a preventative medicine that could potentially displace ‘other “candidate” treatments and interventions’, as if equal share, over urgency, were the most provocative justification for dropping PrEP from funding on a national scale.

In other words: Where is the urgency? We must ask this of ourselves and resignify PrEP as a reactionary measure against bureaucracy.

This is the process of community building, which activists like Greg Owen and David Stuart continue to engender and employ. As Simon Watney once wrote, we must be cautious to conflate the differences within our queer communities as the wholeness that binds us. Which is to say, perhaps we have no essential ‘sexual’ community or biological binds to connect us, but we have validity in the anger that brings our bodies together. Today, the anger that binds us is the urgency of transmission. That urgency is:

  1. Five men testing positive each day in London.
  2. HIV organisations taking significant blows to their funding, laying off critical educational and administrative staff, and closing spaces in key ‘risk areas’ of the city.
  3. Living with constant anxiety because condoms are difficult, uncomfortable, or forgotten in practice.
  4. Being unable to visit a sexual health clinic because the wait is too long.
  5. Not knowing your status.

Acknowledgement of our urgencies is already undertaken in the medical and charity core. Ian Green, Matthew Hodson, Mags Portman, Michael Brady, Deborah Gold — the voices of reason, the experts — reiterate statistics and demand medical freedom(s) based on dizzying increases in HIV transmission. Their work compels war cries for PrEP. But how can we face an impossible hurdle if even the voice(s) of reason fail to establish the ‘necessary’ level of urgency?

PrEP is not a panacea, but it is an effective solution in the grab bag of measures. We need to turn to PrEP, because it is a ‘future-logic’: that is, a medical technology that signifies the future of health, the future of community, and the future (as Nikolas Rose might say) of life itself. What other purpose does cutting-edge medicine contain if not to allow society to burgeon in such an aggressive way that we can now live twenty to forty years beyond the life expectancy of the nineteenth century?

We can incentivize our urgency as a means to employ PrEP as a preventative measure and re-establish the future. In other words, we must compound our urgency to remain HIV negative, to cut down transmission rates, and to demand greater access to sensible, sensitive, and proven medicines, situating these demands as a promissory note that says the future resumes here.

It is the urgency of transmission that is our incentive. More than the urgency charities and medical practitioners place on statistics and numbers (though those are at the core of our anger), what I want to impress, even briefly, is that our urgency needs to derive from the knowledge that our future stops here when we fail to fight for our health and the health of others. Our future evaporates the moment we feign interest in community health. Believing our own safer-sex practices and drug use exist outside of communities at risk is dangerous at best and intentionally malicious at worst.

Only through our urgency for better health, for community, and for a future beyond HIV, does PrEP become more than simply an expense. Through multiple urgencies, through the enactment of a liveable future beyond HIV, PrEP embodies the core value of human lives — HIV-positive and HIV-negative lives in tandem — all working together for greater health, and less bureaucracy.