LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN! – Jessica Whitbread, Jonny Mexico & Theodore (ted) Kerr

In 2012 artist and activist Jessica Whitbread began Love Positive Women: Romance Starts at Home (LPW) a social media project which encourages the creation of public and private acts of love and caring for women living with HIV. It happens annually from February 1-14. Response was immediately profound. Since its beginning, thousands of people have participated globally. In Australia a group of gay men living with HIV took women living with HIV on dates. The following year organizations and individuals around the world created hundreds of handmade valentines to give to women living with HIV, and more online love followed.  

Below, Whitbread discusses LPW with her friends Jonny Mexico and Theodore (ted) Kerr, both of whom she has collaborated with in the past. The discussion took place online with each participant sharing from different locations, both geographically and socially: Whitbread in Bishkek, where she is learning Russian and continuing her work with the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW); Mexico in Winnipeg, where they are pursuing an advanced degree in peace and justice while working with the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects (NSWP); and Kerr in New York where he worked for Visual AIDS and is currently at Union Theological Seminary researching Christian Ethics and HIV.  

Together they explore the role of art and culture within social movements, reflecting on their own experiences and what Love Positive Women means in their communities.

Theodore (ted) Kerr: What is one right you wish you or a loved one had right now?

Jessica Whitbread: I’m currently living in Kyrgyzstan and just had a conversation with a friend who is a lesbian. I saw her the other day and she was unable to talk to me about her break up on the street.

TK: What hampered you two from being able to talk?

JW: She does tons of women’s rights and LGTBQ work but cannot really be open about her sexual orientation here because of how bad the homophobia is – even their feminist house is in a secret location. We had to talk in code, navigating our conversation without speaking our own languages – which might not sound like much but my Russian is rather poor.

TK: It’s hard to pinpoint one right that could have helped you in the situation. Not only would a plethora of rights have be needed, but the culture around you would also have had to be different. Even in a country like the US, where I am currently living, there is “free speech” and “hate crime” laws but still many people can’t always be themselves on their own streets.

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Jonny Mexico: This is a great way to start this conversation. I’m often challenged by “rights-based” approaches to change. Yet I know that a focus on rights works hand-in-hand with the cultural / activist work we are all involved in.

TK: As we have this conversation I am cramming for a theology final. One of the important terms this semester was the Korean idea of jeong. Wonhee Anne Joh writes about it as a force between all people, a “stickiness” that reminds us we are connected. It seems similar to Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic. I think of jeong as a support that allows for joy, conflict, concern, and care to work through us. I think the best of activism is determined by jeong. Some refer to it as a more intense idea of love.

JW: I like the idea of something being more powerful than love. Not that I want to throw love out, I just feel it is often used in a shallow way. If you really love someone I think that you cherish them and want positive energy to follow towards that person. I think about this in the context of the HIV work I do. The movement it is lacking in love. It exists, of course, or else the work would not be getting done as it has been for the last 30 years, but working in the movement you don’t often feel the love – so sometimes it is hard to share it.

JM: Can you say more?

JW: There is a lot of rhetoric around diversity but we don’t really look out for all of our sisters in the movement. Many get left behind, even within feminist and HIV+ Women’s spaces.

TtK: Is that what motivated Love Positive Women?

JW: Maybe. Love Positive Women began as a vital reminder that women living with HIV need to celebrate themselves – to stop and focus for two weeks on within. For many women this does not happen. I created it because I wanted to remove the politics and just give a moment for the joy. I wanted to make space that acknowledged that life sucks, but at the same time there are many people who will step up and out for each other.

Just generally speaking, this kind of work can feel depressing. Sometimes I wonder: Why are we so mean to each other?

JM: I have been having a lot of conversations lately about building communities of care. I know that “community building” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot but I am talking here of something more specific. Building communities of care means caring for everyone in the community. This includes people who are often silenced by mainstream movements, dominant ideologies, or power structures.

JW: Jonny! You live what you speak! Last year when I requested that folks make valentines for women living with HIV you stepped up instantly, creating a workshop. That is caring. You’re a do-er and I like that about you.

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JM: Thanks! This is what I am talking about: building communities, building relationships, deeply rooted and intentional. We can figure out ways to assist each other while supporting each other’s autonomy.

JW: Hearing you say that makes me want to come care for you. I can make you tea.

JM: Please! At this moment in Winnipeg there is a snow storm!

TK: But really, building a community of care in a winter city is super important. I am from Edmonton. A group of us created Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture festival which happened in November. Through that experience and being involved in the short-lived but amazing Winter Lights festival, I learned that we have to think of people’s physical and spiritual well being. We are getting better at making sure people have shelter. And now we need to continue to think about the impact winter has the soul! What does that do to our hearts, and to our movements?

JW: This is why I love the programming of GenderFest. I love how it is conscious about everybody and every body.

JM: Thanks Jessica. That has come from working with a lot of people, from making mistakes and learning from them. As a co-founder I can say everybody and every body has always been important to us. Our goal is to promote and celebrate queer and gender-variant identities, while empowering local organizations, groups and individuals to create and showcase their own uniqueness

And, yeah, we do it in February, partly to bring community together during -40 degree winter weather (and partly to work within an already established ‘gender week’ at our local university).

