Foreword: Dare we hope for the erotic? HIV/AIDS, sexuality and ageing

Some people view ageing and sexual intimacy in mutually exclusive terms. They erroneously interpret ageing or growing older as the cessation of engagement in sexual activities that prioritise pleasure, in favour of respectability politics, which condition and regulate people’s sexual lives. Many feel the effects of this regulation in later life, but it is more pronounced for members of gender and sexually diverse communities, who experience multiple and intersecting forms of structural discrimination. For queer and trans older people living with HIV/AIDS, stereotypical understandings of sexual intimacies and continuing public discourse about HIV/AIDS risk factors create barriers to timely care and the exploration of the erotic potential in oneself. Sexual- and gender-based stigma and discrimination normalise and exacerbate inequalities that result in poor health outcomes and health disparities, which adoption of an intersectionality framework could help to address. The collection of chapters in this book disrupts and pushes beyond normative structures and understandings of HIV, sex and sexuality in later life. They reconfigure a narrative of sexual lives imbricated within the significations of HIV/AIDS to convey a colourful tapestry of queer and trans culture and life.

I engage in interdisciplinary scholarship and research that focuses on Black queer and trans people, significations of HIV/AIDS and restrictions on blood donations from Black diasporic communities in Canada. I am particularly interested in the social life of blood donation and how ‘good’ donors are imagined. Primarily I focus on how anti-Black homophobia/white supremacist heteropatriarchy undergirds much of how we understand a safe blood supply.

What has been revealed in this research is the ways in which sex phobia and the moralistic limits of sexual intimacy stand in for ‘good’ and ‘effective’ donor protocols. Blood, in this instance, becomes part of what Foucault (1990) identifies as the science of social control, where those deemed as high risk are positioned as not only a social dilemma but also a medical dilemma. There is also a collaboration between the medical (public health) community and the media to support the carrier/vector narrative of HIV and AIDS, with delimited purported ‘high-risk’ communities.

About four years ago, I was in a researcher meeting with Canadian Blood Services, the blood operator in Canada. I was the only Black researcher attending the meeting. A senior medical employee of Canadian Blood Services spoke about why asking behaviour-focused questions was inappropriate, stating that asking a 72-year-old grandmother the last time she had anal intercourse was beyond the pale. This white employee literally placed her hand to her throat, as if clutching pearls, to convey the seemingly impossibility of such a practice. I hold this moment alongside two others that speak reflexively about ageing and sex.

The first is a moment in Yvonne Welbon’s (1999) biographical documentary, Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @100, which recounts the life story of Ms Ruth Ellis as she celebrates her 100th birthday. Ruth Ellis was known at the time of her death as the oldest living Black lesbian. The film travels through various poignant moments of her life, providing an example of what old age could look like for queer and trans people. We see her attending dances, going camping, taking self-defence courses, visiting with friends and participating in political activism. It begs the questions: Will we be doing the same at her age? Will we be as active? The moment I want to highlight here – one of the numerous special moments of the film – is when Ruth is asked about the last time she had sex. Her answer: 95! Both the question and the answer represent the erotic, which Audre Lorde (2000) describes as ‘a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire’ (p 54).

The second moment occurred in June 2016 when I had the great opportunity to speak with a group of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer folks to explore the Black queer spaces created for community in the 1970s and 1980s in Toronto, Canada. Part of that conversation included reminiscences about HIV/AIDS, sex, sexual intimacies, death and loss. The moment that is relevant here is when Junior Harrison spoke about the moment he learned he was HIV-positive and how this diagnosis galvanised him into political action. Decades later, he continued to feel the loss of all who died. He stated in our interview at the time:

It’s true, we talk about it all the time. My brothers. … There’s a group, the AIDS generation, who would have been in their forties to fifties today, but they are gone. So when I go out, those few times I do, into Black gay spaces, I’m with men in their twenties and thirties, but not their forties or fifties. (Junior Harrison, interviewee quoted in Dryden, 2018, p 72)

It may seem inappropriate to speak about sexual intimacy and death simultaneously; however, these are the very moments to consider these interconnected intimacies. In our later discussions regarding the deployment of ‘slut shaming’, we reflected on how our sexualities and sexual practices – including BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), polyamory, non-monogamy, sex parties, bathhouses, dungeons – are policed. Exploring our full erotic pleasure – before HIV/AIDS, at the height of the pandemic and after – brings disapproval.

This type of stigma has resulted in a cataloguing of us into acceptable and unacceptable sexual groupings. Sexually based stigma results in homophobia and transphobic discrimination that facilitates increased health disparities and poorer health outcomes. Stigma and discrimination reflect the many ways that sexuality is regulated and under increased surveillance, thus animated within health settings. Forced (hyper)invisibility causes harm by undermining our health and well-being. We call it ‘stigma’, but it is the impact of racism, homophobia, transphobia, cisgenderism and misogyny. These types of respectability politics, which are used to frame the correct way to exist in normative and restrictive societies, ultimately serve to further the harm we experience in our lives.

