In the centre a blue, harrowed figure held in the throes of ecstatic pain. His cock cupped in the hand of the man on his right whose ass crack and balls drip with the blood of the stigmata. On his left a flaming faggot with bruised scap- ula, perhaps castrated wings, devouring him. This paint-stroked threesome is called, Carnal Stigmata, Knight of Sweats. Chthonic, these three swarming knights of orgiastic frenzy, propped up within one another’s arms, alone, they are hideous, together they are a force of nature. His palms anoint the others with his blood, his spiritual suffering covering their hearts with pain as the most anti-romantic kind of love. They embody the anti-force of the good gay citizen; they are the denizens of the night; saturated colours defiant against an inevitable darkness, stroking one another back to life.
The painter, Lore Schmidts and his partner of twenty-five years, Kenn Mof- fatt, have been frontline viral komrades and soul-filling playmates through the recent half of this multi-generational, globalizing epidemic. Born of outrage/ ousness, our friendship is a love that de- fies words, one unlikely to be repeated in the remainder of our days; an ache I pray many of you also know in the white blood cells of your bones. People helping people make sense of the horror by creat- ing moments of joy together.
We met in 1995 during a Canada Council funded theatre festival in Victoria, B.C. entitled, As deep as Your throat. Lore thought he was answering an Xtra West ad to star in a porno. Instead, twelve neophyte activists turned the city pink for six weeks making front-page news with our guerrilla art performances. We protested recent gay bashings by dressing up in glam rock drag and parading into the streets. We drew pink triangles, dumped fake blood and held kiss-ins on the steps of the cop station and the Empress Hotel. We explored the violence of stigma by rooting out internalized homophobia and its impact on both our viral identities and collective creativity. We broke the hex of self-stigmatization using the alchemy of art. We were adored and reviled.
One night during rehearsal my $500 bubble gum pink Datsun, battle decorat- ed in queer symbols, got gay bashed on a busy Friday night street by an uneducated skateboarder. A passing lesbian couple placed a red rose under the wiper of the smashed windshield with a note saying, “Keep going boys!” We sculpted hatred into hilarity, transforming the smashed glass into an opulent crystal crown we wore in the next performance cabaret, Coming Out/Inside. We turned a pissy situation into a golden media shower of social activism.
Collective risk taking helps us bust through self-isolating fears. We turned patterns of self-flagellation into community inspired passions. Our reward was to skill ourselves with boundary pushing, stigma-freeing creative acts. We fluffed up our social immunity. We discovered that by purging ourselves of self-hatred we were inoculating ourselves from the social virus of manufactured heteronormative shame. Sharing our wounds in- spired us to become cultural healers through activist art. We liberated our- selves by composting pain into nourishment for growth, ever vigilant that fags make it up as we go.
We dubbed ourselves the Georges and the Still Standing Sluts. Our grass- rootsy performance extravaganzas in- cluded a midnight marriage ceremony in the cruising area of Beacon Hill Park.
Twenty cars flooded the performance field with their high beams while one hundred queers and high kicking drag queens gripped tight to a 30-meter rain- bow flag and bounced a beach ball of the globe. We blasted Mr. Roger’s hit single, “Welcome to My Neighbourhood,” loud enough for the police to be called from Oak Bay. We escaped to the local bar, our car horns blaring with defiant joy, as the four cop cars arrived. We had just married Kenn and Lore, reading from a translation of a 15th century Greek Orthodox same sex ritual. Who needs a bridal registry when the party is a shared gift of performance?
A few years later the four us abandoned the urbanization of AIDS Inc. for an idyllic life of the Gulf Islands on Canada’s west coast. We chose to explore our renewed albeit complicated HIV, medication supported, freedom. We romped in the woods, grew our own food, raised and buried our four legged family members. We continued our inner/outer work by throwing weekend events, what I like to call parties with purpose. We actively investigated community-meaning making processes by mapping out our flu- id-bound identities. We rented the 100 year-old community hall and stirred our gay men’s cauldron. We courageously walked between the poz/neg, cis/trans, youth/elder divides until we valued our differences as an expression of our vital to-these-times connections. We edged ourselves toward what we now recognize as the ferocious need to decolonize our consciousness. We strive to be more effective allies to queers of other abilities, queers of colour and 2 Spirit folks because we continue the hard work of debunking our internalized ‘otherness’ by unpacking our white privilege within our own representative body politic.
