This year the International AIDS Conference -- a collection of approximately 14,000 scientists, researchers, activists, non-profit workers, journalists and assorted folks -- convened in Melbourne Australia for the biannual gathering. The conference brings together those who have dedicated their lives to the care of people living with HIV, and those working to the end of the epidemic to congregate in the midst of a drug company pageant. It's disorienting, and an environment unlike any other.
This year was shadowed by the deaths of the six delegates who were killed by the crash of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. How to properly acknowledge this loss, and the ripples of effect it would have on those in attendance, felt uncertain. A certain tenseness existed in many of the events I went to. In a conversation with other sex worker activists about disrupting a plenary, the fear of being disrespectful haunted our attempts to make plans, and during an Australian drag show an MC fought for a moment of silence from a wasted crowd of delegates.
Despite the somber atmosphere, the conference maintained a somewhat Disneylandish vibe. Walking through the doors of the large auditorium of the Global Village visitors were greeted with a blow-up castle fashioned in the shape of preternaturally large condoms. In front of the palace stood tight ab'd men and women wearing skintight "Lube Woman" and 'Captain Condom" superhero outfits posing with politicians, delegates, and the wide-eyed faces of schoolchildren. A beautiful woman strutted across the main stage, wearing a v necked dress of cream with a cross pattern. The MC belts out her bio "she started sewing as part of recovery from domestic abuse -- this item is a product of her resiliency in the face of HIV." His cohost responds "and doesn't she look sexy?"
These spectacles, which seek to engage people in a health crisis in their own way, are matched by those who work to cajole accountability in others. Health Gap coordinated an action, disrupting Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's keynote, to raise awareness of the Robin Hood Tax -- a tax on Wall Street that would fund HIV research and care. Elsewhere, Daisy Nakato, from WONETHA Uganda, brought voices of sex workers to the main stage advocating for inclusion of peer voices into deciding on policies that effect those in the sex trade; and the executive vice president of Gilead was shut down from speaking by those protesting HCV drug Sovaldi annual price of 84,000 dollars.
A lot of the discourse of the conference centered around PrEP. The debate on it seemed inexhaustible. There was a meta moment for me when, during a panel called "50 Shades of Sexual Pleasure: When Science Meets the Bedroom", the conversation got stuck in a heated emotional debate on the resources being allocated towards PrEP -- detouring from the original conversation discussing the role of individual desire and how to create prevention strategies which honored the need for humans to experience pleasure.
During that panel I asked the audience what it would be like if along with the Global Village and the Media Center there was a sex cruising zone, where we engaged in negotiations of desire and risk corporally. There were a lot of cautious laughter which I interpreted as discomfort -- or rather dissonance from what that would be like in juxtaposition to the reality of the conference. I wanted to bring up cruising because, in my experience, there is a depersonalization with how sex and drugs are talked about within the HIV industrial complex. The ability to understand the virus as something contracted during the pursuit of pleasure by a unique individual has been replaced by looking at populations to manage instead of people.
The last day of the conference I went to the David McDiarmid exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria gallery. David was an early gay liberation activist and artist in Australia who died from AIDS related complications in 1995. Walking into his art exhibition the sounds from his mixtape "Funeral Hits of the '90s" surrounded the space while his posters, paintings, sculptures and ephemera drew me in: Headlines -- "POSITIVE QUEEN FEELS NEGATIVE Goes Shopping" and "Plagueboy" magazine, huge glittering mosaics with figures spreading their rectums open, the names of boys tattooed on the bodies and a head with the word AIDS spelled in a swastika. I felt as if I was at a talented friend's house party instead of in an enshrined art institution. In the work the experience of HIV/AIDS is complex, painful but also human and therefore funny, sexual, dynamic.
What if the International AIDS Conference looked more like David's world? I saw tastes of that in the mini-conferences held in the Global Village (free, and open to the public) and Melbourne Town Hall (by groups representing specific populations). They brought a depth of peer shared information and complex narratives about the way HIV functions in peoples lives. I was lucky enough to be on two panels -- one about trans sex workers, and the other about trans men who have sex with men -- the sophistication and diversity of these conversations are only possible in these smaller, more supportive and experience informed settings. Empower -- a Thai Organization -- did safer sex demonstrations for sex workers with humor and bite -- while chasing around figures of ill repute in a cardboard red car during the conference. Andrew Hunter, former director of NSWP who died last December, was honored by his friends and family with a day of films and art and laughter amongst the sadness.
During the "50 Shades" panel a woman voiced her experience of existing in a culture which denied the idea that women should pursue pleasure. She reminded me of the most effective HIV prevention tool: the ability to communicate around consent and the belief that your body is worthy of care. It is my hope that the AIDS community will once again focus on that. Our lives depend on it.
Cyd Nova is a sex worker, activist and writer. He is the programs director at St James Infirmary, which is the best little whore clinic in San Francisco, and currently the only peer-run clinic in the U.S. His connection to Visual AIDS was forged through a mutual interest in furthering the dialogue around HIV through narrative and activism. Cyd was part of the resurrection of ACT UP/San Francisco, which targeted issues around drug pricing, access to healthcare, the criminal justice system and affordable housing, through art, zines, and performative actions. Currently, he is working on a gay FTM porn company called Bonus Hole Boys, researching San Francisco's sex worker history and living in Oakland with his beloved dog Farrah Fawcett. You can read some of his writing, which has appeared in the Rumpus, Pretty Queer and "The Collection: The New Transgender Vanguard" on his website: cydnova.wordpress.com.