Bury Me Furiously: Death of X and The AIDS Epidemic

Death of X #3 cover
Death of X #3 Cover by Aaron Kuder. Written by Charles Soule, Published November 02, 2016, Marvel Comics

I take this discourse on with utter admiration for those who fought to break the silence surrounding the AIDS crisis, some of whom I’ve been honored enough to know, and be mentored by. 

Content Warnings: Police Brutality, Images of Tear Gas, White Supremacy, Transphobia, Workplace Discrimination, AIDS & HIV, Homophobia, Ronald Reagan, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks.

“…out of love and rage.”

I’ve been thinking about how the structures of power that we place our trust in are designed to leave us to die. Amidst a global pandemic, we’ve lost many communal assumptions about the security and protection we should expect from “our government”, though many marginalized folks have seen the cracks for ages. It’s not the first time that the United States government has left thousands to die from a virus though. Nor is it the first time that a virus has been then inappropriately politicized by the established right. Marvel’s Death of X (2016) is a comic mini-series that revealed for readers the events that catalyzed a protracted conflict between the Inhumans and the X-Men that defined the books of its time. 

Death of X presents mutants with yet another extinction-level threat, the Terrigen mists, which are both garden of Eden and the grim reaper. This series is not shy about establishing a juxtaposition between Inhuman prosperity and propagation at the cost of mutant annihilation. It’s baked into the art, the dialogue, and even page layouts. In Death of X, mutants aren’t fighting for dominance over the Inhumans, they aren’t even explicitly fighting the Inhumans in this series, they are textually fighting against extinction itself. This isn’t an attempt to vilify the Inhumans or to suggest that the Inhumans don’t deserve to have their story told or see their culture thrive, but it’s simply an untenable and indefensible model of prosperity if it involves the destruction of the mutant race. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

The imagery of the Terrigen cloud itself feels more politically charged in the summer of 2020 than it did in 2016. The sight of a pale, toxic cloud, rolling over the entire planet, carries an entirely new association for me. It feels like a haunting nod to the world right outside our window, as protests continue to erupt in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks. While the conversation on how Black communities are asymmetrically subjected to police brutality & murder may be new to some, I want to acknowledge that these are only four of the most recent losses in a long line of deaths that continue to shake Black Communities. 

Tear gas rises above as protesters face off with police during a demonstration outside the White House over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in Washington, DC, on May 31, 2020. Photo by Samuel Corum AFP

Racist violence is baked into the very DNA of the Amerikkkan police, which grew out of slave-patrols. Now, rallying behind the strength and dedication of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are engaged in a nation-wide protest of white supremacy and police brutality and the intrinsic connections between the two. Nearly every social media platform seems to be flooded with images of protesters, taking to the streets to stand against the history of racist, police brutality, and the white-supremacist government that perpetuates and accelerates this violence and injustice. A massive amount of these images show protesters engulfed in massive clouds of pale tear gas, deployed by militarized police forces, which is known to be lethal, as well as an abortifacient. My implicit image of the streets is no longer full of cars or bicycles but consumed by a cloud of pale toxic gas. The Terrigen cloud now feels tied to the cruel and oppressive police-state we have always lived within. The Terrigen Mists are not only a direct threat to mutants’ lives, but are also a controlling element in how they navigate public spaces. Like the many clouds of tear gas that roll throughout our street, Terrigen Clouds determine who, when, where, and how a person can navigate the world. Mutants have to live in certain places, they need to restrict their travel, Terrigen-proof bunkers are built by the privileged elites; every aspect of public mutant life is impacted by their presence.

A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Ben Gray Atlanta Journal

“A Silent War”

Demonstrators from the organization ACT UP protest in front of the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA opened up access to experimental drugs soon after.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Death of X  is a story that for me, has been transformed into an allegory for the AIDs and HIV epidemic, and the fierce battle against the institutions who allowed the virus to wreak havoc on marginalized communities. It’s certainly an unexpected interpretation of the story, given that there have been previous attempts to tell similar stories through the use of the Legacy Virus. I could go on for another 2000 words discussing how often the use of the subtextual virus falls shorter than the typical mutant metaphor tends to. But this isn’t that kind of essay. This is my attempt to share some of the internal transformations that this series has taken on for me. This is not an assertion of the hermeneutical veracity of my interpretation, but perhaps an opportunity to provide another facet to your own.

