Experts in Shame: AHF and Artist Perpetuate Stigma with Public Art Project

Fear is now the currency of the land.

As evidenced by the past year, which yielded comfy spots for repugnant nationalists in mainstream media and politics. The ambitious seem to have rediscovered the tools of the trade. While the tools are rusty, and surely put little thought into the concepts of humanity and decency, they are effective. In fact, they are so effective that established stewards of the things that make us human and empathic can be swayed by them, e.g. your Trump-supporting Aunt.

Politicians now re-frame information at the speed in which it is disseminated; not as a detriment to their career, but as a boon to their lies. The same applies to anyone seeking to increase their profile, be they an activist, writer, or a complete and total hack with a skill for quasi-socially conscious think pieces wrapped in recycled Dennis Cooper imagery:

From Matthew Terrell's  This Is Why Parents Need to Talk to Their Gay Sons About PrEP to Prevent HIV

From Matthew Terrell's This Is Why Parents Need to Talk to Their Gay Sons About PrEP to Prevent HIV

I am talking about Matthew Terrell, the mind behind Atlanta's own monument to HIV/AIDS stigma, which ironically finds its home at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Look at it.

If you are an HIV-positive person, you more than likely grapple with the ghost of stigma past frequently. You know that sometimes you develop a steely taste in your mouth--brought on by sudden and inexplicable anxiety, triggered only by listening to Klaus Nomi, singing loudly to Queen, or finding a Keith Haring sweater in a thrift shop. What some consider kitschy throwbacks to the bright eras of yesterday, serve as reminders of brightly burning icons trampled by a disease, at least to those living with it.

HIV isn’t unique in that it commanded an army of scared neighbors and politicians, but it is unique in that, unlike ebola or dengue, it affects 37.5 million people. It is unique in that unlike polio, it was not considered a public health crisis because of ideological reservations informed entirely by its mode of transmission: sex and needles. It is unique, because a U.S. President made so little effort to address the disease that an entire generation of gay men and trans women no longer exist. It is unique in that it almost destroyed the very fabric a perpetually vibrant community because it was allowed to go unchecked by families, parents, even medical professionals. Knowing that all of these things make HIV/AIDS a unique threat to humanity, a misguided sculptor building a pyramid of shame or the junkyard-art equivalent to a bachelor’s little black book, in an effort to increase his profile is NOT unique. It is tired.

The creator of this piece has been enjoying a healthy round of press coverage. Local media has celebrated the presence of a serophobe’s ode to sexual shame as a sobering reminder that the fight is not over. As if the 30,000-plus HIV positive people in the Atlanta-area did not already know that. The AIDS quilt is also a sobering reminder that the fight is not over, the American South is a sobering reminder that the fight is not over. Hell, Terrell’s own writing is a sobering reminder that the fight is not over (you have Google).

Of course, this plexiglass viral node couldn’t have been possible without major backing. The monument is unsurprisingly funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), an organization that has no issue holding queer men’s feet to the fire on the subject of ever-increasing HIV incidence (new cases) rates. They have called Grindr and other hook-up apps “digital bathhouses”, and used shitty references to double down on that claim when rebuked by another well-known app, Tinder. The AHF cited association studies that purported a rise in “casual hookups” in the age of dating apps. They also went a step further to cite a study released by the Rhode Island Department of Health, that observed a rise in in STD rates between 2013 and 2014.

Tone deaf 2015 buildboard by AHF

Tone deaf 2015 buildboard by AHF

To some, these receipts may seem compelling but they are anything but. If AHF wanted to prove that hook-up apps and not decades of failed American public health policy were the cause of increased STD rates, they would have to try a little harder than linking two completely unrelated studies together by way of sheer conjecture. That’s like saying an increase in undocumented workers is the reason murder rates increased in U.S. cities --and we all know that’s bullshit. We already know the cause of rapidly increasing HIV incidence rates among young queer men in the US: shitty policy.

If AHF spent more time funneling precious dollars into public health initiatives instead of shocking public art and advertising displays, then funding Terrell’s terrible project could be dismissed as a PrEP-shaming, creep (Terrell) duping a well-meaning, but out-of-touch organization. That’s not the case here: this is a conglomerate of selfish and calculated interest seeking to capitalize on the culture of fear permeating America today. It’s like Milo teaming up with the Family Research Council to build a giant fetus statue or Jeff Sessions and the KKK painting a mural of burning crosses.

Not only that, Terrell’s piece is laced with the erasure of black queer men, who lie at the center of newly increasing HIV incidence rates. To reduce this population to a faceless number while ignoring their entire narrative is not only insulting, it is racist. If we consider that the increasing number of HIV cases are predominantly black queer men, then tabulating their growing numbers does little to shed light on Atlanta’s HIV rate, but it does illuminate Terrell and AHF’s disregard for black people within the context of public health. Further, doing this while perpetuating stigma does more to demonize black men, and not just those with HIV.

When interviewed by Loise Reitzes, Terrell was asked to explain why his piece focused on the number of HIV cases as opposed to the humanity of those living with the disease. His response was typical of a white artist drawing conclusions of a demographic to which they are not connected, "My job as an artist is to ask questions and not provide answers." What does it mean when the questions posed do less to provide segues to dialogue and more to perpetuate stigma, fear, and loathing of those who are already suffering? It's one thing to colonize tragedy for relevance and social capital, but it's truly insidious to believe that when you do this you are helping people, that you are acting as the genesis of a conversation that has already been had.

WUSSY asked Terrell why he chose AHF to fund his project, and whether or not their work as a non-profit align with his own views, he replied, "Part of their [AHF] mission is to provide 'cutting edge advocacy' which is where my work fits in."

If a serophobic, slut-shaming, racist pyramid is considered cutting edge, then my criticisms are off base.

To end, I request that anyone reading this look to those in their lives suffering or affected by the disease and give them a huge hug. I also ask that local media and established publications take a moment to step back and really question whether or not allowing Matthew Terrell to act as a voice for the voiceless is good sense. A disease acting as the ideal criteria which makes one an “untouchable”, a shameful reality, is not new. Still, the idea that this brand of stigmatization is riding a strong wave into 2017 is somewhat harrowing. Surely the NCCHR and other enabling entities know this, but there is the chance that they don’t. After all, the bad guys are winning.