The Party of Not Talking About It – Nicholas Little with Mikiki

Mikiki

After running an art gallery and giving sex-ed classes in prairie high schools, six months working in a bathhouse in San Francisco and a summer spent in his Newfoundland hometown, in 2005, performance artist and HIV activist Mikiki set up shop in Ottawa. There he revamped Ottawa’s languishing gay men’s outreach program for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa while immersing himself in SAW Gallery‘s queer-positive community. Mikiki left Ottawa in 2006 and has since worked for AIDS service organizations in Montreal and Toronto.

Mikiki is both a mentor and one of my best friends. In early 2008, we sat down to talk about what it means to be gay in various Canadian cities, how he adjusted to his own sero-conversion and whether or not AIDS killed all the cool people.

This is an edited version of the second part of the interview. You can read all four parts in full at http://bit.ly/9iOQyT

 

Nicholas Little: I want to read you something. It’s from Bruce LaBruce’s introduction to the Taschen compendium of the first five years of  BUTT Magazine[1]:

You may notice that BUTT is very post-AIDS… even though, as we all know too well, AIDS never really went away. Whoever kick-started AIDS in the first place – the CIA, God, the Pharmaceutical Industry, Patient Zero, Liberace – you have to admit that they did a pretty good job of wrecking our party. Everything was going just swimmingly until the gay plague came along. It would be futile (fruitless?) to attempt to list the countless gay icons that have been lost to the disease since it appeared in the mid eighties, many of whom, in a kinder world, would have probably ended up gracing the pages of BUTT. But it’s that very pre-AIDS history, gay interrupted, that BUTT seeks to continue, an objective that includes taking some of the fear out of sex and trying to make it fun again. Many of the interviewees in BUTT ruminate about the devastation that rampant promiscuity (let’s face it) and AIDS (exacerbated by the shameless disinclination of politicians and the medical establishment alike to find a cure) has reeked on the gay community. It almost makes you want to cry when Peter Berlin… reveals that he talks to his friends who’ve died of AIDS as he walks down the streets of San Francisco. …In the same issue, the artist and performer Jonny Wooster tells a harrowing story about years of unsafe sex at the Bijou in New York (been there) and subsequently coming down with a nasty case of stage two syphilis (done that), and then confesses to not having as much sex as he used to, “…because the sex I was having… Some of it was good. A lot of it was just messy. Most of it was all over the place, and I can’t fucking remember ninety percent of it.” I think a lot of us can relate. It’s gay men like Wooster, …whose stories I most gravitate to: old school fag survivors who’ve fucked their way through oblivion and are still looking for love. …Personally I like to regard AIDS, and all the other assorted STD’s we’ve come to know and hate, as mere speed bumps. …I like to quote Fran Leibowitz’s famous, chilling line: “AIDS killed all the cool people.

Mikiki: (laughs) I kind of hate Bruce LaBruce, but it’s not easy to dismiss him when he’s actually saying something. He’s got a really good analysis on that situation.

(pause)

I feel like everything wasn’t going fine. I mean, I wasn’t there. But even from reading Dancer from the Dance and seeing Gay Sex in the 70s, I feel like everything wasn’t hunky dory and that there was this sense of…not “This party must come to an end!”, but rather that there’s something kind of lurking. Maybe this is my romanticized way of reviewing or re-examining that history. I certainly don’t want this to become a parable or “this is the moral of the story” because it’s important to encourage people to participate in their sexuality however they want to and to acknowledge that everyone is an “innocent victim” of HIV. But yeah, that Fran Leibowitz line is really intense.

It’s weird too, now thinking of myself as becoming a statistic.

NL: Because you’re positive?

Mikiki: Yeah. And it’s kind of terrifying. Like when I realized I was making AIDS art, say four years ago, and realized that all my work was about HIV and AIDS, and then thinking, “Well I’m so glad I’m not positive because then I’d just be making AIDS art because I’m positive.” (laughs) And now I’m in a position to examine why I was interested as a negative person in the first place.

NL: Why were you?