The “ACT-UP” movement, was a “ …diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” ACT UP played a crucial role in breaking public and institutional silence surrounding AIDs and HIV, in the process likely saved thousands of lives. At a time where the dominant systems of power wanted to either ignore this epidemic or falsely politicize the virus to support their own bigotry (not much has changed) ACT-UP (short for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) led the fight for survival.

Death of X opens with a team of mutants led by Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and Magick, investigating a disturbing distress call from Muir Island, sent by Jamie Madrox. What the reader and the X-Men both quickly learn is that Muir Island has become a graveyard. They stumble upon an abandoned research facility and a dead mutant. It’s not long until the team discovers a mass grave just down the hill from the research facility, filled with the corpses of Jamie Madrox. It’s here that Scott and Emma learn that the Terrigen Mists, the cloud that essentially (re)births an Inhuman, catalyzing the manifestation of their abilities, is deadly to mutants. From this point on Muir Island becomes a geo-political flashpoint for the mutant struggle in this story. Aside from being the base of operations for the Uncanny X-Men throughout the story, Muir Island becomes a place of mourning, a place of loss, as it transforms quite literally into a graveyard. There are a few panels in both the first and second issues that show this quite literally. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

In the first issue, we confront truly grim images such as a landscape covered by piles of Jamie Madrox’s corpses, who has succumbed to the M-Pox virus. We literally see the landscape of Muir Island itself, covered in death. In the second issue, we see mutants traveling from far and wide to pay their respects to fallen mutants laid to rest in unmarked graves. The somber visual of this pilgrimage to Muir Island, to mourn fallen friends, family, and comrades feel conceptually and visually evocative of Hart Island. Some may be familiar with Hart Island from the second season of FX’s POSE, (season 2, episode 1) when Praytell (Billy Porter) and Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) travel to a stark, remote island to pay respects to a friend and lover who died of HIV related pneumonia. The episode accurately depicts Hart Island as it was; a remote island where hundreds of New Yorkers who died of AIDS and HIV related causes were isolated and buried if their bodies were unclaimed or if a burial could not be afforded. 

Hart Island from “Pose” season two (image via FX)
Death of X #2, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 19, 2016, Marvel Comics

In 1985, the first 17 bodies were interred in a quarantined location at the southernmost tip of Hart Island. As nonsensical as it may sound, each body was buried in an individual 14-foot deep grave for fear that the disease could “contaminate the other corpses”. Soon after, bodies were buried in mass graves, as the AIDS epidemic reached new heights in the city. The stigma associated with AIDS and the stigma surrounding queerness of the time left many patients prone to being estranged from loved ones, often leading to their burial on Hart Island. Although the precise number remains unknown, it’s estimated that the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS. Tragically, a trip to Hart Island was not nearly as simple as it’s depicted in POSE. It was only in 2015, after a class-action lawsuit, that Hart Island “opened” for public visitation of the gravesites themselves, which was not possible prior. And visitation is still contingent on navigating demoralizing and labyrinthine procedures to arrange for passage of the ferries.

NY Post Archive Photo. Hart Island. June 14, 1979. Photo New York Post staff Frank Leonardo.

The queer community didn’t choose this dreary, remote island to become a part of our history. We didn’t choose this island to become a reminder of our perceived disposability but an oppressive cishet world. Violent institutional neglect on the part of our country’s political elites and the US health-care system forced the queer community to make this island a grim part of our collective history. Mutants too will forever associate Muir Island with a period of tremendous loss and turmoil for their community. And in both cases, this personal, mournful visitation takes place amidst a much larger conflict against the institutions that continue to allow the virus to claim more and more lives. 

