What Is 21st Century Liberation?

What Is 21st Century Liberation?
A Visual AIDS broadsheet poses the right question
by Chael Needle

Poster: What Is 21st Century Liberation? is a project by Avram Finkelstein and Rodrigo Moreira for Visual AIDS, created for Stonewall 50 and the 2019 New York City Pride March. www.visualaids.org @visual_aids Image credit: Gay rights activists at City Hall rally for gay rights: Sylvia Ray Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Barbara Deming, and Kady Vandeurs, 1973 (detail). Photo by Diana Davies, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Here in New York City, I have noticed that Dunkin’ Donuts has been offering baked goods to mark the occasion of World Pride—frosted doughnuts sprinkled with muliti-colored confetti that I can only imagine aims to represent little pieces of a rainbow flag. That flag, which represents the values of the LGBTQ+ community and movement, has been flown by many other products, from Sephora to MasterCard to Burger King. Company support of the LGBTQ+ community is nothing new, but it seems especially scaled up this year, perhaps a response to Stonewall 50, the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a seminal moment in LGBTQ+ liberation. And while I see the positive in the support of big business, we can’t sugarcoat the downside of capitalism, particularly in the context of HIV/AIDS, for example, the drive of insurance companies and some pharamceutical companies toward increasing profit at the expense of our bodies. No, a doughnut will not do it.

Commercial support for the LGBTQ+ community has all been rather vague anyway. It’s hard to grasp what they are actually valuing. It’s all rather mish-mosh, like a failed design on Project Runway. What do comapanies mean to support? Expression of identity? Diversity? The mere existence of us? It soon becomes one size fits all and should prompt Nina Garcia-levels of perplexity.

We need not be dazzled by this thunderous private-sector applause. We are more than consumers. We have desires, yes, but we have needs first.

We need unfettered access to HIV healthcare globally.

We need an end to the harassment of sex workers by police and the justice system.

We need unfettrered access to reproductive services.

We need healthcare workers to embrace U=U and PrEP as prevention tools.

We need public spaces to be safe spaces for individuals of color across the spectrum of gender identity.

We need to liberated from need.

And when we need to look outside of ourselves for allies and political oomph, instead of looking toward companies, we might look to our advocates and our artists, the ones who foreground the act of imagining and take as their daily practice the creation of new worlds.

For Stonewall 50, Visual AIDS and its collaborative partners, AIDS activists and artists Avram Finkelstein [A&U, June 2019] and Rodrigo Moreira, did just that.

Explains Visual AIDS executive director Esther McGowan about the impetus to create: “What if we could make a broadsheet that began to address the complex intersectional issues that link AIDS activism with LGBTQI+ activism, and with all forms of social justice activism, both historically and today? A piece that is about the past, present, and future of LIBERATION.”

Posing the question, “What Is 21st Century Liberation,” the creators solicited declarations from Bill T. Jones, Winter Collins, Elizabeth Koke, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Corey Johnson, Chris Vargas, Alok, Timothy Duwhite, and Jason Collins. The array of voices in the broadsheet soon makes clear that liberation depends on linkages, consensus and dissent, an ongoing dialgoue that challenges our treasured truisms and seeks to include rather than exclude.

Writes Finkelstein: “When I was hunting for images to act as a backdrop for these interviews in the New York Public Library image archive, I was overwhelmed. Every photograph seemed to underline who was missing from it, and nothing depicted how vastly different we all are. But I was stopped in my tracks by a set of contact sheets of the First Pride march—Christopher Street Liberation Day, 1970—because it showed how small that march actually was. Part of what we celebrate today—in the millions—is not only how much we’ve grown, and how diverse we actually are, but how tiny we were back then, and how decades of political struggle have changed us.”

The following excerpts from some of the broadsheet’s contributors underscore the need for inclusion.

Writes Elizabeth Koke, Creative Director of Housing Works:”My hope for the 21st century is movement towards a more just world, where people are not criminalized, imprisoned or stigmatized for using drugs or how they make money or their HIV status.”

Lola Flash [A&U, April 2019], photographer and former member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), offers: “I hope that we realize that although people aren’t dying right in front of us, people are dying. Trans women of color are dying. And folks are dying because they don’t have the healthcare that they deserve, because of racism, because of sexism, because of homophobia, because of transphobia.”

Timothy DuWhite, writer, poet, playwright, performance artist, and activist, contributed this insight as part of their statement: “I don’t think I really started thinking politically about anything until I was diagnosed HIV positive. That diagnosis was the impetus for a lot of my questioning and wondering and looking at circumstances more intently. When I was diagnosed is when I started to really gear in and start thinking and looking at things around me.”

So, after you have a cry watching Burger King’s Pride commercial, remember to have it your way, or, rather, our way—unfettered access to what we need to survive and thrive. Now that’s some special sauce.

Visual AIDS distributed thousands of broadsheets during the Pride March in New York City. If you do not live in New York City, you may order the broadsheet for the cost of shipping here: https://visual-aids.mybigcommerce.com/broadsheet-what-is-21st-century-liberation/.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ChaelNeedle.