Mikiki: Well because it’s an issue that has destroyed the sense of entitlement of our community. By entitlement I mean a sense of security within our own desire. Whenever my friend and I hear of someone who is pregnant, we look at each other and call it out: “Barebacking!” You know?

I think there’s a way that queer sexuality is still pathologized and the naturalism of unprotected sex is something that was, and still is, so taboo to talk about. That became one of the key points that informed how I did outreach as a negative man, and still do. Talking about barebacking is not, first and foremost, even about harm reduction. It’s about people’s natural inclination. And about the fact that straight people get to do something that we, culturally, aren’t allowed to even name.

NL: It’s a great relief to hear you say that. At a recent conference, a doctor who is a player in the Ottawa HIV scene gave a very useful talk in terms of physiology – really broke transmission down better than I’ve ever heard it – about how, for example, if HIV is going to be shared through oral sex, exactly how it happens. I really understood it. And then he went through it with anal sex, from top to bottom and from bottom to top. I appreciated that. But it also left me feeling two things: angry, and also incredibly disempowered. On one hand, I really like rooting transmission in physiology, in our bodies, because it takes it away from discussions of fear and hearsay and ideology and morality. It shifts it to, “No, dude, it’s about your body.”

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: So I like that. But what he didn’t say after all that, after explaining how HIV could be transmitted from mouth to dick or dick to mouth, was what the Canadian AIDS Society[2] says: which is that there are 6 billion people on this planet, and I imagine that the number of blow jobs happening around the world in any given minute is in the thousands and thousands, and we’ve been searching for the last 25 years and we still have no recorded evidence of someone contracting HIV from receiving a blow job.

To me, it’s unethical not to mention that point in a discussion on the physiology of oral transmission. I left there feeling afraid. And I know how it plays out because this week I hooked up with a buddy who I see about once a month to have sex with other people together. I only see him in a sexual context and I don’t know anything about this guy. And we hooked up with this other, older man and my buddy was just gonna watch and I was gonna suck this dude’s dick. And one reason I left feeling like the encounter wasn’t that great was because I just didn’t like the older guy, it just didn’t work for me. But the other reason was that, because it didn’t work for me, and I’d sucked this dude’s dick – and he just came on my face, he didn’t even cum in my mouth – but I had internalized what this doctor at the conference had said and I walked away thinking, “Was that really worth it?”

Mikiki: Arrggggh!

NL: I know, and my main concern isn’t even really for me. I’ve negotiated regular unprotected anal sex with one primary partner and he’s my real concern. I’m not as concerned if I became HIV+ myself because I know I could deal with it. But I would have much more difficulty knowing that I passed it on to this other man that I care about.

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: And this is what freaks me out because, in my head, I know that even if that older dude was HIV+, the likelihood of transmission while sucking him is low. The Canadian AIDS Society uses the words “quite remote” and I think it’s even less chance than that.

Mikiki: Yeah.

NL: But it left me feeling like, “You know what, Nicholas? It would have been better to stay home, watch porn and jerk off.”

Mikiki: Isolate yourself.

NL: Isolate yourself. And also: negate what is natural. Or shroud what is natural in this feeling of fear, guilt, shame and blame. Even though I’m an HIV outreach worker, even though I understand the physiology inside out, even though I get how social factors and socio-economics play into it. I still can’t totally resist that doctor’s message, which is: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Mikiki: And when you position transmission information that way, then the condom becomes the signifier of fear, guilt, shame and blame. Because that’s the barrier that you could have used to potentially reduce that risk. Because now you think of that activity as a risk. You don’t think of that activity as being a remote possibility. You don’t think of the reality of that situation in terms of epidemiology or in terms of transmission. You think about it as a risk. And that makes the condom become something that it shouldn’t be. We don’t talk about the fact that it’s about a 1% chance that someone like me – highly infectious, not on meds, in the first couple of months of being infected, a super high viral load – still has only a 1% chance per encounter of transmitting HIV via oral sex. We can’t talk about that in terms of prevention because that would then also lead to mass! barebacking! parties! Which, of course, are already fucking happening. But all of that stuff just keeps enforcing the guilt. It repositions all of the prevention work we do and all of the condoms and physical tools we give to people. It puts those objects in a different perspective. It makes those objects something that remind people of the fact that they are taking risks – and depending on the act and the details, it sometimes leaves them with the feeling that the risks are greater than they actually are.