In the comics, it’s the Inhumans [specifically Medusa and the royals] that allow the Terrigen Cloud to put the mutants of the world at risk. In the real world, it was the negligent and torpid non-response of the homophobic Raegan-era, including Raegan himself who continued to ignore the countless deaths for which he was responsible. It wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS. But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic. In truth, US health officials were aware of the AIDS virus, its method of transference, and the nature of the virus’s impact on the body, by late Spring of 1981, when the first “official case” of AIDS was “reported” on June 5, 1981. But the virus existed on the global stage in 1920 and had made the jump to the US by 1970 when cases first began to emerge. But because the virus was largely affecting a “convenient” population, resources were not committed to studying the virus until 1978, and it was only in the fall of 1982 that the CDC released its first definition of the AIDS virus. 

The CDC itself estimated that at the time of this definition’s release, it was likely that 42,000 people had already been living with AIDS and HIV, with an expectancy to see approximately 20,000 new cases within the year. Of course, this definition of AIDS and HIV initially defined the virus as a “syndrome”; a confluence of multiple symptoms and tertiary health impacts, as they were observed in AMAB people (assigned male at birth). For this reason, HIV positive AFAB people were not able to access the same drugs, the same healthcare, the same disability support, and the same social security support, because the definition prevented them from being diagnosed with the virus that they had in an official sense.

Beyond silence in the media, erasure around discussing AIDS was evident during press conferences and among government officials at the time. At a White House press briefing on October 15, 1982, when questioned by right-wing journalist Lester Kinsolving, Raegan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes went on a cruel string of banter together, referring to the virus as “the gay plague”. By the time that Raegan publicly addressed the virus in 1987, approximately 27,000 people had already died. This weaponized inaction and misinformation resulted in the approximate 40,000 deaths that occurred between 1981 and 1987. It’s because of that many refer to the AIDS epidemic as a genocide, which is defined as defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, and/or, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part to the group. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

The level of inaction on the part of the Inhumans is certainly several measures less negligent than the Raegan administration, though still worth examining. The comparisons to Raegan are rooted in an evaluation of how figures in positions of power, by their inactivity, can do harm. It would be negligent though to ignore the fact that across this series, Medusa does take steps to attempt to support the mutants, but they’re ultimately plagued by a privileging of Inhuman interests over mutant safety. Far from simply slow-moving, Medusa proposed to Black Bolt in private that they must also begin to consider “how they might win” a war with the X-Men. Make no mistake, for Medusa Inhuman prosperity, is only ever just over the fence from Inhuman supremacy throughout this and some of the ensuing stories. If pushed, she would rather fight the X-Men than compromise the Terrigen Mists. Medusa is first and foremost, considering what is in the best interest of the Inhuman people. It never occurs to her to eliminate the mist, but instead to move the mutants, placing the responsibility on the mutants to not be where the cloud is, rather than taking responsibility for the toxicity of the cloud. The onus is not on the mutants to evade the cloud, the onus should be on Medusa to remove the threat. 

Readers may not have access to the histories of the ACT-UP movement (which are sadly out of the mainstream historical pedagogy) but they can look at this and other X-Men stories to see the way that the Inhumans, or S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers have looked the other way when it comes to the suffering of mutants. That’s a role that stories have always played in our lives, especially during formative periods of our development, to instill values within us that we may not be able to access otherwise. In this case, it’s planting the seeds that may grow into a more rigorous critique of the dominant structures of power that are purported to protect and support us.

“Everytime a shell explodes…”

“ …living with aids is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Everytime a shell explodes you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends but nobody else notices, it isn’t happening to them.

Vito Russo Speech, May 7 1988, Protest at the state capitol in Albany NY 
Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

Issue 1 of Death of X establishes a juxtaposition between mutant death and the celebration of inhuman prosperity. On one page we see the X-Men stumble upon the horrors of Muir Island and on the next we watch the Inhumans celebrate the Terrigen Cloud as it passes through Japan. In later issues we watch the ranks of the Inhumans grow by minor numbers while we watch droves of mutants being buried on Muir Island. We see one new Inhuman, Daisuke emerge from a pod while countless mutants are buried. This oppositional relationship is in the DNA of the text. It’s this corollary that has led some fans to also interpret the terrigen mists as a metaphor for white-supremacy and/or the violence, erasure, and destruction of culture inherent in colonization. Despite the violence of the story, it feels quiet in a way. The story feels isolating, walling off the mutants from the rest of the world, almost in an attempt to hide their struggle from the world. It’s the kind of silent genocide that ACT-UP organizer Vito Russo’s quote is getting at, a silence that the ACT-UP movements fought so hard to break. 

