Responding to the coronavirus outbreak while being queer, femme, and a body that doesn't conform

The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.

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How does an entire community always thought of as dirty and diseased respond to a global pandemic? I’m not so sure I can speak for us all. (Or rather, I’d never assume that I could do so.) But I’ve seen my own conceptualisation of healthiness and a healthy body change over the years. In witnessing the bodies of my friends transition over several years, I’ve also come to see the ways that the medico-legal institution has shaped, sculpted and shamed the human body. And through their accounts and arguments on the choices they’ve made, or the ones they were offered up, I’ve come to see the ways this institution has had a hand in designing all of our bodies. The ways it has marked fit from the unfit, better from the not-so-good, right from the wrong, abled from the disabled, and perfect from the flawed. The ways some of our bodies are exemplars while others are examples.

I find that I’m not afraid of death. On one hand, losing my mother at the age of three years and three months, and watching the practical and kind manner that my grandmother handled the whole situation has made me feel like it is just another part of living. This feeling was truly cemented on attending my great-grandfather’s funeral in Kalimpong before my teens. While everyone was mourning, they were also merry. Or at least they allowed themselves to travel through all of their emotions. I found that losing our grand patriarch just seemed to bring all of our emotions to the surface, it didn’t suppress us. So, we had to be gentle but not careful with each in the grieving phase. I also remember finding it completely weird that we were all taking photos with his dead body much like we did at weddings with the bride and groom. I’ve wondered why he must be remembered like this, and I’ve come to find the answer is that he is to be remembered at all is enough. While I’ve gotten over that initial weirdness about this act, I still shiver (ever so) slightly when I come across these photos in an album at my grandparents’ house.

 Responding to the coronavirus outbreak while being queer, femme, and a body that doesnt conform

How does an entire community take care of itself when it has been described and named as a sickness itself? Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade for Firstpost

Also, I’m not afraid of death because I’m queer, femme: a body that doesn’t subscribe to the epitome. I’m not afraid of it because it is the one thing that has been dangled in front of me, promised to me, used as a threat. And therefore, besides feeling like I’ve already had a taste of it, I want so much more from life than death — good or bad. I’m not afraid of it because it has always been my predetermined destination. Is one really afraid of the inevitable? (One can be but I’m not.) There’s the angle to being told one’s body is dirty and diseased that eventually makes one feel dispensable, disposable, destroyed. And from that place of acceptance, one learns to battle the world: not a great thing for the self-esteem but wonderful for the endless war. And in this light, brazen, bold and brave disregard for death doesn’t feel like an add-on but rather like native tools gifted to our community. If I was going to be provocative I might even declare: your systemic torture, teasing and taunting makes death look easy, like something we can take on.

How does an entire community take care of itself when it has been described and named as a sickness itself? There’s been a lot of policing of bodies in this time of panic and LGBTQ+ influencers on social media have been especially calling out the community for not adhering to shutdowns ordered by public health ministries. Their logic: we should know better having been schooled and brought up in the post-AIDS/HIV times. While one can see the way they’ve arrived at that stance, it seems rather naive to me. Much like the colours of the rainbow, the responses of the community to the AIDS/HIV crisis were far too many. There’s the much-documented formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) an international, grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic that started in New York in March 1987. And we’re all familiar with their powerful motto: silence = death. [And if you haven’t heard of this movement, you should watch David France’s How To Survive A Plague; trailer here.]

But there were other ways too. It has influenced (and continues to influence) our community guidelines for the desired body especially among gay, bisexual and queer men. It resonantes in the hyphenated phrases popularised on hook-up apps: gym-toned, gym-built, muscle-body, good-hygiene, good-smell. While in the ‘80s, it was the signal for a disease-free body in real-life cruising practices and was helpfully eroticised through art and pornography, in our time, it has unconsciously become the universally sexualised body, or we’re framing our desires always in opposition to it.

Another way I know it has influenced our culture (and we try not to talk about this too much): people seeking out HIV positive partners in order to get HIV — known as bugchasing. If the destination of any sexual contact is the little death then these individuals want a chance at the big one. I can understand this motivation without underwriting the practice: in reading online interviews with these bugchasers, besides the search for the “ultimate thrill” to wanting to hold on their HIV positive partners “desperate and afraid”, one of the sentiments that struck me was “as a gay man, I was always told that I had it and not having it made me feel incomplete”. How does a community that has been kicked in the guts so much stand at all? And when it does, why can’t it do anything it wants to do? How does a community that has survived something that nearly killed them all keep going? How does this community not feel invincible?

Care isn’t something that creeps up on our community during crisis alone. It has become practice, ritual and necessary. So: I’m not afraid of death. And it isn’t just because I’m queer, femme and a body that doesn’t conform, although it has only bolstered the feeling. I’m more interested in the kinds of actions, gestures and moves that we make while we’re living. And I wonder if everyone should be allowed to make these negotiations for themselves. How does an entire community learn to take care of itself when it has always been labelled dirty and diseased? I think we're still learning, it is work and we will do it. We always have taken care of our own: either ways. How do marginalised communities trust a politicised system — the medico-legal institution — in these times? We’ll just have to wait and see. It won’t be a unified response that’s certain. And till then, everyone will just have to be happy with being on their high horse.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer

Updated Date: Apr 02, 2020 09:03:37 IST



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