The advancement of medical treatments of HIV has given rise to the term undetectability, which has become synonymous with HIV survival and the promise of an otherwise normal life. This article explores the concept of undetectability as it relates to a theory of trans visibility as protection, epitomized by Time Magazine's 2014 declaration of a “trans tipping point.” Following critiques that trans visibility offers little guarantee of safety, the author traces the emergence of the term undetectability alongside calls for and against trans recognition. The author grounds arguments about undetectability's possibilities through a critique of the documentary Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), examining its framing as a detective story that seeks answers around Johnson's mysterious death. More specifically, the author analyzes how the murder-mystery form reinforces a carceral fantasy of individual culpability running adjacent to the privatization of HIV as a matter of personal management. The article concludes by turning to Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel's Happy Birthday, Marsha!, not just to pose a divergent narrative frame for Johnson's life but to also understand how undetectability might offer a resource in navigating the violence of exposure itself, toward a space of trans opacity.
In 1996, the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) as an effective treatment for HIV marked a watershed moment in which a commonly fatal infection could be seen as a manageable chronic condition. In the wake of this medical breakthrough, researchers investigating the effectiveness of antiretroviral medication found that early and prolonged use of HAART could also serve as a deterrent to spread of HIV, suggesting that treating the virus contributed to its prevention. Put simply, by suppressing viral load to a level undetectable by conventional testing, HAART also suppressed transmission of the virus. More recently, this concept of treatment as prevention (TasP) has gained traction in public health campaigns, designating “undetectability” as an essential tool and term in the fight against HIV.1
While undetectability guides the promise of a once unimaginable normal life, critics, curators, and activists have also pointed to the limits of undetectability discourses, asking how overemphasizing treatment as prevention might leave out broader discussions of access, class, education, race, and community care. In his essay exploring HIV, incarceration, and art, Ted Kerr (2019) suggests that public health campaigns' embrace of undetectability simultaneously promotes the effectiveness of HIV treatment as prevention and the “individual work of ending the crisis by choosing to become undetectable.” Jan Huebenthal (2017: 2) argues, likewise, that undetectability signals fitness for good citizenship, promising “a post-AIDS world inhabited by gay men who, having suffered though the horrors of AIDS, have returned to their healthy, authentic selves.” In reflecting on the relative privilege necessary to access treatment, Nathan Lee (2013) posits that undetectability might “displace the positive/negative binary with the more urgent categories of the insured/uninsured.” Registered collectively, these critics suggest that, far from acting as a guarantee of HIV destigmatization, undetectability might overdetermine questions of individual responsibility and health at the cost of forgoing discussions of the structures barring access to widespread testing and treatment.
Beyond its medical and public health definitions, the term undetectable carries different resonances in a time of heightened trans visibility predicated on a theory that more or better trans representation might better protect trans people.2 This discourse of trans visibility has crept into public HIV/AIDS campaigns that name trans people of color as an underrecognized risk group, and, according to the US News and World Report, warn of a growing trans population of the “infected and invisible” (Marcus 2018). But while nonprofit organizations like the Human Rights Campaign continually call for greater trans “visibility and inclusiveness” within HIV/AIDS campaigns, scholars like Eric Stanley and Toby Beauchamp have highlighted the imbrication of trans visibility with targeted surveillance practices (Human Rights Campaign n.d.). In Going Stealth (2019), Beauchamp examines how overemphasizing trans recognition can expand the reach of surveillance programs like identification documents and airport body screening that monitor gender conformity. Beauchamp's interrogation of visibility dovetails with Stanley's (2017: 617) movement from trans “optics” to “opacity,” putting forward a call to interrogate a “visual regime hostile to black trans life.” In short-circuiting the seeming promise of trans recognition, Stanley asks: “How can we be seen without being known and how can we be known without being hunted?” (618).
Such critiques of trans visibility offer another inroad to unpacking undetectability, not just as a shorthand for the management of viral risk but also as a space for navigating the violence of surveillance and exposure in a “discourse of concealment” germane to trans life (Beauchamp 2019: 32). To invoke undetectability in a time of trans visibility might mean exploring how demands for trans recognition parallel an enduring and equally fraught demand to recognize those living with and lost to HIV/AIDS, in a time before undetectability could even be imagined. Bound up with the problem of trans representation and visibility, moreover, is the struggle to represent HIV/AIDS altogether, given what Paula A. Treichler (1987: 31) has called, in her early analysis of the AIDS crisis, an “epidemic of signification.” Treichler's call to reckon with the multitude of interpretations seeking to signify the virus is a reminder that the battle against HIV/AIDS has always comprised medical and scientific breakthroughs as well as a crisis of meaning. When confronted with undetectability, as with the social construction of the virus itself, we are wrestling with the many contradictions this term might hold for those living with HIV/AIDS and for those living in an intensified moment of trans visibility and precarity. Can undetectability serve as an adjacent term to trans opacity or trans invisibility? And what lessons might follow from thinking about undetectability alongside metaphors of vocalization from silence, visibility from opacity, and clarity in the absence of clear or certain narratives?