Perhaps the most accessible manifestation of this work is in ACT-UP’s famous “ Silence=Death” poster, which has gone on to define the iconography of queer liberation to this day. ACT-UP’s mission was to break the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. They weaponized the truth against an otherwise unaware and complacent public, whose ignorance opened the door for a bigoted government to deny those affected by AIDS & HIV the resources they needed. 

Getty Images Archive, Bettmann

I’d like to focus on two particular events, where ACT-UP broke the membrane of mainstream ignorance, forcing their plight to be witnessed by the world. The first is a die-in protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10, 1989. The action itself was multifaceted, with over 4,000 members of ACT-UP and the WHAM! (Women’s Health Action Mobilization) demonstrating outside of St. Patrick’s, while a smaller contingent of activists entered the church, appearing to members of the church’s congregation and in one or two cases posing as church volunteers. Their larger goal was to highlight the struggles of those living with HIV and AIDS at a time when the government, religious, and public health leaders remained lethargic and ignorant in their response to the epidemic. Activists targeted the church particularly Cardinal John O’Connor for preach abstinence instead of the safe-sex use of condoms while the epidemic ran rampant, and for his insistence that homosexuality was a sin. 

A protester is carried away during an ACT-UP Stop the Church direct action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10th, 1989. Photography © Brian Palmer

In the middle of mass service protesters staged their die-in, leading chants ranging from “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!” to the famed, succinct and visceral cries “ Stop Killing Us!”, while protesters disguised as members of the clergy handed out ACT UP leaflets disguised as mass-pamphlets, providing church-goers with information debunking the lies being perpetuated by church leadership ( John O’Connor) and the government. Some activists cuffed themselves to pews and others lie on the ground, prostrated across the aisle. This is probably among the most famous of the ACT-UP actions, as it was concisely emblematic of their overall mission, to disrupt the quiet status quo that was painting over the thousands of deaths at the hands of this virus.

The second action is known as the Day of Desperation, which began on the evening of January 22, 1991, and continued throughout January 23, 1991. This action was designed to target every aspect of public life in New York City, making the plight and suffering of those with AIDS and those with loved ones with AIDS impossible to ignore. The goal was to ensure that no matter where a New Yorker was or what they did, they could not avoid confronting this grim reality any longer. The “Day of Desperation” as a protracted series of political actions began the night of the 22nd, although the “Day of Desperation” as a is typically said to have taken place on January 23rd. It technically began when activists invaded PBS and CBS Evening News broadcasts on the night of the 22nd. During this action, activists ran into the camera-line and shouted “AIDS is news! Fight aids, not Arabs!”. These invasions of live news were simultaneous disruptions of the public consciousness and breaking the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. It was nearly impossible to ignore as once it had aired, as the story was subsequently picked up and reported across a wide range of news outlets within minutes in some cases. This became an international disruption of the public consciousness in less time than the commercial break that followed. This action alone resonates along the same line as Scott/Emma’s telepathic message to the world at the end of the first issue. Which we’ll refer back to shortly.

On the 23rd, the “Day of Desperation” officially* begins with a morning “demo” begins on Wall St. and more than 2000 protesters marched with coffins that were delivered to City, State & Federal officials responsible for perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. An action at the State Office building in Harlem demanded an end to the City homeless shelter system. The housing Committee joins “Stand Up Harlem”, “Emmaus House” and various Harlem religious leaders in protesting the lack of housing and services for people with HIV. A march goes down Martin Luther King Blvd, to the State office building, carrying coffins to a demonstration occurring at the plaza. At 5:07 pm, Grand Central Station was the setting for a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience as ACT UP took over the station. A banner announcing “One AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes” was hung over the arrivals board. 

These two particular ACT-UP actions are just a few of the many protests and civil disobedience employed in their mission to break the “business as usual” narrative of mainstream society and force the world at large to come to terms with this silent genocide. This mission folds into the sort of telepathic interruption that Emma Frost employs at the end of the first issue of Death of X. The goal is not an overt declaration of war, it’s instead bringing a silent genocide into the forefront of the public consciousness, which would much rather turn a blind eye to the deaths of the mutants, much as the US public & government would have preferred to just let millions die of the AIDS virus. Much like the day of desperation and its inaugural CBS disruption, regardless of who and where you were, you were going to be forced to confront this harsh reality. Emma’s acts can show us the value of an activist tactic that dates back to the Civil Rights Era, to take over the platforms of social-dissemination in order forefront a political struggle that is otherwise being erased in those spaces. There’s of course variance between the two, but it provides a roadmap for the viability of tactics of disruption and deconstruction of access and visibility as strategies of political dissent. 

“Bury Me Furiously”

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Death of X is a story about loss, and burying your dead mid-battle, and how you find the strength to carry on the fight for however long you can. Emma and Scott play out a tragedy that became a heartbreaking norm during the AIDS epidemic, as activists embattled in the fight against this virus and the oppressive structures that allowed it to kill thousands, lost their lives, their lovers, friends, and family to the very disease they were fighting. Emma and Scott’s story is borrowed, stolen even from the many thousands of real people whose relationships were torn apart by the AIDS virus. Emma and Scott’s story will never adequately stand-in for those real experiences, nor should they be expected to. That’s not always the role of the stories we consume, to recount events 1:1, but to repackage their lessons and to make them accessible in the media that we consume. The stories we consume exist for us to unpack deep and complex social and ethical issues through the safety of fiction. They exist for us to relate our own experience to, to feel seen, to inspire, and to repackage events to make them more accessible outside of their normal contexts. 

Allegory is never a substitute for explicit representation and  X-Men stories have a history of skating by on subtext and fan-interpretation, failing to depict the real identities & experiences that the metaphor stands-in for. It’s worth noting that stories about mutants who are explicitly HIV positive and/or have the AIDS virus were rendered impossible by notorious fuck-up Chuck Austen, who “confirmed” in Uncanny X-Men #421 & #427, that mutants are incapable of contracting the AIDS virus. This is yet another example of stories that borrow from the struggles and trauma of queer and trans people for the sake of driving their stories but fail to provide explicit representation for our identities. It’s a trend that’s certainly not exclusive to Austen and is more endemic in cape-comics as a medium (see events like Rosenberg’s flagrant misappropriation and recapitulation of anti-trans slurs and “trans-panic” acts of violence).

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

This series arguably pivots on a third act twist that fundamentally recontextualizes Scott and Emma’s story as one not purely about survival, but also about loss. In the final pages of Death of X, the reader alongside Havok (Scott’s brother) learns the truth about the death of Scott Summers. You see, Scott didn’t die in a stand-off against Medusa and Black Bolt. For the sake of accurately and honestly characterizing Black Bolt & Medusa, we should note that  Medusa and Black Bolt made their choices under the impression that Scott really would die then & there. Therefore, from an ethical observation of the situation, Black Bolt still did kill Scott Summers. In “reality” though, Scott died in issue #1. He died unceremoniously and without warning in the arms of his lover, after asking for “help” for possibly the first time (see Cyclops’ defiant declaration that he’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). The love of Emma’s life, [who as she says at Scott’s funeral on Muir Island was “…the only man I ever wanted to give a damn about me…”,] dies of the very virus that they will be fighting against. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Throughout the rest of the story, the Scott we see is a living monument to the man Emma loved, one defined by her admiration for his tenacity and his uncompromising devotion to the mutant cause. “Scott” becomes a source of strength for Emma, tackling the conversations that she can’t bring herself to have and making the choices that she cannot.  Her characterization of Scott’s tenacity escalates commensurately to Emma’s increasing exhaustion & desperation. She deploys Scott in her weakest moments, drawing the strength he gave her to quite literally handle the challenges in her path. She projects everything onto this “Scott’, even her insecurities regarding Jean surface during his final speech claim he “lost the only person I ever cared for.”  We see “Scott” play out the very moment that Emma comes to terms with his passing, as “Scott” says “ I’m gone. All that’s left is the idea of me. But here’s the nice thing…ideas never die.” 

