By Joss Barton
I can’t begin without admitting defeat.
When I agreed to become a contributing editor for HIV Here & Now, I knew I wanted to craft a narrative and visual project that would become an honest document on the current state of HIV/AIDS art and activism in America.
I wanted to write about my experiences as a queer transgender femme of color, someone who statistically meets the definition of HIGH RISK: risk of poverty, risk of rape, risk of being imprisoned, risk of being murdered, risk of being profiled, and risk of contracting HIV, in a way that not only honored the lives and stories of marginalized queer and transgender communities, but also said FUCK IT to the respectability politics around how we are expected to talk about HIV and AIDS.
My mind soon filled with dozens of essay ideas. I began writing up a mini-list of artists and writers who were not only exploring HIV/AIDS in their work, but also working in ways that were powerful, poignant, and pushing those narratives in radical and innovative directions. I wanted this project to become a collaboration with these artists in interviews, dialogues, and daydreams of how we found liberation in the shadow of AIDS. Bryn Kelly was at the top of that list.
News of her death a few days later was soul shattering. I met Bryn as a 2013 Fellow at Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging LGBT Writers Retreat. Her aura and personality captivated me from the moment we met. Part of me was insanely jealous of her non-fiction cohorts who got to sit in her presence every morning and share their work with her under the direction of novelist Sarah Schulman. They were getting to know her better than I was. They were bouncing literary critiques back and forth with her and I wasn’t. They were the ones who got to hear her laugh.
Bryn’s work is an incredibly nuanced and intersectional look at the dynamics of modern day transgender liberation and survival in a world that actively seeks to erase marginalized communities. She wrote about poverty and transwomanhood and about living with HIV with stark honesty that allowed her to take raw moments of basic survival and craft them into narratives adorned with poignancy and human compassion. She also found ways to cut her stories with a searing dark humor that, like a narcotic, became an addiction for me whenever reading her work.
My goal with this essay is to give Bryn a proper literary analysis of her work. But I already know that nothing I can say can truly honor the immense genius inside her words. I could spend years truly examining her body of work, but for now this essay will focus on her pseudo-anonymous blog, PARTYBOTTOM, and her short story “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” which was curated for the journal We Who Feel Differently in the issue Time Is Not A Line: Conversations, Essays, and Images About HIV/AIDS Now. I hope what follows honors her narratives in a way that says, without conditions, that an HIV/AIDS art canon devoid of work by transgender women is pure bullshit.
HIV IS MAGIC!
Bryn was no stranger to utilizing pseudonyms in her work. My first encounter with her writing came through her blog The Hussy (an extension of her column of the same name for the now defunct website PrettyQueer.com). While The Hussy is both a diary of her misadventures in dating and sex across Brooklyn, as well as a collection of stream of consciousness musing on gender, transfeminist theory, and snark, PARTYBOTTOM: THE SEXY HIV+ TRANSGENDER BLOG, is a document of incredible importance in the trajectory of future HIV/AIDS narrative art as activism.
Partybottoms, scourge of the BODY POLITIC in LGBT INC., are the irresponsible whores, the THOTS of the parTy, the ones who you can always count on with pockets full of poppers, noses stuffed with cocaine, eyes glassed by molly or meth. In their drug induced states they are also the ones who proudly proclaim NO LOADS REFUSED in online ads, orgy texts, or maybe marked on ass cheeks in black sharpie marker. Partybottoms become the magical, mythical creatures that conjure both repulsion and desire from the social and sexual queer culture. They are the monsters in the bathhouses and the trap houses who we can shame and fuck and write public health grants for under the banner of high risk demography. These are only a sprinkle of the existential reasons that makes Partybottom’s narrative both radical and subversive.
SEXY suggests desire and seduction and is immediately contrasted with thirty-five, years of fear, stigma, paranoia, and death in the term HIV+.
