Trigger warning: I wrote more than I meant to do, and this is 1500 words long. Topics: Feminism, gender, drugs, AIDS, sex, politics (change punctuation to suit.)
I’m a feminist. And a white man. It’s something that some people don’t understand and it’s something that I can talk about at length. I’ve written a blog post about it, but this is not that post. I want to say, “My mother taught me never to open with an apology,” because that would have more poetry, but we are Canadian and the stereotypes are true. And besides that, it was something I read somewhere. Instead, my first call from the Feminist Academic Collective is a call to action.
A short reminder of some history, and one which will point to why it makes sense for men to be feminists: AIDS first took the attention of what we now call the Global North when queer men in the US started not just getting sick, but dying from this as yet unheard of phenomenon. In 1982, it was labelled G.R.I.D.: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. (Oh yes it was. ‘Global North’ and ‘queer’ are just two of the shifts.) It was renamed that same year when folks realised the name wasn’t quite covering everyone who was affected. I’ll speed past the worst bits of the history ‘splanation and get straight to my point: even when it was queer men who were worst affected by AIDS and ‘the AIDS crisis’, women acted.
We can unpack that, but it’s been done elsewhere so I will keep the points salient and brief. Women, queer and straight, were on the front lines of politicising and caring. Men were overwhelmed with what was happening, in some cases preoccupied with grief, or other caring duties. Some kept away variously from stigma or through scarcity. By scarcity I mean lack of resources (money, time, constructive emotions) but I can also talk about lack of knowledge and understanding. That scarcity included ignorance, also fear, and in its ugliest form, bigotry.
And women came to the rescue. To our rescue. To the rescue of men. (And not for the first time, any joking pre-empted.) Queer women, straight friends. Allies. (I apologise for the binary language and the choppy fragments, but going for productive and imperfect.)
The activity, leadership, care, courage, strength and resources of women steered us through the rough waters of those years. My queer friends in their 50s and 60s all lost people, all bore witness. And it was the action of women in that time of crisis that is credited with galvanising the LGBT community, bringing together people who practiced queer identities in very different ways but who demonstrate/d care for each other (and demonstrated, and cared.)
So when I post that blog on why I am a feminist or you read it why men should be feminists, you might decide to just say ‘it’s payback’ but that isn’t my rationale, and it’s a gross oversimplification.
My point? Where are you? Oh there you are. Current day: July 2015. Place: London, England; big cities across the USA; [add location in comments below…]
We have a new crisis. Crystal meth – and drug addiction more widely – is killing queer men. And we need a Feminist Response. We’re going to need – not going to, it’s not the future – we need the action of women to clean this mess up. Yes, I’m a white, educated, gay man, and I’m using my privilege to get stuff done. I’m sounding the alarm. I’m firing out a warning call. We need more help.
(I’m re-reading this and want to just throw in a holler to the many, many clinicians (counsellors, doctors, nurses) and carers who are feminists and who are neck-deep in this already.)
Because you know how this plays out. Right now it is ‘gay men in London’ who are (most) affected (in the UK). But epidemics don’t respect the boundaries of geography, gender, or sexual politics. And when this spreads, and it will spread, who will be affected worst? It will be poorer people. And it will be women and girls. And it can be used to control people. And it will be used to harm women. (Or harm more women more.) Whatever your politics about a woman’s right to her own body, crystal meth will be used in ways to change her rationale and corrupt her agency.
My choice of language is deliberate. This is a call for help and also a call of warning. I have read the study (full study here; executive summary here) from Sigma at London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that documents what is going on in three boroughs in South London. I have read the transcripts of interviews that one of my students recorded with gay men who are in recovery. I have heard the stories from friends, or friends of friends. Men whose lives have been devastated, and also men who don’t think it’s really a problem for them, because…
I’ve also read some of the news stories that are emerging. You might have read them, or heard coverage from a team at the BBC. Productive but imperfect. And then I read some of the responses from other sex-positive critical thinkers who I can only assume are not in London and not seeing what’s happening and not doing research in this community. But here I am, and I’ll say actually, the reporting is fairly measured.