Scott’s death, like many deaths at the hands of the AIDS virus, was unexpected and unceremonious. Living with AIDS was like “living with a time-bomb but never knowing where the timer is”. It was a cruel reality, you could look healthy as can be one day, and then by the end of the week, they could have passed from the virus. You had to live with the constant looming knowledge that any moment, the virus could claim your life or somebody you cared for. It is a tragic and human story, within a larger battle for the survival of an entire community. The series is not gentle about the comparison and juxtaposition of mutant suffering, with the celebration and prosperity of the Inhumans. It’s the type of framing that comes to mind whenever people refer to “the 80s” as this monolithic era defined by synthesizers, bright colors, big hair, Flock of Seagulls, shoulder pads, members-only jackets, and angsty teen movies. Mainstream pop-culture formulates an image of the 80s as something exciting and kitschy, but for many, the 80’s are a reminder of when our government allowed a virus to kill tens of thousands from marginalized communities, while the world looked the other way. The flashy pop-culture image of the 80s & 90s sits in stark contrast to the silent death of the AIDS epidemic.

Death of X is an Emma Frost story, and I don’t know if we say that enough. It’s the pregnant pause before a heavy and profound punctuation mark on what I consider to be one of Marvel’s strongest relationships. And it’s not the end of Emma’s hurt; she will go on lead a full-scale assault on the Inhumans, yes in the name of all mutants, but deep down she’ll partly be seeking retribution for Scott’s deaths. Within this series at least Emma hopes to give Scott a “fitting death”, ensuring that his death “means something”. Emma’s public memorial is almost a eulogy, both displaying her rage & sorrow and instilling into this living memorial the very political message that his life was devoted to. I can’t help but draw parallels to the many political funerals organized by ACT-UP

David Wojnarowicz’s famous jacket, Act-Up Archives

These actions themselves are often associated with a specific quote by artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, which captures the desperation, love, and rage at work both in these political funerals, and in Emma’s actions.

“I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”

DAVID WOJNAROWICZ

It’s a famous quote that is often seen presented within a longer speech by Mark Lowe Fisher. Towards the end of the speech, there’s a specific line that best summarizes the impact of these memorials:

“I want my death to be as strong a statement as my life continues to be. I want my own funeral to be fierce and defiant, to make the public statement that my death from AIDS is a form of political assassination.”

Mark Lowe Fisher [Nov 17, 1953 – Oct 29, 1992]
Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. , David Wojnarowicz’s Memorial Procession

The goals of these political funerals are so complex and varied that distilling them into something pithy feels ultimately reductive. In a general sense though, they were a simultaneous attempt to pay honor to a beloved individual while using the visibility of their corpse, this unshakably real consequence of the AIDS virus, as a viscerally politicizing image. You see, like Emma, ACT-UP realized that you could maintain a balance between a loving memorial and political action. ACT UP is known to have orchestrated a number of these “political funerals”, which ranged from processions down the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC with real caskets, filled with real bodies, to the cathartic scattering of ashes onto the White House lawn.

sA political funeral for Steve Michael was held on Thursday, June 4, 1998 in front of the White House.

Among the first of these actions was a memorial procession for the body of David Wojnarowicz himself on Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. at the intersection of 12th Street & 2nd Avenue [NYC]. From there, including the “White House Ashes Action” of October 11, 1992, ACT-UP accounts for a total of official seven political funerals. It’s notable though, that the exact estimates of how many individuals’ ashes were scattered on October 11, make the exact number of public memorials to victims of AIDs and HIV and governmental neglect, harder to estimate. Aside from the individuals whose ashes were scattered and whose bodies were carried down city streets, many more members of these actions carried banners, signs, and even constructed tombstones for loved ones who were lost to this virus. 