Bryn would often recount a timeless tale via social media about an anonymous commentator on TheBody.com who asks if he was exposed to HIV after sex with a transgender sex worker. The man in the story would be rambling off paranoid questions that he might have become HIV+ after using a condom with a transwoman or something even more banal like a back alley blowjob or handjob. The story is typically set in Brazil or maybe Puerto Rico or perhaps New York but the geography of the tale is irrelevant. The stigma of HIV and of the male-to-female transgender identity is universal enough to fill any province worth of fear and loathing for the cis gaze. Bryn utilized this story to expose not only the stigma and ignorance surrounding HIV but also the immense transphobia and transmisogyny embedded inside the cis consciousness.
This makes Partybottom’s transgender label so crucial to her thinking and her commitment to transliberation. Not only does she unapologetically state that she is a SEXY HIV+ TRANSWOMAN but she knows exactly how you are reading those words. You are walking along that headline with trepidation, with some kind of PC shyness. She knows that folks who share her narrative, trans, HIV+ folk, poor folk, gender nonconforming, may be in on the joke, but even if you are hesitant to celebrate that statement, she doesn’t care. She is going to show you HER TRUTH regardless if you are aroused or not.
On the surface, the blog appears to be another confessional outlet with a focus on the blogger’s serostatus, but there’s much more to it than that. Rather, Partybottom is a historical-ethnographic document that positions the stark realities of survival for a transgender HIV+ woman in the dark heart of neoliberal capitalism: New York City.
Two of Bryn’s first posts, “Experiences With Trans/HIV Health Care in NYC: Part 1,” and “A Tale of Two Trans Care Program Case Managers,” are short narratives on the very real difficulties of being poor and trans and relying on state assistance for one’s HIV meds. Because she is living these experiences, she is able to clearly explain why even the most well intentioned public health institutions and professionals focused on queer and trans* health can still fail those who need their care and attention the most. She cites funding constraints, unappreciated and underpaid staff, high case manager turnover, long hours, and the academic-bubbled world of social work graduate programs as some of the many problems ingrained in HIV/AIDS service organizations.
She also contrasts two very distinct and different forms of care in “A Tale of Two Trans Care Program Case Managers” in a translatina social worker and an ivy-league, genderqueer, white social worker. While she sees that both want to help their clients as best they can with the tools given, she can’t help but understand that the language of care coming from them and their respected institutions are polar opposites.
She writes, “I think it all comes down to hiring practices. If you prioritize education and being able to speak a certain kind of social-work-y, tenderqueer vernacular, you will get providers who can provide services for white, FAAB, transmasculine people. If you prioritize hiring people from the communities you hope to serve—people who have lived the life—you will serve those communities, and, hopefully, serve them well,” (Partybottom, December 13th, 2013).
Bryn’s writing throughout Partybottom also brings together some of the most nuanced and intersectional contemporary perspectives on HIV/AIDS with raw, personal accounts of poverty, welfare benefits, casual erasures of transwomen in HIV/AIDS service organizations, transmisogyny, and the physical and mental effects on marginalized people when their survival is tied to bloated political and medical bureaucracies.
In a post titled “Medicaid Mental Health Bureaucracy: Sooooo boring,” Bryn makes clear how the current systems of HIV/AIDS services for poor folk and people on welfare assumes certain levels of linguistic and technological literacy. She retells a simple story of how her basic computer skills, access to the Internet, a cell phone, and her ability to track down a ghost mental health HMO in the vast density of New York City affords her a small level of comfort; that, although she’s stuck in a cruel maze, she knows that others navigating the same routes, with few-to-none of the same skills, must be holding a much sicker kind of knowledge: One that tells them they are lost and being ignored by bureaucratic systems of care.
Bryn’s analysis of poverty and its relationship to HIV/AIDS ranges across her posts from her microscopic accuracy in charting the complexities of government housing assistance for PLWHA to the almost dystopian absurdities of Medicaid. The genius of how she describes all of this rests in her ability to convey the ugliness of oppression with moments of compassion and empathy.
For example, in her incredibly raw essay, “The HIV Welfare Merry-Go-Round: A Day In The Life,” she deals with matters quite literally of life or death: the threat of losing her case management, access to her HIV meds, and possibly her housing. She draws the reader a road-to-nowhere map of state and federal public health tightropes that she and other poor HIV+ citizens are forced to endure for their basic survival. At one point, Bryn finds herself in the halls of a Social Security office when she overhears two strangers discussing how to apply successfully for food stamps.