Undetectability and the Detective Story
In the midst of these discussions, I want to turn to David France's Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) as an attempt to constellate questions of undetectability, trans visibility, exposure, and remembrance. In recent years, a resurgent attention has been devoted to the revolutionary figure, Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, owing largely to the work of community historians in shining a light on her roles as freedom fighter, activist, and cofounder, alongside Sylvia Rivera, of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Simultaneously, such an attention has also revived intrigue around the mysterious circumstances of Johnson's death, which, to this day, remains unsolved. In 2017, France, director of the Oscar-nominated film How to Survive a Plague, released The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which centers Johnson's unexplained death as well as the efforts of Victoria Cruz, a close friend of Johnson's, to find answers. That France's latest film features the death of Marsha P. Johnson—a black, trans woman noted for her revolutionary movement work—appears to serve as a corrective to critiques that How to Survive privileged the perspectives of white men over queer people of color, life over death, and medical advancements over direct action and activism.3 The narrative emphasis that Death and Life places in Johnson's mysterious demise poses another frame of detection and undetectability connected to trans life and antitrans violence: the detective story. France's film folds in archival footage, Cruz's investigation, and the present-day trial of Islan Nettles, a trans woman beaten to death in 2013, as a means to explore how detection can potentially mediate and deter, or potentially fail to resolve antiqueer violence.
By weighing Death and Life's emphasis on detective work—namely, the film's tracking of Cruz's investigation as a means of closing a chapter on transphobic violence—I reflect on both detection and undetectability as tools for confronting acts of transphobic violence, as well as the multiple causes, spectacular and otherwise, of trans precarity. While the film's privileging of forensic detection, investigation, and state-sponsored resolution strikes an odd contrast to Johnson's movement work on behalf of people living the HIV/AIDS, prisoners, sex workers, and other survivors of state violence, I argue that the film points both to the affective thrill of pursuing detection and its inevitable disappointments. Revisiting undetectability within these efforts to memorialize Johnson—who herself had been living with HIV prior to her mysterious death—reminds us how practices of looking, investigation, and the fantasy of “knowing” operate in the interlocking discourses of trans and HIV/AIDS visibility, both of which demand forms of secrecy and disclosure.
In one of the first scenes of Death and Life, we are introduced to Victoria Cruz, a counselor at the Anti-Violence Project who serves as the narrator of much of France's film. Cruz remarks that Johnson's case, in particular, has been “cold” for twenty-five years, and that she seeks justice for slain trans women of color, beginning with Johnson. As Cruz asks, “If we can't bring justice to Marsha, how can we bring justice for all these other unsolved cases?” Cruz's nondiegetic narration plays out in this early scene, where she assembles a rough time line in the days leading up to Johnson's death (fig. 1). Writing on various Post-it notes, Cruz pins one note after another to a largely bare wall of corkboard. A close-up of one note reads, “July 6 1992, found at 5:23 PM,” the time at which Johnson's body was first discovered. This scene launches the long investigatory arc of France's film, in which Cruz's attempt to bring justice to Johnson's unsolved death dovetails with a broader effort to confront and resolve the violence facing trans women of color. As Cruz conducts interviews and chases leads, the once empty space of the corkboard fills up with printed articles, interviews, and diagrams relating to Johnson's death, all annotated with Cruz's hand-written comments. This wall becomes a recurring visual motif for the investigatory motor of France's film, in which Cruz assembles clues and details that will point to answers in Johnson's cold case.
