psa. if we’re mutuals, we’re automatically friends. u don’t need to say things like “sorry to bother” or “sorry im annoying” bc ur not. ur my friend. u can come to me for anything. u need help? im here. wanna chat? hmu. just wanna gush abt your muse? go for it. we’re friends. ily.
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For the past seven years, Gran Varones. (GV) has grown from a local initiative in Philadelphia to a national and award-winning digital project amplifying queer history, culture, and community storytelling through a Black-Latinx Queer lens. In 2018, GV successfully launched the inaugural Positive Digital Arts Fellowship. And we are excited to announce that we are accepting applications for this year’s program.
The Fellowship is a national initiative, in partnership with ViiV Healthcare to support the leadership of a cohort of five (5) Latinx/Black-Latinx Gay, Queer, Bisexual, and Trans men and bois living with HIV aged 21-35 years old based in the US. The cohort will be supported with resources to combat HIV stigma and promote family acceptance in Latinx communities through digital storytelling, community building, and cultural organizing. We especially encourage applicants that are based in the South and individuals who may be new to organizing around issues related to HIV and LGBTQ activism to apply.
- Fellows will be provided a $2000 stipend
- The Fellowship starts in late July 2021 and ends on January 31, 2022.
- Support and collaborate with a community-based organization and/or organizing group in your community that works in the areas surrounding racial justice, HIV stigma, and LGBTQ issues
- Two virtual one-day retreats and four monthly skill-share meetings to develop leadership and digital skills
- Dedicated coaching and guidance from mentors
- Monthly conference calls with fellowship cohort and mentors
- Commit to collecting a minimum of 4 stories that will then be a part of the cohort’s collective zine
- Organize One community event
- Applications Due on Friday, July 2, 2021
- Convening One- Saturday, July 24 from 1pm – 6pm EST
- Skill-share Monthly Workshops (August, September, October & November) all one-hour workshop dates will be finalized in partnership with fellows during the first convening.
Armonte Butler (He/Him) is a Black Latinx writer and advocate born and raised in Washington, DC. He is passionate about adolescent sexual health and supports LGBTQ youth and young people living with HIV to become cultural artists. He is a 2022 Bloomberg Fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad (They/Them) is a Philadelphia-born writer, organizer, and co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op. In their work, they often trouble ideas of medical surveillance, bodily autonomy, and Blackness. Abdul-Aliy is also a Gran Varones Positive Digital Arts Fellowship Mentor. email@example.com
louie ortiz-fonseca (He/Him) is a queer Afro-Puerto Rican writer and cultural historian living with HIV. Born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, louie is the creator of Gran Varones. He also works in partnership with young people living with HIV to combat stigma and hosts a YouTube series for LGBTQ youth, Kikis with Louie. Louie is a father of an 18-year-old son and worships the Patron St. Mariah Carey. @firstname.lastname@example.org
donna summer. the mere mention of her name evokes visions, feelings, and sounds of heaven on the dance floor. dubbed the queen of disco, along with sylvester, donna’s voice soundtracked the queer utopia that was the 1970s. from her 1975 seductive breakout hit “love to love you baby” to her final dance chart-topping hit “to paris with love” in 2010, donna summer transcended her “queen of disco moniker” and reigned supreme as the pioneering queen of dance/pop music.
born donna adrian gaines in 1948, the boston native had her debut performance at church when she was 10 years old after the scheduled singer failed to show up. donna’s voice left the congregation in awe. eight years later, donna was performing in munich as part of the german production of “hair.”
by the mid-1970s, donna returned to the US, with a new last name, just as dance music was rising to mainstream prominence. “love to love you baby,” co-written by donna and originally recorded as a demo for someone else, became a surprise pop hit reaching #2 in early 1976. by the end of the decade, donna was one of the most successful singers and songwriters in music history, becoming the first artist to have three consecutive double albums top the billboard album chart.
