AIDS2020 Will Welcome All the Right People to the USA. What a Travesty. – POZ

Thank goodness for a growing army of activists and organizations (under the banner of #AIDS2020forAll) who are demanding that the IAS remove the conference from the United States. Maybe this all looks like inside baseball to you, a ruckus between factions, but I am here to tell you that this has everything to do with our value as people living with HIV (and the dismissal of our voice by elitists who believe they know what is best for us).

The White House Office of National AIDS Policy has closed its doors and the Presidential HIV/AIDS Advisory Council has been disbanded. LGBT issues have been wiped from governmental web pages. Transgender people have had their military service questioned, their access to healthcare imperiled, and their very lives threatened. The “war on drugs” – and people with addiction – has cranked up again.

Immigrants face deportation, incarceration, and separation from the own children and families. White nationalists are marching (and murdering people) in the streets. You know the whole nauseating story.

The IAS was alarmed and offended by the ban against HIV positive travelers that once existed in the United States. They actually moved their AIDS1992 conference out of Boston and to Amsterdam in protest (re-organized “in just one year,” the IAS web site humbly brags). When the ban was lifted the conference returned to the United States, in Washington, DC, in 2012.

Except this is not the whole story. Travel bans into the United States are still in place for sex workers and people with drug addiction and crime histories – key populations that participate vigorously in the conference. The previous travel ban against people with HIV had real consequences for many scientists and researchers, and for those among the global elite. The IAS fought for them. When it comes to the remaining travel bans for these other key populations, however, the IAS has suddenly become circumspect, arguing that not that many people are affected.

Interestingly, the IAS points to the AIDS2000 conference in Durban, South Africa, as an example of the benefits of holding the conference in hostile territory (the South African president at the time was an AIDS denialist, questioning whether HIV caused AIDS). But the comparison between Durban in 2000 and San Francisco in 2020 ends with having a wacko president in common.

In sharp contrast, every single coalition of people living with HIV in the United States has signed a letter demanding that AIDS2020 be moved out of this country. We simply do not want it here. Dozens of international organizations signed on, too. Oh, and you’ll never guess who has joined that list: The Treatment Access Campaign from South Africa.

I’ll resist the urge to name some of them now. I’m glad some big marquee names have joined. I am even more inspired by all the grassroots groups that represent women and people of color and transgender people and sex workers. HIV activism has always been driven by those with the most to lose. I do wish the IAS would learn that lesson, at long last.

There’s an organization I don’t mind naming, though, and that is the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF), which enthusiastically supports AIDS2020 coming to their city. SFAF does a lot of amazing work. They also appear to have made the calculation that showcasing their many successes on a world stage is worth turning their backs on populations around the world that are not unlike those they serve. Yes, most organizations born out of community activism like SFAF traded their legacies years ago for pharmacy services and Medicaid dollars, but still. It’s disheartening. The SFAF press release heralding AIDS2020 coming to town (and their starring role in it) is so clueless about objections to the conference location that the entire statement is as worthless as it is maddening.

What a cynical ploy to exploit the struggling communities of Oakland. With a few notable exceptions, most organizations in San Francisco and Oakland have been silent or have offered muted support for the conference, and insiders suggest that these agencies simply don’t have the luxury of bucking global forces – or of crossing the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the big kid on the block nobody wants to piss off.

The IAS will argue many things, such as the complexity of moving the conference (they moved it from Boston in less than a year), how no suitable, more economically depressed cities vied to host it (help them), or how they don’t know where else it could possibly go (Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Panama, Ecuador).

Instead, the posture of the IAS thus far has been to treat the concerns of people with HIV and our allies as a problem to be managed. Not for a moment have they publicly paused to consider moving the conference in light of our unanimous opposition. Instead, they muscle past us as they continue plans to mount a conference that is alienating and polarizing and exclusionary and privileged and tragically expensive.