NL: I agree. And what I also think was lost in that moment – and what that doctor at the conference certainly didn’t affirm – was that everything I did in that encounter was good in terms of harm reduction.

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: I like to take it up the ass. I could have taken it up the ass with those dudes. Instead I opted to suck that older guy off. We should be applauded for choices like that. Instead I leave there and everything is soaked in a fear of HIV. Whereas I should have left feeling, “What a laugh! I’m 28, life is grand, I’m out doing stuff that is so ridiculously low risk that it makes no difference. I’m having a great time. That sexual encounter was kind of shitty but hey, chalk it all up to experience.” I should have walked away and said, “So what’s next?”

But instead: I was a man who was horny so I set up a scenario where I could have an outlet for that horniness. I went through with it and I walked away feeling regret. I wished I would have just not bothered. And I don’t think we’ve taken account of what that does to men’s psyches and our feeling of…well, you talked about entitlement. Queer people are not entitled to the same freedom of sexuality that straight people are.

Mikiki: I think that having a queer identification and, specifically, having queer sex means that we’re not allowed to have the life of our sex become its own narrative in our lives. It’s always a negotiation with whether we’re becoming an epidemiological statistic.

NL: And because it’s always masked by the bio-medical, my sexuality becomes about 50 year old white, female nurses, who can be allies but who, on the whole, are not. They are testing me, they don’t get my world, and they reduce my sexuality to, “Don’t you think you should have used a condom?”

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: So I go in to the clinic because my partner called me up to say he has Chlamydia and we were having unprotected sex. And the nurse says to me, “If you’re here today for Chlamydia, don’t you think you should consider using condoms?”

My sexuality is none of your business. Just give me the fucking test.

Gay men are rarely given credit for taking the right steps, for the fact that a majority of us report consistently using condoms for anal sex with strangers. For the amount of behaviour change we’ve achieved in just three decades.

I walked in there the day after my partner told me he had Chlamydia and I asked for a test. And they said, “Sorry we can’t do it for you here. You’ve gotta go down to the Market cause we don’t have the resources to test you here.” Nobody said, “Way to fucking go, man. You showed up the day after to get tested.” Instead the nurse said, “Don’t you think you should consider using condoms?” and I looked at her and I said, “Don’t you think a gay man has no choice but to consider using condoms? What gay man can escape condoms? Don’t you think I’ve already considered using condoms?”

Mikiki: Yes. And so I feel a really weird and interesting sense of liberation to not always have to negotiate condoms now. It’s fucking crazy. We talked about moving to Ottawa from Calgary. The reason I left Calgary was because I was sexually assaulted and, in large part, I think that’s why I sero-converted later down the line. I was having a lot of unprotected sex and I had a real difficulty using condoms after I was sexually assaulted. I’ve talked about this with a few different women who are sexual assault survivors. It was because I was sexually assaulted that I was unable to start addressing the fact that, “I have these behaviours, I’m participating in these activities that I’m not ok with and I’m doing them out of some sort of compulsion – for affirmation, for whatever…” There was this point for like a year where I was unable to name it. I was unable to talk even to my closest friends about the fact that I was doing these things that I didn’t know how to control. I didn’t know how to negotiate and I didn’t know how to navigate that. And I was terrified. And I also knew that I was a sex educator. And how the fuck am I supposed to tell someone that I just had sex without a condom? How the fuck am I supposed to say that I want to re-create this situation of abuse? Of rape. To be able to name that I was that fucked up, you know? I was really terrified.

