Jaime Shearn Coan in conversation with Mariana Valencia

I meet with Jaime Shearn Coan about his research on those who died and lived through the AIDS crisis. He’s embarked on this personal and cultural search through the archives of artists and the narratives of people who lived, cared for and confronted life through years of trauma and mass erasure. In 2014, Jaime traveled to San Diego, the place where his father lived and died of AIDS, immersing himself in his father’s community. This personal research gives interpersonal insight to the work Jaime has done for the Danspace Platform Lost and Found, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls, which focuses on the impact of the AIDS crisis on generations of artists in New York. I begin our conversation with the question, What is Jaime’s research body and body of research? Within this work, he covers his territory widely, across New York libraries, academic institutions, people’s homes in the East Village and within himself.

—Mariana Valencia, Co-editor

Mariana Valencia: Is any of the work you’re finding being retrieved primarily through conversation? Tell me about the beginnings of this research. How far back does it go?

Jaime Shearn Coan: When I traveled to California on a Jerome grant a couple summers ago, I went with the goal of finding out more about my father’s life. It’s much more difficult finding information about people who are just “regular,” not artists or high profile in some way. As far as technology goes, I am continually surprised at how much is not available on the internet. I haven’t been able to find one single mention or image of my father, who was born in 1952 and died in 2002. So anyway, I had to actually go to San Diego, where he lived, to try to find people I could talk to who knew him.

I had a conversation with his best friend, which was pretty awkward, but he was pretty generous with me. I wanted to know more about the of arc of my father’s illness and also about his queerness; both of these felt scary to ask about, because my father moved in a “straight” crowd. Bob told me that my father was in complete denial about being HIV+ for many years. Interestingly, Bob first practiced law in San Francisco in the early crisis years, and he represented gay men who were challenging the insurance companies who were dropping them left and right—isn’t that crazy? I mean, Bob and my dad and all these guys were super macho, and womanizers, and big partiers —they were not like sensitive or intellectual or progressive. But he happened to have fallen into that situation, and it was formative for him. He had seen this illness first-hand and so he made my dad go to the doctors and brought him to the hospital when he was no longer able to function. He told me that my dad was hanging out with this guy Adam, who everyone knew was gay, and when I pushed him further, he told me that they were together, and that Adam died from AIDS in 1999. I made it clear to Bob that I wanted to know about my father because I’m gay (we didn’t get into the whole trans thing). It’s history that belongs to me familially, but also culturally.

My dad was queer in a queer way, not fitting into categories easily, and not really open about his sexuality. I took care of him the last week of his life, when I was 22. At the time of his death, I was female-identified and very androgynous, very “out” as queer and very sex-positive. I was working as a street outreach worker and HIV test counselor at St. James Infirmary in San Francisco. The populations who I was working with were trans and cisgender women, largely women of color, who were doing street-based sex work--these women were also dealing with immigration, abusive boyfriends, sexual assault, obtaining hormones, poverty. This was a far cry from my father’s white, middle-class position. And so I was also angry with him for having such privileged access to medical care and not utilizing it. I actually remember (and this makes me cringe now) yelling at him upon first encountering him in the hospital about the irony of him not being open with me about his status —this while he was intubated and not able to reply.

When I returned to San Diego, more than a decade after his death, I went back to the hospital, I went to his old house, and to my grandma’s old house. Each place caused a strong somatic response for me. The sight of the basketball court across the canyon behind his house, the smell of the specific cleaning products and stale air in the hospital, the familiar jetty at Pacific Beach. I talked to my grandma’s neighbor who remembered me from when I was a little kid and filled me in on some family trauma that he felt related to my father’s decline. I also went to the gay beach and a few gay bars, and stayed in the gay neighborhood —this helped me feel connected to myself in the present. It also made me feel as if I was living the openly gay life that my father wasn’t able to. I visited a small gay archive and looked through gay newspapers and magazines from the 80s and 90s, with the unrealistic hope that I would find some trace of him from back then.

MV: There is intersectionality for you in relation to the history of the AIDS crisis due to the personal experience of your father’s story and your embodied history of caring for him during his last days. Your link to this history places you in proximity to the collective experience, which can access kinship to other people’s experience. Each narrative is individual and each experience and voice deserves generous space, how do you navigate this? I’m sure you think about this with sensitivity to the people who lived through the crisis, how much about yourself do you tell them? Though you have a shared experience, this doesn’t necessarily give you an “in” into the epidemic in New York City per se, so how do you stay sensitive to this with the survivors you’ve encountered in your research?

