Moving out of the virtual world, the Digital Divide and lessons from the pandemic

Garrett Sohnly and Sumiko Saulson were masked and vaxxed at AIDSWalk San Francisco’s breakfast viewing party on May 16.

Writing while Black: Summer 2021

by Sumiko Saulson

The pandemic forced a lot of us onto virtual connectivity platforms like Zoom. Employers and event organizers were forced to take the time to teach these applications to participants. 

For African Americans and the African Diaspora, that meant that a lot of us were on these platforms for the first time. Elders from our community found themselves using programs with a video conferencing capacity such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Discord for the first time. Facebook added a group video conferencing feature to try to keep up with the trend. 

Back in January, I was awarded a Diversity Grant by the Horror Writers Association. On May 21, I was on a panel discussion with the other Diversity Grant winners. The other award winners include Jacqueline Dyre (they/them), editor and publisher of Novel NoctuleOghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (he/him), a Nigerian speculative fiction writer; Nicole Givens Kurtz (she/her), an African American author, editor and educator; Tejaswi Priyadarshi (he/him), author of “Psychopath, The Cannibal, The Lover,” India’s first splatterpunk novel; and Gabino Iglesias (he/him), a writer, editor, professor and book critic.

The panel was presented on Librarian’s Day at StokerCon 2021. We didn’t use any of the platforms I have grown familiar with over the past year, but something called Hop In, which is specifically for professional, large scale events.

Like many conventions, StokerCon is online for the second year in a row. However, things are starting to open up in California, and we should be seeing outdoor events and small indoor events this summer. Hybrid events, partially online and partially in person, are something else you can expect to see. 

Events are slowly opening up, but most are still partially or entirely online, and outdoor events are opening up before indoor ones, smaller before large. Large scale indoor events like conventions are unlikely to resurface until fall at the earliest.

Black conventions and conferences online

Due to the Digital Divide, not all Black conventions, conferences and community centers were able to make the transition online. However, there were several large and impressive African Diaspora events that were able to do so. 

Oakland’s own AfroComicCon produced the larger fall 2020 event online and a supplemental smaller event in winter 2020. Because Zoom offers the option of uploading conference calls directly to YouTube, the convention has managed to create a wealth of online content in a very short time over the past year. 

AfroComicCon Presents: “Black Creators Reclaiming Art Space to Create.”

In addition to AfroComicCon, they produced the AFCC International Film Festival, directed by Nsenga Burton, online last October. The 2019 AFCC winners are on the organization’s website, while the 2020 films are available on YouTube. AfroComicCon produces a podcast online, which you can also access through their website at AfroComicCon.org.

Since AfroComicCon is an October event, it is possible that by the time it rolls around in 2021, we will be having in person conventions again. The impressive showing by AfroComicCon in 2020 makes one hope that the organization will continue to produce its amazing online content once the event and others like it start to take place in person. 

The State of Black Science Fiction maintains a beautiful website with a lot of quality content, as well as its very active Facebook group. Their online offerings include the Genesis Science Fiction Radio and some great content on YouTube. Genesis Science Fiction Magazine is available in print.

The new CDC guidelines and what they mean to you

On May 13, 2021, the CDC announced that people who were fully vaccinated would not be required to wear masksexcept in certain situations, such as in medical offices and on public transportation. Fully vaccinated people are also allowed to opt out of COVID-19 testing following a known exposure unless they are residents or employees of a correctional facility, detention facility or homeless shelter. However, people are required to obey local tribal, city, county and state ordinances about masks. 

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, asserted that the CDC grossly mishandled the announcement. It caused a ripple effect where a bunch of major chain stores like Walmart announced that vaccinated customers would no longer have to wear masks, followed by quickly issued clarification announcements to inform customers that they would still need to follow local ordinances.

A handstamp or wrist band could be used to make the vaccinated easy to identify.

The reasons for caution should be obvious. Although small, indoor events can ask people to show their vaccination cards at the door, there is no way to tell vaccinated people from the unvaccinated once they are inside. In a large supermarket, or a big convention center, concert center or night club, everyone would have to be on an honor system. It would be very easy for unvaccinated people to walk around without masks. 

Perhaps a handstamp or wrist band could be used to make the vaccinated easy to identify. Even if so, approaching unmasked people to demand proof of vaccination is potentially a nightmare for staff. Black and Brown folks are overrepresented in front line work as store and mall security, nightclub security and in other positions and would likely to have to face off with angry, unmasked antivaxxers

In the state of California, the fully vaccinated will not be allowed to unmask until the state opens up again on June 15. As of this writing, just over a third of the population is vaccinated. We have not yet achieved herd immunity, but things are starting to open up a little bit.

My first face to face event in over a year

On May 16, 2021, three days after the CDC announcement, I was emboldened to attend my first indoor group event since shelter-in-place was enacted over a year ago on March 17, 2020. It was for the charity event AIDSWalk San Francisco

Usually, thousands of people gather together in Golden Gate Park for AIDSWalk San Francisco. This has not been possible since 2019. This year, people were encouraged to walk separately in their safe household bubbles or small clusters. But I got an invitation-only gathering of about 65 people, for the group leaders for AIDSWalk San Francisco. 

I am one of the leaders of the San Francisco Goth Team No. 5015; I volunteered to be co-captain three years ago. The position is really sort of an assistant captain position, because Steph Tember has been running the show for years and does a great job of it. But I am proud to be co-captain. 