Productive but imperfect. But at this stage our response can’t only be that the word ‘homosexual’ medicalises gay men and elides or erases variation of queer subjectivity. Our response *shouldn’t* only be to conflate drug addiction with HIV (and HCV) transmission – for a whole host of reasons – because, we’ll have to fight that battle/ clean that mess, too. But even I might be willing to let that slide if it does get the attention of the medical and party-political communities and the bods who control the money and work out how much stuff is going to cost to fix. Because it will need fixing. It needs fixing.
And queer men are not doing enough to fix it. (Not able? For similar scarcities as the AIDS crisis?) There are some excellent provisions with not enough resources. There are some thoughtful, intelligent, hard-working people applying different strategies of harm reduction, abstinence, recovery and prevention. But we can do more. Or we need to do more. And we must do that before this becomes a (bigger) issue for women. At the moment there are *relatively* few people who are officially affected by this in the UK, in part because only when people seek help or get in trouble are they recorded. If we’re going to make comparisons with HIV, let’s take that lesson from history and mobilise early. Let’s not *allow* this to become a global epidemic on the same scale as HIV and AIDS now affect women globally.(16 million women were living with a positive HIV diagnosis in 2013. Deaths related to HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for women age 15-49.)
In wider demographics and from research for LGBT health equality in England with which I have been involved, there is not an agreement about ‘drugs’ (a broad category) in terms of definition or personal use. My interviews with men who sell sex reveal something similar; however, what I heard was a pattern that if there was a relationship between drug use and selling sex, there were problems and distress. That becomes a longer post and this is already quite long, but it does support research with vulnerable women who sell sex and discourses of women and girls who are pimped or trafficked.
In sex work or prostitution (depending on your standpoint), discourses, life stories, research, activism, and critique, there is a focus on the intersections of bodies, sex and power. I have spent years deconstructing and unpacking some of that, and other feminists had been doing it long before I arrived on the scene. And we don’t all agree. But there does seem to be some agreement that we do not know (or that people report very differently) how many people are involved or how many people are affected. ‘Drugs’ are a similar situation.
Is there consensus on when and how drugs are/might/can/could be used or should be addressed? No. But in a mix of bodies, sex, and power there is evidence, from research and court testimonies, that drugs get in the way of agency and consent. With crystal meth, there is evidence of sexual assault. There is evidence that men are doing things (or things are done to them) that they would not do or have done in other contexts. They can be ‘making choices’ but with a rationale from a chemically altered brain and body. And often from a standpoint of scarcity which can be financial or emotional. Those scarcities are not only felt by queer men. I’m sounding the call because we need to acknowledge and support a Feminist Response to this crisis, not just to help a population who might seem small and ‘other’ now but to learn from history and prevent a wider crisis that could disproportionately affect poorer women and women in emotionally vulnerable situations.
I have to wrap this up. I said this was a new crisis. None of this is all that new globally. You might have read about meth labs blowing up people’s homes http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/dozens-of-homes-affected-by-fatal-toronto-blast-1.2337342 and you might have binge-watched storytelling about it on Netflix. It’s not new, but it’s not going away on its own.
Let’s be critical, but let’s be clear. I do not think the media is covering this unfairly. We need to address it. And we need to help fix it and prevent it before ‘them’ becomes (more of) ‘us’. Yes, it affects a minority of a minority. We might not like all the language. We might not like to acknowledge that some of us are back in the shit (excuse my language) when we seem to be making so many steps for progress. We might not like that there are liberal thinkers, sex-positive people, queers and even feminists who are imperfect, do things imperfectly and who get into trouble.
The obvious gap in what I’ve written is, ‘So what can we do?’ I’ll leave that for the comments section, in part because this is about dialogue, and in part because I just don’t think we have all the answers yet.