JSC: It’s tricky. Sometimes I feel like disclosing about my dad’s death is like claiming an “in” to the club or something —and I hesitate to share it for that reason. Also, many people respond by offering consolation which makes me feel bad, because I wasn’t close to him, and it happened a long time ago. When I’m talking to people who lived through the crisis years, I am usually in the position of receiving their personal and collective histories. I don’t want to make it about me. It’s not that I feel I need support around it now—I just want people to know where I’m coming from. I remember there was an event sponsored by Visual AIDS a couple years ago around people who lost their parents to AIDS. There was a moment when Sarah Schulman asked for those of us who fell into that category to raise our hands. It felt really scary to do that —I got a sort of stage fright, but I also felt proud to be able to claim my place. When I looked around, I saw someone that I recognized from the dance community with her hand also raised, and afterwards I went up to her and we spoke, and I felt this immediate sense of kinship, which continues through to today.

But my experience with my father was very isolated, and took place after the crisis years had passed. He was living with HIV for a long time I think, but he also died because he didn’t adhere to his medications —and they were available. This bears absolutely no resemblance to the complete and utterly life-changing circumstances that took place in New York in the 80s and 90s —the lack of information and resources, the lack of societal acknowledgement of the very sudden deaths of so many queers is something I have not directly experienced. I feel driven to learn as much as I can from the survivors of that time, as well as to learn, through their archives and creative work, about those who died and have not been invoked or celebrated or looked to enough by queer people of my generation and younger.  

MV: PTSD fits the cycle of the people who survived AIDS during this time, and their reintegration into society took some time, I think about this often when I think about why we’re talking about AIDS in the cultural field and in other institutional ways today, i.e. the AIDS ART AMERICA show at the Bronx Museum and the Danspace Platform Lost and Found as well as my own queer history inquiries. How do you think the reintegration has manifested? I sometimes wonder if our generation is pushing to bring these stories to air, I’ve been in search of this history for a while.

I also wonder, as a queer man, where do you/ how do you find identity amongst the elders, is there alignment there? Or does your identity feel removed in a way that feels gapped. For instance, as a queer Latina, I know very few of my queer elders, I don’t know how I might be perceived as a young body, a body that thrives during youth and gets to grow up. I think of this as a traumatized identity, I suppose. Do the elders want to reach to us as we do them, or …?

JSC: Yes, I do hear PTSD being invoked by survivors of the crisis in New York as a way to make sense of the delayed attention in the current moment and it makes sense to me —that for a long time, those who survived really had to just focus on figuring out how to live again, on a quotidian level, and then kind of put it away so that they could survive. In general I have found that older queer people, when approached with questions, are extremely open to having conversations, and sharing their experiences, even if they were incredibly difficult. I don’t think that they expect to be sought out. Some of them are also interested in listening to the experiences of younger queer people and HIV/AIDS and some are less so.

In terms of how I fit in, I am 36 years old and trans. Although I disidentify with cis gay men to a certain extent and eschew the term “gay” altogether, “gay man” is the identity category that comes closest for me when representing myself in the larger culture. When speaking to queer people who belong to previous generations, I am often read as cis male (or at least I think I am!), and maybe a decade younger. I don’t always want to be out as trans, especially with some older gay men who don’t really understand trans identities. I want to be accepted as a queer man, even if it is somewhat conditional due to my stealth transness, and even if it means that I have to pretend I’m not the grumpy old soul that I am (sometimes). When I speak with older queer women, I often feel sad that they are not aware of the possible commonalities between us in lived experience.

I think that my experience of being trans shapes the way I think about gender and the AIDS crisis. I attended the AIDS ART AMERICA opening at the Bronx Museum a few weeks ago, and I was struck with how (primarily white) gay men really seem to “own” the AIDS crisis, in terms of representation. In my own experience, caretaking felt somewhat tied to gender. I’ve been speaking with and reading accounts by lesbians and straight women, primarily in the New York dance and performance community, who served as caretakers for their gay male friends. And I don’t mean to further erase the history of lesbian and straight women who died from AIDS at that time, but only to amplify that the lived experience of caretakers is often invisible in the narratives of the crisis years (this is of course linked to the affective labor that women take on and are not acknowledged for in general). I am fortunate to be engaged in dialogue with Lesley Farlow, who started the AIDS Oral History Project at the Dance Division of the Performing Arts Library. She interviewed many gay men who were directly confronting their mortality. As a member of the dance community, she, a straight woman, was also involved in caretaking.