donna summer’s musical catalog did not just pave the way for electronic dance music but arguably created the pop/dance club dance template that inspired madonna, beyoncé, and every dance artist that followed. donna also broke the glass ceiling of the once “whites-only” MTV network, when her “she works hard for the money” music video became the first by a Black woman to be added in heavy rotation at the station. she was also the first Black woman nominated for a VMA.
during her lifetime, donna charted over 40 songs on the hot 100 including four #1 singles. donna topped the dance charts 16 times and even after her relationship with the queer community was rocked in the early 1980s, after alleged homophobic remarks, donna’s commitment to her queer fanbase strengthened until her death at the age of 63, on may 17, 2012. the following year, she was posthumously inducted into the rock & roll hall of fame.
a few years ago, i traveled to puerto rico to support boricua LGBTQ elders with rebuilding homes after hurricane maria. on the night before i left, electricity had just been restored to the home of an elder. the first thing she did to celebrate was put on her donna summer’s “greatest hits” cd and blasted the music at full volume. “i don’t understand a word, but i love her voice.” queen donna summer was still soundtracking queer celebration, years after her death. that’s legacy!
every year, just as pride season is about to kick off, the interwebs argue, fight and debate about who is and who isn’t a queer icon. thankfully, many of these exhausting debates center non-black celebrities who have generally mastered performative allyship, for the sake of rainbow capitalism.
frequenting gay clubs as a teen in the 90s, i could tell the impact of an artist and their music, by how it contributed to and elevated the black queer experience in the club. many of those artists were cultural influencers and healers that mainstream america ignored or maligned. artists like martha wash, gwen guthrie, phylis hyman and the legendary patti labelle provided the soundtrack in these spaces, during times of great joy and immense pain. and if you have ever witnessed a drag queen perform patti labelle’s “you are my friend” in a packed club, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, then you know.
released as the second single from patti’s 1977 self-titled debut solo album, “you are my friend” was inspired by her son, zuri, who as a toddler, repeated “it’s okay daddy, you are my friend” to his father. his father had been laying on the couch, sick after a night of partying. co-written by patti, james “budd” ellison and her then-husband armstead edwards. the song was not initially a hit upon its release, it only peaked at #61 on the r&b chart, in january 1978. the song connected with her LGBTQ fanbase and this was beautifully evident when queer music pioneer and literal disco queen sylvester covered the song for his 1979 live album “living proof.” his version reached #30 on the r&b chart in the spring of 1980. both versions would later become musical forms of solace during the onset and height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
in the decades since its release, “you are my friend” has become one of patti’s signature songs. it is the song that she often closes with in her shows. it receives standing ovations, just as she did when she first performed the song in 1978. you can still witness, a black drag queen - - bringing their ministry into a nightclub - - as they emotionally move a crowd while performing this song.
patti and sylvester were one of the first artists to support and perform at AIDS fundraisers in the early 1980s. patti was one of the the first recording artists to participate in a visual HIV prevention campaign in the mid-1980s. in the 1990s, after performing to sold out crowds, she would personally deliver food and flowers to people living with HIV.
“I just want all of my gay fans to know that I will always be here for them the way I am: honest, to the point and loving my gay fans even more and more each day. I mean, when I think about it, the gay fans are some of the reason – one big reason – I’m still standing, ’cause they loved me when other people tried not to. Everybody always says, ‘What makes gay men like you?’ ‘I have no clue,’ I say. I still don’t. But I know that their love has lifted me up for many, many years.” - patti, 2017.
40 years ago today, the Center for Disease Control’s MMWR released a report, stating that there were 5 cases reported of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. That all the men were described as homosexual and that two of the men had already died. This is the first time we see documentation, in the US, if what would eventually be given the name AIDS. It’s important to remember that when these 5 men had a set of conditions that would mean an AIDS diagnosis, there weren’t any diagnostic tests for HIV in 1981.
