Tea, like many other beverages, can act as a catalyst for socializing — tea biscuits are served, tea flows; so does the gossip. For international AIDS activist Jessica Whitbread, a queer woman living with HIV and the global chair of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW), tea parties are also a powerful tool to create dialogue and global networks among positive women.
Since she was first diagnosed 12 years ago, Whitbread has dedicated her life to creating social spaces where HIV-positive people can have fun while feeling safe, sexy and loved. She’s probably best known for organizing the now international (she’s hosted it in several cities) underwear dance party No Pants No Problem, which she says acts as “an opportunity for open engagement and time-based, social performances” in places where such opportunities may otherwise not exist.
Her most recent endeavour, Tea Time: Mapping Informal Networks of Women Living with HIV, is based on her master’s thesis at York University. It is now not only a community arts project, but also a beautiful coffee table book created by Vancouver graphic designer Jonathan Lefrançois. The book is a compilation of conversations and personal letters from more than 64 women living with HIV from all over the world. It includes beautiful photos of teacups collected from parties hosted by Whitbread.
The first book launch of a series was held at Montreal bowling alley/bar/restaurant Notre Dame des Quilles. Organizers draped tables cluttered with teacups in delicate lace cloths and doilies, and the event had an abundance of Whitbread’s own fair-trade organic goods.
A free online copy of the book was projected on the wall, and hard copies — including limited edition copies with unique handcrafted cover sleeves by artists Johnny Forever, Anthea Black and Jessica MacCormack — were available for purchase. All money raised is put back into the project.
Tea Time reads like a diary, since it’s compiled with highly personal accounts of women’s experiences with diagnosis and the stigma and loneliness they often face. Whitbread also discusses her own experience, which is infused with her academic background and even provides a guideline for hosting tea parties. With each party, new letters are written and cups of tea are shared, giving ostracized women previously living in silence a collective voice and the ability to become part of a global family of women with experiences similar to theirs.