GRAN VARONES — I believe in the power of confrontation....

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I believe in the power of confrontation. Confrontation with self can be the most powerful tool in engaging evolution for the purposes of walking in our most- highest selves.  For me, that has meant looking directly at the parts of myself that are the most difficult to bear. Sometimes it is these parts of ourselves that act as the greatest barriers to change because it is easier to tell ourselves things that feel good. So we say things like, “I did the best I could with what I knew” or “that wasn’t my intention so it was not that bad.”  While these things can support us in not getting stuck in guilt, we are bound to repeat what we do not name.

How can we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable for the purposes of evolutionary and potentially revolutionary action?  It is from this vantage point that I reflect on what it means to be an aspiring accomplice to loved ones living with HIV. In the work that I do as a political organizer and teacher, when discussing strategies that can increase the chances of freedom (also known as anti-oppressive strategies), we use the term aspiring accomplice to frame showing up for marginalized groups as a process…not a destination.  In other words, at the end of the day, our accomplice card expires, and we need to earn it again the next day.  

Being an Aspiring Accomplice allows us to examine how we show up for groups who have been pushed to the margins of society critically instead of just engaging from a feel good, “can I get a cookie?” place.  

This following is a list of how to be an Aspiring Accomplice. It is by no means an end point and this list will grow and change over time. This serves as a reflection of me participating in my own process of self- reflexivity and striving to move authentically as an aspiring ally to folks living with HIV. I am learning in this process. I hope this can contribute to a road map of tools for other HIV negative folks who seek to be a part of creating a world that is truly free.


Often, one product of being pushed to the margins is that the burden is placed on the group who is struggling to educate those who already have power and access in a particular category—be it race, gender, class, sexuality, gender identity and expression, ability and the list goes on.  HIV is no exception.  Understanding this allows us to actively lift the burden of having to educate those with privilege. How many issues have you taken great interest in and done the work of watching documentaries, reading books, doing active research to learn what it is you want to learn?  When we truly care about expanding our mind, we invest through action. Finding the right resources are important. Sometimes we find things that simply promote stigma and the criminalization of poz folks.  Invest in resources that affirm the lives and voices of poz people and that work from places that seek to expand access, center poz voices, and eliminate stigma.


I was confronted with my own blind spots when the issue of disclosure and status arose. Up until this point, I had believed that I was further along as an accomplice than I actually was.  While I understood that poz folks should not have to disclose their status, I had not considered the subtly details embedded in the why. I had not confronted the ways in which I had taken in messages around HIV and disclosure. I did not know then, what I know now: That the burden of disclosure being placed on poz bodies is a product of a society that values power structures that are committed to magnifying the choices mostly white cis straight HIV negative people have over their bodies while also working to criminalize any action rooted in choice and autonomy for poz bodies—particularly Black poz bodies. The deeper questions often live right under the surface of what we think we know. For example, have we considered the place of state seeks to assert control over poz people and the ways this impacts HIV poz people on a daily basis?  These things are of course made more intense by other pieces of identity such as race, class, sexuality, gender identity, ability, and citizen ship status. Many times, in the process of unlearning the violent messages we have received about ourselves and others, we engage in this half-hearted understanding of what it means for each and every person to be free. Truly free.  From a privileged point of view, we miss the subtleties of lived experiences because we are not living it.  Challenging the most destructive forms of socialization means looking squarely at what you have taken in, feeling that shame deeply, and then deciding to release that belief.  This is not easy. If you are feeling discomfort, do not retreat from this feeling.  This is often the starting point to change. 


Baring witness is a powerful act. Holding space authentically. Sometimes this alongside of asking, “In this moment, what do you need” or “how can I best support you right now?”  can make the difference between inflicting more pain and helping to alleviate the weight of that pain.  Sometimes loved ones simply need to express frustration, joy, confusion, pain.  These are normal human emotions. We do not need to fix anything, add to anything, make something more exciting or less painful. Through an HIV negative lens it can be easy to say things like, “it will be okay” or “it will get better.”  Resist the urge.  Your loved one has the right to access all of their emotions.  This is part of the human experience. By feeling all of our emotions honestly, we are able to heal more deeply as these feelings move through us.


While we are doing our own internal work the external is equally as important. There are plenty of opportunities to exercise this aspiring accomplice muscle. You attend a comedy show and hear a joke that subtly or overtly reinforces HIV stigma? Say something—you can boo them…you can walk out and leave…you can turn to your neighbor and show outrage, “Did you hear this?! This reinforces violence against poz folks. This comedy is garbage.”  The point is, we must do something.  Effective intervention often only requires 1 person to take the first step.  Others usually follow and even if they do not, you disrupted violence in that moment.


We see this all the time. HIV/AIDS service organizations led by HIV negative people call the shots. They make critical decisions about intervention, prevention, and linkage to care programming yet only engage the opinions of HIV poz folks when it comes to “testifying to their experiences” or naming how some particular orgs has changed their life.  Let us keep it 100, this testifying and vouching for the efficacy of these orgs often comes at the expense of HIV poz community members.  It takes energy to recount lived experiences that impact one’s life in major ways. Many orgs continue to profit off of the voices of HIV poz folks who are given little to nothing in return for that labor.  If these orgss collect a check, get funding, are able to pay their bills off of the testimonies and ideas of poz folks then poz folks should be compensated for the labor in meaningful ways.  As accomplices, we are in a unique position to push for these changes from the inside and outside in a way that removes the full burden of this falling squarely on the shoulders of poz folks.  In the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative we frame these issues within a worker’s right’s context.  Fair wages for work given.  HIV negative people who work for these orgs are not asked to do the same amount of labor and are most often equally or more rewarded than their HIV poz co-workers. This is an issue of fairness. It is an issue of equity.  We must name this and interrupt this cycle.


Yes. Being an aspiring accomplice is hard work. It is supposed to be hard. Nothing that impacts our lives in deeply meaningful ways comes easy. That is the point. It is hard because the system in place constantly supports what is unjust. So we must work twice as hard to spit out the dirty water…and then to find ways to keep it out of our mouths. I have found that continuing the work even when I make a mistake, even when guilt threatens to take over my more determined senses…is half the battle.  We need to have the courage to look directly at our mistakes.  Sometimes we need to feel disappointed in ourselves. But we cannot stay there. We must move this energy into transformative action.  Don’t give up.  In some moments, it’s the best thing you can remind yourself. Our collective liberation rests on our ability to get uncomfortable…to dig deeper.

Shani Akilah: In January of 2016, Shani Akilah envisioned and created the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC)–a collective that is now 400 workers strong in Philadelphia.  The BBWC has successfully changed the power structure in the Philadelphia gayborhood by ousting former LGBTQ Liaison to the Mayor, Nellie Fitzpatrick, organizing with and unionizing Mazzoni workers, as well as impacting city wide policy.  

Today the BBWC continues to focus on Black and Brown workers who straddle identity lines along race, class, sexuality and gender identity and identity expression.  They are also launching a 2018 agenda focused on disrupting and fighting gentrification in south west Philadelphia.

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