Last night as President Obama offered his State of the Union, including his hope to realize, “the promise of an AIDS-free generation”, a cozy room of artists, activists, advocates, the curious, and the friendly, gathered in room 310 of The LGBT Center in NYC for POSITIVE ASSERTIONS, a panel featuring artists Jessica Whitbread, Amos Mac and Ivan Monforte, moderated by Sacha Yanow.

Created in support of PLAY SMART, Visual AIDS’ ongoing artist commission and condom distribution series, the event was born out of a phrase we used for the campaign “ Love Your Body, Love Everybody, Love Every Body”. The panel was our attempt to questions, trouble, embody and test these ideas. What does it mean to love your body? What does it look like to love other bodies? Is it possible to love everybody? What is love anyway? Isn’t love different for different people in different moments? And finally, although never explicitly addressed, what does love have to do with AIDS?

Yanow, an artist and the director of Art Matters, was the perfect choice (if we do say so ourselves) to navigate the questions we had, because she had them too. In her 2011 Visual AIDS web gallery, ironically entitled, “Why Do You Insist on Flaunting?” she wrote about her motivations around her image selections:

Perhaps it was my interest in learning about (or constructing) a collective history of living with AIDS, of AIDS activism and queer activism, image by image as a kind of peer-to-peer consciousness-raising…I find myself drawn to work that directly addresses the disease and its social and political causes – most especially the homophobia that pre-existed AIDS. In my selection are images that particularly moved me with their combination of beauty, humor, pain and defiance. The title, Why Do You Insist On Flaunting…?, taken from Carlos Gutierrez-Solanna’s work, refers to it’s use of life-affirming vitality and “gayness” to disrupt the social and political status quo that perpetuates the crisis.

With many of these ideas still circulating through her curiosity, Yanow enabled a sensitive flow of discussion around art, politics, history, and self-reflection. After each artist presented a slideshow of their work, she lead the group through intimate questions beginning with asking the panelists to think out loud about their relationship to love, their bodies, and other bodies. Artist and activist Jessica Whitbread from Canada, current Global Chair for the International Committee of Women living with HIV, started off with a frankness that set the tone for the night. “ I fall too much into my body, like a dancing bear,” she said. It was affirming. The crowd hummed in a knowing and active listening. While many could relate to this idea of falling too much, maybe questioning what “too much” meant for them, others like myself related to her statement because of our fear of falling into our bodies, our fear of bodies. This self-reflective prompt Whitbread motivated is key to her process where she uses her body as a site for others to explore. Through her own feelings of loneliness she understands that others feel it too. For graduate school, Whitbread created a project of “mapping” other women living with HIV. On the panel she joked, “ I should have called it navigating instead. What I was really trying to do was find a friend.” Her artistic practice includes a lot of collaboration and events such as dance parties and tea parties. These are ways for bodies to come together in reckoning and togetherness. Her curiosity becomes permission for others to dig deeper.

Also exploring bodies in personal ways in close proximity is Amos Mac, photographer and co founder of Original Pluming - Trans Man Quarterly. His work captures people in their own environment, partners in their own representation, and fellow friends in exploring the emerging conversation around bodies, gender, and culture. In his work he notices many of the people he shoots, “don’t love the current state of their body”. Often, he said people, “try to delay the shoot until they get a specific surgery or their hormones kick in.” Mac, who is trans himself, started taking photos because he was frustrated by the lack of representation by and for trans people. He met one trans man at school and asked if he could shoot him. One shot lead to another and soon he was connected with communities where he felt he belonged. Mac wants people in his communities to feel less like subjects for other people’s projects, and more like collaborators in ongoing conversations. When he gets behind the camera he does not go silent hoping for mood, rather he engages in conversation. Wrapping up, telling the audience about his process, Mac reflectively shared, “I love to shoot every body.” This was a comment both about people’s uneasiness with their bodies, and testament to his ongoing discovery of how diverse and beautiful bodies can be. “You know that phrase, ‘I feel trapped in the wrong body?’” Mac asked the audience, “ Well, we are all trapped in a body” and what we do with ourselves is where it gets interesting.

The limits and possibilities of the body is central to artist and long time community worker, Ivan Monforte’s practice. Born in Mexico, growing up in California, he understands his body is political; he jokes that his Mayan-esque profile has been painted for thousands of years; his early videos are of him using his body on screen to explore intimacy between men; the tattoos on his body are markers of who he is, what he believes, where he has been, and a declaration that his life and body matter. All of this dovetails with the work he does at GMHC where he works with the community to create social marketing campaigns. It is in his work that he has come to the conclusion that “risk starts with self,” that people need to have self-efficacy because, “If you don’t, how will you advocate for your own body.” Of course Monforte knows that it is not that simple. In his work he sees the complications and intersection of issues that lead people to be cut off from their body, and from education, support, etc. This manifests itself in people being squeamish about frank talk. Towards the end of his presentation he showed a romantic close up shot of a penis with pre-cum. It is an example of the type of work he would like to use in social marketing but as he tells it, the community does not want it. As Whitbread brings forth an emotional closeness, and Mac trains his lens on the beauty of others, Monforte invites us to look, really look, at bodies and see them for all their intricacies, histories and possibilities.


During the Q&A a man who volunteers at The Center told a story about how he had been on a committee regarding saunas and bathhouses for the City of New York during the early years of AIDS. In his telling, the City didn’t want condoms displayed out in the open, yet this man—the only person on the committee to go to the saunas—knew that they were needed. So he suggested that instead of having bowls of condoms at the door, they be tucked into the towels given to clients as they come in.

This man’s story summed up nicely the goal of the night, and what the artists shared in their work: artistic and activist positive assertions/strategies for changing the world, using body and personal experience as the starting point.


In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois writes about how people around him were unable to come out and state what they really wanted to discuss. Instead they attempted to commiserate with him about the state of the south, or speak to him about, “ an excellent colored man” they knew. “To the real question,” as he understood it, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois writes, “ I answer seldom a word.” Same with the Positive Assertion panelists.

Not dissimilar to Du Bois’ experience, Whitbread, Mac and Monforte live in a world where people are often unable to talk about living with HIV as a woman, the experience of being trans in a binary culture, the realities of being Mexican in the US, and how it could all intersect with their quality of life, art, AIDS and queerness. (Which can be fine because all three are more than what they discussed on the panel.) Like Du Bois, they also refuse to engage in commiserating with those who can’t even talk the talk. Instead Whitbread, Mac and Monforte create. Through their practice of everyday freedom they understand they are not the “problem”, just like isolating AIDS in order to eradicate it, is not a solution. Rather what we need to be “free” of, are the problems of injustice, misogyny, aidsphobia, transphobia, racism, homophobia and discrimination.

While working towards an "AIDS Free generation" is an important concept, what POSITIVE ASSERTIONS illustrated is the work that is needed is more nuanced than what President Obama may have in mind. As the panelists helped flesh out, those who are working towards an AIDS Free generation need to consider what the idea means to those already living with the virus, the legacy of activism born out government neglect, and the ongoing response of artists, activists and other everyday people who are able to articulate many of the structural issues of our day through AIDS?

As witnessed last night, through Positive Assertions we are able to see the harm HIV causes bodies and possibilities, and the ways in which our work in reducing the harm paves new and bright paths forward.

For an audio recording of the event please email Ted Kerr at Thank you to Howard, Paul, Jamie and the volunteers at The Center. Thank you to the panelists, the Play Smart artists and models, and the audience for coming out!