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UnDEAD!

undeadIn the abysmal UK documentary Chemsex (2015), there’s a horrible moment where one gay man describes his peers who use drugs for sex as “the walking dead.” Let’s think about this derogatory imagery for a moment. What should we make of this abject figure, the queer zombie?

The walking dead are beings whose claim on life is so tenuous and wrong and desperate they’re regarded as a monstrous affront and threat to the living order. In fact, this characterisation of drug users is a well-trodden stereotype appearing in multiple sites, from judicial discourse to popular culture.  Effectively, it demonises people who use drugs by suggesting their lives are unnatural and not worth living.  It’s a callous and demoralising insinuation that is destructive of lives and hopes for the future.

Last weekend, Unharm‘s Queer Contingent decided to bite this bullet hard, and threw an outrageous party to celebrate sexy demons, queer community, the growing movement around drug use, and killer dress-ups. Held on the weekend of the Day of the Dead, UnDEAD brazenly embraced the figure of the zombie, inhabiting it playfully and irreverently, to throw this configuration of abuse back in the faces of those who project it so vomitously. A perverse and confronting strategy, perhaps – not everyone’s cup of tea – but the sort of manoeuvre that has long been critical for queer thinking and queer survival.

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This wasn’t “just a party”, it was serious fun. UnDEAD aimed to pay homage to the role queer parties have played in promoting vital practices for wellbeing: lively communities; cultures of care; and the invention of forms of safety that respect the transformative powers of pleasure.

The gay club scene in Sydney helped build the communities that responded so effectively to HIV and which have continued to devise inventive ways of looking after each other. Queer parties have sparked initiatives encouraging the safer use of substances like MDMA and GHB and led to the development of new ways of taking care of people in party environments.

These spaces and the communities they helped forge have come under pressure lately from lockout laws and a longer history of harassment through drug detection operations. The onslaught is intensifying at a time when more and more people are beginning to realise ‘we can’t arrest our way out of’ drug-related problems, and that communities (rather than law enforcement) are the most effective way forward.

Queer communities have been breaking new ground in this domain, but bad laws and aggressive enforcement are blocking progress, and have the added effect of chipping away at the bonding possibilities that have been so significant within queer party culture and been the basis for care strategies.

UnDEAD was the brainchild of Fiona McGregor; who put the party on with the help of comrades from the Unharm Queer Contingent, their mates and supporters. Legendary Sydney queer DJs Ben Drayton, Steve Sonius, DJ Gemma and HipHopHoe electrified the dance floor with killer beats and sounds. Partygoers were also treated to deadly performances from iconic queer performers  Glitta Supernova, Willow Darling and Matthew Stegh, who brought the house down.

But most of all, UnDEAD was one of those thrilling events that demonstrates how inventive, playful, daring and caring our community can be. We were blown away by the creativity, guts and sheer nerve of all the queer souls who came out in the middle of the night to claim the dance floor and support the growing movement. Renowned photographer William Yang captured some of the magnificent creatures who graced our party – check out his pictures of the event here (further snaps from SXNews here). To summon the ghost of Oscar Wilde, let’s just say that reports of the death of Sydney queer culture are greatly exaggerated.

Unharm is a grassroots organisation that campaigns to make drug use as safe, positiveand ethical as possible. That includes changing laws, like the criminalisation of drug use, that make it harder for people to live well.

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The Unharm Queer Contingent formed in early 2016 and has gone from strength to strength this year, hosting a stall at Mardi Gras Fair Day; participating blocs in public rallies such as Reclaim the Streets and Keep Sydney Open; and convening community events such as Party safer and save our parties, Queer Chemistry, and a public screening of the documentary Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague that brought key figures in the debate over Sydney nightlife together to discuss how to apply this local history to present controversies.

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The Unharm Queer Contingent wants to turn queer culture’s flair for wicked dance moves into something even more wicked – a dance/community generated movement. It’s happening right now, and it’s thrilling. Rise up, queer creatures of the night, and stake your claims! Let’s make a world where people aren’t criminalised for using drugs. Let’s get drug detection dogs out of our celebratory spaces, and pill testing happening at music festivals. Let’s work out better ways of looking after each other, whether friends or strangers, and put them into action.

If you want get involved, you can find out more by joining our online community discussion forum, or simply come along to our next event, to be determined.

Meanwhile, read this recently published review of some of the research literature on queer culture, drug use and sexual health to familiarise yourself with some of the facts, figures, issues and challenges that inform our work.