This quest for justice is at the heart of France's film as well as Cruz's investigation, but the question of justice—whose justice, what type of justice is served, and whom it serves—is far murkier. Cruz's method of detection, whereby she pores over eyewitness accounts and forensic reports, places her firmly in the frame of the hard-boiled crime story, which, according to Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian (1997: 3), generally centers “a social misfit” in the role of the amateur or professional sleuth and deals principally with “disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction” with the prevailing social order. The detective story, especially of the hard-boiled variety, serves as a well-worn genre through which to channel frustration with the failures of the police to adequately address Johnson's mysterious death. By beginning with death, the film suggests that detection, foremost, can clear the fog of mystery hanging over Johnson. In Jeffry J. Iovannone's (2017) account, France's film deemphasizes Johnson's remarkable contributions to queer liberation in favor of “focusing disproportionately on the more spectacular and suspenseful details of her death.” Death and Life's meditation on Johnson's mysterious demise follows a broader trend to draw political and symbolic meaning from trans death. Though memorials might serve as a crucial outlet to publicly mourn the loss of trans lives, scholars like Jin Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton have also critiqued the ritualized remembrance of transphobic attacks and murders. As they discuss, public memorials for trans women of color increasingly feed the institutionalization of a trans politics that converges with rather than against state power. Haritaworn and Snorton (2013: 74) describe how trans-of-color death is invoked to “accrue value to a newly professionalizing . . . class of experts whose lives could not be further removed from those they are professing to help.” In this way, it is only through death that “poor and sex working trans people of color are invited back in” to policy, legal, and nonprofit discussions of trans protections and rights.
As Victoria Cruz and many of those in Johnson's close community seek answers for the loss of a friend and sister, their quest for personal justice is frustrated by the ineffectiveness of state-sponsored inquiries. Their anger at do-nothing cops is channeled at an effort to carry out their own investigation. But even this provisional opposition to the state is another feature of the hard-boiled crime story, as the detective will often have “a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law” (Pronzini and Adrian 1997: 3). And despite capturing a palpable anger at the police, France's film remains enmeshed in a model of detection that privileges forensic investigation and state-sponsored inquiries into transphobic violence. In a secondary arc of the film, Cruz and other activists seek justice for Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color beaten to death in an act of brutal transphobia. One of the last sequences of France's film takes place in a New York courtroom, where Nettles's killer is sentenced to ten and a half years in prison. Xena Grandichelli, a volunteer with the Anti-Violence Project and an attendee of the court proceedings, is shown to be outraged at the judge's decision, indicating that the relatively light sentencing amounts to a failure of the system in deterring and accounting for transphobic violence.
Nettles's death in 2013 marks a significant but contested moment in which trans=of=color death drove public and media narratives around antiqueer violence, including efforts to propose and advance carceral expansion.4 As Lena Carla Palacios (2016: 43) writes, Nettles's case “has been used as a poster child by journalists, legislators, and even members of their own kin to expand police surveillance in racially marginalized communities and to bolster the passage of criminal punishment—enhancing laws that purportedly address transphobic violence.” In her broader study, Palacios suggests that reductive accounts of Nettles's death discount the circumstances contributing to transphobic harm, like gentrification and increased police surveillance of Harlem. Death and Life plays a part in this flattening of context, and its narrative centering of a courtroom sentencing scene suggests that carceral resolutions of transphobic violence mark, in its framing, a horizon of trans justice. To be clear, though, the trans activists depicted in France's film are not merely mouthpieces for the documentary's carceral model of justice. Any critique of Death and Life's framing of justice must also weigh the extent to which trans women themselves—Cruz, Grandichelli, and others—push for longer sentencings and punitive responses to transphobic violence. Palacios's analysis of the media outcry following Nettles's death cautions that trans women of color's responses vary in their responses to the institutionalization of trans remembrance, and they can both “reproduce and challenge dominant logics of social value” (45). While capturing a passionate outcry for state intervention into trans violence, the film overlooks what Palacios calls an “outlaw vernacular” that works against a straightforward politics of recognition and visibility (39).
How might we rethink detecting the origins of transphobic harm and, in doing so, reconceptualize its supposed resolution? And what relationship might the fantasy of criminal guilt have to a term like undetectability? Death and Life investigates the untimely deaths of Johnson and Nettles in search of an individual perpetrator to account for the enormity of transphobic violence. Likewise, discourses of undetectability that emphasize personal management follow what Trevor Hoppe (2017: 118) has called a “responsibility politics” that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, just as the advancement of antiretroviral treatments “transform[ed] HIV-positive people from passive victims into active managers.” In analyzing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) shift from promotion of condom use and “safer sex” to campaigns like “HIV Stops With Me,” Hoppe describes how efforts to endow HIV-positive people with a sense of individual responsibility “resonate[d] with efforts to assign blame, punish, and, ultimately, criminalize individuals viewed as failing to live up [to] those [expectations]” (119). These notions of individual responsibility, well-meaning or otherwise, drive, in Hoppe's terms, an “epidemic of criminalization” that expands HIV-specific laws to punish the spread of disease (294).5 As with carceral solutions to transphobic harm, it is within this punitive framework of detection, exposure, shame, and guilt that an individual wrongdoer must surface.6
The quest to find a missing perpetrator to account for Johnson's death defines the investigatory arc of France's documentary. By the end of the film, though, Cruz appears to hit a limit in her own investigation. Methodically removing her notes and clues, she files her evidence into a hefty dossier, stripping the corkboard wall as bare as it had begun. She hand addresses the file folder, and the camera follows her as she delivers the binder to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) New York office. France's film thus ends with the transfer of Johnson's case to a bureau that notoriously utilized state power throughout 1960s to infiltrate, surveil, and quell the activities of the Black Panthers, suspected communist organizations, and civil rights groups.7 Framed as a search for Johnson's presumable killer(s), Death and Life ends in this melancholic space, with Cruz looking off mournfully into the New York skyline. Cruz's search for justice is forestalled, perhaps indefinitely. My argument suggests that Death and Life's framing as a hard-boiled detective story, complete with forensic detail and intrigue, offers a poor juxtaposition to Johnson's lifelong struggle with the police and state power (by her own count, having been arrested over a hundred times). However, I also argue that in offering up an ultimately failed detective story, the film lays bare the limits of forensic investigation.
