I am trying to write these reading notes quickly, almost as I read. Unlike on twitter, this format/platform feels less like notation and more composed like a blog post or review. One strategy is to post before I finish something, as I did on twitter and then update the post with additional thoughts. Reading notes as process notes, perhaps? Basically, I’m still figuring this out.
Right now, I am reading Steven W. Thrasher’s The Viral Underclass, which I would describe as an articulation of illness politics as a practice of love. I use “articulation” in Stuart Hall’s double sense of the term: as both a form of expression where the form of expressing matters and as linkages between certain elements and conditions that are possible but not inevitable or essential.
Thrasher’s chapter “From Athens to Appalachia” links AIDS activism and care practices in Greece and West Virginia through stories of how a viral underclass is produced and maintained in these places, such that the underclass is a space as much as an individual or group of people. But Thrasher also shows, importantly, how people living in these conditions respond to their situation in creative and caring ways. Thrasher makes connections between people and communities and forms of activism—for example, from harm reduction programs responding to an HIV outbreak in Athens after the Greek economic crash to programs in West Virginia responding to outbreaks of HIV, Hepatitis C, and overdose that were modeled on the Athens programs. I’d add another historical connection, which is that Greek immigrants in the early 20th century emigrated to West Virginia to work in the mines and steel mills of the Ohio River valley, including members of my Greek grandmother’s family who ended up in Wheeling. The anti-immigrant, anti-trans, and HIV stigma that led to the violent death of Greek AIDS activist and Zak Kostopoulos (aka drag queen: Zackie Oh) shows how such stigmatizing violence must forget this other history of Greeks on the move searching for a better life amid economic hardship and political conflict.
Thrasher warns us in the introduction that many of the protagonists of his stories of the viral underclass will die, telling us to “consider grabbing some tissues” (18). The portraits here are deeply moving. Thrasher has a way of capturing community activists in action by providing touching details about their character and work along with careful analysis of the structural violence they are up against. I needed those tissues when I read Thrasher’s chapter on Lorena Borjas, a trans activist from Jackson Heights, Queens who was HIV positive and worked for decades providing resources for Black and Brown and trans sex workers in Queens to help them practice safer sex, beat addiction, avoid arrest, post bail, and get free from oppressive situations. Thrasher shows how Borjas’s activist philosophy and practice was to show up for others and convince others to join her in showing up for others. Showing up for and with others sounds simple but is of course incredibly difficult to sustain. Yet, Borjas sustained this practice of love right up until she became sick with COVID in March 2020. Thrasher tells the heartbreaking story of her illness and death, noting “There was a sad irony at the end of her life. Lorena always showed up with people.” “But at the end of it all,” he continues, “except perhaps for the respiratory technician and nurses on duty as she drew her final breaths, Lorena Borjas was physically alone. [Her partner] Chaparro, [friend] Cecilia [Gentili], [fellow trans activists] Chase [Strangio], [Lynly] Egyes, all the thousands of people she’d given condoms and syringes and food to on Roosevelt Avenue—none of them could be with her to hold her hand in the final transitional moments of her earthly journey” (149). Many tributes followed Borjas’s untimely death at just 59, including from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who lauded Borjas as the “mother of the trans Latinx community in Queens” (149). Thrasher’s work also situates Borjas’s activism in Queens, while linking it beyond Queens in time and space in and through his book about The Viral Underclass. This is what I call #IllnessPolitics—a way of countering what Thrasher calls “viral vulnerability” through transhistorical and transnational connections between multimodal forms of activism and movements.