Friday, November 14, 2014

On WITNESS UGANDA, PrEP, and Accidental Activism

One of my friends told me he thought this blog was just going to be a pile of theatre reviews, and putting the word "sex" in the title was just a cynical way of lining up readers. This post puts the lie to that - it starts out being about theatre, yes (though it's not really a review), and a key theme it picks up takes us over to the "sex and longing" side of the world.

Tonight, INTIMAN Theatre Festival presented a work called WITNESS UGANDA. INTIMAN was, for years, a major year-round theatre company in Seattle; several years ago, it collapsed under its debt and cancelled its in-progress season, and pulled back to reorganize, tackle its debt, and rethink its mission. The then-Assistant Artistic Director, Andrew Russell, who subsequently became Producing Artistic Director, led the rethinking of INTIMAN as a summer festival. In each of its first two seasons, they produced four works in repertory, including both plays and musicals, both new works and fresh thought on old ones. (A few examples were a staging of LYSISTRATA set in an American military base in Afghanistan; Dan Savage's MIRACLE! - which answered the question "what if Helen Keller was a 1990s Seattle drag queen?"; and the new musical STU FOR SILVERTON, about the first trans mayor in the United States - as far as we know, anyway.) This summer, the festival featured ANGELS IN AMERICA, as well as several new and existing works that supported its themes. The last production of this year - I'm starting to think of it as a "stealth" year-round operation - was tonight's offering.

WITNESS UGANDA is a work in development by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Originating in Matthews' six-week volunteer education work in Uganda a decade ago, it follows his personal journey (and that of Gould, his partner in theatre and life), as well as the project it grew into, the Uganda Project, which has taken about a dozen young people who wanted to be able to afford an education through high school, university, and into their working lives. The full production, with a cast of 14 and an orchestra of 9, is slated for Broadway in the fall of 2015. Tonight's performance was not a performance of it, but something else entirely: part tasting menu, part duologue, part fundraiser, part barn-raiser, totally inspiring. (Read here for more on the show, and here for more on the Project. And if they come to your town before the show hits Broadway, see them.)

Of course, the Project is the focus, but not the whole experience, because the experience of two gay Americans relating to Uganda in the era of the Anti-Homosexuality Law is not just about their work, but also, about themselves, their souls, their very existence. The fact that they are gay has become a challenge to their work, and potentially, to not only their freedom and their lives, but to those of the students as well, given that the penalties under the now-overruled-but-potentially-resubmitted Law affect not only homosexuals, but anyone who knows one and fails to report them. Matt and Griffin set out to be artists, educators, and sponsors - the circumstances made them activists as well, in a way they never intended. And as the students dealt with the knowledge and its potential consequences, it did the same to them. If brought the whole family, to varying degrees, into "accidental activism."

Cut to: my world today. (Here's where the "sex" part starts, sort of.)

Since August of 2012 - about three weeks after interim guidelines for its use were issued - I've been participating in an HIV prevention strategy called "pre-exposure prophylaxis," or PrEP. Once my negative HIV status was confirmed by the latest tests, I began to take a single pill of Truvada daily. While HIV treatment regimens today use three-drug combinations, two of the drugs most commonly prescribed are also available in a single two-drug pill. Many studies have shown that PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection dramatically when taken daily (and is tolerant of missing the occasional dose) - in one recent study, not a single infection occurred in anyone taking the pill at least four times a week, regardless of how much or how little they used condoms.

The idea of an HIV prevention strategy that is anything other than the "use a condom 100% of the time" message that has lost effectiveness as HIV itself lost the edge of terror is upsetting to many people. Ironically, while many of my straight friends have said they found it to be a no-brainer - including my fourth-year med student niece, who said, "well, there's no vaccine, and no cure, so you should protect yourself as best you can" - the pushback in parts of the gay community has been vicious, labeling people everything from selfish hedonists to pawns of Big Pharma. It's far from ubiquitous, but the anti-PrEP drumbeat has been heard in corners of the prevention community, and most recently, from a certain out-of-the-closet movie star.

Now, when I started on PrEP, I didn't say, "Hey, self, here's a cause you can comment on endlessly everywhere from Facebook to The Huffington Post and bang your head on your desk multiple times a day." Really, that wasn't my plan. I was just going to take my pill every day and protect my health. 

It's not like I'm uncomfortable being an activist. I worked on non-discrimination and/or domestic partner benefits policies at three Silicon Valley companies; I was a founding member of Dartmouth College's first sorta-LGBT-student-association, Students for Social Alternatives; I participated in Kiss-Ins and Queer Stereotypes on Parade demonstrations at shopping malls with Queer Nation San Francisco; I marched through the streets of San Francisco and helped occupy the Bay Bridge in protest of the first Gulf War (and, to bring back the "sex" theme while staying PG, let's just say that a couple of us exuberantly burned off the adrenaline high in a private place between the time we ordered post-protest dinner and the time it arrived - ah, dear, departed, and fiercely ironically named Baghdad Cafe!)... But being labeled a PrEP activist was never the plan. Yet, well, here we are.

What's the take-away? Now, I'm by no means equating putting your life and freedom on the line with commenting on blogs. But... Sometimes, just doing what you have to is activism, whether you mean it to be or not.

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