In searching for a criminal account to clear the mystery around Johnson's death, Death and Life takes on the impossible task of mediating transphobic harm writ large, which, as Eric Stanley (2011: 7) reminds us, is more a foundational and “epistemic force” than a state of exception. Without an individual perpetrator to account for Johnson's death, the film suggests that something—a narrative thread or piece of evidence—is missing. In his account of HIV criminalization, Kane Race (2017: 117, 120) argues that “criminal law aims to isolate the human subject in its framing of responsibility for HIV events,” and he asks, alternatively, “What capacities exist within juridical discourse to conceive the participation of a wider range of actors . . . in undesirable events such as HIV infection?” The same question might be asked of the death of Marsha P. Johnson: that is, how can the juridical frame account for a death absent an explicit cause or human actor? I am not suggesting that viral exposure, death, and potentially murder are at all commensurate in scale, but rather, that the logic of criminalization demands that a perpetrator emerge in each instance.8 Without a culpable subject to anchor such a loss, what sense of justice remains?
Undetectability in Trans Remembrance
Shortly after the release of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a controversy erupted around France's film, ignited by claims that his ideas were heavily borrowed, if not outright lifted, from the historical and archival research of filmmaker Tourmaline, who herself had been working on a documentary about Johnson.9 The revelation that France's well-funded Netflix film might derive from the intellectual labor of an underfunded trans woman raises serious questions about the institutionalized remembrance of trans life (and death), particularly in its reproduction of violent power asymmetries that Johnson herself negotiated. Tourmaline, alongside codirector Sasha Wortzel, released her own short film about Johnson entitled Happy Birthday, Marsha! in 2018. Though there is much evidence and significance to weigh in this controversy, I want to, instead, close by taking note of the striking formal contrast between France's handling of Johnson's legacy and her depiction in Happy Birthday, Marsha!
If Death and Life is premised on exposure and detection—a documentary-cum-detective story that drives toward state-sponsored and forensic resolution of Johnson's mysterious demise—Happy Birthday, Marsha! is premised on exploring Johnson's legacy through a lens of opacity. With Mya Taylor cast in the role of Marsha P. Johnson, Tourmaline and Wortzel's film combines elements of archival research and fantastic reimagining, depicting the hours in Johnson's life leading up to the famous Stonewall Uprising of 1969, the police riot widely considered to be the modern birthplace of the gay liberation movement. As Jeannine Tang (2017: 382) remarks, Happy Birthday, Marsha! is steeped in a soft-focused aesthetics of glamour that works against a visual logic that features “trans bodies as . . . mangled and murdered.” Rather than linger on Johnson's mysterious death, Tourmaline and Wortzel craft a small, intimate portrait of Johnson that culminates in a stand off with the police at the Stonewall Inn. Notably, the film stops meaningfully short of the uprising itself, though Johnson (as played by Taylor) is shown to throw the shot glass that, legend has it, launched the multiday demonstrations (fig. 2). The historical and temporal space that Tourmaline and Wortzel work in is relatively contained but rich with affection, style, and intrigue. Cutting between recorded footage and a fictional reimagining of Johnson, the film intermingles what is apprehensible in the archive with what remains (or must remain) unseen. Thinking alongside Happy Birthday, Marsha! and France's documentary is one space in which to reflect on undetectability, trans visibility, and the promise of opacity.10
What would it mean to sit with the historical and archival registers and gaps in Marsha P. Johnson's legacy and leave what is unexposed, unruly, and undetectable? What would it mean to refuse criminal investigation—beginning first with the FBI and forensic investigation altogether—and decline declaring any singular cause of transphobic harm?
