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October 13, 2006

"AGAINST HEALTH" Conference
By Trevor

What a whirlwind of a week! I'm here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, staying at a lovely bed and breakfast called "The Library Bed and Breakfast" run by a really wonderful woman named Joan. She's a real treat, and if you're ever in the area, you should consider staying here. She cooks a mean breakfast and is a wonderful host.

I'm here for two reasons: 1) to check out Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan campus as I'm applying to grad school here next year and 2) to attend the "AGAINST HEALTH" conference, a convening of some of the nation's (and world's - as we have several folks from Australia and Canada) most astute scholars working critically to problematize the category of "health."

As for number one, Ann Arbor is an incredibly charming little town that I could definitely see myself spending 5-6 years in working towards my PhD. They even have a gay bar, AutBar, which I actually have yet to check out (perhaps tonight?) and a gay dance club night (which I will be checking out tonight) at a bar called Necto. Slim pickings, but not too shabby for a small college town of its size. I've also met a few boys and found them quite hospitable ;)

As for number two, the academic environment here is unparalled. The number of faculty doing work on sexuality and gender is astounding - and many of them are superstars in that field (David Halperin, Gayle Rubin, etc.). I met with several graduate students in Sociology who all praised the university and program's level of support for sexuality-related work - which is key to surviving 5-6 years at an institution. All in all, I'm rather in love with the place.

I'm happy that I made time to come out here to attend the conference. I found myself today sitting and having lunch with a group of folks doing phenomenal work on HIV/AIDS and gay men: Kane Race, Susan Kippax, Barry Adams, and David Halperin. The discussion and workshops were wonderfully informative and inspirational for my current research on young gay men and HIV prevention and for future ideas for my dissertation.

I also had the great honor and privilege to speak at the conference in tribute to Eric Rofes, who was slated to attend. It was a cathartic process to both write and deliver the speech - and I'm grateful that David Halperin invited me to do so. Here is what I had to say:

It is not easy to memorialize a giant like Eric Rofes. Upon first hearing of his death, many initially thought the news was some kind of cruel joke. If Erics life was about anything, it was about the survival of epic tragedy and of great struggle his death seemed almost unthinkable at this point. He seemed almost bigger than life itself, which made his sudden death of a massive heart attack at the age of 51 all the more shocking. He is survived by his loving partner of 16 years, Crispin Hollings.

For those of you who did not know him, Eric was one of the bright lights of the movement for sexual liberation and for gay mens health. His professional career began as a sixth grade public schoolteacher in Boston after graduating from Harvard college in the 1970s. He was eventually fired from that job when he came as a gay man to his principal and school board. Before coming out at work, he marched in one of Bostons early gay pride parades with a bag over his head. After being fired, he quickly became a powerhouse activist within the burgeoning movement for gay and lesbian liberation in Boston working at different times as a writer for the Gay Community News collective, the nations only weekly queer publication; as the founder for Bostons first LGBT group for teachers, Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Schoolteachers; as the founder of the first Boston-area group focused on gay and lesbian voters; as the founder of two of the nations first queer youth groups; and as a founding member of the Boston Men's Childcare Collective, which provided childcare at women's music concerts and shelters for battered women. He somehow managed to find time during this period to publish three books that he developed with with his students at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge who hired him after he was unjustly fired including The Kids Book About Divorce: By, For, and About Kids in 1983.

And this was just the beginning. In the limited time that I have, I cannot possibly relay to you all of his accomplishments, but perhaps the most important to highlight were his roles as Executive Director of Los Angeles gay and lesbian center (the largest gay non-profit in the world); and, later, after moving to San Francisco in 1989, as executive director of the Shanti Project, a pioneering AIDS service group. Though he remained HIV-negative until his death, his work at Shanti led him to the work that he is most known for, his work on HIV/AIDS and gay male communities. His efforts fighting AIDS in what were very bleak years for urban gay men later informed his work to ignite a movement for holistic health for gay men that extended beyond STDs and HIV/AIDS.