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Filed under Drug dogs, Erogenous zones, Medicine and science, Parties, PNP culture, Police, Policy and programs, Uncategorized

Thinking with Pleasure

I’m off to Norway to give some workshops and a couple of talks about my research at the University of Oslo.  I’m excited to have the opportunity to meet researchers and students from the schools of public health and medical anthropology there.  I’ve organised the workshops around my work on pleasure, digital sex, HIV prevention and harm reduction – and I’ve attached the outline here: thinking-with-pleasure-norway-workshops.  It will be a great opportunity to workshop these pieces so I can pull them all together, as they’ll form the basis of the monograph I’m due to deliver by the end of the year: The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV

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Filed under Affect, Antiretrovirals, Devices and technology, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, HIV behavioural surveillance, Masculinities, Medicine and science, Online meeting sites, Parties, PNP culture, Policy and programs, Self-medication, Sexual practice, The statistical imagination, Uncategorized

The Poppers Effect

imageSharif Mowlabaccus’s discussion of the UK Psychoactive Substances Bill and its implications for gay erotic lubricants

 

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Filed under Devices and technology, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, Masculinities, PNP culture, Police, Self-medication, Sexual practice, Uncategorized

Why William Yang’s “Friends of Dorothy” is a more important film than Neil Armfield’s “Holding the Man”

We watched the film version of William Yang’s “Friends of Dorothy” last night. While Neil Armfield’s recent film adaption of Tim Conigrave’s “Holding the Man” was beautifully acted, directed and conceived, and the two films are totally different in genre, I much prefer Yang’s account of that moment in history to the recent adaptations of “Holding the Man”.

Conigrave’s book and its adaptations certainly touch on the importance of community politics, festivity and subcultural life, (but very briefly, and less and less so in the stage and film iterations I might say). But as touching, moving and heart-wrenching as Holding the Man is, it is the sort of representation oriented around loving couples, family drama and romantic loss that today’s homonormative context wants and likes to tell itself.

Community politics and popular culture are all but jettisoned from the film version of Holding the Man … (though from memory there was at least a brief reference to the Mardi Gras party in the opening scene of the theatre production. Nothing like that survived the final cut of the film. One threeway in a sauna is the only reference to australia’s gay sexual subculture and it is framed diegetically as a distraction/problem).

There are loving couples, romance and loss in Yang’s “Friends of Dorothy” too, and Yang doest shy away from the personal significance of loving relationships between men in couples (thruples, etc). But what Yang captures that Holding the Man doesn’t is the collective creativity of a subculture, community and scene that made modern gay life in Sydney what it is, (or rather, was). More than any love story, that’s the account that needs remembering and passing on.

Tragic love stories are just that: tragic, tear-jerking, and beholden to a private version of intimacy that is ultimately a very small part of the story. There’s much more to be remembered about gay life in this town and much more to be said about what makes our history unique.

Holding the Man is an important story to remember, but let’s not forget what was dynamic and important and much more powerfully found among Friends of Dorothy

 

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Party Safer and Save Our Parties

Unharm’s Community Meeting on Drug Policy and LGBTIQ Activism

Cultures of care and collective pleasure have long been features of LGBTIQ communities. Drug use is a reality of many people’s lives and of party scenes, and LGBTIQ communities have a great track record of keeping people safe and well at dance events and beyond.

For over a decade now, NSW police have used sniffer dogs as a pretext for subjecting sexual and racial minorities, the homeless, and youth attending music festivals to harassment and intimidation. These police operations have had a corrosive effect on queer party culture, leading many of us to avoid what have traditionally been some of the most significant events for queer community-formation.

The issue came to a head at the 2013 Mardi Gras, when numerous accounts of police harassment surrounding the event led LGBTI Sydney-siders to take to the streets en masse to protest the intrusive and heavy-handed policing of our communities.

Since that time, a wider critique of drug policy and practice has emerged within the broader dance community and harm reduction movement, with groups such as Unharm mobilizing to make changes to drug policing on the basis of public health concerns and civil rights.

The recent deaths of three young people at Stereosonic parties around Australia ­– despite massive police drug dog operations at each event – has prompted calls from a range of experts for more effective ways to ensure the safety of those who use drugs to enjoy dance parties.

As anyone familiar with dance culture knows, death is only one (very rare) possibility associated with the consumption of party drugs, and it can be avoided when the right governance arrangements are in place. Pill testing is one initiative that has been successful in European countries and there are no doubt many others that will help people party more safely.

Since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, LGBTI communities have been at the forefront of innovations in harm reduction. For a long time, we’ve recognized the need to develop and maintain cultures of care at dance events and more broadly. Projects such as the ACON Rovers are leading the way in terms of community-driven harm reduction, among other efforts, and there is much to be learnt from such initiatives.

On Monday 11 January, UNHARM is hosting a meeting on drug policy and LGBTIQ organizing in Sydney. The meeting aims to build on the vibrant history of LGBTIQ community activism here, and the growing movement for better drug laws and safer drug use. Come and share your ideas about drugs, LGBTIQ lives, party culture, practices of care, and law enforcement in Sydney today.

