Perhaps I’m biased here, but of the thousands of words I’ve read about this year’s International AIDS Conference in D.C., I found my colleague Jamilah King’s the most profound. She went down to this massive, biannual meeting of top researchers, politicians, activists, advocates and people living with HIV/AIDS to learn why black men who have sex with men and heterosexual black women—the two U.S. groups at highest risk of HIV infection—“take the risks we do in bed.”
Jamilah didn’t find that easy-to-follow roadmap of answers during her trip. (For a succinct collection of expert opinions, our editor and veteran AIDS journalist Kai Wright suggests this Body.com slideshow.) Instead, she came away with the powerful story and words of Vanessa Motley, a black 49-year-old D.C. native who has been fighting the HIV she got from the love of her life for 26 years:
“I didn’t meet her inside the conference itself, but outside—sitting across the street, beneath a tree. It was a Wednesday, and she told me she’d only heard about the conference the Sunday before, while she was watching TV after church. She lives out in Virginia and volunteers at her local YMCA, and she was hoping to get some information to take back to the folks in her community. But that was proving to be difficult. She’d been trying to get into the conference all morning to volunteer, and was frustrated by all the red tape involved. I asked her if she’s seen a lot of local folks at the conference.
“We’re here, just not sure where we’re supposed to be,” she told me.”
Vanessa’s point, which I italicized for emphasis, echoes what SisterLove founder Dazon Diallo Dixon told Democracy Now! this week about how so many of us lack the necessary money, institutional support or social capital to participate in these global confabs:
“In this international meeting, in the last 22 years that it hasn’t been held here in the U.S., women of color, poor people, people of color, in general, affected by HIV in the U.S. have been virtually invisible, because we don’t get to travel and attend a lot of these conferences in large numbers enough to represent the situation that’s going on in the U.S., particularly in the South.”
Similarly, international sex workers and people who use drugs—key stakeholders in and witnesses to the global fight against HIV—battled to speak for themselves at the conference because of United States travel restrictions. Grassroots collectives from India and New Zealand held their own conference this week, the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, in Kolkata, India.
Even a gathering as big and well-resourced as the International AIDS Conference (which was sponsored by Gilead Sciences and Bristol-Meyers Squibb) can’t accommodate everyone. But from the outside looking in, it seems that more of the people being talked about need to be in the building to learn firsthand, to connect with those with resources, to advocate for themselves and to lead.
Dr. Elly Katabira, AIDS 2012 international chair and president of the International AIDS Society admitted as much in an official press release from Day 5:
“If we are to take advantage of the huge possibilities that the science is now affording us in tackling the epidemic, we urgently need the most vulnerable populations at the table, but at the same time we need governments to be brought to account for policies that are criminalizing sexual preference and people´s behaviours rather than dealing with these issue as public health concerns. However, we also need to do better at our end. Outreach programmes to these vulnerable groups need to be scaled up, to be made more effective and to more adequately reflect the demographic of local epidemics and not placed in the too-hard basket.”
-The Drug Policy Institute has a compelling infographic about how the War on Drugs fuels HIV infections. Check it out on Facebook (and ignore the ignorant comments). And if you need more words on the link between failed drug war tactics and the global pandemic, check out The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s new report.
-The Black AIDS Institute’s “Back of the Line” report, which seeks to put black men who have sex with men at the center of domestic prevention efforts, contains some powerful profiles of everyday brothers with HIV across generations. There’s also a gallery of those gone too soon.