Of course, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to say all of this without also highlighting Erics role in leather/SM/fetish communities as a proud bear and a tireless advocate of sexual liberation. His creative spirit for exploring and celebrating sexuality informed all of his work, and was, really, nothing short of awe-inspiring. To say that he enjoyed sex is something of an understatement. How he managed to accomplish so much professionally and still find time to so vigorously explore his sexuality, I will never know.

It was only just over a year ago that, still living in North Carolina, I first came across Erics book Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities in Cultures as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Written in 1998, it was a daring call to reevaluate the way we understood the epidemic in a post-anti-retro-viral world particularly how we went about doing HIV prevention. Perhaps his most jarring claim in this book was that, for at least many communities in the industrialized world, AIDS was over. That is to say, the medications had improved the quality of life for HIV-positive patients to the extent that many no longer exhibited the symptoms of AIDS.

When I read this, I could not help but reflect on my own life as a young gay man, and I was left struggling with a number of questions. Despite it being almost a decade old when I first picked it up, his analysis remained incredibly provocative and challenging. This is in part due to the fact that, from my perspective, Eric was one of a tiny handful of people critically and sensibly thinking about the epidemic, especially in the years after anti-retroviral therapies were introduced when many public health officials were still trumpeting the idea of the AIDS Crisis, a kind of scare tactic that Eric argued was outdated, wrongheaded, and entirely at odds with gay mens experiences. His analysis was made all the more compelling for the ways that he connected his ideas to his own experiences as a sexually active gay man in San Francisco. As a self-proclaimed feminist, his work clearly took the age-old feminist axiom The personal is political very seriously. Dry Bones Breathe shook my core and gave me a clear direction towards a kind of work that managed to straddle the academic and activist worlds a kind of work that allowed for the researcher to clearly position themselves within their work and their arguments.

A true child of the Internet generation, I immediately sent him a long, confusing, and winding e-mail. Some of you in the audience may well know that I have a penchant for these kinds of notes to people whos work has such a profound impact on me. I was desperately seeking a mentor a gay man who had seen what I had not, and could provide a personalized historical framework for my work on gay male communities something that no movie or documentary could ever really adequately supply. More importantly, I was looking for a kind of emotional support and inspiration that was difficult to locate in North Carolina. Words cannot truly express how I felt, then, when I opened up my e-mail to find a response from Eric no more than 2 hours later; Eric was known for his superhuman e-mailing capabilities that was just as long-winded and just as sincere as mine had been if not more. To have a giant like Eric Rofes take my ideas seriously even those that he might have disagreed with meant a great deal to me.

What is most amazing about Eric is that I am just one of many people who can tell you a story like this. Somehow between his countless research and activist projects, he made time to create rich and meaningful relationships with literally hundreds upon hundreds of people. This was perhaps what Eric loved most about life. He had an uncanny ability to connect people even those from seemingly disparate communities to bring people together in ways that do not often happen in our increasingly specialized work environments and fragmented communities. It was in these moments that Eric truly shined.

With his death, I find it difficult to find much to say thats uplifting or inspirational. As a young gay man, I cannot tell you how troubling it is to lose another one from Erics generation particularly a giant like Eric. Sadly, when I look into the academic world in search of queer men doing wonderfully progressive and radically queer work like Erics, I find a scant few of these voices. I cannot help but feel that AIDS has stolen from us some of the most radical and provocative voices, without which we are suffering particularly young gay men. Perhaps a new generation of young queer men will take up Erics agenda a movement towards a politics that somehow managed to navigate the tensions between sexual liberation and feminism. An agenda that fought tirelessly for the respect and dignity of the marginalized. In his absence, though, I find myself somewhat pessimistic. He leaves in his wake two incredibly large shoes, which I know I can never really hope to fill but I will certainly try.

Thank you.

PERMALINK | Posted at 2:01 PM | Post a Comment (0)


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