As previous posts have suggested, AIDS 2012 is a heady mix of groups and issues when it comes to HIV. The representatives from the CPDC have spent most of their time in the Global Village, staffing our booth, visiting other booths, and going to sessions about drug policy. But it would be impossible to miss the theme that pervades this conference: the end of AIDS in this generation.
Activists in the Global Village have rightly reminded conference organizers that although Obama lifted the travel ban that prevented people with HIV from entering the U.S., that ban is still in place for people who use drugs and for sex workers. Over and over again these same speakers have raised this issue, and have emphasized that ending AIDS will require the meaningful participation of people who use drugs, transgendered persons and sex workers in the design, implementation and evaluation of programs to prevent HIV transmission. Indeed, speakers have noted that HIV prevention for men who have sex with men is by no means a done deal. Rather, in the U.S., rates of HIV among gay and bisexual men are on the rise.
Last night Stephen Lewis gave the first annual Robert Carr talk. Robert Carr was a leader of the Human Rights Movement in the Caribbean, and a bright and visionary activist on behalf of HIV/AIDS. Lewis borrowed a page from Carr’s life and spoke in unguarded terms about the need to speak truth to power. He castigated the conference organizers and governments for not speaking out against homophobic laws against LGBTQ and Two Spirit persons around the world. He reminded his audience that racism and sexism still play a profound role in facilitating the spread of HIV, and he excoriated global AIDS organizations for ignoring the needs of people who use drugs, sex workers and women.
In Thursday’s conference plenary, speakers again carried this message to attendees. Cheryl Overs from Monash University of Melbourne, Australia, described the tension at the conference between biomedical approaches and sociological analyses of the challenges of HIV prevention. Another key theme of this conference is the need to scale up treatment on a global scale. But as an expert on policy issues related to sex work, Overs argued that more ARV meds will not change the balance of power between clients and sex workers, nor will the repression of people who use drugs and sex workers be eliminated by a pill. “Talk of ‘allocating resources to where they will have the greatest impact’,” she said, “is code for taking money away from social programs and spending it on biomedical interventions instead.”
Overs challenged how presenters at this conference bandy around categories of persons with such ease: MSM, sex workers, and drug users. This language assumes that these groups exist separate from everyday life. These groups, she noted, are not simple epidemiological categories; they are dynamic and interrelated communities. She also warned conference attendees that members of these communities should not be included in decision-making in tokenistic ways that serve the needs of others.
Like other groups at this conference, Overs raised the alarm about practices that force sex workers and people who use drugs to submit to medical technologies because of their HIV status. Instead, she highlighted the strategies that will guarantee safety, and she talked about the quacks, moralists, and others who take advantage of the lack of protection afforded to some groups - lack of protection magnified by the criminalization of HIV status, sex work and drug use. She urged her audience to stop moralizing and theorizing about these issues and move on to changing the environment needed to make new prevention methods relevant to sex workers and people who use drugs.