Every morning since early 2018, I take one little pill daily that has changed the lives of myself and that of millions of others who also use it. I started taking this pill after finding out that, yet again, I had narrowly avoided contracting an HIV infection through sex with a dear friend who didn’t yet know he was positive at the time. I already knew then that HIV was no longer a death sentence, I knew people living with HIV could lead long and healthy lives, I knew that people with adequate access to medication could have undetectable viral loads and therefore not pass the virus on. I also knew I wanted to stay negative. Luckily, I was living in London at the time, where it was possible, long before the Netherlands, to access PrEP—the pill that prevents HIV from taking hold on your body—for free.
One little pill, a daily ritual; one I need to remind myself of by using an app that notifies me when I haven’t taken the pill that stands between me and chronic illness. People close to me who do live with HIV also take a pill daily; yet for them it is the pill that stands between them and severe illness, if not death. Their and my bodies can now intertwine, exchange, melt and become one, without any of us ever having to worry about reproducing this virus that is still at the root of a huge epidemic in the Global South, including my birth country of Sri Lanka.
It was in Sri Lanka, while growing up there, that I first learned about the existence of AIDS and HIV. Not in the stereotypical sense in which it is still often seen here in Europe—as a “disease of gay people and of poor Africans”—but I encountered it, in fact, as a non-discriminate disease targeting potentially anyone (mostly poorer people) who didn’t use adequate protection. It was much later that I learned about the European connotations of it being a disease of the Other: queer and gay people, trans people, people of colour, sex workers, drug users, other marginalised groups, and, of course, former colonies.
One little pill, taken daily, that keeps the levels of the medication in my blood at a stable level that knocks out the Human Immunodeficiency Virus as soon as it enters my body. My body has become a stronghold, a closely guarded queendom; the virus cannot grasp it. This same body is the product of countless generations of thrice colonised Sri Lankan humans, yet I know the name of only one of them. My lineage is unknown to me—I was adopted by loving white Dutch parents as the child of a Sri Lankan woman and an unknown man; therefore, for all I know, my biological great-great-great-great-grandparents could well have been a nonconsensual liaison between the Dutch colonial presence and the indigenous Sri Lankan people. Perhaps the first line of the Dutch national anthem, ben ick van Duytschen bloet (‘am I of Germanic blood’) is truer for me than I realise, though I refuse to sing it. Did people sharing my blood and genes ever succumb to this virus, or to another illness that I myself would survive by simply having access to medication and treatment? Were some of them also queer, or sex workers, or drug users, in a sense that I could comprehend with my mind that was raised to think like a European?
One little pill, one that used to be part of the combination therapy to treat people living with HIV; marketed under the former brand name Truvada, before the capitalist patent expired and it became possible to supply it affordably. The first patent-free, low-cost PrEP I used was manufactured in India, yet AIDS and HIV still rage destructively amongst the peoples of the Global South. Do my biological cousins whose existence I do not know of have the same access to this medication that I treat my body to daily? I fear I know the answer.
One little pill manifesting its glorious power inside this body. This brown body, that I choose to label as queer, non binary, polyamorous, when I feel the pressure to be legible, to be understood. In another version of this life, carrying those identities, I would have been dead a thousand times already; yet death also fuels my existence in this life.
This body remembers the images it saw when death was merely a part of life to be seen all around us in the streets of Colombo. When every lamp post would have a poster stuck to it memorialising a person who had died, asking us passers-by for our prayers. When every street where a recently deceased person had lived was decorated with white garlands and streamers, so that white became the colour of mourning but also of celebration. When we would randomly pass by an undertaker’s shop in a busy street and a dead body would simply be lying in the window for people to pay their everyday respects to. When there would be all-night vigils held at the Buddhist temple nearby our house, amplified so loud I could hear them in my dreams.
This body remembers the fear and the survivor’s guilt upon hearing that a group of terrorists had destroyed the very place I had visited with my primary school classmates the day before, and likely killed the person who hosted our visit.
This body enters a nightclub on the regular feeling the sting of anxious fear that is always aware of its queer Latin* siblings who were unafraid the night they entered Pulse in Orlando, Florida.