When the New York Times writes about a rare cancer, Karposi’s Sarcoma, on July 3, 1981 – the headline reads “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals” it brought an eerie foreboding.
We are about 40 years from when a plague was found out.
What we now know is that HIV was here for a long time prior to the emerging pandemic.
In early 1968 Robert Rayford, a Black 15-year-old, admitted himself to a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. He told doctors he had been experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath since 1966. Robert died on May 16, 1969, when he was 16 years old.
His blood and other specimens were held by doctors because they didn’t know what had killed him. Tested in the 1980s it was discovered that he had HIV.
We know that HIV has been in Kinshasa, Congo since the 1920s, again we know this by retroactively testing specimens and blood from patients there during this time. What’s clear is that AIDS, the condition, and HIV, the virus was made possible by colonization.
The stripping of resources from the continent created a situation where mission-driven healthcare was the only way for people to receive care.
The care was often inefficient and supplies, because of scarcity caused by racialized capitalism, created an environment where needles were used repeatedly on different patients, often not sanitized. These conditions made it possible for what most scientists identify as a species to jump from primates of simian immunodeficiency virus to humans.
This means that AIDS has always impacted Black people first and yet our collective AIDS histories are so white. As we consider the 40th Anniversary of HIV/AIDS and wax eloquently about our commitments to end an epidemic. I have a question:
What was it about anti-Blackness, that led to decades of non-attention to an unfolding crisis? And what is it about homophobia that seeded this idea of panic in 1981 and on?
Also, what might we have gained if Black people in the Congo and in St. Louis were treated like full humans and cared for in that vein?
May we have stopped the pandemic that emerged in the 1980s?
Written by: Abdul-Aliy Muhammad (They/Them). Abdul-Aliy is a Philadelphia-born writer, organizer, and co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op. In their work, they often trouble ideas of medical surveillance, bodily autonomy, and Blackness. Abdul-Aliy is also a Gran Varones Positive Digital Arts Fellowship Mentor.
“I want to make you holler, and make you scream my name” a song on the third studio album of The Spice Girls, opens up with a sonic reference to TLC’s “No Scrubs” and was released in the UK on October 23, 2000, three days before my 17th birthday. The song was produced by the “Darkchild” himself, Rodney Jerkins, and it is masterfully composed, having the makings of a hit. It is a song about the “pleasure principle,” a song that doesn’t evade the desire for hollering during sex. It also talks about consent, albeit indirectly by saying “I’ll give you rules to follow” and indeed, this song is instructive.
The Spice Girls emerged onto the international music scene in 1996 with their smash hit “Wannabe.” The jovial song about friendship and boundaries changed the pop game forever. I instantly became a fan when I was the tender age of 12. This song propelled them to meteoric success. “Wannabe” became the biggest debut hit of all time. I still randomly cite their lyrics “Yo – I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.”
Now back to “Holler” which was released in late 2000, its accompanying music video was much sleeker than their previous ones. Just as sexy as their 1997 ballad ”2 Become One.” I remember “Holler” wasn’t readily available in the US but topped the UK charts. At 17 I had stumbled upon the Gayborhood in Philadelphia after school. It was a spring day, I believe, and I had wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of Center City Philadelphia. I walked down from 15th and Market to 13th and Market and then over to Walnut Street, just randomly wandering. I guess it must’ve been a night when clubs were open because I saw a sea of people like me. This was in 2000. I met Nizah Morris that night, she was walking and working and I said hi, she humored me by saying “Hi sugah” in response. She was so sweet. I noticed an underwear store on Walnut Street, “The Male Ego” and baby, the models they had wearing the undies had some big EGOS. I wanted them to make me “Holler.”