This is not the first time I’ve seen this go down—in these weird liminal spaces, total strangers who share nothing but the commonality of poverty—well, somehow we all manage to form some sense of solidarity. We make small talk. We encourage each other. We share advice about what we have learned about the system. We make sure that we are taken care of. In small, understated, undramatic ways, we show each other tiny acts of love. And there is beauty in that. (Partybottom, August 1, 2014.)
HERE IS NO HEALING FOR YOU
Bryn’s 2014 short story “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” a beautiful, emotionally jarring narrative, walks the reader through the fictional day of SHE, a young, working-poor, HIV+ transwoman fucking and dreaming in New York City.
SHE strolls through Brooklyn, watches Scratch & Win! lotto players:
The cashier pulls from the crowded rolls of scratch-offs, a cascade of unspooling paper, but the deft clerk seems to have eight hands, handling the unfurling chaos while simultaneously wolfing down Sun Chips. She wonders if her boss ever gives her a break. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”)
Buys beans, cornmeal mix, limes, some eggs, and stares through a blurry contact lens:
There is something wrong with her contacts. They are stained with waterproof mascara, making everything is a little blurry, so she hunches over the counter to make sure every letter is in its proper box on the little form. In the “amount to send” box, she writes $235, a week’s worth of wages she has earned as a receptionist at a Lower East Side salon, paid under the table. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”)
Bryn’s ability to describe the interior mind with complex detail through a mundane errand is the narrative foundation to the consciousness of SHE. We learn about a new subletter, see her transmasc boyfriend jacking off in her bed, we smell her kitchen.
Bryn also gives us her projection of the NEO-CLASSIC TRANSSEXUAL. Vidal had Myra Breckinridge; Bryn gives us something fucking better. SHE contemplates her favorite drugs:
Her favorite pharmaceutical—hands-down (and she’s tried them all)—is Valium. She has an immense tolerance for it. Valley-yum. The “valley” in the name reminds her of Valley of the Dolls and the glamorous downward spiral of Neely O’Hara: dolls to wake her up in the morning, dolls to put her to sleep at night….She likes having about a pound of pills around. There’s something transsexually, femininely classique about it, and she loves anything feminine and classique (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).
And how she likes to fuck: “She wants to be fucked like dogs fuck—a few thrusts, then cum, then a knot to tie the two animals together to give them time to imprint on each other, and then to be done with it” (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).
Bryn’s neo-classic transsexual is unapologetically femme and lives in an incredibly violent and pornographic world (pornography defined as war, capitalism, penetration). Her SHE is a symbol for the soft girls who worshiped gods and idols in Gilead, and the ones being murdered in Detroit. SHE is also HIV+ and her serostatus brings an even deeper layer of conceptualism to the consciousness. SHE’s serostatus never sits far from her waking mind as she and her boyfriend talk Truvada and discuss if he should start PrEP.
One of the brightest gems of the story is when SHE connects “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” a church spiritual from her childhood, and the Bible scriptures it references, to her boyfriend, to HIV medications, and to the virus inside her.
The title of the story, “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” is itself a complex intervention in the discourse of HIV/AIDS. The notion of “balm in Gilead” refers to the biblical trope of a medicinal balm (made in the ancient city of Gilead) as a metaphor for divine redemption. The same biblical Gilead inspired the name of the pharmaceutical company, founded in 1987, that manufactures some of the leading treatments for HIV, including Truvada, the only drug currently approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as PrEP.
One of the brightest gems of the story is when SHE considers “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” a traditional African-American spiritual that SHE remembers from her childhood (and the Bible scriptures it references), and connects the song to the pharmaceutical company Gilead and the medications it markets. The beautiful and poignant passage in the story breaks open conflicts of hope, stigma, bareback sex, desire, destruction, disease and healing. SHE muses, in part:
Do these tablets offer the promise of curing the guilt and shame we’ve felt after taking a raw dick (or two, or ten) up the ass? Does it promise God’s mercy for our abominable Romanesque transgressions? Instead of stigma, will we be given stigmata, to mark our holiness? Does the soul, which has been degraded by poverty, by neglect, by racism, by homophobia, the soul that has always been told it has nothing to live for, now, somehow, have the promise of tomorrow? Of hope and everlasting life? (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).
