A coalition of AIDS activists under the name HIV Power Shift disrupted the entrance space at the 2018 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, already protesting the upcoming conference, set to take place in 2020 in San Francisco. Citing safety concerns for many people who need to attend to the conference, including sex workers, drug users, trans people and more, this coalition of activists has called on the International AIDS Society, which hosts the conference, to change host cities.
“IAS, open your eyes, US meeting is unwise!” activists chanted before individual speakers took to a megaphone to express their frustration with the IAS’s decision.
“The hostile political context in the US will make it nearly impossible for sex workers, people who use drugs, people from Muslim countries and anyone with a criminal record, including LGBT people and LGBT human rights defenders to enter the country and feel safe and participate in the conference,” George Ayala, executive director of MPact said.
Ayala also pointed out the financial pitfall of holding a conference in San Francisco, increasingly a paragon of gilded wealth in America, during a time when so many organizations’ budgets continue to shrink.
Kenyon Farrow, senior editor of TheBody.com, captured the protest in a Facebook Live broadcast.
Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder and CEO of SisterLove, stressed the negative message holding a conference in San Francisco would hold when the heart of the US’s HIV/AIDS epidemic is in the deep South.
“When we go to a place that is starting to celebrate the end of their epidemic, it will then be extended to all the rest of us as if the epidemic is over,” Diallo said. It is not time to celebrate anyone’s end until it is everyone’s end.”
“I am too embarrassed to have anyone come to my house when it is dirty,” Diallo said of holding the conference on U.S. soil.
Diallo also pointed out that, if the following International AIDS Conference is held in San Francisco, it will be the “whitest” conference in history, due to the various political and socioeconomic barriers keeping people of color from attending.
The United States previously hosted the International AIDS Conference in 2012 in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Obama’s lifting of the HIV travel ban. However, sex workers were unable to attend, as people who are known sex workers are often denied entry into the United States. They held an alternate conference in Calcutta, emphasizing the need to decriminalize sex work as a tenet of both the sex worker and HIV movements.
One representative of the Sex Workers Outreach Project spoke on the megaphone from over a ledge because she was not allowed entry into the conference. Through the megaphone, she emphasized the prohibitive cost of the conference as well as the toothless nature of an HIV conference that does not include sex workers, a marginalized population at high risk for HIV acquisition.
“This conference continues to be unsustainable for anyone who is marginalized,” she said.
Earlier that morning in a panel called “The Trump Effect,” about how the US president is jeopardizing the response to HIV globally, Dorothy Ogutu, executive director of the African Sex Workers Alliance, echoed these sentiments, saying sex workers will not be welcomed at AIDS2020 and would not attend.
“Truth is, we’re not going to go to San Francisco,” she said. “Sex workers are not going to go to San Francisco. We didn’t go to Washington and we’re not going to go to San Francisco.”
She continued, “Sex workers have had their visas stamped and they cannot travel anywhere. Travel restrictions imposed by the US government are unacceptable.”
“From fear-based visa policies and immigration raids to direct attacks on the safety of sex workers, from transphobia to the resurgence of white supremacy – the United States of America is anything but united,” Cecilia Chung of the Transgender Law Center, an Oakland, CA-based legal advocacy organization for people of transgender experience, said in a statement. “Hosting AIDS 2020 in California, which has already become a target of the Trump administration, goes against the International AIDS Society’s own values of being inclusive, human-rights focused, and evidence-based. A U.S.-based conference during a politicized election year will be inaccessible and will expose our communities to grave harm.”
Several activists present also took umbrage with the bidding process for the International AIDS Conference, which happens every two years in different locales around the world. According to activists, IAS selects the conference’s host cities without consulting or requesting feedback from the global HIV/AIDS community.
INTO has contacted the IAS for comment and will update if we hear back.