When inmate David Plunkett walked out of Sing Sing Prison last July, members of a New York City group called Queerocracy let out a resounding sigh of relief. Plunkett had been arrested for possession of marijuana in 2006, and in a presumed fit of pique, had bitten his arresting officer on the finger. When the officer found out that Plunkett was HIV-positive, he charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. And, although the policeman did not contract HIV from the encounter, Plunkett was convicted and subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison.
It took six years and countless hours of advocacy on the part of incensed New Yorkers, but when the state Court of Appeals issued its ruling last spring, it found that “saliva should be treated the same as teeth,” which according to a 1999 ruling don’t qualify as dangerous instruments.
It was a triumph for Queerocracy, which formed in 2010 and focuses on issues—like the criminalization of HIV/AIDS—that are largely ignored by mainstream LGBTQ organizations. As part of the Sero Project, a broad, national coalition that supports policies that are based on epidemiology rather than hyped-up fear, the group works to counter the idea that those with HIV/AIDS pose an automatic threat to human health.
Michael Tikili, a Queerocracy board member from Greenpoint, notes that “34 states and two territories currently have HIV-specific laws on the books that are solely applicable to people who are HIV-positive.” Tikili’s rage is palpable as he continues. “A person with HIV or AIDS can be charged and imprisoned for non-disclosure of their HIV status even if no injury, no viral infection or harm, was caused. Non-disclosure can add time to a sentence, and it also means that someone who is convicted of not telling a partner his or her status is forced to register as a sex offender.”
Like others in Queerocracy, Tikili was involved in efforts to free Plunkett and has supported numerous people who have been charged or imprisoned under these statutes. “One of our board members served six months in Louisiana State Prison and now has permanent status as a sex offender because a disgruntled former partner reported that he did not disclose his HIV status to him,” he explains. “Even though the ex was not harmed in any way, this man spent time in prison and will have to report to authorities every three months for the rest of his life.”
As Tikili speaks, Queerocracy’s three staff people shake their heads in exasperation. One of them, Megan Mulholland of Lefferts Gardens, is eager to speak and emphasizes that the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual preference are highlighted in all Queerocracy work. “We want to integrate how the criminalization of people with HIV/AIDS relates to other kinds of criminalization, from the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants to charging people with sexual solicitation if they are carrying condoms at the time of their arrest,” she says.
Camilo Godoy, a Crown Heights resident who is presently a student in a dual-degree program at the Eugene Lang College and Parsons School of Design, facilitates YLegal, a bilingual, Spanish-English Queerocracy project that links immigration reform to issues impacting the LGBTQ community. The four-month-old project not only supports legislation like the Dream Act, but also organizes outreach—letter writing and visits—to inmates who are locked up for either immigration violations or non-disclosure of HIV status.
At the present time, 11 million people in the U.S. don’t have legal immigration status and thus lack access to health insurance, a fair wage, or a college scholarship. According to Godoy, “Comprehensive reform could give them a status that will take them away from deportation.” But he also notes that the conversation focuses on “giving good, hard-working people” a chance at citizenship, and thus “we have to ask if queers are included in this category.” Beyond that, “We also want to focus on enforcement. How much money will go to putting boots on the border instead of other things that immigrants need?”
Cassidy Gardner, a Vermont native who came to New York to attend Eugene Lang College at the New School, was one of Queerocracy’s founders. “There was this idea that the AIDS crisis was over,” she says. “Once the community of largely affluent, white men got access to treatment, there was a lull in activism.” Gardner and a bunch of her fellow students at Lang decided to fill the vacuum. As Gardner recalls, “We began talking about the need for a resurgence of organizing, met other likeminded people, and somehow became Queerocracy.”
To date, the group has participated in die-ins to dramatize the ongoing AIDS epidemic; supported comprehensive immigration reform; protested Uganda’s proposed “kill the gays” bill; bused people to Washington, D.C. for the We Can End AIDS demonstration held during last summer’s international AIDS conference; and facilitated a three-day symposium and art exhibition at the New School to address the ways that HIV/AIDS impacts different constituencies.
Members are currently developing strategies to engage a wider swath of the LGBTQ community—those who frequent the many LGBTQ bars and clubs in the five boroughs. “Night life is a big part of our lives,” Gardner observes, “and we are trying to find a way to bring activism into that. Not everyone is attracted to street actions or protests. Activists tend to organize and attend panel discussions, go to hear people speak, and make and watch documentaries. We are hoping to reach out beyond the usual venues and table at bars and clubs and talk to people before parties begin.” There is talk of creating a Bar Challenge fundraising event to sustain the group’s efforts.
While going into social settings certainly sounds like fun, Queerocracy’s goal is deadly serious: To remind partygoers that 20 to 29-year-olds have the highest rate of HIV transmission of any age group and that 63 percent of new infections are being diagnosed in gay and bisexual men, predominantly of color.
Indeed, Queerocracy’s commitment to protecting and educating the LGBTQ community about the spread of AIDS led members to participate in the group’s most-publicized action, stripping off their clothes in House Speaker John Boehner’s office last fall to present “the naked truth” about the ongoing need for AIDS treatment and service-program funding. The protesters—Gardner, Mulholland, and Tikili were among the seven activists who were arrested—have been greeted with both hosannas and jeers. “Look,” Gardner says, “we wanted to show that AIDS is still a serious concern and we wanted to do something dramatic to remind Congress that people are still dying. No matter what our detractors say, more than 300 TV stations talked about AIDS that day, which they had not been doing, and actually covered funding issues for AIDS programs. We took great joy from this.”
Charges against “The Naked Seven”—they were apprehended for indecent exposure—are currently pending.
HIV/AIDS, of course, is not the only issue impacting the LGBTQ community, which is why Queerocracy casts a queer eye on everything from immigration policies to police brutality. Still, the ongoing pandemic is of primary concern. “For the most part,” Michael Tikili concludes, “very few people are talking about the new infections that are occurring in young, gay-identified, queer bodies. I have to ask myself what it means to be a radically queer black man if I don’t act. I mean, if we as a community don’t do something now, today, and every day, in twenty years half the gay male population will be HIV-positive. I don’t understand how this is not on the agenda of groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, but it is not.”
Tikili’s Queerocracy allies agree. “AIDS and HIV affect a huge percentage of the gay population,” says Megan Mulholland. “We need to keep the pressure on Congress to continue funding the programs that people depend on to survive.” The group expands its focus on issues beyond simple gay marriage and military inclusion. For them, every issue is a queer issue, and so you can bet that Queerocacy will continue to raise a ruckus.
Queerocracy meets every first, third, and fifth Thursday of the month, 7:30 p.m., at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, room 312, in Manhattan. For more information, go to www.queerocracy.org. To participate in YLegal, contact Camilo@queerocracy.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader