When he was diagnosed with HIV four years ago, Joseph Varisco struggled with talking about his status with friends and loved ones, some of whom still harbored stereotypes and misinformation about the disease.
Family members worried Varisco could infect them by sharing a drink, or sneezing on them if he had a cold. Potential sexual partners asked how he became positive and other inappropriate questions.
“That’s not a question you want to be asked by a friend,” he tells NewNowNext, “let alone on a first date.”
To battle the stigma, Varisco developed Queer, Ill, and Okay, a performance series that mixes theater, art, spoken word and video installation to tell stories about people living with disability and chronic illness. Now 31, he says he was inspired by a lack of narratives that reflected his own experience as someone living with HIV in contemporary society.
Most art, film and literature—even acclaimed works like Philadelphia and Angels in America—focus on the lives of white men diagnosed in the 1980s and ’90s and facing a death sentence.
Varisco hopes that the show, which just wrapped its fourth annual production in Chicago, opens the door for communities that have yet to be a part of the narrative surrounding HIV, illness and disability. “I knew I would be okay if others around me were okay, and they would be okay if I was okay,” he explains. “The easiest way to do so is to be very vocal.”
For Queer, Ill, & Okay, that entailed not just bringing in communities of color but expanding how we think about chronic illness: The show has included LGBT performers living with cancer, lupus, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
This year’s lineup included Avery R. Young, Angel Katz, SK Kerastas, and Tim’m West—each of their stories breaks down stigmas about disease and disability, challenging the audience’s preconceptions in powerful ways.
Lucas Baisch knows what it’s like to have others not understand your daily reality. A 24-year-old playwright and visual artist, Baisch was diagnosed with OCD in high school. His experience with mental illness is different than what you’ve seen in pop culture, which is usually characterized by characters who are just fastidious or neat freaks.
The compulsive aspect is just part of his illness: Baisch does makes lists and holds his breath while crossing the street. He eats his food in a certain order and has “good and bad numbers.” What people don’t understand, he says, is that OCD is also a form of paranoia “that makes it hard to sustain social relationships and perform normal tasks.”
“If I don’t do these things,” Baisch tells NewNowNext. “I begin to spiral.” If he doesn’t tap the wall a certain number of times, for example, one of his family members will die in a fire.
In his childhood, Baisch was particularly fixated on the Apocalypse. His paranoia was informed by big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Deep Impact and Armageddon, where humans scramble to avert global destruction.
By performing in Queer, Ill, & Okay, Baisch wants to show that OCD “isn’t the cartoon version they know from TBS sitcoms.” Using found music and video projection, he breaks down those misconceptions by showing them what the illness is actually like for those who experience it.
Bea Cordelia, a 24-year-old trans writer, opened the 2016 Queer, Ill, & Okay by examining how trans bodies have been historically pathologized by the medical community.
Her performance, “Au Naturale,” blends poetry and personal narrative with politics and gender theory to ask difficult questions about what it means to be transgender. Until 2013, the DSM categorized trans people as having “gender identity disorder.” (Homosexuality was removed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973.)
When medical authorities tell you you’re “disordered,” it’s difficult not to internalize it, says Cordelia. “When you’re trans, you inherit this enormous legacy of people diagnosing you and stigmatizing you because it’s easier than making space for you.” Her goal is to confront the idea that trans people are sick head-on by depicting vulnerably on stage.
“I allow anyone who is in the audience who has never knowingly met a trans person before to walk away from a performance of mine with a clear example of a human being,” she explains, “That’s difficult when so much of the discourse around trans people is reduced to talk about harmful legislation and Caitlyn Jenner…. A lot of diversity, humanity and dignity falls by the wayside.”
Morgan McNaught, who closed the show last weekend, believes that spaces like Queer, Ill, & Okay can be healing. A playwright who uses gender-neutral pronouns, McNaught read an excerpt from “Untitled Stoner Christmas Play,” a longer piece they’re developing about their own experiences with depression around the holidays. They explained that these feelings, while fairly universal, are particularly difficult for LGBT people, who may be estranged from their families of origin.
“Like many young queer folks, it’s not healthy for me to be home,” McNaught told NewNowNext. “I’ve been learning how to spend holidays by myself. Trying to figure out what a holiday looks like has been such a journey to be able to carve out that space and create new rituals, as well as take care of my physical and emotional needs.”
To cope, McNaught’s therapist forced them to devise a “holiday plan” that included seeking out a quiet, peaceful environment where McNaught would have access to medications and snacks (e.g. “nice cheese”). Instead of going home to Ohio, they’re spending the holiday with their partner’s family. “I had to make sure to not say yes to things I don’t want to say yes to,” McNaught added.
For anyone in the audience in a similar situation, McNaught hopes they “feel less alone.”
“With everything I make, I hope to be a mirror and a reflection,” they said. “I hope to tell a story someone knows and that feels really close and similar to their own in a way they haven’t been able to speak to. I’ve done a lot of work and a lot of healing, and I think it’s important to share that work with other people.”
View excerpts from Queer, Ill, & Okay below.