Last night I had the opportunity to attend the SF STOP AIDS Project/SF AIDS Foundation Real Talk: Serosorting* panel dialogue, facilitated by Sister Roma, and held at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Days before the event I had been following the lively conversation on the event's Facebook page and enjoying the various perspectives from folks who were engaged through insightful critical contributions on the topic. Of course, many folks were in disagreement with each other, while some were in disagreement with the fact that an organization would even broach the subject. If the provocative language for the event "'F**k without condoms? Ever?' Let's talk about it," wasn't enough to make me want to attend, the Facebook page conversations enticed me even more.
I admit that I walked into the room with some really high expectations. From the title of the event to the fantastic dialogue on Facebook, I was ready to enter a space of conversations that took us beyond conventional rhetoric and morality-based messaging.
Program staff did a fantastic job at presenting the most current data on San Francisco communities. What I found most interesting about the data was that a reduced Community Viral Load in San Francisco was suggesting a reduction in HIV infections as well. With 44% of people living with HIV on treatment, the analysis seemed to offer that we are on to something. In addition, audience members were able to participate in live polling (via text messaging) regarding behaviors and perspectives, which offered some fantastic data that I hope will be made available to the public in some format in the future.
Up to then, I was pretty happy with the event. There were a few interesting and evocative comments, which I thought would lead us into deeper places as we sought to further unfold our understandings and opinions about serosorting. And then things started deteriorating.
I was disheartened to hear audience members' lack of generosity toward other queer men. Every time I heard someone insist that no man should be trusted and that we should assume all men are positive, I wondered if they realized they were talking about the person next to them; they were talking about themselves. I don't mean to dismiss the possibility that some men living with HIV might very well be having condomless sex with other men without disclosing for the purpose of infecting others. But I couldn't help but wonder what deep traumas we carry that this very unlikely scenario becomes the basis on which to construct such awful assumptions about every one of us.
One of the most thought-provoking and insightful comments of the night came from an audience member who said, "What does it mean that we think everyone we fuck is going to kill us?" The question begged for deeper and more critical conversation about how the constructions we hold about each other's bodies and intentions impact our decisions, our health, and our love for one another.
What could have been a lively high level conversation about each other's practices and strategies, turned into peer-to-peer admonishments with the same bland morality-based HIV 101 messaging we've grown accustomed to hearing on the streets. It seemed that each time someone offered ideas about how to strategize around a particular scenario (i.e. sex between serodiscordant men), a person behind me would keep yelling "Use a condom! Use a condom!"
Yes, I know. Use a condom. We've all heard it. But, obviously, by virtue of being in a space to talk about the fact that not all men use condoms all the time (I believe the audience poll noted that some 95 or 97% of men in the audience have had condomless sex), I would hope we'd be prepared to take the conversation to the next level. While Sister Roma's facilitation was fantastic at deescalating tensions, I kept hoping she'd redirect the conversation back to the purpose of the gathering: to talk about practices and strategies. Where were the impassioned men from the Facebook page posts?
Sadly, the panel, too, left a bit to be desired. Comprised of a mix of field experts and folks who brought their personal experiences forth, the panel had a quasi-traditional feel to it. That is, I felt as though we were to see the panel members as just regular people engaged in a non-heirarchical dialogue with us, with occasional facts-based contributions.
I'm all about deconstructing the Panel Framework and holding horizontally structured community conversations. But that isn't what was offered either. Instead, there was a mixture of panelists who had specific data or information to offer in a given moment, and other panelists who seemed to be the experts in their lives in the same way I am in my own life, but who had more power in their voice by virtue of being on a panel. Pulling off these approaches can be tricky and require a skill that I didn't quite see surface.
Lastly, I can't end this post without looking at race. Besides the one person who seemingly self-identified as Latino, the rest of the panel was unsurprisingly white. Now, I'm not proposing a quota system by any means, but I am calling into question the intention of the organizers. In 2012, in San Francisco, to hold an event with mostly white panelists leaves a lot to wonder. Surely there are men of color who are experts in the field. I know for a fact that there are men of color who are experts in their own lives and capable off offering broader insights on the panel. If there's room for a bartender and club promoter, there's room for more than one person of color.**
In the end, I'm grateful to the organizers for pulling together the event. Despite the critiques, there were some stellar moments. My hope is that through our collective feedback, we are supporting the SF STOP AIDS Project/SF AIDS Foundation to grow with us. These are undoubtably strong foundations to build on.
*Serosoting being the practice of choosing sex partners (and in some instances, sexual position) based on all parties' HIV status.
**Not a jab at bartenders or club promoters, but certainly a critique of panel organizers.