In a warm and dark room in the winter of 1987, people lay on the ground with their eyes closed. A facilitator from the Shanti Project guides those assembled on an intimate visualization through the process of dying from AIDS.
Visualizations of death and language.
This took place at the Interfaith Conference on AIDS and ARC for Clergy and Caregivers in San Francisco. The conference hoped to give religious organizations tools to help their dying congregants. The conference featured speakers representing Catholicism, Judaism, many Protestant denominations, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and New Age religions.
AIDS was a major issue at the time, with no cure in sight, and many many deaths per year. And anti-queer rhetoric (see Jerry Fallwell), laws (see Bowers v Hardwick) and attitudes (see Pew poll on political values 1987) were all common.
Around the same time as this conference, the FDA approved a drug called AZT for the treatment of HIV. It was highly anticipated, but ultimately considered a failure. More years would pass and many more people would die before the approval of effective anti-retroviral drugs. And even more years before the first (and possibly second) cases of HIV would be cured.
But back in that darkened room in 1987, people laid on the ground with their eyes closed for an hour, while they tried to imagine what it would feel like to be covered in lesions...to sit in a doctor’s office when the receptionist refuses to make eye contact...to watch from above as people try to resuscitate their dead bodies...and to observe their own funerals...all in effort to better understand better the questions people with AIDS were likely asking of themselves and their loved ones—a practice that AIDS scholar Lynne Gerber says was common at this time in the new age circles of the Bay Area.
On this episode, Lynne explains some of the context around queerness and medicine and religion and AIDS. She’s writing a book about these topics, and also making an upcoming podcast series with audio producer Ariana Nedelman. Ariana provided us with the audio from the visualization practice via the UCSF Archives.