This was 8 years before my HIV diagnosis and 8 years after I had receptive anal sex for the first time. I was so excited that I was desired by someone I thought was so cute. I’ll call him W., for the sake of the story. He was a Boricua and lived in the Allegheny section of Philadelphia. I met him the first night I happened upon the Gayborhood. I had a beeper, yeah I’m that old, and I gave him my (beeper) number. We talked late nights and had phone sex so many times. One night, we talked and he wanted to know if he could top me. I was so nervous because I was used to sucking d*ck, but taking d*ck was foreign to me. I thought to myself, “how could I deny this tall and handsome boy.” I asked a friend, a trans woman named Peaches, to teach me the ins and outs of cleaning my bootyhole. She told me to get Massengill Douche and grab a condom and cut the tip of the condom off, place it over the nozzle and then lube my hole. She said I should get into the fetal position and put it in my hole.
Chyle, my hole was hollering! LOL. Anyway, I learned later to use FLEET enemas and I never returned to the advice of the teaches of this particular Peaches.
I was so excited to get topped by him. I put on some smell goods and made my way to the 34 trolley and met him on Market Street. He took me to the Marriott’s single bathroom (don’t judge me) and chyle, did he make me holler. He was quick, ya know, the gurl had that come back, well – I was so tight because it was my first time, I made him cum in about 3 minutes and he made me holler with his instrument, so to speak. For those wondering, yes a condom was used this time.
Listening to “Holler” today made me think of that experience. An experience that is part of my life, a meaningful moment when I was forming my desires, and before I tested HIV positive. That in-between space, where all I wanted was to be touched and seen as beautiful and made to holler.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad (They/Them) is a Philadelphia born writer, organizer and cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op. In their work they often trouble ideas of medical surveillance, bodily autonomy and Blackness.Follow them on Twitter at: @mxabdulaliy. Cash App: $dulle
people living with AIDS formed coalitions for each other years before the US present ronald reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS. people living with AIDS mobilized to feed, house, nurse, care, and fight for themselves and each other. they became their own researchers, lobbyists, and drug smugglers. and this was done before the advent of the internet and social media. people with living AIDS created the template of how to survive a plague as governments willfully fail us.
one of the people who were in the thick of AIDS advocacy from the mid-1980s until his death in 1990, was queer activist, author, and queer historian, vito russo.
vito’s activism was threaded throughout his entire existence. always an out and proud gay man, vito’s activism began immediately after the stonewall riots when he joined the then-emerging gay activists alliance. he would later independently organize camp-film festivals examining the representation of gay and lesbians in film. his 1981 book “the celluloid closet” was a culmination of this work.
as one of the first out gay men to create and host a cable access show in 1983, vito’s commitment to challenging the lgbtq representation in media led him to co-found GLAAD.
after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, vito became an active member of ACT-UP, one of the most influential and effective organizing groups in history. during a 1988 ACT-UP demonstration in front of the new york state capitol in albany, vito delivered a passionate speech entitled “why we fight” that till this day still resonates. especially now as we all are now surviving a plague.
“why we fight” is a reminder of who we are and all the power we possess as people. it is also a call to action to continue to organize and survive with each other – every step of the way. it is also a promise of hope that plague will end and we will win.
the historic speech is now widely regarded as one of the flash-points of AIDS advocacy during the height of the epidemic.. may his words carry us through this day, keep us alive until a cure, and deliver us to victory.
“why we fight” (full speech) that till this day still resonates. especially now as we all are now surviving a plague.
“why we fight” is a reminder of who we are and all the power we posses as people. it is also a call to action to continue to organize and survive with each other – every step of the way. it is also a promise of hope that this plague will end and we will win.
zelma davis should be a household name! as the principal vocalist of the über successful 1990s dance group c+c music factory, the liberian multi-faceted performer sang the hooks on four of the group’s #1 dance singles including two top 5 hits on the hot 100.
unfortunately, after the lip-syncing scandal surrounding the group’s breakout single “gonna make you sweat (everybody dance now),” in which zelma lip-synced to vocals by martha wash in the song’s music video, zelma’s talent was questioned even as the group rebounded.