There is little doubt that the state-sponsored justice system failed Johnson in overlooking the circumstances of her death. There is little doubt, however, that this system was built on that failure, punishing and criminalizing people like Johnson: poor people of color, sex workers, houseless people, and those living with HIV/AIDS. In her time, Johnson saw many of her own community, “transvestites,” as she called them, locked up “for no reason at all” (Jay 1992: 113). She observed how the justice system trapped her trans sisters by demanding bail and legal fees from those who had no money to give. She marched on Wall Street with ACT UP to decry the overpricing of AIDS medications and called on people to “stand as close to [people living with AIDS] as much you can . . . help them out as much as you can.”11 Honoring Johnson's legacy asks us to reflect on crafting a sense of justice commensurate with those who have lived under and resisted, in oftentimes revolutionary ways, the reach of the carceral state. What is left unknown, I argue, moves beyond the mysterious causes of her death, extending into the remarkable political imaginary that she crafted, a portrait of mutual aid that we have yet to fully realize. This model of collective liberation necessitates rethinking the privatization of viral management and the joint orientation of criminal investigation toward individual choice, responsibility, and guilt.
The Undetectable = Untransmittable movement (U = U) launched in 2016 with a consensus statement affirming that “people living with HIV on HAART with an undetectable viral load in their blood have a negligible risk of sexual transmission of HIV.” U = U has played an especially significant role in promoting undetectability to normalize and destigmatize HIV as a manageable condition. See Prevention Access Campaign 2016.
The edited collection, Trap Door, offers a number of reflections on the paradox of trans visibility, questioning, in the editors' words, whether it is “a goal to be worked toward or an outcome to be avoided at all costs” (Burton, Stanley, and Tourmaline 2017: xx).
France's earlier work, How to Survive a Plague, has been the subject of both mainstream acclaim and intense scrutiny. Despite the film's offering an oftentimes moving account of the early years of the AIDS crisis, scholars like Jih-Fei Cheng (2016: 73) point to the gaps in How to Survive's framing, depicted through a “lens of white male heroes” that largely overlooks queer-of-color contributions to early AIDS activism. Cheng describes how the film trains its attention to the search for a medical breakthrough (like undetectability). White men are positioned as central to the eventual development of HAART, and the survival of some of these men “become[s] the film's evidence that biomedical interventions can and should work for everyone” (74). See also Shahani 2016.
Dean Spade's (2015) work on critical trans politics has been particularly instructive in illuminating the failure of hate crime legislation to effectively deter transphobic harm.
As of today, according to the CDC, twenty-six states in the United States have laws criminalizing HIV exposure. See CDC n.d.
Perhaps the most infamous example of HIV/AIDS discourses' intersecting with individual responsibility resides in the case of Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugal, the man popularly dubbed “Patient Zero.” Through a work of investigative journalism by Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, Dugal was sensationally scapegoated as the man who brought the AIDS virus to the Western world. Philip James Tiemeyer (2013: 258) describes the speed with which the “patient zero” mythos ignited a new narrative in which “AIDS was a disease born of gay immorality, a threat to the nation that came from the post-Stonewall gay credo of unchecked sexual excess.” Tiemeyer suggests that the popularization of the term patient zero, though only tenuously based in truth, served as an effective bogeyman for conservative lawmakers to rapidly advance the criminalization of people with HIV. In the case of Dugas, detecting “patient zero” helped propagate even more emphasis on medical exposure of and criminalization of potentially “dangerous” individuals.
In David Cunningham's (2004: xi–xii) analysis of the FBI's counterintelligence programs, he remarks that COINTELPRO and other actions taken up by the bureau should not be seen as “purely historical artifacts” but rather as “key to comprehending the FBI's fragile orientation to civil liberties generally.”
In a time before undetectability was understood and accepted, such comparisons between viral exposure and murder were commonplace. Gay journalist Charles Kaiser was infamously quoted as saying, “A person who is HIV-Positive has no more right to unprotected discourse than he has the right to put a bullet through another person's head” (quoted in Jacobs 2005).
As with visibility, there are limits to the promise of opacity. To be marked illegible, or to mark oneself in such a way, is also to be uncounted, unheard, and potentially discarded; indeed, the tactics of early AIDS organizing demanded visibility and vocalization amidst a deafening silence. In a time of trans exposure and HIV criminalization, though, we must also weigh, in Ted Kerr's (2019) words, how “visibility has become a state-enforced demand.”
From an interview in an earlier documentary, Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (Kasino 2012).