At the tail end of 2019, Veda, the drag alter ego of Enda McGrattan, released a video for the song ‘I Came Out One Night’, a musical collaboration with Lady K. The video begins with the description, “To everyone coming out of the closet, especially HIV Positive people like Veda.” It was a powerful and brave way for Veda to share their status, to lift off the rock that had been weighing them down, and to give two fingers to the stigma that People Living With HIV face on the daily.
Mere months after their ‘coming out’, however, as they prepared to turn that truth-sharing into activism, lockdown hit, society closed down and the world shut its doors. It was a topsy-turvy emotional period that saw internal optimism not reflected back.
“Really, I felt mentally good, incredibly good considering I was unemployed for the first time in a decade,” Veda shares, “and I knew it was because I came out as HIV Positive before lockdown, and I wanted to help other people.”
So what to do for a performer who blossoms under a spotlight when opportunities to gather together vanish? Creativity finds a way, and a years-long friendship with another artist was about to become a project that would speak to both lockdown and a journey of self.
For anyone on the queer scene in Dublin, photographer Babs Daly is well known (and loved). A chronicler of LGBTQ+ life as well as a true artist – further evidenced by the charming Child of Drag photo series you’ll see later on in our pages. Babs had built up a relationship with Veda over the years that had begun with capturing drag queens at work. Handily enough, for what was about to commence, they also both live a stones throw from each other, and photography is an art that allows a two metre distance – ever heard of a zoom lens?
“We have this natural chemistry, it’s practically sexual,” Veda only half-jokes. “Babs treats me like a lady, and I just take direction well!”
Discussions of teaming up for photoshoots as a creative outlet were given an extra fire underneath when chats with Dublin LGBTQ+ Pride resulted in the offer of an exhibition during Pride celebrations. It was time to focus. And the results are startling.
For those who are yet to see the photos, you’re in for a treat. Veda is imagined as a post-Armageddon warrior, a boxer, a rainbow alien in a dark garage. “We wanted to get into super masculine spaces and be super queer. We wanted to play around with gender and be gender non-binary.” Veda credits the project as a boon for mental health and an emotional release, “Hugely, this collaboration has been one of the most important elements of lockdown for me, because there’s been a companionship, and a friendship, and no matter how severe restrictions got – we could work around them.”
The photo series reflects the journey of lockdown, but intriguingly, they also reflect Veda’s experience of sharing their HIV status. In one shoot, Veda sports a white cross on their forehead to represent the “plus sign” of being Positive, the images from the boxing ring you’ll see in this story were created to represent the fight against stigma. The facepaint Veda wears also references and honours the Dice Man without being a carbon copy.
Speaking of which - Veda plays the Dice Man in an upcoming film version of Shaun Dunne’s play, RAPIDS, which looks at the affects of the crisis, but more on that later.
When it came to a title for the exhibition, Babs and Veda’s result is an attention-grabber. “We decided to call the exhibition HIVIP, and the reason isn’t because I think of myself as a VIP, it’s because it’s the name of the first episode of the PozVibe podcast, but also it’s because it represents things that are opposing: one is that HIV is so stigmatising socially for anyone who receives that diagnosis -which is so wrong -and then VIP represents everything that we celebrate in people that maybe we shouldn’t, like their social status, their fame, their number of followers -the opposite of stigma. So we put those two things together and it gave the project a kind of baller energy, it felt a bit rock and roll.”
The series runs the gamut of emotion, there’s power, sadness, anger, but also, a huge sense of humour, and playfulness. For a performer who many would feel familiar with through years of live performance, or think they could put in a box, these photos show there’s levels and layers more, so open that box back up.
As previously mentioned by Veda, the PozVibe podcast is yet another fine collaboration with a beloved community member – activist Robbie Lawlor. “It’s so incredible to work with Robbie, because he know everything. Everything,” Veda praises. Describing itself as “a podcast for HIV Positive people, our friends, families and allies,” PozVibe has become a thing of comfort, of connection, and of good old fashioned entertainment.
Veda actually wells up a little as they describe how affecting the experience has been, “The reaction has been overwhelming. The messages we get. It shows how desperately it’s needed. There’s no services like that for people who are traumatised by a HIV diagnosis. Our mantra is to be a sledgehammer against stigma. And to bring people into our tribe. We feel good, we feel sexy, we feel undetectable, we feel untransmittable. And invincible.”
When asked if preparations for the podcast had been an unnerving time, as this would be the pair’s first time creating a show of this type together, Veda laughs heartily recalling their (very) grand debut. “Both Robbie and I are in Shaun’s film. We were doing scenes together, and then they asked if they could actually film the podcast. All of a sudden we were in this amazing studio they’d rented for us. Everybody who worked in the studio was like ‘what is going on?’ as we turned up with full camera crew to make the first episode. Very glamorous! It felt for me like - the universe just really opened up for you, bitch!”
The podcast celebrates Positive lives and utterly refutes stigma, there is no room for it on the show, or in the world. Veda is co-hosting an event which further addresses shrugging off shame – Mother’s Pride - an afternoon tea in the Mansion House for HIV Positive people and their parents. “Parents are so important in all of this,” Veda explains. “They can be the people we hide it from the most, the people we feel like we bring the most shame to. But our parents need healing too.”
So with HIVIP, PozVibe and Mother’s Pride, Veda is busy, not to mention making plans for a return to live performance and that upcoming film. So how do they feel right now, with all these projects vying for attention, and with the decision to share their truth with the world? “I’m busy,” Veda says, and you can hear the smile in their voice, “and I’m happy. And I’m free. I’m fucking free.”
For more information on the HIVIP exhibition and Mother’s Pride, visit Dublinpride.ie and you can find PozVibe on Apple Podcasts, among other podcast providers.