I’ve been thinking about the somatic experiences that remain in the body after caretaking, witnessing death, and even witnessing people telling their life stories and processing their illness. When we talk about survivors of the AIDS crisis, it seems like we’re often referring to the gay men who “made it out alive” and yes, certainly, this is a specific experience, but caretakers are survivors too —women, siblings, children, friends. You could even say that, because the dance community in New York was hit so hard, it survived the AIDS crisis. Female caretakers are largely still here, and they are not being recognized for what they went through, and they are not being forefronted as the amazing repositories of queer history that they are.

MV: Thank you for bringing this up, I recently had a conversation about my study of Assotto Saint’s work and I expressed the gravity of my experience with the work and the honor or privilege that this position to the work has for me. In response, a dear woman —who’s a leading pillar in the dance community—  said in a tone I’d never heard from her before: “Those years were horrible, there are streets for years that I was unable to walk down.” I felt an empathic choke of grief, the traumatic gravity when someone in proximity to you expresses their experience and loss during those years. I felt kinship to her as if I had inherited some of her grief simply because I am in her life today. Her story will always land before mine in our timeline. Her story will always tell the story of the crisis, it will always tell about the role of lesbians during the crisis years. As a woman and a lesbian, I am honored to follow her in time.

I lack knowledge of 80s dance history, I attended college in the early 2000s and I remember learning about American Black Dance, Modern Dance, Post Modern Dance/Judson but the 80s gets blurry. I can only think that this has to do with AIDS striking the community hard. The dance history syllabus from the 80s/90s was limited; Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane’s A System in Collapse is a System Moving Forward, the footage of David Rousséve’s dances, and the work of Ishmael Houston-Jones. These were striking works to be exposed to and I believed they represented all of the seminal work. Perhaps professors in the 2000s weren’t ready to speak to the crisis yet. Maybe they were still recovering, for lack of a better word. As a student, I wasn’t aware of the deficit in my queer history, perhaps I didn’t know how much weight this would have for me later, so I didn’t ask yet.

This might have to do with this point that you make of the narrative of AIDS very much “belonging” to white gay males, and how it discounts the struggle of people of color, women and families. This might also have to do with the erasure from history that the crisis carried with it as it happened. Government, the healthcare system, families, the workplace, many people looked away then, so if you’re interested now, you have to want to find it.

JSC: You know —yes, absolutely —but also, you saying that brings up this kind of antagonistic thread that runs through contemporary conversations around HIV/AIDS in the communities I operate in. There is a major critique of the centrality of the experience of gay men in HIV/AIDS discourse. I completely agree with that critique. However, I do not think it precludes the fact that in New York gay men were the demographic group most devastated in the early years —and gay and lesbian people were primarily responsible for agitating for solutions.

AIDS is not a gay disease. But the AIDS crisis has shaped queer life. Rather than de-gay AIDS history, I think we need to racialize gay history and look to the political, cultural, and creative work produced by gay men of color and trans people. We also need to acknowledge the huge fissures between racialized and white gay communities in our histories of the AIDS crisis, as well as the coalition work that was achieved.

This is why working with archives is so crucial (and I am by no means the first to say so!). They are these time capsules that show us not just traces of individual lives but also the circulations and frictions between and among lives which constitute collective history. For those of us who care about and recognize the importance of dance and live art performance as both chroniclers and shapers of history and culture, we have to work especially hard to recover whatever scraps we can in order to form a lineage. That’s been a driving force of the Lost and Found Platform. And of course, when it comes to archives, these categories: dance, gay, AIDS, black, brown, lesbian, trans, etc., are historically less likely to be considered worthy of being archived, right? So the more these categories intersect, the disadvantage multiplies in terms of access to institutional preservation.

I was speaking to the Chief Librarian at the The Graduate Center, Polly Thistlewaite, who chaired a panel in which I shared some of my archival research, and she was telling me about how, during the crisis years, when people died, there was a very swift mobilization on the part of their caretaking networks to get their papers to an institution as soon as possible. They knew that it was necessary to proactively preserve their loved ones’ documents and creative work in order to prevent intentional destruction or accidental loss. So you have archiving as a form of activism —a way of ensuring a place in history.