Bryn writes a character rich in desires and dreams but crafted with the true complexities of life: poverty, cooking dinner, making her lover cum. She creates someone who, in the quiet moments of existence, reflects our own small acts of transliberation. Bryn writes,
The Wikipedia article on long-term benzo addiction says that they degrade your cognition over the course of use, but sometimes she thinks she had too much cognition to start out with. Dolls. Years of estrogen shots, electrolysis, the back-alley snip by a half-trained medical student in a dingy hotel in Michigan, the thousands of hours spent on makeup and hair perfection and perfectly fitting clothes that show off her best assets. Dolls. She wants to be soft for him in every way. Soft, soft, soft. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).
TAKE THEM PILLS BB
I won’t pretend that this literary analysis of Bryn’s writing comes close to fully examining her body of work and its profound influence on the formation of contemporary transfeminist theory and transliberation narratives.
Her story and her art begin at the dawn of a digital era that has been shaped dramatically by the contributions of queer and trans* artists, activists, and accidental academics. The Internet has always given voice and space to the marginalized, and it is no coincidence that much of Bryn’s work will be forever coded onto the digital queer landscape. Just as I discovered The Hussy through an algorithmic dance on Tumblr, so will other future queer and trans* folk be introduced to her writing as it spreads, like a femme virus, across screens and feeds.
Sadly, this essay doesn’t even begin to truly dissect some of Bryn’s most vital and groundbreaking contributions to an HIV/AIDS art canon. In her essay, “How To Be A Good Roommate To Someone Living With HIV/AIDS,” Bryn crafts a monumental document of HIV/AIDS care that should be required reading for anyone contemplating medical, social, or cultural work around HIV/AIDS. In it, she not only lays out the complex housing blueprint for PLWHA when their housing is tied to state assistance, but she also bluntly details the emotional and physical realities that HIV+ people deal with everyday as they negotiate spectrums of survival and health. She writes with pinpoint accuracy about the consequences of homelessness for PLWHA, how unstable living conditions result in unstable antiretroviral regimens, the unique legal challenges facing undocumented HIV+ people seeking housing, and the fragility of an HIV+ person’s safety when their serostatus is disclosed without their permission. Bryn narrates these realities to point out the obvious: STIGMA AND POVERTY CREATE AN AIDS HOUSING CRISIS.
She tells us through her writing that a world built on greed, on binaries, on racism, and on the casual erasure and indifference to the most marginalized among us will continue to breed suffering in the human condition. She wrote to say that only a movement based on an intersectional commitment to transliberation, to anti-racism, to evolving beyond neoliberal capitalism, and to ending HIV stigma can alleviate the enormous psychic pain these various forms of oppression bring to the world. She wrote to restore dignity.
Her words were born from what can only be defined as the biblical state of grace, where one’s core encounters the divine in the most quiet and desolate of places, where the cosmic brushes against the soul to whisper truths that can only be translated by those willing to become specters for a disillusioned nation.
Bryn’s last post for Partybottom was a written response to an anonymous, young, HIV+ reader who asks her for reasons why they should take their pills when the weight of their depression seems too much to make any difference. Bryn lists her own personal reasons for staying on antiretrovirals, including a degree of health to work from when facing her own episodes of depression and the guilty pleasure of melodramatics with her friends and lover. She ends her list casting a stream of consciousness spell that transports the reader into dimensions still uncharted:
– YOU HAVE TIGER BLOOD AND ADONIS DNA –
– YOU HAVE BECOME A CYBORG GOD/DESS –
– YOU ARE EVOLVED BEYOND THE GRASP OF A MERE VIRUS THAT HAS CLAIMED THE LIVES OF 39 MILLION PEOPLE –
– YOU ARE THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE –
– YOU ARE THE BASTARD STEP DAUGHTER OF STATE SOCIALISM AND GLOBAL CAPITALISM –
– YOU ARE NEW PHARMACOPORNOGRAPHIC REGIME –
– YOU –
– HAVE –
– T I G E R –
– B L O O D –
(Partybottom, November 17th, 2015).