This body is reminded of that fear every time a senseless attack targets people going about their lives, people celebrating who they are, people who like me are humans simply being, but suddenly ripped from material existence.
This body performs in hallowed halls and institutions of renown, always feeling like the first ever of its kind to have done so, because its history is not written on the walls or illustrated in the portraits there; yet this body remembers that people like me have always existed and it is in theatre, in music, in rituals of mourning and of celebration, that my ancestors have always found their comfort and their joy and their healing. If I close my eyes, I can feel their presence, see the sounds they made, hear the warmth of their chatter, taste the colours of their costumes, join their dance.
One little pill keeps me and my queer siblings with access to it alive; one little pill is what my spiritual queer and genealogical brown ancestors did not have—perhaps could not even dream of. So many beautiful creative souls were lost to the consequences of AIDS; so much of what could have been was cut short. This little pill is a watershed, a new era, a utopian vision: it is not just a dream but an actual possibility that we will see the end of HIV and AIDS in our lifetimes. By the same methodology that world hunger could be eliminated—by eating the rich and redistributing the obscene wealth of the 1%—we could also end the epidemic of this virus. The virus that killed so many people whose names are remembered and celebrated, but always has killed and still is killing thousands whose names we will never hear, whose existence was actively erased.
Though scarcity is a capitalist invention, this body remembers what scarcity felt like: feeling like the only one, the first one, the weird one, the one who was saved, the one who could not be loved enough, the one who could be rejected and replaced. How could this body, how could I, ever be enough? This body has had flings with death too many times, when the idea of erasing itself from the world felt better than constantly fighting the feeling of being erased, of not truly existing. Having no words yet, back then, to describe the simple miracle of my being on the same unquestionable level as those who could simply exist without description because they constituted the norm; yet, the words I have and use now as necessary labels are weaponised by the same capitalist machine that keeps that little pill away from countries like the one where I was born, the same capitalist beast that looks out only for its own gain and not for healing, the monster that lets my birth country struggle and fade as it has become the first of the Global South economies to topple (as a result of the covid pandemic, the war on European soil, the climate crisis) after having been exploited by the North for centuries, as if there is never enough.
But there is enough, this body is the living proof of that. I was always enough: it only took me 30 years to finally see it. It was yet another senseless mass killing in the south of France, close to where I was working at the time, that finally made me realise that life is too short and precious, and to realise that Love is truly, divinely infinite, greater than any fear that had been destroying me from the inside, more insiduously than any virus could. There is enough love to go around a million and more times, and it only increases when you share it. There are enough resources if only they would be redistributed fairly. There are more queers on this earth and in our history than anyone can fathom, more than anyone can ever wipe out. There is an abundance of possibility, of light, of solutions, of new questions, and of inventiveness: those are never the problem. The challenge I and we face has always been to dismantle the system we never chose to be a part of, which is capable and willing to kill us, and which harms even those who claim to support and uphold it.
I value that little pill so much.
I value how it has freed me up to become more myself.
I value how it has enabled my loving and my lusting to not be limited by medical concerns.
I value how it connects me to a lineage of queers and people of colour who tirelessly fought to bring HIV under the attention of straight rich white male policy makers.
I value how that pill links me to millions of people all over the world, who are taking it now to protect them against HIV and to those who have gone before us who took it to fight the HIV already present in their bodies.
I value how that pill is a monument and an altar to all the movements in history that fought for greater sexual freedom; it reminds me every day of how the fight for accessible birth control, abortions, bodily autonomy, self-determination and sexual health is all part of the same struggle.
The mere presence of this PrEP-filled polyamorous brown queer body is a protest practically wherever I go. And in the moments when I feel perhaps more alone than usual, I know that that little pill and this great body entangle me deeply with those who co-exist with me against all odds, those who have preceded me, and those who will follow in our footsteps. Too many of those who went before us were not left standing to see the dust settle, but I will continue their parade.
My temple is the nightclub, my ritual is the concert, my liturgy is the theatre, my celebration is love and sex in abundance, and my commemoration is that one little pill.
Written for and performed at the launch of Simon*e van Saarloos’ book
«Take ‘Em Down: Scattered Monuments & Queer Forgetting»
(original Dutch title: «Herdenken Herdacht»)
May 19th, 2022, Amsterdam