after “everybody dance now” topped the hot 100 in early 1991, the group that many thought would be a one-hit-wonder, scored a follow-up hit with the #3 peaking “here we go” just a few months later. some thought, “ok. they were lucky but the hit parade stops here.” before i go on, can i just say how much i wished i could had the wings zelma rocked in the “here we go” video? admittedly, i still do!
but chyle, the group scored another pop top 5 hit in the summer of 1991 with the arsenio hall catchphrase inspired “things that make you hmmm.” and it was zelma’s charismatic appeal and soaring vocals that success largely attributed to group’s ongoing appeal to queer kids like myself.
by the time c+c released their fourth single “just a touch of love” in late 1991, a song with zelma front and center, the group’s album had already sold an astounding 10 million copies worldwide. this impacted song’s sales and chart performance as everyone already had the album.
“just of touch love” should have been the launching pad for zelma. i was ready for a solo album. but sadly, that did not come to fruition. in a 2015 interview, zelma stated that records labels did not want to sign her because of the lip-syncing scandal.
zelma recorded one last album with c+c in 1994 before independently releasing a slew of dance singles that have helped her to garner a sizable queer fanbase. she performs at AIDS benefits and champions LGBTQ issues.
in 2018, “just a touch of love” was featured in a season two episode of the FX groundbreaking series “pose” proving that her voice served as the soundtrack to black and brown queer culture in the 1990s.
i snapped this picture of my brother nicholas and my mother was taken on mother’s day sometime in early 1990’s. my mother LOVED mother’s day! it was one of the few times other than her birthday, she would dress up snd put on some lip stick. i think she loved this day the most because it always fell on a sunday and that was the day she would drink and listen to the oldies till midnight.
my memories of mother’s day changed 20 years ago. this story, this remembrance, is of my continual mourning of the loss of my brother nicholas.
may 9th marked the 20th anniversary of nicholas’ death. yesterday, i realized that i have survived life on this without him as long as i lived on this planet with him. some days, i feel a sense of redemption. like, “wow, louie. this shit could have left you broken but look at you!” some days, i am haunted by a deep sense of survivor’s guilt. “why you louie? what did you do to deserve life?” and in the days in-between, i am carefully wobbling on a tightrope.
the first years after his death in 2001, i could not remember the exact date. i knew it was a couple of days before mother’s day and a day before a friend’s birthday. i cannot remember if obituaries or prayer cards were handed out at his funeral. maybe i just didn’t get one. his gravesite didn’t get a tombstone until years later but i suppose that wouldn’t have helped me remember because i never returned to that site after his burial. the only reference i had was the airbrushed shirt with his picture that i wore to his funeral. but i packed the shirt away immediately after. all i could and did remember was the pain, the regret, the guilt. all i carried with me was the rage.
i have only written about my brother nicholas. i still have not found the courage to speak about this aloud with anyone. even the voice in my head whispers when thinking about him and all that he and i witnessed growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. shit that not only shaped our lives but shaped our relationship and our love and resentment for each other.
a few years ago, while i was home alone, i pulled the airbrushed shirt out of the box i kept tucked away in the closet. i unfolded the shirt and put it on. i wept. i felt so many emotions. i felt for the first time what it must have been like for him to fight people who called me a faggot – even on days when he didn’t want to fight. i understood for the first time why he would sometimes get annoyed at me recreating janet’s “if” choreography with my best friend robert in the middle of our busy street – even tho he would hold up traffic with his car so that the headlights served as our spotlights. i felt for the first time the impact of my not speaking his name aloud. my son knows almost nothing about him.
i have just three photos of me and nicholas together. they serve as the only physical proof of our childhood. this sometimes feels like a lack of evidence that we were children, but i remember. those memories live in my bones.
this grief has brought me closer to nicholas and to my mother. both of whom now visit me in my dreams. acknowledging this grief each year has brought me closer to myself and to some sibilance of healing. it has brought me this far even though it still feels so close to where i was 20 years ago.