Bleakness & Becoming
Jesse Finley Reed Explores Sexuality & Empowerment in the Age of AIDS
by Stevie St. John
When his lifelong physician grew serious and addressed him as “Mr. Reed,” Jesse Finley Reed was unsettled. Then the doctor asked Reed if he were a homosexual.
It was 1993, two years before protease inhibitors would mark a sea change in the fight against HIV. Reed, then eighteen years old, had fallen ill. Suddenly, arguing with his parents about whether he could go to New York to study art wasn’t his most pressing concern.
“This was like a big moment,” recalls Reed, who was sitting on crackly white paper, “covered in sweat, not out to anyone.”
The doctor said the question was important. Finally, Reed said yes. He was gay.
“And he told me that I had AIDS—prior to taking my blood,” Reed says. “As a young person ready to embark on a life and lifestyle and on a process of self-discovery, this was pretty devastating. I felt like I was going to die.”
The doctor drew blood, but Reed would have to wait two weeks before he knew for sure. And, though the doctor wasn’t completely definitive, he seemed convinced of what the test would say.
In Sickness & In Health
Reed spent the following weeks in emotional turmoil. He considered running away. He contemplated taking his own life.
Then, his test results came back: negative for HIV.
But that negative test was not a resolution. A resolute Reed set out to study at the Pratt Institute (where he began his studies in fine art), but his problems persisted. Partway through his first semester, he got so sick he flew home. His parents took him to the doctor—the same lifelong physician Reed had already seen without telling them. The doctor still thought Reed had contracted HIV—that it just hadn’t shown up in his blood yet.
“I was really not empowered,” Reed said. “I was so afraid.”
Reed spent the next three years going through cycles of feeling ill and then feeling better. He sought help from multiple doctors; many thought he was simply a hypochondriac. It was in 2000, seven years after the onset of his initial symptoms, when Reed was finally diagnosed with a viral infection in his heart. There was a possibility that he would need a transplant. In the end, the issue was addressed with medication.
More than twenty years after a doctor said he’d probably contracted HIV, Reed remains HIV-negative.
His experience with illness and misdiagnosis led him to spend a lot of time considering the psychology of sickness versus wellness. It taught him the importance of being an advocate for himself in medical settings. It inextricably linked HIV, illness and fear with his experience as a young gay man who was grappling with sex, sexuality, and coming out. And it informed his art, which often explores these themes.
“I think that visual art has been a powerful tool for self-expression in the AIDS crisis,” said Reed, a designer, visual artist and photographer. “Visual art always has the opportunity to speak to a very personal point of view. All the work I’ve ever produced has come out of my own personal experience.”
Echoes of the Past
Sometimes the way Reed’s art reflects his experiences, and the way it touches upon HIV issues, is more literal than others.
For example, the feeling of powerlessness Reed had during his years of illness informed a series in which Reed photographed spaces relating to medicine and wellness, both traditional and non-traditional. The images examined the dynamics of power. In Western medicine, in a typical doctor’s office, the credentialed doctor is in a dominant role. In other contexts, such as a yoga studio, power is more equal.
Power—and specifically the idea that power can be drawn from subversive acts—was also an underlying theme in Reed’s photography series “If You’re Lonely.” Intrigued by what people were willing to reveal in on-line profiles, and the associated erotic charge, Reed issued a call for models via dating and hookup websites. Models were asked to come to Reed’s studio during scheduled sessions, take off their shirts, and be photographed—all without revealing their names or other personal information.
“I was amazed at how willing people were to show themselves off anonymously,” Reed said. There is, he said, a certain excitement about the anonymity of hookup sites. And for gay men, the erotic and the forbidden have often run in tandem, Reed said, with the breaking of rules and mores becoming eroticized. His subjects didn’t know him personally and had no reason to trust the motives of an on-line stranger—but some sixty people answered the call.
One series of Reed’s with an abstract connection to HIV is his series called “The Nightclub Interiors.” Reed thinks of the nightclubs
that he photographed for the series as “sites of queerness” that served as a backdrop for sexual desires and expression.
“I became really intrigued by them as venues,” said Reed, whose photographs depict historic gay clubs now empty of revelers. “When you look at them in the daylight, it’s all so very real.”
The meaning behind those real, raw images is open to interpretation. Reed imagines that a real estate agent could assess the stark colors and the architecture and simply think that she or he could never move the building on the market. But for Reed, the images carry echoes of the gay men who explored sex and sexuality in those spaces, all in the context of the HIV epidemic. And there are echoes of those whose lives were lost.
“As I look at these empty spaces, they almost become graveyards,” Reed said. His bleak images hearken to a bleak time.
Empowerment, Self-Realization & Fear
It was during that bleak time that Reed, battling a then-unknown illness, came out as a gay man. And scores more gay men who came out during that time were profoundly affected by the specter of the disease, not just those who acquired HIV.
Men of that generation, who watched the disease ravage their friends and lovers, have been referred to as “the worried well.” It’s a phrase that many see as derogatory, as dismissive. They were, Reed points out, beyond worried.
As scores of gay men died, scores more feared they were next. Sex and death were horrifically entwined, which took a terrible toll on men grappling with their sexuality.
“This is an entire generation that came to understand their sexuality in the fear of an epidemic,” Reed said.
More than worried, they sustained a longtime trauma. Reed plans to explore that trauma in a documentary called The Long Shadow of Fear.
Reed is in the early stages of making the film, for which he is interviewing gay men who came out to themselves and/or to others between the years of 1985 and 1996. The film will include a series of interviews in which gay men—including Reed—physically return to significant locations from their histories and share their personal stories.
“What we all want is the magic answer of how to make it all better,” Reed said. “But really what this is all about is sexuality, and gay male sexuality historically entwines sexuality with empowerment. For gay men, sexual expression was the process of self-realization.”
Reed, who believes individuals should be empowered to make their own choices, is interested in the effect of prevention messages that told his cohort to bottle up that expression and self-realization. To Reed, there is an unaddressed psychological component—perhaps a component that could shed light on people’s decisions about sex, prevention, and HIV people make decisions that increase their risk for HIV. In the documentary, Reed plans to explore the psychological impact sustained by men who came out during those years.
“I want to give a voice to this generation,” he said.
Because of Reed’s interest in the queer experience and gay sexuality, Reed’s art frequently relates to HIV issues—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
One aspect of Reed’s work that is tied in a concrete way to HIV is his full-time job. Reed works as the Creative Director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which offers STD/HIV testing as well as services such as medical care and counseling for people living with HIV.
For Reed, the knowledge that his work supports those services is uplifting.
“I literally see every day when I go to work; I see people getting services,” he said. “Every day I think about that. I can really get behind that, I really believe in that, and that means so much to me.”
As Creative Director, Reed is part of the Center’s Marketing & Communications team, which promotes the Center’s work through media relations, advertising and through various Center communications. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Stevie St. John, the writer of this piece, was formerly a colleague of Reed’s in the Marketing & Communications department, where they worked closely together on the Vanguard newsletter. Additionally, she has done some freelance work for the Center since leaving at the end of 2012.
Stevie St. John is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, where she serves on the board of the local chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA-LA).