But then you need living people to come and encounter the archives —to reactivate them. For me, it is an intimate and often emotional experience to go through the archives of a queer artist or activist who died of AIDS. There is often a record of the sudden struggle with mortality, of frustration with unfinished projects, of anger and fear. There’s a strange juxtaposition too, with the fact that this exchange is happening in a kind of bloodless, institutional space. Whether I’m looking at a sexually explicit photograph, reading a harrowing journal entry, or listening to a song called “ACT UP” or “Forever Gay” on headphones, I am always aware that I am under observation, that the encounter is moderated in some way. It’s a queer encounter —public and clandestine at the same time.

MV: You’ve collected a dossier of Assotto Saint’s work for me to study for the Lost and Found Platform, so that I can encounter his work. Though the dossier represents only a fraction of his oeuvre, I have already gained a personal understanding to the person he was. This archival material includes letters to landlords, court statements, notes, and cassette tapes. My encounters with this material can feel clinical as well as spiritual. He’s often the ghost in my room. I get to see his handwriting in pencil on paper, the strokes of his letters, the organization of his typed letters, I hear his voice in my ear on tape, as well as his published work. From these objects, I gather the essence of a person, without his scent, without his touch; an encounter from without the catacomb. There is a feeling of raising the dead, personally this creates an immense scope that's daunting to perceive or to understand within the complete and impossibly embraceable history of the crisis; an emotional encounter. It’s an honor to have access to a single person’s world in this fragmented way. Knowing what I’ve learned form this material, I have grown to miss him. I am upset that I didn’t get to know him, and that his work didn’t raise me, he didn’t get to be my elder. I was just born when he wrote the books I’m reading, and I was just a kid when he died. He was born the same year as my mom, so this elder/parental dynamic is real for me. I feel a loss and a deficit and that’s what keeps me looking for more. It feels like it’s our duty to our kindred folk, it’s a queered relational experience of the living with the dead, an archival hold.

I can relate to a pre-archive if I look at my own history as the focus of my artistic scarcity issue. I’ve always erased myself from the future history books because I’m a queer Latina and my story is marginal and therefore so is my future history. Perhaps this won’t be true, but if I say it will be, I can begin to make work that can avoid my erasure. I’ve been making work that helps make notes for the person in the future who will write my history, so I relate to people who have pre-archived their work, like Neil, people who have empowered their legacy by expressions of self-history while addressing the issue of erasure before the self ends. Making work from what I’m packing, both in the queer and Latina artist sense. I’m working from a deficit standpoint so I push harder to make the negative a positive. This is the reality of a marginal experience that’s not considered central. It’s like thinking of the archival work of Assotto, for example, I think about the work being preserved because someone one day needed to say that it mattered, that the life that made the work mattered. Not just to the people who knew him, but to everyone.

I imagine there is some leg work that takes a great part of finding the work of these artists, how far (or not) have you had to travel? I’m interested in how you’re finding the research materials, are they individual’s personal collections as well as library archives?

JSC: This summer I visited institutional archives at UC Berkeley, the Schomburg branch of the NYPL, and Cornell. I have also, through my work on the Danspace Platform, been fortunate to be able to visit individual homes of artists in the East Village and to get to look at their ephemera while they tell me anecdotes. I have been meeting with Neil Greenberg in preparation for a public conversation we’ll be having as part of the Platform. Reading and editing catalogue contributions has also put me in conversation with many artists who lived through the crisis years in New York. I visited the ABC NO RIO Zine Library in Exile at the Clemente Soto Cultural Center in the Lower East Side, which has a database that features charming and entirely subjective descriptions of zines written by zine library volunteers over the years —it’s really a rich archival document in itself. My only concern there was that there were very few zines tagged as queer in the database —so if someone feels called to do that, please go for it!

Being in the archive, it feels a little like a luxury to be able to work with someone’s papers without having to explain myself or my relationship to the material. Sometimes I don’t actually know what I’m looking for —I just feel drawn. I feel that something is waiting. It is also an imaginary realm to a certain extent —I’m making up stories as I go, drawing lines of kinship that may not have actually been capable of existing. Because it is not exactly a two-way interaction, I also feel an increased sense of responsibility in the way that I represent the materials. In these saturated encounters with bodies of research, I am curating according to my interests and range of (experiential and historical) knowledge. I am not exactly bodiless, since the handling of materials is a sensorial process, but I am able to sidestep having my identity categories (white, male, trans, queer, etc.) be forefronted in the encounter itself.

