In this famous photo, on the right side, a sisters hand cradles the top of her nieces head, covering one ear, and drawing a shoulder close. The two look forward, eyelids soft. The nieces left hand is on the hospital bed railing where her uncle, David Kirby, lays; his eyes open, looking out, above and beyond. Davids father swaddles his sons head and elbow with his hands, meaty; his eyes, closed; nose, gentle against his sons forehead. Both David and his father wear watches. Above them, a painted hand beckons forward, the rest of the body cut off by a photographers eye. To the left, another hand, body unseen, holds Davids wrist.

The image, David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990,was taken by Therese Frare the spring that David died of complications related to AIDS. Months after, the picture was published in Life Magazine. Two years later, it was used for what became an infamous Benetton clothing ad. The photograph provides an important and familiar narrative–a frail young man, dying needlessly before his time. And in that, the picture also contains details and absences that speak to stories and dynamics of the ongoing AIDS crisis largely untold, teetering on the precipice of being lost.

The hand on Davids wrist belongs to Peta, who, the day the photo was taken, invited Therese, a photography student at the time doing a project on AIDS, to follow as Peta did rounds as caregiver at the hospice. Therese stayed in the hallway as Peta went in to check on David, a friend, who was near his final days. Therese had met David once before and he had given her his permission to be photographed. As Peta visited with David, Davids mother invited Therese into the room, asking her to take photos of what could be their last moments all together. On Thereses contact sheets from that day, which you can view online, Petas whole body can be seen: tall, with long hair pulled back, wearing a black leather jacket, a comb peeking out of a back pocket of light blue jeans. In Peta, we meet a caregiver from the the Pine Ridge Indian Reserve, living with HIV, who, as Therese recalls, rode the line between genders.After David died, the Kirbys made a commitment to care for Peta as death approached, and Therese continued to photograph. In one image we find Peta in a wheelchair, looking down, hair in braids. Davids parents standing behind, the sheen of Petas silky robe midnight against the Kirbys matte white cotton stomachs.

Recently a short web documentary, David Kirby on his Deathbed, was made about the iconic David Kirby photo, joining the ever growing body of work looking back at HIV history. My writing partner, Alexandra Juhasz, and I call this body the AIDS Crisis Revisitation.Starting after a period of AIDS-related silence emerging after the release of life-saving medication in 1996, the AIDS Crisis Revisitation begins in 2008 with a noticeable increase in the creation, dissemination, and discussion of culture concerned with the early responses to HIV/AIDS. The Revisitation includes but is not limited to the films: How to Survive a Plague, Dallas Buyers Club; the exhibitions, Art AIDS America; One Day This Kid Will Get Larger, Tim Murphys novel Christodora, Alysia Abbotts memoir Fairyland, Tiona McCloddens artwork Af-fixing Ceremony, and the plays Thirtynothing written by Dan Fishback, and And We Should Stand Like This written by Harrison Rivers. Overall, the Revisitation has been positive, carving out space for healing, hearing, and reunion. And yet, as myself and others have noticed, there is a narrowness within the Revisitation. With a few exceptions within the Revisitation, there is an overall absence of people of color, of women, of black people, of trans people, of people in rural America, people who inject drugs, who do sex work, who live in poverty, and people who live at intersections of all of these ways of being alive. I see the work coming out of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation and I think: where are all the people? Why am I only seeing different versions of me? It is not that the story of white gay men in the face of the plague does not matter, it does. It does. It is just that it is not the only story, and in a patriarchal culture of white supremacy, it gets treated as the beginning and the end of the story.

I avoided watching the short film on the David Kirby photo. As someone working at the intersection of art, AIDS and activism, I too, as a white, gay, HIV negative middle-class, cis man, have failed to acknowledge Peta and I couldn’t bear the thought of the film doing the same. But I was provoked into watching it after attending a panel this summer about queer literature and the panelists discussed both the absence and presence of new AIDS related culture being made. I felt the need to weigh in. So, sitting one night at a writing residency, I watched the film. Early on, Peta appears through photos. I gasped. Would I hear someone other than me and the friend who jump-started my research on the photo say Peta out loud? No. Peta is never named. Referred to only as caregiver. And then, only in passing.

Black feminist ethicist Dr. Traci West tells us that our ethics form where the story begins, and our ethics are revealed in our actions. When you look at the work coming out of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation, the stories often beginmirroring the focus of the Revisitationwith photos, like the one of David Kirby: a white gay man, to be pitied, to be feared. And so, isnt Dr. West so painfully right? The bulk of our actions in response to HIV have been, and still are, focused on white gay men (or making a big production of it when they are not). So what would it mean if we pulled the camera back, and started the story with that which has been obscured, cut off, neglected? What would it mean if we told the story of HIV through Peta? Through people whose land has been stolen? Through people whose gender the culture refuses to see? What if we told the story of HIV through the visible hand of friendship?

HIV is first and foremost a material reality, which lives in some peoples bodies and not in others, the reasons for the disparity, intimate and systemic in scale. It is also a cultural phenomenon, shaped by us. AIDS is a rolling cultural inheritance, a spectacle that looms overhead, shaping prose, poetry and desire. As a fellow writer, I hope you accept this little bit of information I have about Peta, and transmit it to others, replicating the love without fear. 