No death has any more value because of its visibility, but there is power in crafting a public memorial to your loved-ones, whom you lost as a consequence of a silent war that the world would rather ignore. The government and the American public alike wanted to ignore this virus, and so ACT-UP made sure this wasn’t possible. They carried their beloved dead through city streets, they scattered the ashes of the people they held dear on the front lawn of the very government that was killing them. They wanted to use these beloved bodies to shake the public and possibly the government out of ignorance and complacency, revealing the grim and human cost of the virus, and the government’s torpid response. 

Closing

I’ve re-written the coda of this piece once a day for  two weeks straight. If you’re expecting that to be a set up for a pithy yet nuanced conclusion to this work, I’m here to disappoint. There is so much to say in closing out this essay. 

I want to recognize the tendency to disproportionately credit ACT-UP with revolutionizing models of socio-political dissent, but ACT-UP drew an immense amount of their tactics and method from the Civil Rights Era. Without the creativity, dedication, and courage of BIPOC activists, ACT UP would not be possible. Not to mention that ACT UP was plagued by internal racism, transphobia, and misogyny that is often painted over and ignored. As much value as there is in recognizing the hard work and dedication of the movement, it was born out of a rage that came from the entitlement of white, cisgender, men and this entitlement would play a major role in the groups’ disillusionment. It’s a reality that is only briefly alluded to at the end of Jimm Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s documentary, “ United in Anger: A History of ACT UP”. The group’s ferocity would wane, affinity groups would split off and form other organizations such as Housing Works, fighting for equity and access at the intersection of HIV/AIDS and houselessness. And it was the intense concentration of action in the 80s and 90s led to greater public health resources in the US, as well as directly lead to the focussed research that would develop preventative measures such as PrEP and treatment regimens like HAART (HIV & AIDS Anti-Retro-Viral).

I think this story is worth exploring solely for the unexpectedly nuanced characterization of Emma Frost. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t even feel like a superhero comic. It’s grounded and messy, characters make relatable, messy choices with major consequences on the world within which they live. It’s a story about a fight spent entirely on-the-ropes. It’s a story about how you process trauma without the space being held to do so. For that reason, I think it maps to desperate moments of our history such as the AIDS epidemic, to societies built on oppression & violence, and to pandemics.


As a trans person, (who began writing this on June 14, 2020) my interpretation of this story has continued to transform yet again. Only days prior to beginning this essay, amidst a pandemic, the Tr*mp administration finalized a ruling that could effectively strip LGBTQIA2+ people of their health-care rights and protections, placing trans people at greater risk of health care discrimination within a healthcare system already riddled with barriers to care for trans people. This extends well beyond just potentially cutting us off from live-saving gender-affirming related care; all forms of health-care could be refused to queer and trans people, which has grave ramifications for the healthy & safety of our community. 

The US healthcare system is already nightmarish for trans people to navigate, but without the minimal protections that we were afforded by Section 1557 of the ACA, many millions of trans people in the US will likely be refused care, left to die, refused care, and lose coverage for gender-affirmative care. This is but one of the many attacks made against the LGBTQIA2+ community, by the Tr*mp administration. With little time to fully process this attack, we brace for yet another. Just over the horizon, a few days from today  June 14, 2020) the Supreme Court will rule on the case of Aimee Stephens, which will have a massive impact on the employment and workplace rights of trans people in the US. We’re preparing for the horrific possibility that SCOTUS may de-facto legalize discrimination against trans people in the workplace. 

Update: On June 15, 2020, SCOTUS released a decision in the case of BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA which states “: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. Pp. 4–33.” I hesitate to call this a “victory” though; these are basic human rights that should never have been the subject of months of deliberation. It’s disturbing that we have to celebrate keeping rights we should never have feared losing.

Death of X  has become a hauntingly adequate allegory for my feelings of helplessness, walking off the wounds of the last attack, as I brace myself to take the next punch. It feels like I’m living between the two terrigen clouds. It feels like a heteronormative society upheld by the royals, is somewhere on the next page dancing over the trans graves that continue to be dug. It feels like each and every trans body will become fertilizer for somebody else’s prosperity. As I write this, I know that the trans community is not alone in feeling this fear, nor is this the first time the LGBTQIA2+ community has felt this level of dread.

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