Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lemebel and "la diferencia"

I’m sure a thousand people in Santiago could tell stories of Pedro Lemebel, the Chilean author who died last week: the guy did not enter a room undetected. That said, here’s mine.

We (a half-dozen Chilean men and I) established a storefront HIV prevention and advocacy group in the late 1980s, which for years was located on Porvenir, a street one block off Avenida Matta in a gritty, commercial section just to the south of downtown. We didn’t have a dime and spent a lot of time—in between cooking up public health strategies that we didn’t know a thing about—just finding a way to pay the next month’s rent. This was before AIDS had become big business when everyone wanted in on the largesse. But we were the only outfit providing information to the gay boys who were quickly getting the infection without knowing it.

(Digression: The Dutch gave the new, post-Pinochet government a million dollars to deal with the epidemic, but none of that ever reached us—it was quickly siphoned off by the party-connected professionals and nonprofit entrepreneurs linked to the new “democratic” health ministry. Four mega-projects were funded with the divvied-up cash, none of which targeted the population that comprised 98% of the early infections. One of them dealt with “street children at risk”, which must have sounded good to someone in a development office in Europe. We funded ourselves by staging a monthly drag show and selling clandestine piscolas.)

Lemebel and his performance-art partner Francisco Casas were active by then doing their famous numbers as the Locas del Apocalipsis, “locas” being Chilean slang for “queen”. They were explicitly homosexual (not “gay”, a term they disdained), and so it wasn't surprising to find them one day sitting on the front step of the office when I showed up around 4 p.m. to open up for that evening’s activities. I knew who they were and invited them in.

I don’t recall a thing about the conversation we had that day except that we were not understanding each other in any language. It was clear that they wanted us to join them in some sort of action or campaign, but we were not at that moment engaged in gay-related advocacy, except indirectly by pointing out the need for a coherent approach to the sexual practices of people endangered by a sexually transmitted disease. In retrospect, we probably were excessively cautious, but this was at a time when no one in our entire organization dared to go on TV even to say the word “AIDS” for fear that grandma would figure out that they were gay (which she would have). So the first public face of the group was your humble blogger, on the Catholic station, channel 13. I believe it was early 1989.

I tried to listen respectfully to what Lemebel and Casas said they were doing, and why, while explaining that we were doing something else. That somehow did not compute for them; they went on their way. Later, Casas denounced me during a public reading as some sort of envoy of U.S. imperialism, which was a rare form of criticism during my many years there. He and his bohemian-intellectual crowd loved to challenge people by asking “desde dónde hablas tú?”, that wonderfully academic posturing about one’s supposed biases that substitutes for a debate about ideas. But he got over it and was cordial later.

But the most memorable encounter with the inimitable Lemebel occurred a few years later at some sort of public event in a bar, the specifics of which escape me, except that I was sitting with Leslie Crawford of the Financial Times when Lemebel pulled up, sat himself down at our table and helped himself to our wine without being invited. He turned to Leslie, who was dressed for an evening out, and said, “How elegant you are—like an international prostitute!” No doubt he meant it as a compliment.

Leslie was not amused and said to me, in English, “Did you hear what he said?” Yes, I replied, so we will now speak to each other in a language he does not understand. Which we did. It was quite effective in our goal of driving him off, and I never had the occasion to ”speak with” Pedro Lemebel again. However, I enjoyed his writings and understand that he could be a warm-hearted friend.

Pedro was an artful provocateur, and to say he didn’t know when to quit is both true and meaningless. He startled people; we organized them. While he shook up Chilean culture with his unique style and content, we established an HIV prevention and testing operation and brought awareness and solidarity to many people who fell in the grip of the virus in the terrible early years. No one could do what he did, and our work didn’t interest him in the least. Everyone contributed his part. Vive la différence!

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