How People are Fighting AIDS' Stigma By Dancing in Their Underwear

someone crowdsurfing in assless chaps at the no-pants dance party

Crowdsurfing at the No Pants Dance Party at the International AIDS Conference. All photos by DEANation. 

When I heard that the 20th International AIDS Conference was coming to town,  I didn’t think I would wind up contributing by shouting the lyrics to “I Want to Break Free” alongside two Freddy Mercury doppelgangers, while wearing only my skivvies. But that’s exactly what happened.

Attended by global leaders in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and diagnosis, the International AIDS Conference held this July in Melbourne, Australia was the premier gathering for formal discussions of progress, ideas, and research of the disease. In addition to a lot of traditional panels and discussions on the future on HIV/AIDS work, the conference included some pop activism: specially, No Pants No Problem, a Thursday night dance party that was pants-optional. You may wonder what place a no-pants dance party has at a conference where prestigious scientists are comparing notes on their indispensable research into HIV.  The goal of the party is to reduce the negative impacts of HIV on those living with it—to celebrate the experiences of people (in particular women) who are living with HIV. Essentially, it’s to have a killer time in a club with hundreds of the most intriguing activists, researchers, go-go dancers, drag queens, and HIV-positive babes in the world.

wild costumes at the no pants dance party

In contrast to events with a focus on prevention, like the Dance for Demand, a campaign to increase access to and awareness of female condoms, No Pants No Problem aims to improve the lives of those living with HIV by creating a welcoming, flirty, pantsless dance party. Creator Jessica Whitbread, a queer HIV-positive woman, began hosting the parties as a newly diagnosed twentysomething in 2004. She wanted to flirt and have fun with the same free-spirited nonchalance as her friends.

“As a woman who was newly diagnosed with HIV, I wanted to explore how to feel safe and be sexy with the complexities of disclosure,” she explains. The No Pants, No Problem dance party is now held in cities all around the world, with the purpose of creating a friendly, politicized space that explores the intersections of gender, sexuality, and HIV. Like many clubs and bars, it’s a sexually charged party where attendees may or may not be on the lookout for a special someone. Unlike mainstream clubs, No Pants, No Problem attendees are intentionally challenged to think critically about sexuality, safety, and stigma in a space that cleverly merges art and activism.

Many of the AIDS Conference social events this year were geared toward a gay male audience. In contrast, No Pants, No Problem is an intentionally feminine space. “Gay men and anyone on the spectrum are welcome,” Whitbread says, “but the focus of this one is on the ladies.” Part of the magic of the dance party was the diversity of partiers. It’s queer to the core, but not exclusively attended by queer-identified people.  The only people not welcome are those who can’t get with the party’s message. Whether intentional or not, partying with all sorts of people including HIV-positive people of all genders explicitly shifts narratives about HIV to move beyond the notion that it’s a disease that primarily impacts gay men, at least in America.

a group of people at the no pants dance party

About an hour into the party, Whitbread took to the stage to welcome us. After a lovely dedication to the International Community of Women Living With HIV (the other hat she wears is as interim global director of the group), she invited all self-identified women living with HIV to the stage and asked us to give them a round of applause.

“These are the most fierce women I’ve ever met in my life and I’m so in awe of them,” Whitbread gushed. The diverse, proud, smiling group of women standing on the stage engaged in a brave, stigma-crushing moment of joyous activism. It was an honor to stand and applaud them.

After the Freddy Mercury performance and a kissing contest, my boyfriend and I headed outside to get some air. Two men were chatting intensely. Things escalated quickly—as they are wont to do when no pants are involved—and the pair began to engage is some enthusiastic making out. A 6’5’’ish drag queen approached, pointed and shrieked. “Somebody get them a condom!” she hollered and giggled. She looked around, feigning frantic gestures, imploring someone with a condom to step forward. People cheered and laughed. The naming of safe sex didn’t sterilize what the guys were doing, but it did casually remind those of us within earshot that safe and spontaneous are not mutually exclusive.

This, along with the celebration of HIV-positive lives and people, is what a no-pants dance party can offer that research and data cannot. Amid the labwork and spreadsheets and important papers on HIV as a disease, we have to think about the lives of people who are living with HIV—how important it is for us all, regardless of HIV status, to have fun, sexy times.

The point of the party isn’t to police anyone’s sexuality or sexual practices. Nobody spouted statistics about promiscuity or demographics of infection. In people’s real lives— in clubs, in bars, at gigs—we all need to practice discussing and engaging in safe, consensual, fun stuff when it comes to sex.  The statistics and research provide a valuable context for a grassroots movement, but they are only one component of a very strong, global response to HIV/AIDS. Partying in no pants, surrounded by people dedicated to improving the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS from a social justice perspective, felt like the fiercest kind of activism.

Phylisa holds an MA Public Policy from King’s College London, but mostly loves talking about gender, food culture, and Beyonce voters. She has lived and worked in the USA, the UK, and now Australia. Follow her on twitter at @phylisajoy.

by Phylisa Wisdom
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Phylisa lives and works in Melbourne, Australia but hails from San Diego, California. She has a MA Public Policy from King's College London. Working in special needs education by day, Phylisa writes about food, drink, politics, and pop culture by night when the mood strikes. 

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