One of the Most Disempowering Moments of My Life

AIDS 2012 presentation room

Although I have worked in the field of HIV/AIDS with same-gender-loving people for over 15 years, the 2012 International AIDS Conference was the first time I had attended a conference of that magnitude. This was an important year for the conference, because President Obama had lifted the travel ban which restricted free movement of HIV-positive people into the U.S. Hence, this was the first time in 20 years that the conference was being held in this country.

I was struck, however, by the formality of it. The researchers’ side of the conference cost almost $900 to attend. As you walked from one portion of the conference to the other, you were assaulted by conference inspectors/volunteers who scanned your conference badge constantly. However, for those who could not afford to attend the conference's major sessions, never fear! The event coordinators had also set up an HIV/AIDS non-research ghetto for those who were not lucky enough to be able to pay for the more academic conference proceedings. I presented in the ghetto portion of the conference, which I loved. The crowd was a mix of researchers and community organizations, some of whom I had actually worked with over the years.

My research focus is on Black men who have sex with men (MSM) and HIV/AIDS. Black MSM are among the most deeply affected communities in the U.S. when it comes to HIV. However, it seemed that the issues of Black people were secondary, even tertiary, during the majority of the conference.

As I ran from presentation to presentation, looking for answers to questions about my research topic and possible funding initiatives and opportunities, I realized that HIV/AIDS had become a product. Many presentations focused on Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where billions and billions of dollars are currently being spent. The people giving these presentations had their business cards at the ready; as introductions were exchanged, I realized that the corporatization of HIV was well underway. I have an M.B.A. and a Ph.D., and I currently work as a university professor, but in all of my years of working in this field, I knew that this was different. I realized that the research being discussed in the halls of the 2012 International AIDS Conference would never reach the people "downstairs," because that is not what it was meant to do. This research was designed to build research careers for academics. The community of people who this research was ideally intended to assist was relegated to a basement in the convention center; a "global village" far, far, far away from the knowledge. (As if anyone besides another researcher could understand what the hell they were talking about anyway!)

I earned my Ph.D. so that I could become a researcher who made a difference in the communities I worked with. I worked with community organizations throughout my academic training because I didn’t want to lose touch with those communities. I struggled, working nights and weekends for years, so that I could be a Black body at the table where decisions were being made about funding dollars, research and educational interventions for Black MSM.

All of that, only to realize at the International AIDS Conference that this was never going to occur as long as a handful of researchers and government agencies are able to fund their own professional and academic careers from the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As long as the global HIV/AIDS community is left metaphorically and literally in the basement, far away from all of the people making the decisions about how policy and research will be directed, nothing will change.