Today, I finally completed a piece of art that has been sitting in various boxes of sorted ashes all over my house since May 1, 2014.
Little boxes on my desk top,
Little boxes filled with ashes,
Little boxes on my counter tops,
Little boxes all the same.
There's black ones and ground up ones
Ones with writing and gray ones
And they're all filled with ashes
And they all look just the same.*
The ashes were the cremains of dozens of copies of Iowa Code 709c, a bad law that was passed in 1998 in the Spring before I started working at the AIDS Project of Central Iowa. This law criminalized many of my friends, colleagues, and other Iowans living with HIV across the state and would become one of the foci of my advocacy work over the course of 15 years.
A short explanation of 709c: This law made it illegal to expose someone to HIV. When 709c was first enacted, I made a point of correcting people who called it an "HIV Transmission Law". This was an exposure law, not a transmission law. Whether or not HIV was transmitted, in fact, had no bearing on whether 709c could be used to prosecute someone or the severity of her/his punishment. Indeed, most people convicted under the law did NOT pass on the virus to another person. And whether or not HIV was transmitted, the associated punishment in Iowa was one of the most severe in the nation. As a class C felony, a conviction was punishable by up to 25 years per count and a lifetime listing on Iowa's sex offender registry.
Although designed, perhaps, to protect the public from the ill-intenioned person who spreads a deadly virus, 709c actually harmed public health efforts and most certainly increased the stigma surrounding the disease. No other infectious disease has been criminalized in this way. And, as it turns out, the laws aren't effective. In states with HIV exposure laws, there is no measurable difference in the likelihood that people living with HIV disclose their HIV status prior to engaging in a behavior that could transmit it (most people do disclose, by the way, most of the time). Effective public health approaches provide evidence-based education and support to help people disclose their status rather than criminalize them after the fact.
For more on HIV exposure laws in Iowa and elsewhere, see the link below.
Back to my little boxes filled with ashes...
On May 1, 2014, the Iowa legislature passed a revision to Iowa Code 709c. This revision had been supported by numerous groups with whom I am associated and I was privileged to work with a number of key individuals who led the passage of this legislation. On the day of its passage, May Day or Beltane as it is also called, I burnt my remaining copies of the old law during a private bill burning ritual. Yes, I'm aware I shouldn't call it a bill since it was already part of the code, but I'm using my literary license for the sake of alliteration.
Beltane is a traditional or pagan holiday from Ireland and Scotland that used to be celebrated with bonfires. The smoke and ashes from these fires were thought to be protective in nature and families would relight their extinguished hearths from the Beltane fire.
The people I have met through my advocacy on this issue have inspired me and on countless occasions, helped me relight my "hearth fire".
It is in their honor that I wanted to create something meaningful from the ashes of a law that has been a destructive force in their lives, all of our lives.
I used the ashes and photos from my Beltane fire to create this piece.
There are four quadrants which reference the four corners, quarters, or elements, that are often called upon in traditional Gaelic rituals. Familiar HIV imagery is also present in the use of ashes as a medium, the shape of the ribbon comprised of hands, and the positive sign made of photos I took of the fire and printed on vellum paper.
I have donated this piece to CHAIN, Community HIV and Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network. It is my hope that they will auction it for funds or otherwise use it to further their mission.
* You may recognize these words as a rewrite of the song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds. Malvina and her husband were on their way from where they lived in Berkeley, through San Francisco and down the peninsula to La Honda where she was to sing at a meeting of the Friends’ Committee on Legislation (not the PTA, as Pete Seeger says in the documentary about Malvina, “Love It Like a Fool”). As she drove through Daly City, she said “Bud, take the wheel. I feel a song coming on.” http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/MALVINA/mr094.htm I include it because the political and spontaneous provocation of the song resembles the artistic process that inspired my Beltane fire.