Image: Zines from Theodore Kerr’s reading at the 2017 Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voice
Photo: “David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990” by Therese Frare

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “The AIDS Crisis Revisitation”

  1. 5 January 2018 at 3:18 PM #

    thank you–i hope this prompt can surface more narratives about Peta and the many other marginalized AIDS casualties you invoke.

  2. 5 January 2018 at 3:33 PM #

    Dear Theodore, this is a perfectly beautiful article, and you point to something very important that I think Ash Jones does in the AIDS Memorial on Instagram and Facebook, and David France does in “The Death and Life of Marcia P. Johnson”: the issue of inclusion. I wrote a memoir about the death of my partner, Mark Halberstadt, in “The Sea Is Quiet Tonight”, and about the early AIDS epidemic in Boston. It is one of several, if not many, books about white middle class men with AIDS. In the early 80s when the events in the book occurred, our friends were “like us,” and the AIDS Action Committee in Boston was overwhelming supported by white gay men. Over time, of course, that changed. But the whole issue of transgenderism and race in the world of AIDS was not apparent early in the epidemic.

    I found both the story of the photo of David Kirby and his family, and the story of Peta and what happened to her, deeply moving. The people who populate my life and my world are vastly more diverse now that they were in the early 80s. But I’m happy to be caught up short again in looking at whose stories are told now, and whose are not.

    Thank you.

  3. 5 January 2018 at 4:03 PM #

    Only people who were not directly touched by this ghastly and unexpected disease would feel the need to “re-visit” it. The rest of us carry the lingering remnants of the trauma, our numerous memories and ghosts, and our emotional scars with us every day, but they must be brushed aside in order to go on living and doing one’s best. I’m glad you have created such a book; forgive those of us for whom re-visiting it is not just an exercise in gay historical education or revelation. It would be more like a painful act of emotional masochism. That being said, I do consider such books absolutely necessary. You had to be there; as a hospital social worker trying to be of assistance and help to way too many of my own dying peers or men younger than me and a typical gay men of that era myself I was “there” on the front lines, and now, yet and ever a bewildered survivor, I find it best to walk in gratitude, concentrate on the present, and maintain what is left of my emotional equilibrium. Thank you for recording that which reflects a mercilessly drawn out epidemic and a time I would so rather forget.

  4. 6 January 2018 at 4:13 PM #

    Oh there are so many stories to be told about the AIDS crisis, those who died, those who lived, those who cared, those who were surrounded by it all, those who were all of the above. Thank you for bringing attention to this important topic. The stories won’t stop just because we have already had a few, just like the stories of Holocaust survivors didn’t stop because a handful of stories had already been told. You might want to check out my novella, Tested: Sex, Love, and Friendship in the Shadow of HIV. Thanks again. AIDS crisis stories have barely scratched the surface. There are more to come.

  5. 29 January 2018 at 1:56 PM #

    Your observation about the timing of this phenomenon and communities not represented by this “revisitation” were the two most spot on observation of this piece. However, within the piece, you’ve answered your own question about this erasure – four of the works that you cited (“How to Survive a Plague,” “Cristodora,” & “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Fairyland”) were written by individuals embedded within NYC / LA media circles.

    As a case in point, you seem to have no awareness of that fact (or, you didn’t have time to research ?), that David France’s next work — ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P” – was attacked by Trans filmmaker Reina Gossett who accused him of stealing their work.

    While circumstances surrounding that accusation are convoluted and this isn’t the space to litigate it, the aerial view of that controversy speaks to your bafflement over lack of representations of “marginal” communities, namely the appropriation of bothered community’s narratives by white, cis men.

    I don’t subscribe to the notion that Mr. France’s work should be dismissed out of hand (because he’s not trans, a person of color, etc.), but referencing the voluminous statements he made on Facebook threads (about his “ownership” of the Marsha P. film) spoke to a larger, systemic inability to even consider that those with lived experiences qualify for attention, ownership, or collaboration in their communities own stories — or, that what you are in fact describing is the canonization of the AIDS Epidemic.

    As a cis male sex worker & author of “Natural Born Hooker: A Love Story,” a play that I produced at the SF Sex Worker Art & Film Festival in ’07 (which was produced in Sydney by Focus Theater at the St. Belvoir Theater during Mardi Gras ’09), I can speak, from first hand experience about “why” even with all my privilege, my work isn’t included on your McDonald’s like listicle.

    Partly it’s power & current leadership – in the last ten year LAMBDA, for example, has a difficult time with authors who don’t subscribe to a corporately funded model, one that draws its structure from capitalism. As with the awards, the canonization of the AIDS epidemic that you’re struggling to name / describe demands there be “winners” (France, Murphy et al) & “losers” (those who are not “positioned” in proximity to gate keepers).

    A more honest and informed essay about the blank spots on this canonization would have made some effort to seek out artists who’ve been excluded by those power structures — itself problematic because those systems of exclusion have been designed with precision to exclude people who aren’t proximate, deemed acceptable, don’t have corporate benefactors or legacy sponsorship to that access.

Leave a Reply

Please fill the required box or you can’t comment at all. Please use kind words. Your e-mail address will not be published.

Gravatar is supported.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>