When I went back to Newfoundland afterward, my dad was very gracious about it. But he also didn’t know how to deal with a son that was quite empowered and knew his own self. I knew myself. But he didn’t know how to deal with me coming back with my tail between my legs in a very vulnerable, very hurt space. So he did what he thought was best – and I thank him for it – he sent me to the gayest city on Earth – (laughs) – which was in the middle of this very intense sero-sorting thing. I got turned down so many times in San Francisco because I was sero-negative. I would try to pick people up and was told, “If you pick someone up online after one in the morning, they’re on crystal, and you don’t go online after one in the morning unless you want to party.” And I had no experience with this context at all. And thankfully I was able to re-establish my own ability to negotiate condom use when I was in San Francisco. I was proud of myself for doing that. But then that waned a little bit more when I came back to Canada before I started therapy again. I had a partner and we had made a decision based on the fact that we had both taken some risks and, you know, we were both willing to suspend our disbelief and not use condoms with each other. And this was an informed decision between the two of us. And then he went for his regular test and they said, “Why didn’t you come back to see us six months ago when you had your last test?” And he said, “You didn’t call me. Why would I come back?” And they said, “Your last test was positive.” And they had lost his file and didn’t call him back. And I was the only one he had put at risk, blah blah blah. “Oh how tragic!” You know? But when he told me, it was a beautiful moment but it was also really sad. Because it was like, ok… we had had a lot of sex. And it was all without condoms. And he was so upset because he knew that there was a very great possibility that he had helped me sero-convert. And I knew it too. But I think that was maybe one of the most exciting moments, realizing, “This is not about stats.” This is the moment where I felt like I should know, “My life has now turned into a statistic.” But instead it was about recognizing that my friend was really upset. Someone I cared about, and a lover, and he was scared for what he might have done.

And that is the story of HIV that is not spoken of. People making their own decisions… and having them backfire. And finding ways of continuing their relationships through that. And acknowledging that we make decisions, and we’re ok with them at the time, but we can’t see the future. Knowing that I still have this person in my life and we still have this relationship – it’s not as close, he has another partner now – but I was able to use that moment to help support him. I didn’t need the support in that moment because I didn’t know what my situation was, but I knew that in that moment, he felt like shit. Because he had put me at risk. He was dealing also with what his sero-conversion meant to him, and thinking that he was imposing that onto me. But for me, I knew that I had taken risks in the past and I had also had other poz people in my life–I wasn’t as freaked out about it. I think I knew more about HIV at that time than he did.

So that was nice to be able to have that experience. As terrible and terrifying as it was, it was a beautiful experience to have that conversation with my friend and to say, “We made this decision together.” And I’m not going to charge you with aggravated sexual assault. Which is the other thing that we’ve all been trying to negotiate: this criminalization, this pathology of poz sexuality. But then that’s a whole other issue…

References:

[1] LaBruce, B. (2006). Fats and Femmes, Please!. In: J. Van Bennekom & G. Jonkers (Eds.), Butt Book: The Best of the First 5 Years of BUTT (pp. 9-13). Cologne, Germany: Taschen.

[2] Canadian AIDS Society (2004). HIV Transmission: Guidelines for Assessing Risk (5th ed.). Ottawa, ON: Canadian AIDS Society.

Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he was an HIV outreach worker in bathhouses, bars and online chat rooms for several years. In 2008 Nicholas helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. Nicholas currently lives in the UK.

Mikiki is a queer video and performance artist from Newfoundland. They attended NSCAD and Concordia before returning to St. John’s to work as Programming Coordinator at Eastern Edge Gallery. They later moved to Calgary to work as the Director of TRUCK Gallery. Their work has been presented throughout Canada in self-produced interventions, artist-run centres and public galleries. Their practice and political history informed a shift into sexual health education work around 2003. Mikiki has since worked as a Sexuality Educator in Calgary’s public schools, a Bathhouse Attendant in Saskatoon, Drag Queen Karaoke Hostess in St. John’s all informing their work in Gay Men’s Health. Mikiki has worked as Gay Men’s Sexual Health Outreach Worker in Ottawa, HIV Educator in Montreal and now the Poz Prevention Coordinator at Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.