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Arts & Culture

Fighting the stigmatisation of a virus

Photo by Maxime Bhm on Unsplash



I caught up with filmmaker Ash Kotak for a preview of the AIDS Histories & Cultures Festival 2018.

Where did the inspiration for the festival come from?

Professor Matt Cook, leading queer historian at Birkbeck University of London, was invited to Amsterdam to discuss the possibility of convening parallel AIDS Cultures and Histories festivals — in Amsterdam and in London — in July 2018 to coincide with the International AIDS conference. He made contact with UK colleagues in health, history, and activism, and that’s how it all began.

The festival is convened by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, in partnership with Aesthesia — many varied organisations, businesses, artists, and activists have been involved from the start.

Why do we need a festival about AIDS and HIV?

Because AIDS is an integral part of our past, present, and future. On this 30th year of World AIDS Day, we have an opportunity to look back at AIDS, recognise our achievements, and remember that 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide — 50 percent of them can’t access life-saving medications.

AIDS is still a worldwide issue, which mainly affects women and people of colour — last year 58 percent of new infections were seen in women.

In the UK, it was announced that new HIV infections had dropped in gay men. There’s more to this — it dropped for white gay men, but doubled or even tripled for Black and Asian gay men. There’s a lot more work to be done, HIV is not over.

Who is the target audience for the festival?

This is a festival for everyone. We’re working with all the main affected groups via the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign, the HIV sector, the Haemophilia society, and service users — including the GBT communities, Black African groups, women’s groups, and injecting drug users. A positive HIV/AIDS message we can take from the disaster that is AIDS, is ‘unity’ — AIDS bought together people from different communities to fight for their survival. This is very powerful. The festival program reflects that.

What are some of the highlights of the festival that we should be looking out for?

The whole festival is structured like a university module. The more you attend, the more you learn — but you learn by having fun. The arts are a fantastic way to experience the past and understand other people’s experiences. The struggle against AIDS has a rich creative culture surrounding it. There is a strong academic strand which will be of interest to many interested in history and in the archiving of experiences.

Bridges is the cultural strand of the festival, curated by Aesthesia and the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign. Most events are free or low cost, some are fundraisers for the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign. It’s meant to be fun, and a jolly good night out. The cultural strand includes events led by BAME organisations such as open mic Poetry LGBT — which launches the festival at the Curtain Club in Shoreditch — and Club Kali dance in N19. There’s also the Incite poetry event, with Trudy Howson LGBT Laureate, followed by drag and song with Michael Twaits — with guests from the West End shows at the Phoenix Artist Club in Soho.

The Glory are hosting three events — from film to theatre to a big, anarchic, draggy, pop dance party, featuring images of club life from the 1980s to today.

Gays The Word will host a reading evening of new and old books about people’s experiences from all the communities — including the trans community, and especially looking at women. Or you can join the East London AIDS History walk and pub crawl.

We have a weekend of classical music at the beautiful Fitzrovia Chapel — the remains of the Middlesex Hospital, where one of the first AIDS wards in the UK was established. This will feature a debut by world-renowned HIV doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, who wrote wonderful classical music pieces in NYC at the height of the AIDS crisis, as a way of dealing with his own trauma of seeing his patients and friends die.

There’s also an exhibition of AIDS posters from around the world at the V&A Museum — it’s a brilliant way to learn about the history of AIDS health education worldwide.

Another highlight is a screening of After Louie at the Curtain Club in Shoreditch, including a Q&A with director Vincent Gagliostro. This will be followed by drinks and a special performance by the Joyful Noise Choir, which is made up of people living with HIV.

Is this just a one-off festival, or will it become an annual event?

We’d love to make it an annual event, but lack of funding and resourcing has been a drawback. We’ve put this together on no funding whatsoever, with some amazing help and incredibly hard work from individual activists, organisations, and businesses who’ve gone out of their way to put on events and help make things happen. But, never say never.


How does the festival reflect the changing landscape of HIV?