HIV/AIDS has had a global impact in our communities. International and nationally funded HIV programmes have structured sexuality within biopolitical public health regulations. Sexual exceptionalism and homonormativity work to occlude the very inequalities in our various locations that exacerbate stigma and thus place us at greater risk for transmission and introduce greater struggle for health management. HIV/AIDS is understood as an epidemic on multiple simultaneous levels: it is an epidemic of a transmissible lethal disease as well as an epidemic of meanings or significations (Treichler, 1999). The signification of HIV/AIDS involves the stickiness of the systems of homophobia, racism and unknown blood-borne disease; and this stickiness is defined by Ahmed (2004) as ‘a form of relationality’ (p 91).

Effectively addressing and confronting stigma and health disparities requires a commitment to intersectionality in both method and modes of thought. Intersectionality, in this discourse, identifies the relationships between health stigma and systems of oppression, including how structures of stereotyping essentialise HIV, sexuality and sexual intimacies. Stereotyping animates the normative divides between what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable. There is a fixity to this practice of stereotyping that ostracises what doesn’t belong, or that which unbelongs.

As one ages, it is assumed that our desire abates and our sexual intimacy is no longer required. Yet, to believe this is to truncate the fullness of our stories. Queer and trans people living as older people is more than just a possibility for many with HIV/AIDS, and it is important and necessary that we explore the nuances of the assemblages of our erotic selves.

What does it mean to both imagine growing older with HIV/AIDS and continue to engage in sexual intimacy? HIV, Sex, and Sexuality in Later Life brings these moments together, highlighting various experiences from across the globe. It re-narrates the ways in which we animate our lives, thus bringing us a bit closer to the full exploration of the (our) erotic.

The contributors in this book examine and use empirical research, autoethnography and personal stories to document and explore our diverse, complicated and incoherent lives. They provide insight into how to manage being positioned as unruly, uncivil and outside of the norm. They demonstrate the richness of possibility available to us in disrupting normative structures of health, wellness, sexuality, intimacy and ageing. The concept of health must take into account physical, psychological and social well-being.

The links between sexuality and power inform not only how we understand our own sexual lives, but also how we operate within the significations of HIV/AIDS. In this collection, the authors demonstrate that by refusing the silencing of our desires and by speaking them aloud (at least to ourselves), perhaps we are able to bring our sexual intimacies into our futures as we age. In this way, we are able to disrupt the continuing social stigmas of HIV/AIDS and homophobia/transphobia, and their attendant harms. As Patricia Hill Collins (2004) states:

Sexual contact constitutes one main source of HIV infection. Because sexual intimacy reflects an individual’s relationship with his or her own body as well as how others see and value that body, individual sex acts are highly politicised. The danger posed by HIV/AIDS forces individual men and women to weigh the nature of each sexual contact, as well as all interpersonal relationships in which sexual expression might take physical form. (p 289)

As queer and trans people and people of colour, we are often blamed for our own problems. Black people, queer and trans communities and communities of colour are blamed, and perceived as being immorally sexually promiscuous and thus responsible for bringing disease and death, not to ‘their’ communities but to the ‘general public’.

As argued in the afterword of this book, the gaze needs to shift from marginalised communities towards the systems that perpetuate harmful stigma and continuing marginalisation. Sexually transmitted blood-borne infections are a reality, occurring throughout society. What facilitates poorer outcomes and death are the ways in which sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections are framed as a moral failing, a lack of virtue, something to be ashamed about. This prevents us from seeking treatment and support, fearing that we will be judged and made to feel responsible for the transmission of disease. By shifting the gaze to systems of marginalisation, barriers to care are reduced and supports for greater quality of life are increased.

Overall, these chapters capture what it means to speak about our gender and sexuality, our HIV status and sexual pleasure. Our sexualities continue to generate controversy in relation to how we age, as we still grapple with the belief that sex is only for reproduction and any other sexual practice is immoral. And this is especially visited on post-menopausal persons who continue to engage in sexual activities that bring and centre pleasure. Our collective histories of gender and sexuality become occluded through puritanical indoctrination, imperial advertising and neoliberal logics of respectability.

What we learn in this collection are the ways in which stigma, respectability politics and significations of HIV/AIDS continue to steal from the fullness of our lives. But we also learn about how people are embracing the erotic, in its fullest sense, in their lives. We are ageing. And for some this is an unexpected and pleasant surprise – something we didn’t think would or could happen. And by ageing, we are now living lives we didn’t dare imagine and/or hope for.

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Dryden, O. (2018) ‘Má-ka Juk Yuh: a genealogy of Black queer liveability in Toronto’, in J. Haritaworm, G. Moussa and S.M. Ware with R. Rodríguez (eds) Queering Urban Justice: Queer of Colour Formations in Toronto, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp 6283.

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  • Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, trans R. Hurley, New York: Vintage Books.

  • Hill Collins, P. (2004) Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, New York: Routledge.

  • Lorde, A. (2000) Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Tucson, AZ: Kore Press.

  • Treichler, P.A. (1999) How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Welbon, Y. (dir) (1999) Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 [film], Chicago, Our Film Works.

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