Queer, Ill, and Okay: Artists Write to Their Younger Selves on World AIDS Day

On December 2012 I went to get a free HIV test and was diagnosed HIV+. 

I had no health insurance. I was an unemployed artist who, just a few days before, had applied for food stamps. I was paralyzed. I needed to move, but could not find out how to do so for myself. 

So I created someone who could. Someone who, in the following months, would take this new status and transform it into a tool. I would say the words, “My name is Joe Varisco and I am HIV+” at shows, on panels, in articles, as a public face of “HIV today.”

Joseph Varisco 2

Photo by Ji Yang.

I would say this to rooms full of strangers until it became the same as reporting my height, where I was born, what I studied in school. It was a fact. The more I spoke the words, the less I understood what they meant. I was lost. My mind could not find space to understand.  

When I am seeking to understand a new experience, I usually turn to my community and ask them to share knowledge of their own, and oftentimes they generously tell me through dance, poetry, music, film. 

Illness is a powerful queer identifier. It others, it separates, it creates barriers of understanding, stirs deeply embedded stigma and privilege. Illness confronts us with that irrefutable notion that we are all temporary pieces of conscious matter. However, it also reminds us of our resilience, our capacity for political resistance, and the strength we find in healing. When we wrestle with the truth of our own illness we begin to discover the threads of humanity that no barrier can withstand. 

There are a lot of important reasons why I do this work: to spread information, to create conversation, to increase visibility of the underrepresented and the underserved, to change and complicate the narrative. But mostly, more than anything else, I continue this work because I want to keep listening to my community share their stories so I might get a little closer to my own.

Recently I wondered how different my experience would have been if I had their voices to listen to after my diagnosis. I asked a few of these generous folk if they could write letters to themselves before they were diagnosed with HIV or experienced a change in their body’s mobility while living with the challenge of chronic illness. 

I asked them to speak to their younger selves and remember the moments of resilience, resistance, and healing that has changed their life—many times, and most surprisingly, for the better.  

Joseph R. Varisco began a career as an HIV+ social justice advocate turned independent producer and developer of LGBTQIA creative works through programs such as QUEER, ILL + OKAY, the Chicago Queer Arts Mentorship Program, Salonathon, and most recently as program coordinator for the nationally touring exhibit Art AIDS America. @jrvmajesty.

QUEER, ILL + OKAY's is an annual multidisciplinary performance series featuring LGBTQ artists living with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Friday and Saturday December 9, 10 and 16, 17 at Oracle Theatre (1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, IL). Admission is FREE in Public Access Theatre at www.publicaccesstheatre.org.

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