The sting has gone out of AIDS in the UK, with messages such as U=U being highlighted. PEP and PREP will of course be highlighted, but we must remember that knowledge of these tools is not getting out to BAME Gay Men. AIDS is not over, and too many people are still dying worldwide. We in the West are lucky. I believe we now need to fight for the world towards EndAIDS2030.

What do you hope that people feel as a result of the AIDS Histories & Cultures Festival?

HIV has been demonised and now, in the UK at least, it no longer needs to be. In this country, HIV no longer equals death, but still too many people test too late.

The festival organisers want people to be entertained, to feel enlightened, to be reflective, to stay interested, to be inspired, and feel stronger, with a heightened awareness of HIV issues that affect us all — in the past, present, and towards the future and EndAIDS2030.

We must continue the struggle and the fight and help all people living with HIV in the World. It’s possible, but we must join up together to fight the stigmatisation of a virus, and the moralisation of it which has continued into the 4th decade of AIDS.

AIDS Histories & Cultures Festival 2018 is on in London: 1–31 July 2018

Ash Kotak trained at the London Film School where he graduated with a distinction in producing. He has won a number of awards. His latest films, which he executive produced, are Punched by a Homosexualist, (2018, Russia, documentary, 55 mins), and The Joneses (2016, USA, documentary, 90 mins).

He has set up a company called Aesthesia. Ash teamed up with photographer Juergen Teller, iD Magazine (Spring 2018) and 29 young people affected by the Grenfell Tower to curate a Photography project called “Youth After Grenfell”. He also leads the #AidsMemoryUK Campaign to establish a national tribute to HIV in the U.K.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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Arts & Culture

Giving a voice to gay Arab men



Samer Bo (image supplied)
Samer Bo (image supplied)

I caught up with author Samer Bo to talk about writing erotic gay fiction in Egypt.

What led you to start writing erotic gay fiction?

I was forgetting what was happening. I noticed that when someone asked me about what happened to me the previous week, I couldn’t remember the details.

I think forgetting was my defence-mechanism for all the pain and trouble.

So, I started by writing my diaries, which ended to be quite erotic sometimes. Then that moved to erotic fiction.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your stories?

Inspiration comes from my personal experiences and sometimes my friends’ experiences. Other times, I just meet a guy or watch a movie, and it inspires me to write a story.

Who are your target audience?

I write for myself before anyone else. I’d love all gay men to read and get aroused by my stories.

But I guess I do write for minorities — people who don’t usually get represented in media, porn, or erotic stories. I want people to see themselves represented in my novels.

What sort of feedback do you get from your readers?

I get a lot of positive feedback from people in the Middle East who finally find a voice speaking to them. Some see me as a role model — a type of Egyptian guy that they never see in the media.

Do your friends and family know that you write erotic gay fiction?

Only some close friends know. I’m not in touch with my family anyway. Samer is my real name, but I changed my last name to Bo.

Have you had any negative reactions to the gay erotic fiction that you write?

I only tell people about my writing if I know that they’re either gay or gay friendly. So I haven’t had negative reactions in that respect.

However, I have had multiple incidents of homophobia. I was arrested once.

Son of the President isn’t an erotic story, how did that story come to you?

That story is based on the real-life story of an older friend that I met a few years ago. I told him about my erotic stories, and he asked me to write an erotic story inspired by his experiences.

However, I felt that if I wrote it as erotica, it would take away from the essence of the story. So I left it as non-erotic story.


What do you hope that people feel when reading your stories?

First of all, aroused from my erotic stories. Plus, I want people to feel represented.

Gay Arabs are not represented in any kind of media. We’re being suppressed and discriminated against. A lot of gay men in the Middle East feel that being gay is wrong, and that homosexuality is a sin.

This is my small way to help those men feel better about themselves.

What are some of your goals and ambitions for the remainder of 2018?

More stories, maybe some non-erotic ones. I’m also helping a friend of mine to change his non-erotic short story into a play.

Read the novels by Samer Bo

Follow Samer Bo on Twitter

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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