Kenn, as co-hostess, brought his gleeful pyrotechnic genius to each performance/art party. Lore called these gallery shows Chocol-art and invited the wider Saltspring community to be part of an explosion of erotic light and sound. I have devilishly fond memories of the well-loved, highly esteemed sexologist Dr. Captain Snowden, the then AIDS Vancouver Island men’s health coordinator, introducing the crowd to a tray of sex toys. The straight boys always went for the cock ring while their girl friends wished they’d go for the dildo. We offered demonstrations. Another dear friend, Metta, and I performed a high drama HIV disclosure scene between a ‘straight acting’ neg guy and a crossing dressing poz person. We used non-violent communication skills to outmanoeuvre the stigma of rejection. We brought the house down with a long reconciliatory kiss. It’s easier to know what to do in awkward scenes when you’ve seen some- one work through the fuckups first. We became known for embracing the erotic edge with the Eros of community care.
We recognized we were culturally transmitting what our gay elders continue to reveal to us: work together to heal, laugh through the tears and instruct your anger to make the party, and therefore the clan, smarter.
For years small crews of us, in tandem with larger organizations of caring people, have helped Poz folks outlive the terror of germs and the nightmare our fluids once represented to us. As white, cisgendered gay men we paradoxically represent some of the most traumatized and privileged of our generations. Many of us are, because of supports offered and received, now spirited peer navigators of social evolution.
Our foursome benefited at times from a social welfare system that allowed us to not only survive, but to discover how to thrive. Our work reflects our often abstruse, gratitude. This province invested in our lives by providing enough resources to help some of us find each other. Our efforts must be to always reach out in all ways possible to those who suffer alone. It’s only together that we can reimage and ultimately transform the stigmatizing narrative of HIV/AIDS into what it really is, one of humanity’s greatest stories, our very own sacred, our one day dream of, “Once upon a time…”
I write today to open up a space in our conversations about stigma to em- brace what I see as its equal and opposite, stamina. Without doing so, like walking ghosts, we hover in the shadowy realms of victim and perpetrator, vectors of despair and disease. Our interwoven networks prove that we are in fact rhizome like members living and dying in dynamic patterns of interrelationship. To keep this subtle wisdom alive, Radical Faery poet and avant-garde filmmaker, James Broughton said it best and so had it written on his tombstone: “Adventure, not predicament.”
Our stories, when witnessed, lubricate change. That’s what makes them matter. Stories heal the willing. Stories upset the resistant. Stories are especially dangerous to those who refuse or are denied change. When we/I share the mess of learning how to unpack stigma, our stories provide potential paths to con- sider. Freedom from shame; accountable; cleaning up together can be the adventure of a lifetime.
Stories curate the art and demonstrate the skill of lived experience. Audiences and tellers, with mutual respect, embody the empathic and critical cultural con- texts necessary to envision and therefore, enact change. Well-crafted story spaces can show us how innovation is possible. Vulnerability, steeped in the awareness of the social determinants of wellbeing, is necessary for change to occur within liminal sites of shared sanctuary and cultural stewardship. Transforming stigma requires us to strategically tell the tales of the heart’s hurts and yearnings. Doing so offers sorely needed role relief to the witnessed teller caught in the ecstatic riptide of pain and pleasure. The educated audience has the potential to help transform the “Ow’s to Wows!”
For those who choose or are forced to exist in sites of marginalization, we must collectively reimagine what living on the edge means, to value the skills needed to survive while working together for the benefit all. The pain of stigma tells us what needs attention. Stigma reveals who, where and how people are struggling. Privileging stamina highlights skills won and honours what has survived. Claim- ing stamina demonstrates gratitude for help received. Our stories, these lanterns of love, once held for us, now hold a pro- found space for those still finding their way through the darkness of oppression.
After living for a quarter of a century with HIV and sixteen years of non-HIV related health challenges with such grace, humour and dignified faggotry, our small posse doesn’t know how many more days Kenn has left on this planet or how Lore will survive his impending loss. We will be there in any way possible to help him find his way back into the largesseness of life. Where we show up for suffering we find beauty in the art of one another’s arms. What is remembered lives.