Archival work, especially when linked to academic output, is often described in the language of colonization, i.e. “I ‘discovered’ X and now it is mine to claim and be rewarded for.” Unfortunately this kind of competitive versus collective mindset is endemic to academia, where we are pressured to present new ideas and never-before-seen materials. I try to be very aware of that kind of thinking when I am working —especially since I am a white researcher often working in the archives of people of color. When I find something that thrills me, because it fills a certain gap in my/our historical grasp, or challenges a previously held notion, I have to remind myself (not always successfully) that the material in the archive is not mine, and that I don’t need to hoard it. It is in relationship to and supporting my ideas; it is teaching me and pushing me in new directions. It is a field that can support many different projects.

I see what you’re doing, Mariana, in the Life Drawings series of the Platform, as a way of working alongside and with the traces of Assotto’s life, artist to artist. I love that. I hope to keep a little bit of of that alive in my work as well. I had a beautiful moment when I was working in Robert Garcia’s archive at Cornell where I felt that I was able to conjecture or imagine something about him through simply being there and able to place certain objects side by side. Robert, who died in 1993 at age 31, was both very active in ACT UP, helping to form its Majority Action Committee (POC affinity group), and a founding member of the queer POC video collective House of Color. There were not very many photos included in his archive, but among them, in separate envelopes, were a series of Robert posing with his partner on their bed, looking happy and shy, and a series of Robert with family members in a kitchen celebrating a birthday. In both sets of photos, among his biological or chosen family, he is wearing a white WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) t-shirt.

MV: I’m thrilled to hear you speak about Robert’s work, even just the name of his POC video collective House of Color has so much resonance within me. Not just because I am a person of color, but because of the astute nomenclature —there is poetic queerness there where the words read in all the ways possible. It’s this attraction that’s beyond simply liking something, it’s a lineage of queer thinking that I can hold on to as part of my history. And yes if it weren’t for you encountering this work in the archives, you wouldn’t have told me, they’d be unknown to me still. Again the catacomb is opened and I might not have arrived to this feeling that you’ve described to be in the imaginary realm of making up stories as you go deeper in the search, drawing lines of kinship that may not have actually been capable of existing before.

JSC: That’s great to hear. It makes me feel my body as a line between the two of you. And now you no longer need it. You make your own line.

MV: Yes it’s a network that we’re making visible for ourselves. You’re my peer here, you and I share histories orally, as we exchange information with each other to enrich our knowledge of who we are and where we came from, respectively. I wonder if there are challenges for you in moving between archives and oral histories?

JSC: If anything, I’d say that that movement keeps me, keeps the work, going. There is always somewhere else to look, someone else to speak with. Living in New York, and being a part of an artistic community, there exist incredible opportunities to talk to people who knew and/or were contemporaries of people I am researching. This is especially valuable when there is little or no documentation available of their performance work. In the case of Assotto Saint, for example— his work as a poet, editor, and publisher are all well-documented. But he also performed in a band, Xotica, he staged four plays— but there are no video recordings or photos of these live events in his archives. The only way I can access any sort of information apart from the scripts and a couple audio recordings, is from people who were there. But it’s not always easy to approach people who were there; one advantage to working in an archive is that I don’t have to worry about causing people pain by asking them questions that bring back traumatic experiences.

Often there is crossover between the paper archive and the live one— for instance, I know people currently who were close with the people in whose archives I work, but it is rare, for me, that the subject of my research is both living and “archived.” I began writing about Neil Greenberg’s early dance works a while back. I spent time at the Performing Arts Library watching recordings of performances and listening to his recorded oral history, in addition to pulling up old reviews and writings by him. Then I met with him. To be honest, it was kind of a shock. He is a wonderful, warm man, in the middle of his life— a mentor, an educator, a dance maker. I had been encountering him as he was in the mid-90s, when he was grieving catastrophic losses around him and also processing his own mortality, being HIV+ himself. His is a rare case in the archive. He is alive although he did not expect to be. But what is in the archive is extremely valuable, because it preserves the feeling of that time. When we have conversations now, it yields new ways of looking for both of us. It also does away with the idea that we can fully separate what happened during those years from the present moment.

Filed under:



Join the Critical Correspondence Email List

Jaime Shearn Coan

Jaime Shearn Coan is a writer and PhD Candidate in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He currently serves as a Mellon Digital Publics Fellow at The Center for the Humanities, where he partners with...
Read More

Mariana Valencia

Choreographer and performer Mariana Valencia, is an LMCC Extended Life grantee (2020), a Whitney Biennial artist (2019), a Bessie Award recipient for Outstanding Breakout Choreographer (2018), a Found...
Read More

Mariana Valencia