Washington welcomed the International AIDS Conference back to the United States this Sunday, after a twenty-two-year absence due to US policy that barred people living with HIV from entering the country. As most delegates began to queue for the IAC’s opening session, a group of about twenty young women, trans people and men successfully interrupted the opening press conference, wearing green Statue of Liberty crowns, sounding vuvuzelas and chanting “No sex workers? No drug users? No IAC!” The United States still refuses entry to people who sell sex or people who use drugs, groups that are among the most vulnerable to HIV transmission and who have the least access to prevention and treatment resources.
As the protesters filed out, Diane Havlir, conference co-chair, began her remarks again. “We’re here to talk about courage and big ideas,” she told reporters, as bursts of vuvuzela and and chants could be heard in the press room again. “All of us at this table will be judged for our actions.”
That judgment dropped well before the conference itself. “Historically, before an international AIDS conference comes to a city, it’s an opportunity for that city to change these discriminatory laws,” said Kelli Dorsey, executive director of Different Avenues. Dorsey was in part responsible for negotiating with the conference organizers to ensure that sex workers and other marginalized groups were represented. “But that didn’t happen here. So we continue to have to demand to be at the table.”
Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who worked to lift the HIV travel ban, did speak directly to the challenge issued from these excluded groups. “We need meaningful dialogue with sex workers, with men who have sex with men, with transgender people, with drug users.” She pointed to a bill (HR 6138) she introduced before the House just ahead of the conference, which would end existing US funding bans on programs that support sex workers, expand condom access in prisons and call for a review of laws that criminalize the transmission of HIV. “I don’t know how we will see an end to AIDS in our lifetime, but to do so, we must include those communities.”
Talk of ending the epidemic dominates the conference this year, with Ambassador Mark Dybul, who headed the AIDS response under President George W. Bush, claiming at the opening ceremony that “what was unthinkable just three years ago is now in sight: an HIV-free generation.” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who spoke Monday at the conference, pledged her support for an “AIDS-free generation,” along with $150 million in US funds.