Black and African American people account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people with HIV, compared to other races and ethnicities.

This year, we are one of the top ranked teams, at No. 22. We raised more than $4,500. Although the event is over, we are still raising money until June 11, and you can sponsor me as a walker here: https://sf.aidswalk.net/sumikoska . 

The fight against HIV is a fight for the Black community, as we are disproportionately affected by it. A list of the non-profits who benefit from AIDSWalk San Francisco this year is on their website here: https://sf.aidswalk.net/Static/whobenefits.

“Black and African American people account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people with HIV, compared to other races and ethnicities. In 2018, Black and African American people accounted for 13 percent of the US population but 42 percent (16,002) of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas,” states the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

I showed up with my friend Garrett. The staff was really excited to see us, as they processed us in. Like everyone else in California, they’d been stuck at home under stay-at-home orders for a year or more. They had asked us to bring our vaccination cards with us if we were vaccinated. For the first time since things started easing up, I showed my vaccination card to get admission into an event. I had already scanned my card and sent it in to another event for admission, but that one hasn’t occurred yet. Garrett didn’t have his, so he underwent a 10-minute instant testing process. 

They handed us free cloth masks with the 2021 AIDSWalk slogan and hashtag on them, #WalkItOut. Everything about it was a sign of the times. There were hand sanitizers everywhere. As we walked in, all of the people and the staff wore masks. We went inside and got a delicious breakfast which included eggs, turkey sausage, bacon, tiny baked potatoes, chocolate mini croissants, and fruit and yogurt parfaits. They served champagne, mimosas, coffee, tea and more. 

Pose actor Billy Porter, who recently came out as HIV positive, was one the celebrity hosts for AIDSWalk San Francisco 2021.

We settled in to watch the show, with celebrity performances by Billy Porter, Rita Moreno, Tony Goldwyn, Rosie Perez, George Takei and Alex Newell. Billy Porter is one of the stars of Pose, a show that entertains while it educates about New York City’s African American and Latino LGBTQ dance ballroom scene of the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the HIV pandemic.

The show gets into how it affected Black gay men and transwomen. It also has greatly affected Black intravenous drug users. Porter’s character on the show, Pray Tell, is HIV positive. Recently, the 51-year-old actor revealed that he is also HIV positive. Although outcomes for HIV positive people are much better than in the ‘80s, the fight continues.

A fan favorite and regular reader on the Erotic Storytelling Hour is Ivy Limieux, writer and kink educator.

Between musical performances was a review of 2020. It talked about fighting the HIV pandemic during this new pandemic, the novel coronavirus. They talked about new prejudices that emerged because of the new pandemic. George Takei gave a heartfelt speech about losing people to the AIDS pandemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before the cocktail, and how scary it was. Then he went on to talk about the hate crimes Asian Americans and Asians globally have faced because they have been wrongly blamed for the pandemic. Finally, people spoke on George Floyd, and the other racial violence of 2020 and the marches against it.

We watched all of this on monitors. People had on masks except while eating or posing for photos. This kind of hybrid event, where smaller groups of people gather to watch things on monitors, is likely to be seen a lot over this summer as things gradually open up. 

If a lot of people thwart the honor system and unmasked non-vaccinated people show up all over the place, we could experience a setback. Not everyone will be able to afford instant testing like this event did. 

Outdoor events are coming back this summer

One thing we are starting to see is more outdoor events. I have been invited to two outdoor picnics by groups that usually meet indoors this month. Both of these groups have not met in over a year. One of the groups specifically asked people who are not vaccinated to stay at home; both groups insisted on mask wearing. One pointed out that the latest CDC guidelines allow for up to 75 people to gather outdoors and masked at this time. Neither group expects to have more than 35 attendees.

Hand-painted wooden paddles depicting kinky people of color can be used decoratively or for actual spanking by kinky folks.

I am going to be vending in person for the first time since February 2020. It is going to be at SOMA Second Sundays in San Francisco on June 12. I am an art vendor at this kinky art show and will be selling hand-painted wooden paddles depicting kinky people of color. They can be used decoratively or for actual spanking by kinky folks. They are not safe for work. If you do kinky art or crafts, you can also apply to vend here: https://sfleatherdistrict.org/show/.

I work for the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in South of Market, who are putting on the event. My job there is hosting the Erotic Storytelling Hour. We have had a very diverse line up of readers, including African American authors and poets, including Jewelle Gomez, Rawiyah Tariq, Ivy Limieux, Valjeanne Jeffers, Dicey Grenor, Penelope Flynn, Quinton Veal, Steven Hayes and Wrath James White. If you are 18 or over, you can check out their spicy offerings on video on our website

Penelope Flynn’s steaming hot vampire sexcapades help ignite episodes of the Erotic Storytelling Hour.

If you write erotic poetry, fiction or autobiographical accounts – with the names changed to protect the guilty – you can earn $20 for a novice writer and $40 if your resume supports being a feature. The reading length is four to six minutes for regular readers and 10 minutes for a feature.

San Francisco residents and people who work or play in San Francisco get preference, then San Francisco Bay Area residents. People from outside the Bay Area may also apply. We prefer kinky erotica, and we are very committed to culturally diverse and queer representation. More information about that here: https://sfleatherdistrict.org/storytelling/.

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Winner of the 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, (he)r monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. (S)he is gender non-binary. Support (he)r on Patreon and follow (he)r on Twitter and Facebook.