Whose Bodies Matter?

Michael Johnson, Mya Hall, Pete Jimenez & the Criminalization of the Disavowed

by Keiko Lane, MFT

Michael Johnson

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ete was one of the first people to befriend me when I joined Queer Nation and ACT UP. A radical, militant, pink-haired, steel-toe-booted, HIV-positive Chicano activist, he wore his heart and his politics on his sleeve. Literally. Everything he wore was covered in Queer Nation and ACT UP stickers: “Stop This Sexist Shit,” “Fight Homophobia,” “Safe Sex Queer,” “Silence=Death,” and “Listen Up Bigots: An Attack On One Of Us Is An Attack On All Of Us.”

Pete showed up early on Saturday mornings to defend women’s health clinics from anti-abortion activists Operation Rescue. In between swallowing his morning pills, he would say to me, “girl, we have to stand up for each other. No one else will. Besides, the same ones coming after you are the ones coming after me.”

We didn’t use the language of intersectionality, but that’s what Pete meant. The problem with single-vision politics is that we are never safe when we leave each other, or parts of ourselves, behind. Most of us occupy multiple locations of targeting and exclusion. When we isolate our oppressions and isolate our movements, we isolate ourselves.

For most of May, the news was filled with images of Black Lives Matter rebellions erupting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police. I am grateful for the power of those rebellions. However, just a few weeks before Gray’s death, a transwoman named Mya Hall was shot to death by authorities after taking a wrong parkway exit in Baltimore. She was unarmed. She was a Black transwoman and a sex worker. In the small bit of mainstream news that mentioned her, she was repeatedly referred to as a mentally unstable drug user, and misgendered.
Whose bodies matter? Whose lives matter?

In 1991 Pete and I were arrested at a demonstration protesting former L.A. Police Department Chief and California State Senator Ed Davis, whose SB982 sought to criminalize sex for people who were seropositive if they didn’t disclose their status—even if they practiced safe sex. We called it “The Sex Police Action.” “If we’re talking about sex, we’re talking about people consenting and making decisions, and no one is a criminal,” Pete insisted. “We can’t let them criminalize sex or our right to our sexuality. HIV is a virus, not a crime.”

In the shadows of the Baltimore Black Lives Matter rebellion, Michael Johnson, a Black college wrestler in Missouri, was convicted under similar laws. To whom, and how much does his life matter?

There is a danger of falling back on the regressive, thirty-year-old language of innocent victims. And there is always the danger of simplification. I can hear Pete insisting that we can’t disavow those whose lives complicate the narrative. We can’t talk of the Black men shot while walking away from the cops and not talk about the criminalization of transwomen. We fear it is too complicated to talk about intersections of race, gender, drug use, and mental illness—especially when it’s painfully clear that sometimes drug use and mental illness are code for the overwhelm, confusion, and collapse that come from trying to survive in a system that seeks to destroy you.

Whose bodies matter? Whose bodies will we stand up for? Who do we avoid standing with because we fear judgment of guilt by association without questioning whether we believe in the validity of the charges? So many of us queers are so well acquainted with shame and anxiety that it is all too easy to disavow and dissociate from the experiences of those who we fear we could become.

In psychoanalytic theory we think about disavowal as rejecting the reality of a perception because of its potentially traumatic associations. Disavowal is the process that allows us to turn from Michael Johnson and say that we aren’t like him because the idea of being persecuted—like him—for our consenting sexual relationships is horrifying. Likewise, we turn away from Mya Hall because we don’t want to recognize the places in ourselves that may embody pain and joy as messy, chaotic, and dangerous.

We disavow our vulnerabilities and we disavow our privileges. And sometimes our privilege is as simple as basic survival. We get so overwhelmed by the dailiness of survival that we forget to stand with those whose survival is not secure. Pete taught me that. When he was hospitalized for AIDS-related illnesses, over and over, in the twenty years I knew him, he insisted on advocating for other PWAs in his hospital wings.

“Pete,” we would say, over and over, “will you please rest, honey?” “I can’t yet,” he would insist, pointing at the patient in the next bed or the next room, “they don’t have anyone to advocate for them. I’m lucky. I have people. They need help. We have to be their people.”

Until all of our bodies and all of our lives in their complications, messiness, and contractions matter equally, what kind of justice can we have?

People so badly want to believe risk can be avoided that they insist that if someone risks viral exposure, or seroconverts, their partner must be a criminal. Even if everyone was a consenting adult and making their own decisions. We want so badly to avoid risk when we are already vulnerable, that we forget that it is a privilege granted to very few to live where insisting on survival is not a risk behavior.

How can we reconceive of risk and justice as part of vitality? As part of the necessary force that connects us to one another as much as it connect us to ourselves? Sex has risks. Life has risks. Connections carry the risk of injury whether it is the risk of a virus or the risk of loss.

Pete died three years ago. Those of us who survived him are still heartbroken. He fought for everyone up until he died. This is what he taught me. This is his legacy.

Seeing the connections is overwhelming. But it is also an antidote to the isolation of shame that can consume us when we are the victims of targeting. When we begin to understand that our victimization is the result of systemic violence and discrimination, then how can we not stand with one other? Our righteous rage must be part of the dismantling of our compliance with a system that seeks to destroy us.


Poto by Michael Dumas
Poto by Michael Dumas

Keiko Lane, MFT, is a Japanese American writer and psychotherapist. She writes about the intersections of queer culture, oppression resistance, racial justice, and liberation psychology. She has a psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, California, specializing in work with queers of all genders, artists, activists, academics, people affected by HIV/AIDS, asylum seekers and other clients self-identified as post-colonial. Keiko also teaches graduate and post-graduate psychotherapy courses on queer and multicultural psychotherapies, the psychodynamics of social justice, and the embodied literature of exile. She is a long-term survivor of ACT UP/Los Angeles. Visit: www.keikolanemft.com.