Attending the international AIDS conference in Washington DC has been an overwhelming and incredible experience so far (and to think that it is only Day 2!). In fact, it has been such a whirlwind that I am finding it difficult to know where to start. So I am going to break it down into three parts - 1. Solidarity 2. Exclusion 3. Action - in an attempt to capture some of my feelings, learnings and the momentum I hope to carry forward from here.
I arrived at this conference with one central goal, which was to connect and learn from as many allies as possible from around the globe and to use that knowledge and those new relationships to increase the impact of Pivot’s work back home. This meeting has been an amazing opportunity to connect with many of my greatest human rights and social justice heroes. People that I have read about or only had the chance to connect with virtually. Now I find myself in deep conversation with these movement leaders as we chill out in the human rights networking area, sip coffee in the conference foyer or march through the muggy streets of Washington DC. Despite the fact that we are all working in very different contexts, we share the common goal of fighting for legal rights and social justice for sex workers, drug users and other marginalized groups that face so many forms of systemic oppression. I am humbled by the strength and vision of these activists who have sacrificed so much in order to create meaningful social change for their communities. It is incredible to feel such deep solidarity and I am so grateful for these moments of connection.
Amidst the bustle of the 20,000 delegates at this meeting, there is no mistaking the very limited participation of drug users and sex workers from around the world who are banned from entering the U.S. The U.S. was chosen as the location for the conference because of the recent repeal of the ban against people living with HIV entering this country. However, despite this important shift, U.S. law still prohibits the entry of those people that have participated in sex work in the past 10 years, or are considered drug “addicts” or “abusers.” So by deciding this meeting should take place in the US, the International AIDS Society reinforced the social marginalization that these communities feel all over the world and effectively excluded them from this conference.
The requirement that sex workers and drug users disclose this information to the US government to get a travel visa is a clear human rights violation and so many people have, understandably, chosen to boycott the conference. Instead, drug users and people living with HIV from Eastern Europe hosted their own satellite conference in Kiev
and sex workers and their allies hosted the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata
. It is hard to feel good about being in the U.S. in light of this offensive and discriminatory policy, but it has fuelled my passion to continue to fight for full rights for sex workers and drug users around the world.
A fellow human rights activist at this meeting noted that I seem to get really excited about this work. And yes, I confess, that is true. I love what I do, I get pretty excitable at times and my commitment to these issues is stronger than ever. But I also struggle, as many activists do, with the slow pace of change, the persistence that is required to do this work and the controversy that surrounds the critical social justice issues that we work on. So I feel really fortunate when I get to come up for air and attend these types of events. Opportunities to meet with lawyers and activists from around the world play a critical role in this work. They help me contextualize Pivot’s work in these global movements and find myself re-energized in a whole new way. When this conference ends, I will be coming home with new ideas, strategies and a new perspective on the world we live in and, yes, I am feeling pretty excited at the moment and it feels great.