And even though the festival is only one month a year, I think about this stuff all the time. Last month I was at a sex worker panel discussion. One of the panelists said something to the effect of: “We are members of our community. We are often silenced, overlooked, and not included.” This statement made such an impact on me. I wanted to go on stage and hug her. She was so powerful.

JW: Yes! A goal I have with LPW is to create space for women living with HIV within the movement, because even when they are told they belong they feel isolated and discriminated against.

JM: Within our own communities we have to unlearn structural and societal ideologies that separate us. Art and culture help us reform new pathways of understanding and connecting. This is why I love LPW so much.

JW: We need to change the structures that silence women both inside and outside the movement. So I am also interested in knowing what has been the impact of Love Positive Women in your worlds? How is it important for your communities?

TtK: Jessica, from you I have learned it is not given that when people talk about HIV/AIDS they include women, trans women and trans men, and gender nonconforming folks. We need the reminder that women have HIV, women are impacted by HIV, and women across the HIV spectrum are AIDS activists. Last year during LPW I had already organized a community discussion around how ACT UP takes up a lot of the public imagination around AIDS activism, leaving little space for awareness about other past and ongoing work. At the end of the event, which was attended by 20+ people, we all held up our programs on which I had printed LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN on the back. We took a selfie and shared it. It was important to get these people who care enough about HIV to come to an event to assert the presence of women within the conversation.

JM: LPW illustrates a different way to activate for change. We often see the struggle part of activism. LPW is different. It shows the love, care, and compassion that we have with each other.

TK: LPW is an example of Alafia. Theologian Mercy Oduyoye talks about it as a call for the celebration of life. This is how I see LPW. I love seeing handmade art, videos shot on iPhone, all in service of honoring positive women. These very personal, often humble, responses to the virus make me emotional because at the end of the day, HIV/AIDS is about connection and so too should be our responses.

JM: I am thankful for the friendships that I have developed as a result of LPW. I find myself constantly humbled by the work being done within the sphere of HIV activism – particularly as it pertains to women, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. This is a relief from the anger I usually feel around the lack of platforms in mainstream conversations for these voices.

TK: I don’t need to ever see another shitty government created GET TESTED poster again. I do need to see handmade LPW cards.

JM: LPW re-centers voices that need to be heard, providing an engagement with the community at large. It creates space where we can open up to caring and learning moments. Together we are finding creative ways to move through sound-bite narratives – such as narratives of rescue – and re-entering the narratives of individual experience.

TK: That is really important Jonny. Something all our work focuses on – and I think is well illustrated, Jessica, by Tea Time and your banner making – is the importance of the everyday in the struggle for liberation and life.

JW: Totally. We work cross-culturally on intense issues, and many of us are having hard lives, and I often wonder, where is the generosity? When do we give each other a break, bear witness to each other’s lives?

TK: This conversation is really driving home for me why I went to seminary.

JW: Give us an example!

TK: Womanism is a theology that gets its name from Alice Walker’s writings, that is, for black women by black women. Womanism takes as its sources the lived experiences and stories of black women. It is concerned with the everyday, meaning the oppression, joy, banality, and all else that makes up a black woman’s day. Similarly, Mujerista theology comes from the Latina’s experiences of life, as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz writes, Mujerista theology enables “Latinas to understand the many oppressive structures that almost completely determine our daily lives”:

It enables Hispanic women to understand that the goal of our struggle should not be to participate in and to benefit from these structures but to change them radically… mujerista theology insists and aids Latinas in defining our preferred future: What will a radically different society look like?

Mujerista is informed by la cotidiano, which roughly can be understood as the reality of the everyday. I think when it comes to dealing with sexuality, gender identity, sex worker activism, HIV/AIDS activism, and all the other related issues, the experience, reality, and power of all women often informs a lot of early activism, even if we don’t talk about it.

JW: I love working with you both, and listening to you speak reaffirms the importance to me of LPW. I really hope that LPW, which started as social practice, continues to be an ongoing collective global action that is owned by and responsible to the community. My actual dream is for it to become a community holiday celebrated every year.

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JM: Jessica, I feel that this project is totally accomplishing so much. Here we are, three friends, located in three different countries, connected to and talking about LPW, and the importance of this type of activism. To me, this is why showing love while addressing and dismantling fear and stigma is so important, and what better way to address this than through making art.

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Jessica Whitbread is an artist and activist who works in the realm of social practice and community art. Whitbread often uses her own body and experience as a queer woman living with HIV, as the primary site of her work. She calls Toronto her home but spends most of the time away working and advocating with the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW).

Theodore (ted) Kerr is a Canadian born writer and organizer currently living in Brooklyn. His work focuses on HIV/AIDS. Kerr was a founding member of Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival, the programs manager at Visual AIDS, and is currently at Union Theological Seminary where he is researching Christian Ethics and HIV.

Jonny Mexico is a gender queer activist who is currently pursuing an advanced degree in peace and justice studies. Jonny lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where they are involved in Genderfest – Winnipeg, Queer Pride, and the Winnipeg Working Group. Jonny is currently working on a practicum placement with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects to create a community based art project. Jonny’s activist work focuses on power disruption and the use of art as a vehicle for change. This is Jonny’s second year working with LPW.