The meeting will include a discussion of Unharm’s goals for the coming year, as well as plenty of space to share your ideas about priorities and strategies for activism.

Come along to help keep Sydney vibrant, caring and queer!

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Public Engagement with Science – symposium today, Melbourne Room 2, 11am – 12.30pm #AIDS2014

There is a long pathway between demonstrating efficacy in clinical trials of new anti-HIV technologies and proving effectiveness in “real world” settings. That pathway is paved with combinations of technological, behavioral, social, political, and economic factors that ultimately play out in the actions of individuals to take up (or resist taking up) HIV prevention and treatment methods and incorporate them into their daily lives. To a great extent, whether and how this occurs is a reflection of public engagement in HIV/AIDS science—from basic perceptions and attitudes about biomedical research; meanings people give to products, technologies, their bodies, and their relationships; participation in and knowledge of the outcomes of research; and communication about scientific processes and outcomes. 

This session will examine how public engagement in science has evolved in the realm of HIV, including issues of inclusion, exclusion, exploitation and benefit, and what constitutes sound scientific research and actionable evidence.

Co-chairs: Judith Auerbach, Veronica Noseda

Speakers: Patricia Kingori, Pedro Goicochea, Kathleen MacQueen, Kane Race

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Can you unlock?

One of the things I’m aiming for in the Changing Spaces project is to achieve an account of how the internet is participating in changing forms of gay sociability that grasps what is happening now but avoids getting trapped in the ‘decline of gay life’ thesis that has become such a familiar lament in both everyday and academic discussions.  You know the one: “once upon a time we had gay community, but then the internet destroyed all that/ Once we were public, communal, sharing caring types of people, now we are individual and isolated consumers/ Once we knew how to socialize and flirt and have fun, now the only offshoot of cruising is RSI”.  Not that there aren’t elements of truth to claims like these, and of course the alternative position – ‘nothing’s changed’ – is just as unsatisfying.  But I want to think more carefully about what is, or could be, emerging in relation to online phenomena and the relays and subtle interferences with more established practices and venues of social life.

Here, I’m encouraged by internet scholars’ Daniel Miller and Donald Slater’s refusal of the ‘merely virtual’ account of the internet (i.e. the idea that the internet is another world completely divorced from real life).  They propose to treat online phenomena as ‘embedded in and continuous with’ other social spaces, and the move makes a lot of sense. You only need think about the way details of people’s online profiles enter into everyday conversation to recognise this point. Use of sexual media is threaded through urban gay sexual culture – supporting, extending and reconfiguring existing venues of sexual socializing – often in quite funny ways – while also drawing from many of its practices and conventions.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how the existence of online cruising profiles adds a whole new sphere of information to public discussion.  Just as Facebook allows the transmission of a whole lot of recent details without face to face contact, such that we often know someone’s intimate news well before catching up for coffee, sexual media allows some types of information to circulate that may make for a different sort of sex public, to borrow a term from Berlant and Warner’s dynamite essay. (Incidentally, Berlant and Warner don’t seem enthusiastic about the possibilities of online sociability in “Sex in Public’.  They `refer to ‘cathecting the privatized virtual public of the internet’ as though it were some sort of sad alternative to the ‘real thing’.  I share their frustration at the apparent loss of certain sexual spaces, of course, but the essay stops short of thinking about how the internet is actually done and carried over into other spaces and practices)

This new sphere of information consists of statements – usually pretty graphic statements – of sexual interests, sexual self-presentation, the ubiquitous cock-pic, etc. – once considered intrinsically private, but which now become par for the course in face-to-face chat and discussion. ‘’Check out what he says on his profile!” “Didn’t you know? That’s Sydneypig!”  Who would have thought 15 years ago you would know more about someone’s bits or preferred sexual activities before having a conversation with them or even knowing their name?  Usually this public discussion is conducted in the mode of gossip, rumour, scandal, intrigue, hearsay etc. But unlike earlier instances of gossip and the like, what is different is that these details can now be substantiated, in principle, with reference to a relatively accessible, public archive.  It’s a whole new reference point and source of intimate speculation.

Typically this observation would raise the standard privacy concerns – some things just shouldn’t be aired in public.  But I guess I’m more favourably disposed to the fun and momentum of sexual community, which has always relied, after all, on teasing at the distinctions between public and private so that new forms of experience can be shared.  I like that this has become a new dynamic that is giving rise to playful new sorts of exchanges between people (which is not to say these exchanges are always comfortable or without risk).  The most interesting question, I reckon – though I don’t have an answer to it yet and hope people can help me think about it – is how this new articulation between ‘private details’ and ‘public banter’ is playing out in practical terms?  What is it affording, what’s distinctive about it, what is it producing and what can be made of it?

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Filed under Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, Online meeting sites, Parties, Sexual practice, Uncategorized